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China Schools: Low Tech, Crowded, High Scores

Posted by Grace Lee on Nov 11, 2012 6:08:00 PM

This week a team from School Growth LLC visited schools in Shanghai to observe classroom instruction, establish sister school relationships, and assist Chinese students who are interested in pursuing enrollment in U.S. schools and college.  

Shanghai Classroom Nov 12In our tours of middle schools and high schools in this massive city, we met students who were enthusiastic about their classes and to see visitors from America.  The teachers we talked to were proud of their work, emphasized the importance of relationships with their students, and were committed to on-going professional development. The principals spoke of the stress of managing parent expectations while also being proud of the quality of their school programs. 

The students we talked to were capable of conversing well in English, and had a respectable understanding of American history as well as current events. What surprised us was the strong academic results these students were making in schools that were missing some of the ingredients that are now core to U.S. schools.  

Low Tech

What was most obviously missing from these Chinese classrooms was the use of advanced instructional technology. Laptops and smartphones were abundant among their backpacks and stacks of books, but they were not used in the classrooms we visited. A projector and screen were used by most teachers, and a television was mounted up in the corner. The instructional methods were traditional, with the teacher lecturing at the front and prompting students for responses to questions or exercises. When a student was called upon to answer a question, the student stood at his or her desk and spoke loudly for the class to hear.  

No learning management system. No differentiated instruction. No blended learning. No in-depth student performance data. No small group instruction. No self-directed learning. No flipped classroom. 

It was interesting to learn that each teacher is responsible for 2 out of 8 classes per day, with classes averaging 40 minutes in length. The rest of their day is spent preparing lesson plans, grading papers, meeting with students, collaborating with colleagues, etc. Structured teacher mentoring is used in the better schools, with a hierarchy of faculty based on performance assessment. What a great structure for increased teacher effectiveness!


There's a fine line between crowded and overcrowded. The students didn't seem to mind sitting tightly with an average of 50 students in a classroom that would typically contain half that number in an American school.  When it's time for classes to change, the teachers move rather than the students. Which means that the students stay in these cramped quarters for about 4 hours in the mornning and 4 hours in the afternoon.

High Test Scores

International test scores over the last decade demonstrate that Shanghai students consistently score at the highest on all subjects assessed. Walking through these schools you immediately notice the respect that the students have for their teachers and their commitment to diligently studying. Standardized testing is the ultimate determinate of one's educational and career options in China, so the pressure mounts with each school year to rigorously prepare, memorize, and practice. 

What does "academic rigor" really mean? Are small class sizes a reliable predictor for student success? Is technology the key to more effective education? Are standardized test scores the best measurement by which schools should be assessed? 

Lots of things we can learn from schools around the world.  Some to emulate, some to re-think.

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