Graduation!

Graduation!    —by Jinny Batterson

My high school graduation took place in a large indoor auditorium. My outdoor college graduation was truncated by weather on a steamy late May afternoon. Our college president was calling out the first few names of graduates to process across the stage to receive our individual diplomas when lightning flashed, thunder boomed, and spatters of rain fell. Rather than getting everyone soaked and risking a lightning strike, the president quickly changed plans. He announced that the rest of us would get our diplomas in the mail. We all beat a hasty retreat to the nearest indoor shelter.

Graduations are often a big deal, both for graduates and for their families. They represent a time of hope and possibility. I’ve not yet had the privilege of attending a graduation ceremony in China, but former students have sent me pictures of their classes and/or families posing for graduation photos.  From the pictures I’ve seen, some graduations in China are relatively informal, while others have elaborate pomp and ceremony. A fair number of my former students posed in caps and gowns.

China’s education system is immense. One of the government’s top priorities, especially during the past generation, has been expanding education at all levels. Even in the most remote villages, there is either a primary school or a well-worn path to the closest available school. It is estimated that over 98 percent of Chinese children now have access to elementary education. In China, education is compulsory through 9th grade, which includes six years of primary education and three years of “junior middle school.”  The majority of schools are run by the government, free or with minimal fees, but in recent years private education has also boomed.

China currently awards over 7 million undergraduate degrees each year. This represents a seven-fold increase during the past generation. About 1.5 million of those degrees are in STEM  subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). A Chinese colleague told me several years ago that graduates from all levels of Chinese schools (those leaving after 9th grade, 12th grade, college, and post-graduate) add over 20 million people to the Chinese labor force each year.  Even in a booming economy, finding jobs for all of these graduates can be tricky.  Parts of China’s economy have slowed. There is now a fairly large cohort of young adults in China who, despite advanced educations, are either unemployed or underemployed. In 2010, sociologist Lian Si researched this group and wrote a book, The Ant Tribe, describing their plight.

During the decade when I spent a good bit of time in China as a teacher of English (2002-2012), I was frequently asked by Chinese colleagues about the educational system in the United States.  Many teachers, especially younger teachers, were dissatisfied with the proportion of their teaching that involved rote memorization and “teaching to the tests.”  My recent exposure to U.S. education has been part-time and spotty, but more and more of the American teachers I interact with also express dissatisfaction with increasing rote memorization and teaching to the tests. After I returned to the U.S. in 2012, I talked with an American colleague, a third grade teacher in an urban school, who’d recently mentored a Chinese colleague sent to the U.S. specifically to observe the teaching of critical thinking skills at the elementary level.

Perceived traditional strengths in Chinese teaching methods—repetition, memorization, formal relations between teacher and students, strict discipline—are being mimicked in more U.S. schools. At the same time, some Chinese education experts are attempting to reform their system to more closely mimic perceived strengths in the “American” way—informality, critical thinking skills, use of technological tools to replace most repetitive and memorization tasks.

There is likely no teaching or learning method that will suit every teacher or every learner.  The best teachers and students in any society, it seems to me, are caring people who know that learning never ends. Congratulations to this year’s graduates. May your years of learning be just beginning!

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