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As online teachers, we have limited time each week to teach our students.  We know classes range from 25-50 minutes and that’s not a lot of time when considering the rest of their school week. Have you ever wondered what a day in the life of a Chinese student looks like?

You’ve probably heard Chinese culture is laser-focused on education. This assumption has roots in reality.  When comparing Chinese and American public-school systems, things look very different. Online learning is gaining popularity across China, but it’s just a small part of a Chinese student’s long day of academics.

If we compare Chinese and American public-school systems, things look relatively different between the two. Chinese education starts as early as two years old, although children begin primary school at six or seven years old. Education is compulsory for nine years. Most students go to six years of primary school and three years of middle school. After completing middle school, Chinese students have few options. They can either continue their education in Chinese high school or attend secondary vocational school. To attain admission into the high school, students must pass an exam (the Zhongkao), and their scores determine school acceptance and placement.

Chinese high school is usually the equivalent of US grades 10 to 12. At the end of their 12th year, students take the university entrance exam called the Gaokao. The result from this exam is the single deciding factor for entering university, so the pressure to study and do well is incredibly intense.  

American schools, on the other hand, require 12 years of schooling. Children start kindergarten around five years old and graduate high school around the age of18. American children go to school between six and seven hours Monday to Friday, whereas some Chinese students have school six days a week, not including extra classes. Exams are everything in Chinese education, but in the US they are only one gauge of students’ knowledge and performance. American students must demonstrate significant knowledge to continue into the next grade, but higher test scores don’t determine a student’s ability to attend a “better” school, at least during primary and secondary years of school.

“Some Chinese students have school six days a week, not including extra classes.”

Let’s consider Hongyi, a nine-year-old Chinese boy who lives in Beijing. Like many boys his age, he attends a public school, as private schools are considerably expensive for a middle-income family. His school year begins in September and ends in June, and his parents also enroll him in summer school. His class load consists of Chinese, math, geography, and general science, as well as music, art, and physical education. He’s been studying English since grade one, but his cousin, who lives in rural China, just started English class in grade three. Chinese education also includes “moral education.” In this class, Hongyi is taught ten virtues including friendship, patriotism, integrity and honor, and solidarity. He learns how these virtues are essential to life and society. To graduate from primary school, Hongyi must past exams in Chinese and mathematics.

Hongyi wakes up at 7:00 AM to eat breakfast and get ready for the start of 8:00 AM classes. He doesn’t spend too much time picking out his clothes, as students are required to wear uniforms. He can either choose his formal uniform, which is a white collared shirt and pants or everyday uniform attire, which is a tracksuit. In 2015, a debate raged on Weibo, a Chinese site similar to Twitter, about the ugliness of Chinese school uniforms, which are often baggy and loose. However, Hongyi doesn’t mind his because it’s comfortable. He lives only 10 minutes away from his school so he can walk, but some of his classmate’s ride bikes, take the subway or are driven by a family member.

When he gets to school, he has morning exercise and stretches. He begins his first class at 8:20 a.m. Each class session is 40 minutes long. Students get a 10 to 15-minute break between classes, which is when he can chat with his friends. Twice a day, music comes on the overhead speakers, which signals the time for eye exercises. Students will spend five minutes massaging and applying pressure to specific points around the eye to the rhythm of the music. The purpose of these eye exercises is to reduce eye fatigue and myopia. Hongyi has an hour-long lunch break, in which he goes home to eat, but many of his classmates eat in the canteen at school. He might even have time for a nap before returning to school and finishing the rest of his school day. School ends around 4:30 PM.

Hongyi’s older brother, Jian, is 13 years old and is in middle school. His school day starts earlier. It begins at 7:00 AM and ends at 5:00 PM, and includes an hour break for lunch. However, although the school is officially over at 5 p.m., students stay at the school through the evening for study hall. The teachers also are there to help students with their homework. Jian studies the same subjects as Hongyi, with classes being more specific within a discipline. In his moral education class, Jian is introduced to Chinese political ideology and political science.

Throughout the day, Jian stays in his classroom with his 40 classmates, and the teachers come to them much unlike the American system where students rotate classes, going to their teachers. When the music starts playing for eye exercises, Jian keeps a book on his desk so he can continue reading while pretending to do the task. Just like many of his classmates, Jian wants to do well on the Zhongkao when he completes middle school so that he can attend a prestigious high school.

Hongyi and Jian also take part in a few extracurricular activities during and outside of school. Their schools have clubs for a variety of interests, such as calligraphy, sports, chorus, and music. However, they do not have too much time for these activities since they each spend up to three hours a night on homework. Their teachers never fail to give homework, even on weekends and school holidays. The boys have some free time on the weekend, but it will also include extra classes for math and English at enrichment schools.

“Teachers never fail to give homework, even on weekends and school holidays.”

For both Hongyi and Jian, classes are primarily focused on repetition and memorization. In Chinese culture, teachers have a highly respected position and qualities of self-discipline.  Responsibility for one’s academic success is ingrained in students from grade one. Therefore, classroom management is not too difficult even for up to 60 students in a class. Although rote memorization is a common model, critical thinking skills, which include asking questions is highly encouraged.   Teachers will often include incentives to reward students for asking critical questions about the material or if they come up with a new way to solve a problem.

Personal responsibility and completing homework on time is vital.  Students who do not are publicly shamed in front of their peers. Corporal punishment in schools was outlawed in the 1980s, but teachers may still verbally berate wayward students. Student progress and exam results are posted in the room so students can get quite competitive to be number one in the class. It’s also another way of managing student behavior, as being disruptive can cost points.

“Students who do not (hand in homework on time) are publicly shamed in front of their peers.”

There are many debates about Chinese vs. American or other Western models of education. Should the United States adopt Chinese models to improve math and science scores? I am not qualified to answer, but without a doubt, the Chinese school day is starkly different from my experience as a child growing up in the suburban Midwest of the United States. Indeed, school experiences vary across the United States depending on location and school funding, but I believe my elementary and middle school days were typical.

Throughout my formative school years, I took classes in math, language arts, physical education, science, and social studies with subjects becoming more specific the older I became. In elementary school, I also had classes in art and music. I always had a lot of opportunities to play and talk with my classmates during class and recess. Once I started middle school, we had some independence over our studies and had choices for elective classes. However, I didn’t start learning a foreign language until eighth grade, and even then, it wasn’t a required class until high school. I mingled with a variety of children in my grade as we changed classrooms and classmates each class period.

My teachers, for the most part, were kind, nurturing, and patient. I remember most of my classwork being hands-on or project based. We would listen to a lesson for about half the time and spend the second half working on worksheets or with a team on a project. We were often asked to express our opinions, think outside of the box and ask questions. We had science fairs and field trips to enhance our learning. In the United States, we may often hear stories about reducing the amount of homework and over-stressed students, but a study by the Organization of Education Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that 15-year-old students in the US spend on average six hours a week on homework. The amount of homework I would be assigned increased the older I was, but I was able to balance school work and competitive sports practice from elementary school to high school.

Now that you know more about the Chinese education system and school day, I hope you can use this information to relate to your students in your next class. Rather than asking the general question, “How was your day?” you can ask more specific and targeted questions, like, “What do you think about your school uniforms?” or “Did you answer any questions in class today?” Finally, this is an excellent reminder to make your online classes as engaging as possible! Online education offers opportunities for fun and games that Chinese students do not usually have in their daily lessons. So, even if it’s just 25 minutes a week, make sure your students laugh, have fun, and enjoy learning English!

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