Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Asia’s Children Pay the Price for Test-Driven Education Systems: Myopia

Amanda Little has produced an interesting article on the Chinese education system in Bloomberg Businessweek.  It has the intriguing title Fixing the Best Schools in theWorld.  It focuses on Qiu Zhonghai who is the school principal at Qibao one of the highest ranking high schools in Shanghai. 

“Shanghai public schools placed first worldwide on the recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) exams, which are administered every three years by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The average scores of Shanghai students in reading, science, and mathematics were more than 10 percent higher than the scores of students in the legendary Finnish school system, which had been top-ranked until 2009, when Shanghai was first included in the testing, and about 25 percent higher than those of the U.S., which ranked 36th.”

The notion of these being in need of fixing arises from the realization that preparing students to do well on a test is not the best way to build life skills in a nation’s children.  China has a long tradition of using a single examination to determine those worthiest to succeed in national life.  Think of it as meritocracy taken to the extreme.

“Suicide is the top cause of death among Chinese youth, and depression among students is widely attributed to stress around high-pressure examinations, especially the dreaded gaokao, which seniors take to determine what university, if any, they can attend. The gaokao is like the SAT on steroids: eight hours of testing in math, science, Chinese language, and a foreign language, that takes place over two days, usually in June of a student’s senior year. ‘It commands the high school student’s whole life….They spend 14 hours a day, six days a week, year after year, cramming their brains full of facts for this one test’.”

One Chinese observer, Jiang Xueqin provided this quote:

“Forcing students to study for gaokao is essentially a form of lobotomy—it radically narrows their focus….The effects of chronic fact-cramming are something akin to cutting off their frontal lobes.”

The result is that parents who can afford to are beginning to move their children to private schools that are free from the gaokao system.  The very wealthy have also been looking to send their children abroad, particularly to the United States, to get what they believe will be a more effective education.

“A trend is emerging in which more and more elite students are opting for private schooling outside the gaokao system, says Jiang. If China doesn’t want to lose its best and brightest to U.S. and European universities, eventually Chinese universities will also have to accept students who opt out of the gaokao.”

The daily schedule at Qibao indicates the intensity of this academic environment and suggests why a student might wish to escape to a place with more time for intellectual adventure.

“Their day begins at 6:20 a.m. The 2,000 students at Qibao, half of whom live on campus, gather on an Olympic-size soccer field to the sound of marching band music booming from speakers. Wearing blue-and-white polyester exercise suits with zip-front jackets that serve as their daily uniforms, these 10th- to 12th-graders perform a 20-minute synchronized routine that’s equal parts aerobics and tai chi. Group exercise is followed by a 20-minute breakfast and self-study period, and then, beginning at 7:40, a morning block of five 40-minute classes. Then there’s an hour for PE and lunch, followed by an afternoon block of four 40-minute classes that ends at 4:30 p.m. Evening study hall is 6:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., then it’s lights out at 10. Of their 14 weekly courses, 12 cover the core national curriculum, which includes math, chemistry, physics, Chinese, English, Chinese literature, and geography. Two are elective courses—Qibao offers nearly 300, ranging from astronomy and paleontology to poetry, U.S. film and culture, visual arts, cooking, and a driving course with simulators.”

This is actually a rather moderate schedule compared to some schools.

“The Qibao schedule is relaxed compared with the infamous Maotanchang High School, for instance, which requires its 10,000 students, all of whom board in a remote town in central China, to wake at 5:30 a.m. to begin their daily schedule of 14 classes—every one designed to optimize their gaokao scores—ending at 10:50 at night.”

What was most troubling about Little’s article was the indication that this regimen was not only unproductive as a national policy, but it was also physically harmful to the children.

“Twice a day at Qibao, at 2:50 every afternoon and 8:15 at night, classical flute music floats through the speakers of every classroom and study hall. It’s a signal to students to put down their pencils, close their eyes, and begin their guided seven-minute eye massage. ‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. … One, two …’ the teacher chants as students use their thumbs, knuckles, and fingertips to rub circles into acupressure points under the eyebrows, at the bridge of the nose, the sides of the eyes, temples, cheeks, the nape of the neck, and then in sweeping motions across the brows and eyelids.”

“The eye exercises are a government requirement in all Chinese public schools, a response to an epidemic of myopia caused by too much studying. By the end of high school, as many as 90 percent of urban Chinese students are nearsighted—triple the percentage in the U.S. There’s debate about whether the massage exercises actually help, but the students look happy to take any breaks they can get.”

 An article in The Economist, Myopia:Losing focus, provides more background on this student myopia trend and points out that it pertains not only to Chinese students.

“The incidence of myopia is high across East Asia, afflicting 80-90% of urban 18-year-olds in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. The problem is social rather than genetic. A 2012 study of 15,000 children in the Beijing area found that poor sight was significantly associated with more time spent studying, reading or using electronic devices—along with less time spent outdoors. These habits were more frequently found in higher-income families, says Guo Yin of Beijing Tongren Hospital, that is, those more likely to make their children study intensively. Across East Asia worsening eyesight has taken place alongside a rise in incomes and educational standards.”

Spending too much time studying indoors rather than having sufficient outdoor activity seems to be the problem.

“At the age of six, children in China and Australia have similar rates of myopia. Once they start school, Chinese children spend about an hour a day outside, compared with three or four hours for Australian ones. Schoolchildren in China are often made to take a nap after lunch rather than play outside; they then go home to do far more homework than anywhere outside East Asia. The older children in China are, the more they stay indoors—and not because of the country’s notorious pollution.”

“The biggest factor in short-sightedness is a lack of time spent outdoors. Exposure to daylight helps the retina to release a chemical that slows down an increase in the eye’s axial length, which is what most often causes myopia. A combination of not being outdoors and doing lots of work focusing up close (like writing characters or reading) worsens the problem. But if a child has enough time in the open, they can study all they like and their eyesight should not suffer, says Ian Morgan of Australian National University.”

In China, a short-sighted school system produces short-sighted children.

In the bizarre world of education theorizing, commentators in the United States bemoan the fact that we don’t have a system that matches the Asians in test performance, while the Asians wish they could improve the education they provide by having a system more like that in the United States.

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