Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

When learning is labor lost

By Cheng Fucai (China Daily) Updated: 2014-05-10 09:44

The true value of education is not economic success but pursuit of knowledge and development of personality

Students from Shanghai continued their impressive performance at the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, taking the first place in mathematic, reading and science. The results of the tests, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development every three years, has once again sparked a debate over whether other countries and regions should draw inspiration from Shanghai's "success". Incidentally, Shanghai students had also led the field in 2009, when the last tests were held.

In February, British Education Minister Elizabeth Truss led a delegation to Shanghai and visited a local junior high school to observe the city's teaching practices. Although it may not be in Chinese people's interest to comment on the British delegation's fact-finding mission, at least two facts revealed by the media deserve attention.

The first was revealed in a photograph of Truss watching Chinese children during a physical education class: five of the six students were wearing glasses. It is hard to say whether the high rate of shortsightedness among Shanghai students has anything to do with the long hours they spend poring over books (and hence their strong performance at PISA). But statistics do show that a higher percentage of students in Shanghai suffers from myopia than those in Singapore or Britain.

The high incidence of myopia among Shanghai students can be attributed to their heavy workload, because on average they spend 13.8 hours a week doing homework. In contrast, children in OECD member states spend only seven hours a week on homework. Shanghai students continue to outperform their counterparts from other countries and regions because they spend twice as much time on homework. This is a big burden for children which forces many to play truant, drop out of school or, in extreme cases, commit suicide.

The second fact was revealed in what Truss said about her interaction with the students. She said the most popular answer to her question, "what do you want to be", was "scientist" or "engineer". This is not surprising given the deep-rooted concept among Chinese people that education is a means of achieving success in life and climbing the social ladder.

Many parents, teachers and schools even believe that education is of no use if it cannot bring economic success, and the first concrete step toward that success is for a student to get high marks. Because of this deep-rooted belief, the delight in the pursuit of knowledge, and the development of personality and sense of social responsibility - which should be the real purpose of education - are often compromised, if not altogether ignored.

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