If you haven’t been to China, you should come. It’s beautiful, despite the bad air quality most days. Since air quality comes up first when I encourage friends to visit, the primary villain is called PM2.5. Particles smaller than 2.5 microns go straight from the air into your lungs and then your bloodstream. Bad consequences ensue, according to a growing body of research.
People who live here, including the ex-pats, become desensitized to the air. I still wear a mask when the Air Quality Index goes over 100, but I’m in the tiny minority. Just to compare, Chicago is usually 10 and Barcelona is usually 3. Over my twenty-minute commute, I might see ten people out of the thousands I pass wear masks. I don’t want to downplay the importance of air quality, especially on children, but if that’s what’s keeping you from visiting China, let it go.
Visit China if you want to see a culture more like the US than you probably think. The US and China are both big, mostly inward-looking countries that love their flags. Bigness drives most of the similarities I’ve noticed. I see the way many foreigners come to China and don't feel welcomed. This is what I’ve noticed in the experience of many foreigners coming to the US. Another similarity is that Americans and Chinese work mostly with people from their own country. That just makes sense since there are so many people, there are plenty of workers in each. Lack of exposure other countries comes from bigness, and lack of familiarity breeds discontent.
One area of difference I know well is education. China wants to be a world leader. That means educating its best and brightest with the best learning systems in the world. A growing portion of China’s well-to-do parents send their kids abroad for university education and, increasingly, even for secondary education. China’s in-country education has certain weaknesses, such as massive class sizes, an almost exclusively lecture-based class format, constant testing and whatever-it-takes desire to win akin to Wall Street’s take-no-prisoners desire to win. That last one cuts both ways, as a strength and a weakness. America respects hard work, perseverance and determination. The flip side, as we know, is overambition, flying too close to the sun and putting money ahead of friends, family and love. The whatever-it-takes education mindset in China creates a reputation, again much like the US capitalist reputation for getting ahead, of cheating. The SAT is not offered on mainland China because the College Board doesn’t feel it can ensure test security here.
If you come to China, you’ll see parents who work hard to help their kids succeed. Moms like Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom exist as the norm. In a light most generous to parents who push their kids hard, they do it to give them an edge because they know global competition and the value of a high-quality education in building a great future.
Come to China to see its weaknesses, too. If you come you’ll see that although the country’s education infrastructure is growing, it’s far from perfect. One glaring example of this is China’s aversion to standards-based learning. If schools in the US fear moving to standards-based learning models and ending once measuring success by how long students sit in classes, schools in China don’t even have this as a distant blip on their radar.
If you haven’t visited China and you work in education, come visit. It’s a powerful example of what’s different, not better or worse, in a rapidly changing education culture.
Based in Shanghai, John Heintz is an advisor, writer, teacher and thinker on the education, economic, legal, justice and social issues facing the global community. John Heintz’s experience as an education sector legal advisor and management consultant contributed to the range of issues presented in his most recent writing at Second Rail Education, his resource for school leaders.