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Chinese Class vs. American Class

Posted by on June 18, 2014

chinese educationAn efriend and former NYC teacher, Steve Koss taught in China (winner of a top spot on the annual PISA best-education-in-the-world) for part of his career and was not surprised China came out with some of the best test scores in the world. He shared his experience while teaching there. Compare what he saw to what we have here in America keeping in mind that we languish somewhere below middle on that international PISA test.

  • Every classroom was a bare, cinder-block-walled enclosure, no heat in the winter, no cooling in the early summer, virtually nothing decorating the walls. Students spent their entire school day in the same room – teachers came to them.
  • Every classroom held 48 – 50 students, lined up in traditional, ramrod-straight rows. Textbooks and workbooks for students’ full set of the day’s classes were piled on and under their desks – no one had a locker.
  • Teachers lectured from a dais at the front of the room. Students sat quietly at their desks and listened, took notes, occasionally recited in unison or responded, standing, to a direct question from the teacher. Questions from students were a rarity.
  • Many, if not most, lectures were straight from students’ texts, sometimes nothing more than
  • teachers simply reading from the textbook.
  • Teachers appeared at students’ classrooms just before lessons began, departing back to their subject area offices immediately upon finishing their lessons. Casual student-teacher interaction was minimal at best. Teachers spent much of their office time (they only taught two class periods per day) playing video games and reading the daily newspaper.
  • Copying of assignments was rampant – and tolerated. As, all too often, was cheating on exams. Scores counted more than how they were achieved.
  • I saw no evidence of what in the U.S. we would call “student projects.” Classroom activity appeared to be the same lecture and recitation style every day.
  • Students were actively discouraged from asking questions. I was told on more than one occasion that students’ parents could actually be called into the school so that a teacher could complain that the child was disrupting lessons because he/she was asking too many questions.
  • Schools had no clubs or activities and minimal if any organized sports teams. One school where I worked claimed to have two or three interscholastic sports teams, but only for boys.
  • Students typically took seven or eight classes each semester, leaving no time for activities even outside of school.
  • Never once among the hundreds of students I saw and taught did I see a student with a physical handicap or a visible learning disability. I don’t know where those students were, or if they were even still permitted to attend school by high school age, but if so, there was no inclusion.
  • Physical education consisted mostly of lining students up in straight rows and performing low-impact calisthenics and movement.
  • The last semester of senior year is dedicated nearly exclusively to preparation for the gaokou, the national, three-day-long, college entrance examination.
  • Schools were evaluated, and principals and teachers rewarded, according to their students’ standardized exam results.
  • Teachers earn extra income from tutoring. They are allowed to accept money from their own students (or gifts from those students’ parents), a sure-fire disincentive to effective teaching in the classroom setting.
  • There was no parent involvement in the schools whatsoever. Parents visited a school for only one of two reasons: to be roundly chastised for their child’s behavior/performance, or to present a gift for extra tutoring services rendered.

Are you curious about education around the world? Here are 11 facts that may surprise you, from How about this one–pictures of 15 classrooms around the world from The Guardian.

Here are some pictures I pulled from Wikimedia Commons of classrooms that serve our children. Where they are is less important than that whatever the resources, teachers and students alike seem motivated and energized by learning:

For more on education in China, check this post from UNC and Education China here.

More on education in other nations:

Educational Advice From Finland

5 Reasons Class Size Does NOT Matter and 3 Why Large is a Good Thing


Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of dozens of books on how to integrate technology in education. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, a columnist for, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

Updated 5-18-16

2 Responses to Chinese Class vs. American Class

  1. Maru Busico-Flight

    Wow… that’s kind of opposite of what is done in the US…. I saw the same when I visited some schools in China… food for thought…. :-/

    • Jacqui

      I think it’s a choice. We put a high value on independence and creativity; other cultures place it on learning traditionally.

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