Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve
Author: Lenora Chu
Paperback, 368 pages
Price: RMB 106
Publisher: Piatkus Books
LENORA Chu is a Chinese-American mother who was born and grew up in the U.S., but is currently working as an American correspondent in China. Her husband Rob Schmits is also a journalist who wrote the book, Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams along a Shanghai Road, telling the story of “Chinese common people” living and working on the Street of Eternal Happiness in Shanghai.
In 2009, the couple, with their toddler son Rainey, moved from Los Angles, California to China’s coastal megacity Shanghai. When Rainey was given the opportunity to enroll in the most elite public kindergarten in Shanghai and perhaps the whole country – Soong Ching Ling Kindergarten, Lenora and Rob grabbed it as most Chinese parents would do. Noticing her rambunctious son’s rapid transformation – being increasingly disciplined and obedient – Lenora began to question the huge differences between Chinese and Western education systems. As a result, she wrote the book, Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and The Global Race to Achieve in which she unpacks the story of education in China via her boy’s experience and her own reflections.
Lenora is not a stranger to Chinese-style education. Even though she grew up in the State of Texas, she lived in a traditional patriarchal Chinese family. Her demanding parents were both part of the first generation of Chinese migrants to the U.S. who controlled every aspect of their daughter’s life. For example, they once strongly disagreed with her choice of studying the liberal arts major in university.
However, Lenora is successful in other people’s eyes – she graduated from Stanford University and then went on to get a master’s degree in journalism at Colombia University. She has then served at the Reuter’s News Agency and CNN. In her eyes, all this is a result of the rigorous Chinese education combined with the relaxed American school education which encourages development of individuality.
It was a unique and rich blend of Chinese and Western cultures that influenced Lenora’s growth. When she sent her son to a Chinese kindergarten, she immediately realized that she was copying her own educational experience, but this time everything was happening in China.
Soon, Lenora began to feel the universal anxiety of Chinese parents. Competition is a word even little kids are familiar with. Children are nurtured in an atmosphere where everyone is encouraged to be hardworking in order to be successful. To some extent, this attitude towards learning tends to stifle children’s creativity and critical thinking.
However, after Rainey began to receive Chinese-style education, he exhibited positive changes in a lot of areas. His mathematics and Chinese literature improved a lot. According to the research of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), one of the most widespread standards for evaluating global educational quality which has tested over 500,000 students worldwide, Shanghai teenagers were top in the world at math, reading, and science. More than this, it is common knowledge that Americans are not competent opponents with Chinese students when it comes to mathematics.
Lenora embarked on a reporting mission where she interviewed people and observed the teaching methods used at one primary school in Shanghai and another primary school in Boston. She discovered that in a Chinese classroom, teachers always stood at the center on a teaching platform. In a 35-minute-lesson, the teacher raised 59 questions and asked more than half of the students to answer. But students were called by their numbers rather than names. Teaching and competition-style Q&A were imbued with the whole class having the object of helping students learn more knowledge.
In the American classroom, various teaching methods were adopted. The teacher preferred to call students by their names rather than just their number. Students’ interests seemed more important than using an efficient method of teaching. In a 50-minute-class, only three kids were asked to answer questions, while the others who responded to their teacher leisurely were all volunteers. Lecture, group discussion and one-on-one teaching were very well combined. The teacher even took eight minutes to discuss an issue with one student and all kids were encouraged to say, “Sorry I don’t know” and “I need help.”
Lenora calculated that the ratio of teacher to student in the Chinese class was 1:32, while that in the American class was 1:6. Chinese students did notget much praise from their Chinese teachers, while American teachers preferred to freely express their compliments on any occasion.
In Lenora’s eyes, the reason Chinese kids are excellent in academic achievements owed in large part to the professional teachers they have, the mechanical memorizing learning methods used by students, and the deep-seated belief that only if one works hard and endures hardship, can they eventually be successful.
In American culture, “Grit” refers to someone who will never lose heart despite repeated setbacks. This spirit is usually seen when an American child takes part in a sports competition.
Two years after Rainey began attending kindergarten, once when Lenora took him to the dentist, she discovered the transformation of her little boy. Rainey lay down silently, opened his mouth, and accepted the anesthesia treatment on his gums without crying. It was incredible for a five-year-old child to follow such instruction without the general anesthesia, since no one can ever expect it to happen in the U.S. Lenora then realized that her boy had become a brave little soldier by going through the process of Chinese education.
Lenora wrote her entire experience in her book, demonstrating the fact that there is no perfect education. Chinese people expect to get an education which is more independent, equal, and inspiring; while at the same time, Americans admire the Chinese students for being more disciplined and obedient, and able to learn things in an efficient and effective way. Which one is better? It seems to be an insolvable proposition. However, in Lenora’s book, readers can have a glimpse of the differences between two cultures and ponder over how they can make a perfect combination.