Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

November 8, 2013

Chinese schools have a laser focus on learning

Debbie Blank The Herald-Tribune
The Batesville Herald-Tribune

---- — Chinese visitors explored Batesville Oct. 31. But what’s it like in that country? Dr. Jim Roberts, Batesville Community School Corp. superintendent, found out during a whirlwind Oct. 9-19 trip.

The Indiana Department of Education-planned mission was led by Glenda Ritz, state superintendent of public instruction, who was accompanied by Roberts, two Greensburg superintendents and five others from Madison, Richmond, Kendallville, Gary and Crawfordsville.

Admitting “I’m not a world traveler,” the superintendent called his journey “a grand experience” during a Nov. 6 interview with The Herald-Tribune.

China by the numbers was daunting for Roberts, according to a Nov. 3 e-mail to BCSC staff. Six airplanes. In and out of nine airports. Rides in 22 buses, six vans and one taxi. Visits to six schools (two high schools, one vocational school, one middle school and two elementary schools). Eight cities, including Shanghai, Hangzhou and Beijing. Eight somewhat boisterous banquets. One PowerPoint presentation by Roberts about public school finances.

The trip’s intent was to “learn about an education system that we hear a lot about and are compared to regularly.” He also participated in the agreement to create a sister school relationship between IDOE and the Education Bureau of the Zhejiang, China, province. Roberts was able to identify potential sister schools for BCSC in order to add Mandarin Chinese to foreign language offerings and create exchange opportunities for teachers and students.

The educator observed many differences between schools here and there. Less hours are mandated for learning in the U.S., typically around seven. The Chinese school day is eight to 10 hours. “Students then spend many more hours studying. Some students continue with their studies in a teacher-centered structured environment for three or more evenings per week and on Saturdays and Sundays.”

American class sizes range from 20-30, much more manageable than China’s 40-70. He reports, “Students are expected to be very obedient and must adhere to more strict rules and regulations.”

In the United States, teachers are facilitators of student-centered classrooms, while in China, teachers are authority figures and knowledge providers in teacher-centered settings.

U.S. teachers each have a base, but it’s the opposite there. According to him, “students stay in a homeroom classroom while teachers move between the classes. The belief is that this model avoids the chaos and inefficiency of passing periods and allows for the development of stability within a group of homeroom students.”

It appears students have less choice in classes. For instance, a vocational high school he toured offered maybe four specific career programs, including fashion design, photography and art. Observing how the Chinese dressed, he says, “The Chinese are trendy, by the way.”

It is a rigid, rather than fun-loving atmosphere. “The expectation is very simply ‘you’re at school to learn and to participate in class and do your coursework.’ It appears each student is competing against every other. There is a concern about being left behind. They challenge each other to do as well as they can.” While it might be considered embarrassing here, in China if a student doesn’t get a concept, he or she is brought to the blackboard and remains there until understanding is achieved with coaching from the teacher and fellow students.

At some schools, there might be 80 kids in the classroom, overseen by one teacher. He marvels, “Each of those 80 is trying to get 100 percent. That’s just the culture. How do we develop an even more competitive atmosphere in our system?”

Chinese parents place more of an emphasis on education. He sums up the distinction: “We value education in America as important. In China, they value education as necessary.” Parents know that when their kids come home, they might have to help them with homework.

Chinese students may be more motivated to learn than their U.S. counterparts. The superintendent notes, “They prefer to finish college as soon as possible, which leads to many students skipping grades if they can .... Students feel that diligently studying after the regular school day is more important than sports, activities, jobs or free time. Strong test performance is believed to be the only way for students to go to college and have a successful career.”

The superintendent admired two Chinese learning concepts. He reflects, “We deal with a lot of stuff that takes away from our core mission of educating a child. There are always things … that may consume our time that have little to do with” education, such as new reforms, additional legislation, even bus rides. By contrast, the Chinese school day “is extremely focused on the child learning the material. I would like to see us change more toward that.” Roberts adds, “We have a great educational system. But great can always be better.”

While Chinese students are not exposed to extracurricular activities (too busy with homework!), the Batesville resident likes their practice of daily physical education, music and art periods. “I would love” that because active and creative learning benefits the mind and body. “It allows you to be better in the classroom.”

Roberts wonders, “How is that possible and is it important enough” for time to be added to the school day to allow for more classes? “We have so many factors that drive our decisions,” including after-school sports, clubs and work.

Did the schools have 1:1 technology, with a device for each student? No was the answer. “Technology was not prevalent. I would see a lab. They are conservative with everything they do.” Nothing is wasted in the nation of 1.35 billion, three times America’s population. Only a few street and home lights are on at night. “Nobody has dryers. You hang your clothes outside to dry.” At separate meals, the administrator was served a whole turtle and a whole eel.

While the teachers seem well paid, it is a bare bones approach to education. “When you look at the staffing ... we have everything from custodians to people who mow the grass to counselors, and English as a Second Language and special ed teachers,” IT specialists and cafeteria workers. “Their staff is primarily teachers and administrators. Their buildings aren’t in the best of shape.”

When comparing the two school systems, “I believe there are pros and cons for both. Regardless, our students must compete with other students from around the world and it is our responsibility to ensure that their preparation is adequate.”

The tables will be turned Nov. 11, when a Pinghu, China, high school principal and English teacher tour Batesville schools with Roberts. According to him, “They are interested in adapting their system” to produce students who are more creative, know how to solve problems and think critically.

Debbie Blank can be contacted at or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.


How the trip was funded • The Batesville Community Education Foundation contributed $2,200 and BCSC $1,700. Roberts paid $500 more for a preferred single room.