Working in a Gaokao Factory

Recently I came across an article, Chinese Cram School From Hell. This article does a great job describing the Chinese high school education system, and the immense pressure  of the gaokao test. Since I work in one of these so-called “gaokao factories”, I thought I’d shed some insight on the high school education system in China.

In China, teachers teach to the test. That’s it. The test is everything.

Students wake up and have a morning study period which starts at 7am. Their first class is 7:40, and they continue to have classes until 11:15, with breaks varying from 10-30 minutes. At 11:15, students go to lunch and can eat in one of three cafeterias. After lunch, these students have a break until 1pm. Most teachers go back to the teachers’ dorm to “have a rest” (aka nap), while students have to be back in their home classroom where they can do homework or nap at their desks. When I asked why students couldn’t go back to their rooms to rest, one teacher told me that “they might not come back”. Well.. isn’t that what detention is for? Oh no. There’s no such thing in China.

At 1:00, classes start back up again until dinner time at 5pm. After dinner students have an hour or so of spare time where they can take a shower in the shower house that is locked the rest of the day. Students have evening “study classes” until eight or so, and they must be in bed, lights off by 9pm. So this leaves no time for activities, sports, or leisure. We apparently have a “gymnastics” team, which is a cheer/dance group, but I have no idea when they get to practice.

In China, high school is only three years, because middle school is 7,8,9. While senior 1 and 2 only go to class monday through friday, senior three must spend every-other weekend at school preparing for the test. While I spent a lot of weekends doing ACT prep or SAT classes, I feel the most sorry for the teachers who have to work twelve days straight. No unions in China!

Does all of this studying actually create a more intelligent populace?

I really don’t think so.

From my experience, most Chinese students are taught merely to memorize and lack basic critical thinking skills. There’s also a lot of political molding from this style of teaching. They learn never to question authority: the teacher teaches to the test and the test is always right. They also view the world as black and white: there’s a right answer and a wrong answer.

One of the most interesting elements of the gaokao is the English section, which comprises of grammar, vocabulary and a small writing portion. No speaking. Because of this, many Chinese people know complicated vocabulary and endless grammar rules, but can not form a single sentence. Why would the government waste it’s time teaching everyone English if no one can even speak it? Good question. The only Chinese people that I’ve met in my area that can speak “okay” English are the English teachers and people who majored in English in college. Finally, the test is written by Chinese people, so a lot of the grammar is odd, and sometimes even wrong. But it doesn’t matter if it’s wrong as long as they pass the test right?

This strict schedule of endless studying ensures that once students get to college they are completely burnt out. A friend of mine teaches at a college and the behavior of his students is shocking! His students will text and answer their phones in class! Let me repeat that: In a class of 20 students, his students will answer their phones in class. They will also put their heads down on their desks to take a nap in class, or refuse to do the activity and wander around the room. My friend has started confiscating phones in class, but the same students still use them over and over. One day, when he asked the students to create a definition for the word “college”, one group stated “a place to relax because high school is so stressful”. The worst part is that these students can relax. Chinese colleges have no GPA, all students need to do is pass their classes. Most classes base this entire pass/fail from one final exam, but since teachers don’t want to re-teach their students, they give their students all the questions and answers before the exam to memorize. Chinese college students are also not expected to have jobs or an internship in college, because they should be “focused on studying”. Most of the teachers are shocked that I interned 20 hours a week during my senior year (along with ballroom practice 4-5 times a week, my sorority, working as an exchange student orientation leader and doing interviews for the admissions department). As a recent college graduate, I could never imagine anyone disrespecting a professor, or even a TA by taking a phone call or having a nap in class. I think back to my Chinese classes that had about 20 or so people; I wouldn’t DARE text in a class that small because it would be obvious.

I think the main reason these students misbehave so much in college is because they were so micro managed in high school. In Chinese high school, all the students stay in their home classroom while teachers rotate because the students might “get lost or confused”. Really? I mean I got confused a few times my first week of high school Freshman year, but the teachers give a bit of leeway for the first week or so. Instead, they make the teachers rotate, which is awful because setting up a Powerpoint takes time, and I have to bring all of my teaching materials with me to my 20 different classrooms.

Students in China can’t do homework unsupervised, and they must be accounted for every moment of the day. They can’t even take an unscheduled shower! Students also aren’t allowed to have phones and computers in school, which I think is absolutely ridiculous. While I’m glad I don’t have texting issues in my classes, students should be able to call their parents in the evenings or text their friends from different schools after class. Also, how do students do research and write essays without computers?? Oh, that’s right, they don’t.

The Chinese teachers at my school were absolutely shocked when I informed them that we were allowed to bring our phones to school. I told them that if we had our phone out in class, it would be confiscated for the day, and we may have to stay after school for detention and clean things. I told them that “detention” or “getting in trouble” is shameful, and that students want their teachers to like them because our grades are the most important element of college admissions. The response: “If we take the students phones their parents will just buy them a new one because all the students are rich”. I work at a public school.

I know my students sneak phones into their dorms because many of them have added me on wechat, a Chinese wifi texting app, during the week when they’re at school. When I call them out they lie and say they went home that evening. Yeah, sure.

The poor behavior doesn’t stop after high school, the teachers at my school are extremely disrespectful during meetings and assemblies. During the Teacher’s Day assembly, all of the teachers sat in the front few rows to be honored while the administration and selected teachers gave speeches. I was literally the only teacher not on my phone, and I couldn’t understand a thing anyone was saying. Since the teachers sat in the first few rows, all 1,500 students could see all of the teachers texting. Talk about being good influences. But while the teachers disrespect administration by texting, not one of them would dare critique or question the administration, even if their pay is weeks late, or they are forced to work three weekends in a row. One teacher said “our principal is a general, we do what he says”. Don’t get me wrong, the principal is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and I’m so glad to be working with him, but negotiating with your boss in China is definitely not a thing.

While Chinese high school is stressful, I think a lot of people forget how stressful it is to be an American high school student vying for a top college. While there isn’t one be-all-end-all exam, there are so many important factors for an American college application. Firstly, we have to get into all of the top classes in high school, and take as many honors and AP classes as humanly possible. Then, we have to get straight A’s in all of these classes. On top of that, we have to impress our teachers and college counselors and have them write us good recommendations. Next, we have to be interesting outside of the classroom. We have to be dedicated to an activity, or have something “special” about us, whether you played a varsity sport, were the first chair in orchestra or wrote a novel. On top of that, there were the “volunteer” hours which has now morphed into “internship”; which, in high school, is a glorified word for “I bought coffee and filed papers”. On top of all of these things, we had to fill out endless applications with supplemental questions like “Why GW?” and the all elusive “personal statement”, which is enough to make even the strongest student cringe with anxiety- because god forbid you write your personal essay about something unoriginal and boring like your month-long trip helping starving orphans in Africa. FINALLY there’s also the SAT/ACT as well as AP tests AND SATII’s.

While its honestly awful that these kids have to be stuck in school for so long, applying to college in the US is just as hard.

The problem with this test is that it has created an army of robots who are great at memorizing and taking tests, but lack writing and critical thinking skills. While I think that the system needs to be changed, the problem is that the gaokao is the only fair method. In China, guanxi, or “connections”, is a way of life. While we see a bit of this in America (rich donor’s son gets accepted into Yale with a 3.0 GPA), in China it’s very different. In America, accepting a few children of the US elite can elicit large donations to fund academic buildings and scholarships for many students; I view it as a necessary evil. While in China, if you don’t accept your friend’s nephew? Friendship over. Your cousin’s brother-in-law’s son? You have shamed the family. If you don’t accept that low-level politician’s son, what happens?Also, instead of giving money to the school, wealthy families would directly pay-off admissions people to accept their children. The gaokao finds a way around all this guanxi with solid, unwavering numbers.

Overall, the Chinese “gaokao factory” education system is very different from home. My school has really encouraged me to use new and different innovative and “western” teaching methods. They hired me not only to help students with spoken English, but to also open their minds to a new culture and way of thinking. My main goal is to get these kids to ask questions, think critically and be curious. While only having each class once every two-weeks is a bit frustrating, because I feel like I won’t be able to give my students any personal attention (and I’ll NEVER learn all 900 of their names), hopefully my presence can make a little bit of a difference in their lives.





About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

5 comments on “Working in a Gaokao Factory

  1. You’re mostly spot-on here though missing a few nuances you’ll better understand in time. In my opinion, after recognizing the state of the education system in China, one’s goal becomes more about expanding worldviews than bestowing knowledge. I’ve done a lot of volunteering at rural schools, and I’ve never made it my aim that the students would come out knowing more English than before I went in, but rather that I could make some student who never even thought about America realize there’s a whole wide world out there. If you can inspire curiosity in one or two students in every class you’ve made a substantial impact.

    • I definitely agree. I’ve started to realize that inspiring creativity and confidence is more important than actually really improving their English. I want my students to be able to stand up and speak confidently in front of the class, even if their grammar isn’t perfect- which is why I try not to call them out on their mistakes individually. I want them to have fun with English, and be creative- which is why I let them have crazy English names like “Outmoon” and “Future Summer”. I’m also teaching two electives: speech/acting and western culture through music and media- so I’m really excited about what I’ll get to do with those classes.

  2. Pingback: Life’s a Changin’ in China. | ADVENTURES AROUND ASIA

  3. Pingback: #ChinaFacts | ADVENTURES AROUND ASIA

  4. Pingback: Ameson Year in China: A Review | Adventures Around Asia

Leave a Reply: