Lenora Chu was an American journalist working in Shanghai when she decided to enroll her three-year-old son in China’s state-run public schools. Chinese students have some of the top science and math scores in the world and her son did well academically. But Chu says she also noticed a strict rigor to “teacher knows best” classrooms and troubling signs of obedience. She started to investigate the Chinese education system at all levels and and discovered both admirable and disturbing practices. Chu joins us to talk about her new book, “Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and a Global Race to Achieve.”

Lenora Chu, author, “Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve”

An Inside Look at China’s Education System 22 September,2017Queena Sook Kim

  • Noelle

    Maybe our corporate oligarchs would prefer this system for their future employees? Not sure how good that would be for our democracy, however.

    • Bill_Woods

      Our current system isn’t doing well in that regard:

      • Noelle

        yes, maybe Bill & Melinda Gates, Zuckerberg etc would like the Chinese system(public posted rankings!) and now that most Americans are ignorant about our Constitution and political system anyway.

    • geraldfnord

      Many parents would too—if the goal of education is solely to succeed later on in a job largely devoted to being measured and obeying orders, why not start early? If you want to create a more creative individual able to assume the responsibilities and enjoy the freedoms of a citizen….

      • William – SF

        It’s why I bristle when schools emphasize computer literacy and coding, and why my foot taps repeatedly and my lip bleeds when I read “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute”… http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html

        How to learn is the necessary skill.

        • geraldfnord

          Well, coding has a rôle: teaching children that careful analysis and rational thought gives you power, even if it’s to make a pretty, geometric, design, is a good idea. The delight students feel when for the first time they’re really in charge of a screen teaches them that learning brings pleasure. (In the sweets-starved Old Country, a drop of honey was dropped on a boy’s hand as he began to learn to read, credited to an angel but regardless making the point.)

          It shouldn’t be the emphasis, but I think it has a place, much as a foreign language should be taught early and well because otherwise people tend to confuse the map and the territory, and because coping with more than one prepares one both for mathematics and for dealing with older works in English.

          • William – SF

            Yes. Decades ago I experienced for the first time all of what you wrote, and to some lesser degree do today. It’s the emphasis part that makes my blood boil. Turning children into widget producing automatons because potential uber-wealth, or a well paying job, is the reward gives us a different society than one where coding is but one tool for solving problems.

          • Another Mike

            I was really jazzed when I learned to run a lathe and a milling machine. The pleasure of mastery comes in many forms.

  • Curious

    American education is in a downward spiral. Let’s import millions more illegal, non-English speaking, illiterate manual laborers!

  • Another Mike

    The Imperial examination for entrance to the Civil Service existed for 1300 years, so I’m not surprised that the importance of competitive examination is ingrained in the culture.

  • geraldfnord

    I don’t like the rigidity and authoritarianism of the Chinese system, but I do think we could use the greater basic respect for education. America has too much of a fantasy frontier’s ‘We don’t need yor book-larnin. ‘. (‘Fantasy frontier’ because on the actual frontier knowing your Shakespeare, Euclid, or Virgil usually meant extra respect if you were otherwise reasonable.)

    • Curious

      “I do think we could use the greater basic respect for education. America has too much of a fantasy frontier’s ‘We don’t need yor book-larnin. ‘.”

      You know that California ranks 47th in the nation in education, right?

  • Noelle

    well now Americans are obsessed with “Grit”. I do agree innate talent is overemphasized in US.

  • Noelle

    How many years did they have the son in the Chinese school?

  • Another Mike

    A lady I worked with came here from the Philippines when there was a teacher shortage in California. But the contrast between the well-mannered, respectful pupils back home and the near-feral public school kids here was too great for her, so she quit.

  • geraldfnord

    How do you teach O(1000) somewhat arbitrary characters based on O(100) radicals without rigid discipline and measurement?

  • Mjhmjh

    If the speaker honestly believes that American parents aren’t academically competitive from Day One, and that “donations” play no role in a school’s perception of a child, then I think she is looking at the US education system through rose-colored spectacles. She might want to study the Bay area!

  • Robert Thomas

    “The Chinese think about Steve Jobs quite a lot …”

    Good grief.

    I’m now at a comfortable remove from the conundrum of the primary and secondary education of any closely related children, let alone from my own schooling. On anecdotal reflection, I have no doubt that most of my own education during my primary years took place at home, rather than in my perfectly adequate public school classroom, in San Jose.

    I accept that different societies and different cultures have developed significantly divergent attitudes about the proper education of children and that such attitudes are cherished in a way that only something of such personal and intimate importance to any parent can be. Still, I’m unable to divorce myself from the overwhelming alienation I feel, contemplating the prospect of embracing the utterly corruptible, utterly mercenary, utterly unprincipled, utterly carnivorous tenor of every single aspect of Chinese civic culture, that do not fail to make my stomach turn. I guess that the very different classical Roman society, at which I marvel for many reasons, affects me similarly. It is a fault, I’m certain. I am old and parochial in my affection for my own culture.

    • Another Mike

      American schools provide seemingly endless free time to think and do things on their own. That has been their historic advantage over the schools of every other country.

  • William – SF

    I am aware that Chinese educators visit Bay Area schools to learn from American educators, and that the Chinese invite Bay Area educators to give seminars on American schools. While I’ve been told the Chinese may not make meaningful changes to their educational system based on these interchanges, they are interested.

  • Robert Thomas

    Recently I was talking with a South Asian coworker about a test problem his kid faced:

    The sum of two unit vectors Â1 and Â2 is a third unit vector. What is the magnitude of the difference between Â1 and Â2?

    “The square root of three,” I responded. This is a very easy problem.
    “But in our school, you must show your work,” my friend said.
    “What work? It requires no work,” I said. “Â1, Â2 and their sum describe an equilateral triangle with altitude (√3)/2. So the magnitude of the difference described is the base of the corresponding projected isosceles triangle, twice (√3)/2 which is √3.”
    “Yes, obviously,” my friend said. “But this problem requires the use of vector algebra. The examination is measuring the student’s familiarity with the inner product.”
    “Does the question specify that this arithmetic be employed?”

    I’m glad I went to school where I did.

    • Another Mike

      RT has fallen into the “right answer” trap. Of course some vector algebra problems will be simple, almost intuitive. But the teacher is trying to give the students a tool, and teach them how to use it.

      • Robert Thomas

        I disagree. While I would consent to offering the sentence I wrote above as “work”, the answer is sufficient unless a particular technique is specifically requested. Examination questions often tacitly imply that the student should employ an intuitive approach. It’s up to the instructor to craft questions that require the use of specific techniques, or else to explicitly state that elucidation using a particular method must be followed. It’s up to the student to answer correctly, while following the specified rules.

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Queena Sook Kim

Queena Sook Kim is the Senior Editor of the Silicon Valley Desk. In this role, she covers the intersection of technology and life in the Bay Area. 

Before taking this post, Queena was the host of The California Report. The daily morning show airs on KQED in San Francisco, one of the nation’s largest NPR affiliates, and on 30 stations across the state. In that role, she produces and reports on news, politics and life in the Golden State. Queena likes to take sideways look at the larger trends changing the state. One of her favorite stories asked why Latino journalists “over’pronounce” their Spanish surnames as a way of looking at how immigration is creating a culture shift in California.

Before joining The California Report, Queena was a Senior Reporter covering technology for Marketplace, the daily business show that airs on public radio. Queena covered daily tech business stories and reported on larger technology trends. She did a series of stories looking at role of social engineering in hacking and on a start-up in Silicon Valley that’s trying to use technology, instead of animals, to make meat that bleeds.

Queena started her career as a business journalist at the Wall Street Journal, where she spent four years covering the paper, home building and toy industries. She wrote A1 stories about the unusually aggressive tactics KB Home took against its home buyers. and the resurgence of “Cracker” architecture in Florida. She also wrote section front stories on marketing trends and

As a journalist, Queena has spent much of her career helping start-up editorial products. She was on the founding editorial team of The Bay Citizen, an experimental, online news site in San Francisco that was funded by the late hillbilly billionaire Warren Hellman. In 2009, Queena received a grant from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting to start-up a podcast called CyberFrequencies, which reported on the culture of technology. She also helped start-up two radio shows – Off-Ramp and Pacific Drift – for KPCC, the NPR-affiliate in Los Angeles. Off-Ramp was awarded 1st Place for news and Public Affairs programming by the PRINDI and the L.A. Press club. Queena’s stories have appeared on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, WNYC’s Studio 360, WBUR’s Here and Now, BBC’s Global Perspectives and New York Times’ multimedia page.

In 1994, Queena won a Fulbright Grant to teach and study in Seoul, South Korea. She was also selected to be a Teach For America Corps Member in 1991 and taught elementary school in the Inglewood Unified School District in Southern California.

Queena is a frequent public speaker and has given talks at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, San Francisco State University, PRINDI conference and the Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp. Queena went to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and graduated cum laude from New York University with a B.A. in Politics. She grew up in Southern California and lives in Berkeley, Ca in a big fixer on which she spends most weekends, well, fixing.

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