David’s Next Steps…

I’m telling ya, I haven’t always had good impressions of quite a few textbooks (the one my mum bought me in Hong Kong about maths in primary school was a disaster, with super-crazy names of fictitious people all over the place), but at least I let ’em survive. I did throw away one book — the one I had for my MA in linguistics and media presenting — because the guy that authored it was an arrogant brat. No, seriously.

But as of late, I’ve been taking a good look at a kind of snow — you got that one right — a kind of snow — as in snowstorm — in a campus in central China. Turns out these were books that overworked students ripped out in anger as their university entrance exams were approaching. It was quite a sight.

Seriously, though, this is but the tip of the iceberg in the disaster that has become the Chinese educational world. The edu system in China is a mess. My French teacher told me never to feed on foie gras because those poor ducks were force-fed, and your karma kind of went down the sewer if you fed yourself with gusto on those poor souls with four feet.

Force-fed ducks are tragic enough. Force-fed people are a humanitarian disaster. Or an educational humanitarian disaster, rather: Chinese schools are notorious for force-feeding knowledge down innocent folks. There’s the bit about the students having to know when the “3rd Plenary of the 11th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party” took place (late 1978), and then there’s outright maths madness. It’s awful. The Chinese are ruining their five millennia of top-notch civilisation by producing — exam-sitting machines. I laughed at Tokyo (out of pure innocent lack of knowledge) when I heard about cram schools in classes in Zurich. I shouldn’t have, and I take the naïve laughter back. What you are seeing in China is something that is far worse. These guys are coming out with exam-sitting machines by the millions, “thanks” to them force-feeding knowledge down those innocent kids.

(At age 16, they’re supposed to fall in love. And you wonder why so many “ageing youngsters” by the age of 28-ish to 30 are still single. It’s a mess.)

Worse things happen when these poor souls enter university: they are fed knowledge that they hardly ever process. Once graduated with a BA (or something like that), they “give back” their knowledge to the university — they have no way to use that un-applied knowledge in real life! And then you wonder why they’re yelled at by their money-is-everything bosses. It’s a vicious cycle.

The way I was taught in Switzerland was worlds apart, and I’m really thankful to Helvetia and her world-class international schools. In international schools in Zurich and Zug, we were in classes that had folks from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas in one roof, in one room. Not only that: I was fortunate to have sat the IGCSE and AP exams (as well as semi-flunk a PSAT, which was odd), so I knew how these things were. I know millions, if not close to a billion, are sitting nationwide university entrance exams. They’re terrible creatures. Let me tell you: our variants in Zurich, especially the IGCSE, meant nearly one to two full months of exams. You’d get maybe one day off for a quick speedboat fix, and then you’d be stuck in the exam centre for the rest of the week. So when 04 June 1998 came around (that was when all my IGCSEs were done), we rented two speedboats and started randomly hurling packs of ice tea into the lake.

It was the end of the worst months in our lives.

So yeah — I fully know what folks our part of the world are going through. I’m totally with you guys.

But in the end, I have to say, after nearly 20 countries and 12 years in Switzerland, that the Swiss grass is a fair bit greener. At least in Switzerland, our lessons are a bit more interactive, and we get the chance to question our teachers. There’s no brainwashing: it is perfectly OK — in fact encouraged of us — to question our teachers (within reason). And I have to say that out of my Facebook friends, there are a few teachers in the mix as well. It’s great: they’re irreplaceable fountains of knowledge that are there for you — both inside and outside the classroom. You don’t feel like you’re talking to a God of sorts, whom you fear not to criticise (of course, insults are most definitely not OK).

And the textbooks in those international schools in Switzerland are also pretty cool. Yeah, at about 1,200 pages a book, they’re monsters all right, but at least you get to be inspired by their knowledge. You get pictures along with the text. This is nearly never the case in China, where you encounter whole chapters of text, text and maybe a quick table, followed by more text, text, text, text. It’s boring! I’ve had some bad days where the teacher was fixed in three positions: she had her mouth in front of the microphone, her eyes on the sunken display, and her hand on the mouse and scroller, and she’d be in this position for the full 90-minute class. It was awful. I’d be reading my Lonely Planet guide about Hong Kong, and we’d get away with it. I’d think it a job as miserably done as, say, making fake money — these people get the same bit of “respect” (indeed, lack of respect) my end. It’s called doing a disservice — and it’s not what I want to do.

The thing with China is that those poor students are made like machines. They’re going through exams, and they swot it up. Then they dump it as soon as they get through (and not fail it). In the West, most study what they want — and probably not what makes them a million. Want Chinese-made talent? Loosen up the stress on the students. They deserve an easier life. Then they might want to talk a little more in class.

I clearly remember the media summer school I did a few years back — there were a load of Chinese students as well as a handful of international people (I was Swiss, so I belonged to the latter). Some of the most active discussions were those that were started by an Indian, a Swiss (me) and an American — I think — or he could have been a German as well. Just about the entire local Chinese student population were mute. Think about that. It was scary as hell… But that’s what you get when you make these poor people force-fed exam-sitting machines…

…that feed on nothing but “knowledge” from teachers and experts. It’s not to say all academics are evil — but we do have a fair share of rotten apples in the barrels. Some academics hate it when their student does better than they are. Some just outright bend their academic interests with their commercial interests. I’ve heard horror stories of sub-par textbooks being printed because of suspect business/academic relationships.

The fact is, as Apple said in an earlier brochure, you’re only given one chance to inspire students. That’s it. It’s a single-ride ticket. It’ll be hard to inspire them again at age 40 when you’ve mucked up at age 14…

Slavish devotion to “experts” and academically shaky “teachers” can be scary. I’ve experienced it myself when I was invited by city government officials twice about solving Beijing’s Chinglish lessons — only to be told that it was more the problem of their “experts” and that, in essence, the group of “experts” OKed a translation that rendered a touch-screen info kiosk in the Beijing Subway system as an “automatic analyser” in perfect Chinglish. The machine doesn’t deserve this. The nation doesn’t deserve this. A land of five proud millennia behind it doesn’t deserve to be led by a bunch of folks who think they know everything — when everything they do says otherwise.

The fact is, being lost in a country where you are told to “be mind your head” and to keep clear of the “bus zhuanyong” lane is pretty much surreal. It’s also insane and can drive you bananas when you run into signs that tell you that “Meng is not driving the vehicle abduction”. I know I’ve seen some sick Chinglish, which is why I did a little book about the phenomenon in Chinese last year. I tried to keep it real and approachable by using lingo that every last farmer out there can understand (so that I’m uniting the readership by the lowest common denominator). I did the book to raise awareness to the issue — it hasn’t made me a millionaire (and I can care less if it could or could not), so I deliberately made it affordable. A good edu guy cares about the results, not about whether or not he’s a stinking-rich millionaire. Further, I made it so that people get the best results while spending the least cash, so the content you’re seeing is the result of late nights wondering how best to translate the Chinglish sign at the local station. The book earnt me a late autumn 2011 invitation to northeastern China to teach “Chinglish” (if you will!) to an audience of hundreds. I’ve also been in the blackboard outside of these times, and I’ve taught anything from primary school kids to adult education lessons, including private tutoring.

Teaching is about inspiring people. I was most honoured at being inspired by multilingual, multicultural content in international school in Switzerland. My 12 years there, as well as my travel experiences to nearly 20 countries and territories, tell the tale. I’ve spent around 20 years as a student, as one that is being inspired, and I’m grateful to all my teachers as well as to my classmates.

Inspirers are those that make tomorrow a better day. Hopefully, fellow students in Hubei will have easier times in the years to come as they resort to preparing for their exams in more practical ways. But I fully understand their ire, and their frustration, as their books were torn to pieces by themselves. I’ve got to change these things, and to inspire others. And I’m willing to, as someone who has just passed his Doctorate dissertation defence, inspire the students of the future. I’m dedicating my total effort to this. You’ve seen how much I’ve dedicated my efforts to the trains. Now I’m at least doubling that effort so that the students I teach and inspire get the future they rightfully deserve.

I’ll stay on the trains, though — it’s a great way to get from home to the schools and to different places on the planet. The trains will continue to take me to new places I’ve never been to at fast and safe speeds. And I’ll continue to be a learner for the rest of my life.

David Feng
08 June 2012
Onboard Chinese HSR Train G123

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