Shanghai University Associate Professor and father of a 2.5-year-old girl, Zhang, and his friend, Zou Rui, a biomedical Ph.D. graduate from Shanghai University, have engaged in a four-month-long transoceanic dialogue on education since May of this year, lasting dozens of hours. Due to the time difference, Zhang often received hundreds of voice messages from Zou Rui in the middle of the night, sometimes listening non-stop from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on a Sunday.
Their discussion on education covered various topics, from the sports league system for American community children, the testing methods for American elementary schools, how American teachers provide after-class assistance to children, to Obama’s education policies and their far-reaching impact on American education, and how Zou Rui’s two children are learning Chinese in the U.S. and whether Zhang’s daughter should attend international school or public school.
Zou Rui stated, “My understanding of American education comes from my own experience and observation. My two children attend public schools in New Jersey, which is a microcosm of American education but not the entirety. In the United States, the teaching content and methods differ from state to state, district to district, school to school, and even class to class. Readers, please do not assume that American education is like what we discussed. Our conversation is for reference only.”
Zhang also expressed a similar viewpoint, saying that his conclusions on China’s education, especially primary and secondary education, were based on what he had seen and heard in Shanghai. He stated that he did not write this article to compare, criticize, deny, or exaggerate anything, but rather to provide some new materials and perspectives for parents like them who are exploring education issues and friends interested in education. He welcomed criticism and correction regarding any shortcomings or bias in the article.
02 What is the most important thing?
Zou Rui’s eldest son Xiang Xiang learned to play three musical instruments before entering seventh grade: piano from first to sixth grade, practicing 45 minutes a day; guitar from fifth grade, practicing 30 minutes a day; and flute from fourth grade, practicing 15 minutes a day.
In September of this year, after Xiang Xiang entered seventh grade, he found that the school had added many new extracurricular activities that he was interested in and he wanted to try. To do so, he had to give up one of the musical instruments. When he asked Zou Rui for his opinion, Zou Rui told him, “This is your own thing, you make the decision, Mom and Dad won’t participate.”
After some thought, Xiang Xiang chose to give up piano. When the news was announced, Xiang Xiang’s piano teacher was the first to object. The piano teacher found Zou Rui’s wife and angrily questioned, “How could you let a 12-year-old child make such an important decision on his own? Don’t you see that he is a talented child? Aren’t you afraid that you will regret it in the future?”
Zou Rui told me that Xiang Xiang was indeed more talented in piano than other children, and it was a bit of a pity to give up after practicing for so many years. “Everyone in their lifetime will face countless choices. Ultimately, our current life is the result of various choices made at different stages. How to make reasonable, effective, and rational decisions is a skill that everyone needs to continuously improve throughout their lives. In our view, the ability to think independently and make decisions is more important than practicing the piano. As parents, we will consciously train our two children in this aspect as much as possible. After all, parents cannot accompany their children for a lifetime, and most decisions must be made by the children themselves. As parents, what we need to do is teach our children how to make the right decisions and to take responsibility for the consequences of their choices.”
Zou Rui said, “Our eldest child, whether learning piano, practicing swimming, or playing baseball, is based on this big goal, not just to exercise or improve artistic accomplishment.”
In addition to playing instruments, Xiangxiang has also participated in many sports activities, playing baseball for four years, soccer for two years, skating for one year, and briefly playing basketball. “Our principle is that before the age of seven, everything can be played, everything can be tried, the main purpose is to see where the interest lies. After seven years old, the child gradually develops their own ideas and preferences. We give the decision-making power to them, let them make the decision of which activities to continue and which to stop,” Zou Rui said.
As a result, Xiangxiang’s choice once again surprised Zou Rui. He did not choose the sports he had trained in for a long time, such as baseball and soccer, nor did he choose skating or basketball. Instead, he chose swimming, which he was least good at. “In swimming, Xiangxiang had almost no talent, and it took him almost four years to find a little feeling for it,” Zou Rui said. Nevertheless, when Xiangxiang decided to focus on swimming only, Zou Rui and his wife readily told him, “OK, no problem, you make the decision.”
03 What is the most valued quality in the American education system?
Zou Rui, a Chinese educator, believes that the American education system places the highest value on four essential qualities: sound character development, teamwork, athletic ability, and love.
Firstly, healthy personality development.Sound character development is emphasized. Xiangxiang, a typical “study genius,” has consistently been at the top of his class from first grade to sixth grade, surpassing his peers by a significant margin.
In China, if a student performs well academically, teachers would usually publicly praise them in class. However, this is not the case in the United States. Xiangxiang’s elementary school teacher informed Zou Rui that publicly praising a child for being smart could create unnecessary pressure for other students and make them feel inferior. For the child who was praised for being intelligent, it may not be beneficial either, as it may inflate their personal abilities and lead to arrogance, which is not conducive to cooperation with other children.
In the United States, teachers usually give specific and objective praise, such as “you did a great job on this assignment, what did you do well, and why,” or “you did a great job on this project, how did you achieve such success?” Clear and focused praise is essential for cultivating sound character in children.
Second, team collaboration ability.Educational philosophy, teamwork and collaboration are significant differences between the education systems in China and the United States. From kindergarten to university, American education emphasizes the organization of teaching and after-school activities in small groups. Students are divided into different groups and work together to achieve their objectives.
Starting from an early age, American children must adapt to being placed in different groups from one day to the next. Apart from exams, most of a child’s learning time is spent in various small groups. In addition, American schools have an interesting system called “heterogeneous grouping,” where all students in a grade are mixed and re-divided into classes each year. Children encounter new teachers, classmates, and classrooms every year, and this helps to develop their social and adaptability skills. By the time a student graduates from sixth grade, they can recognize almost every child in their grade.
In September of this year, Zuo Rui’s child, Xiang Xiang, began seventh grade. The school arranged for Xiang Xiang to take math classes with eighth graders. One day, the school informed Zuo Rui that considering Xiang Xiang’s English proficiency was already significantly higher than that of the same-grade children, the school suggested that Xiang Xiang take English classes with eighth graders starting next week. “If we accept the school’s suggestion, it means that Xiang Xiang will be studying in three classes simultaneously: the current seventh-grade class, the eighth-grade math class, and the eighth-grade English class,” Zuo Rui said. “Without the heterogeneous grouping and small group learning that Xiang Xiang has experienced since childhood, it would be difficult for anyone to handle suddenly facing three new classes. This is the strength of American teamwork training.”
According to Zuo Rui, American education has a tendency to deliberately downplay individual contributions, especially those of relatively outstanding individuals, and emphasize how members can work together to achieve goals. “From childhood to adulthood, Xiang Xiang’s individual ability has always been strong, and he usually plays a leadership role in various groups. He is the child who carries the flag and leads the team forward. However, almost no teacher has ever praised him specifically for this,” Zuo Rui said. “Teachers emphasize the most that, no matter how strong one’s abilities are, one can never rely on one person’s efforts to complete everything.”
Third, physical ability.In terms of physical fitness, the American education system places far greater emphasis on sports than China. In American schools, a child with good athletic abilities is more popular than one who excels in academics. American schools recommend that each child engage in at least 30 to 60 minutes of outdoor exercise per day. However, there are no strict rules governing the type or form of outdoor exercise.
Many American families prefer to have their children participate in long-term team training programs after school. There are two reasons for this: first, through intense training, children can both exercise and cultivate the spirit of hard work and perseverance; second, children can develop close friendships and teamwork skills during long-term team training.
For example, every day after school, Xiang Xiang receives training from the local amateur swim team. Starting from the end of May each year, she swims approximately 1,500 to 2,000 meters for one hour every day and trains for five days a week, with competitions on Saturdays.
Every year, Xiang Xiang participates in the regional swimming league with her team, which includes 18 teams divided into three levels with strict promotion and relegation mechanisms. Xiang Xiang’s swim team is a small team that unfortunately was relegated last year. At the beginning of the relegation, Xiang Xiang’s parents were worried that this would affect her training enthusiasm. However, this year, her swim team has been very competitive in the new level group, and Xiang Xiang and her teammates are often thrilled at the opportunity to win.
“This year, Xiang Xiang’s training and competition enthusiasm is much higher than last year,” said her father, Zou Rui. “Last year, they always lost the competition, and children have self-esteem. Although they were relegated this year, the children often have opportunities to win, so they are more motivated in both training and competition than last year.”
In addition to amateur competitions, Zou Rui’s region also has semi-professional competitions. These competitions are very intense, and unless the child really loves it and has good skills, it is impossible to persevere. At Xiang Xiang’s school, there is a boy who is excellent at playing baseball and has been on the cover of Time magazine’s youth edition. He trains six days a week, four hours each time. In Xiang Xiang’s swimming club, there is a little girl who won fifth place in the American Youth Olympics. She also trains six days a week, four hours each time. All of their training and competitions take place after school, and they attend classes like other children during the day.
“Let’s imagine for a moment, you wake up at 6:30 every day, take the school bus to class at around 7 am. After class ends at 2:40 pm, you start training at 3 pm for four hours. After four hours of training, you return home, eat dinner, and take a shower. After dinner, you have to continue doing homework. Although American schools do not assign as much homework as China, children still have to do homework after high-intensity sports training every day. These children are really very hardworking. If they don’t really like this kind of high-intensity training, it will be a disaster for both the child and the family,” said Zou Rui.
Fourth, Ability to Love: Deeply ingrained training in philanthropy.Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, a well-known charity foundation in the United States, was founded in memory of a little girl named Alex who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer, before her first birthday in 1996. In 2000, at the age of four, Alex underwent a stem cell transplant. During her recovery, she told her mother that she wanted to set up a lemonade stand in their yard to raise money to help doctors find a cure for childhood cancer and to help other kids like herself.
With the help of her older brother, Alex successfully held her first lemonade stand event in their front yard and raised an amazing $2,000 for the hospital. Over the years, Alex bravely fought cancer and held an annual lemonade stand event in her front yard to raise money for childhood cancer research in the United States. Her selfless acts of kindness quickly spread, and people all over the country and the world held their own lemonade stand fundraisers and donated the proceeds to Alex and her cause.
In August 2004, at the age of eight, Alex passed away. Before her death, she raised over one million dollars for childhood cancer charities.
To this day, many Americans hold lemonade stand events to raise money for the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. Charity is deeply ingrained in American society, with children participating in various charitable activities from a young age. The company where Zou Rui works, for example, recommends two charitable organizations before each quarterly meeting and donates $500 to each one, without ever stopping.
In Zou Rui’s view, charitable activities are a way for American society to teach children these values:
First, there are many unfortunate people in the world who need our help.
Second, many people, despite their misfortunes, live their lives with great strength.
Third, those who have been treated unfairly by fate can still be so strong, so as a healthy person, what reason do we have not to do better?
Shanghai Jiao Tong University Professor Zhu Xuehong once told Zou Rui a story from her childhood. She and her elementary school classmates, along with their parents, saw a homeless person on the street. Usually, many Chinese parents would either turn a blind eye or tell their children, “If you don’t study hard, you’ll end up like him.” However, the parents of Zhu’s classmates said to the children, “You must study hard and make sure that every homeless person has a decent job in the future, so that they can live with dignity just like us, okay?” Zhu Xuehong said that was the best family education she had ever seen.
One major difference between Chinese and American education systems is that Chinese education places greater emphasis on “strong thinking,” with resources almost entirely tilted towards the strong individuals, while relatively weak individuals or silent groups are left out.
04 When Chinese and American Children Meet, Who Will Win?
27 years ago when I took the college entrance examination, the teacher told us that we should act in peacetime as if we were in wartime, and in wartime as if it were peacetime. This means that if we hope to perform well during the college entrance examination, then all the training during the third year of high school should strictly follow the requirements of the examination. The key word here is “like.” In fact, wartime and peacetime are two different situations, and we can only try to make them as similar as possible.
In 2016, while participating in a marathon race in Okinawa, Japan, I noticed a training school near my accommodation. At 10 PM, students dressed in school uniforms and carrying backpacks quietly streamed out of the school like a production line, orderly and silent. A banner on the school’s glass window caught my attention – “Every Day is a Battle.” This phrase, in my opinion, was more inspiring than the previous adage of “Train like it’s peacetime to fight like it’s wartime.” Every day is a real battle, not a mere simulation.
Last year, a Shanghai media outlet published an article titled “The First Battle is a Decisive Battle” about the intense competition for children to enter good primary schools. As competition in Shanghai’s education system intensifies, more and more families view the admission into a good primary school as a battle worth fighting.
When I told Zou Rui about the three levels of “decisive battles,” he exclaimed, “Advanced learning has become the norm for the vicious cycle of education. I have discussed the issue of advanced learning with my American friends, who are very puzzled. In their view, children at different stages need to learn different things. Some things may take a six-year-old child a whole day, or even two or three days to understand, while a nine-year-old child may be able to fully grasp it in just ten minutes. If that’s the case, why force a six-year-old child to spend so much energy and time learning something that they can naturally master at nine years old? Isn’t that a waste of time?”
Zou Rui often sends articles from education public accounts in China to his American friends to read. After reading them, his friends always feel that Chinese children are too hardworking. Although it appears that American children have much less homework than Chinese children, the reality is that American children are just as busy as Chinese children. Chinese children are busy doing homework and attending tutoring classes, while American children spend a lot of time on sports, charity, reading, socializing, and various other activities. It’s not easy for anyone, and no one is idle, it’s just that everyone’s time is spent in different places.
Different levels of investment and education represent different views and values for the future. Both myself and Zou Rui firmly believe that in the future, Chinese children’s competitors will not only be their classmates and peers, but also children from the United States. Chinese and American children are sure to engage in all-around competition in various corners of the world, in various fields of human activity, and at various levels.
Based on this premise, it is believed that different levels of investment and educational approaches reflect different values and views of the future. Both Zhang and Zou Rui firmly believe that in the future, Chinese children will not only be competing with their classmates and peers, but also with American children in various fields and at all levels across the world.
While the US has a strong foundation, its population is experiencing significant changes. As the middle class shrinks, the number of people reliant on government welfare programs has skyrocketed, which has had a negative impact on the overall quality of the population. Furthermore, the growing emphasis on political correctness has led to a stifling of free speech and a lack of critical thinking skills among the populace.
In recent years, the United States has been issuing approximately 1.1 million green cards annually, with only around 100,000 being granted to high-tech immigrants, while the rest are given to various types of family immigrants. This is a far cry from the influx of elites from all over the world who entered the United States during and after World War II. The comprehensive policy of illegal immigrant asylum implemented by Obama since taking office has further worsened the quality of immigrants in the United States.
“Many people have heard that Americans are bad at math, and I have to say, their math is really bad. Once I went to a gas station to refuel, and it was $2.99 per gallon. I told the gas station attendant to add 10 gallons of gas. After a while, the attendant came over, full of apology: ‘Sir, I’m sorry, I don’t know how much 10 gallons of gas cost, so I took the initiative and gave you 20 dollars’ worth of gas.’ That’s right, a simple multiplication problem, and the gas station attendant in the United States couldn’t even figure it out.
“The gas station attendant may not have had a high level of education, and that’s forgivable. The company I work for is a high-tech company that serves NASA, Boeing, and all sorts of large manufacturing companies around the world. My colleagues in the company are all at least highly educated people. One day, a colleague had to calculate 103.5+2. In my opinion, this is a simple problem that can be solved in a second. But what happened was that my colleague pulled out a calculator and seriously started punching in numbers. You might think, ‘Why are Americans so stupid?’ In fact, it’s not that they’re stupid, and it’s not that American children are not intelligent. The biggest problem with American math education is not with the children, but with the math curriculum itself, which is fundamentally flawed and simply not taught correctly,” said Zou Rui.
In the American math education system, fractions, decimals, and even probability are introduced in textbooks as early as fifth grade, before children have fully understood the basics of integers and arithmetic. Many Americans are traumatized by this irrational curriculum at a young age, leading to a lack of confidence in math and even hatred of it. The teaching system in the US focuses on advanced concepts without ensuring mastery of the basics, resulting in a negative feedback loop of frustration and avoidance.
The Obama administration’s eight years in power were marked by a significant decline in the quality of basic education in the United States. The government lowered teaching standards and requirements, allowing more students to pass, but this policy was met with strong dissatisfaction from the middle class.
Zou Rui, a Chinese education expert, believes that the problems in American education are deep-rooted and pervasive, requiring significant effort from the entire country to change. In 2014, he conducted a survey of outstanding young people born in the 1990s who worked for Fortune 500 companies, large internet enterprises, and well-known private enterprises. The stories of two of these young people, Yang Jing and Du Jing, were included in his book “Internet + Social Marketing: Igniting Interactivity with Ingenious Ideas.”
Du Jing and Yang Jing are two completely different types of girls – one is enthusiastic and the other is gentle. Zou Rui has been in contact with them for many years and has seen them grow step by step. There are many commonalities between them, including independent judgment, following the boss, respecting and associating with the powerful, self-discipline, diligence, and hard work. They respect authority and can always find room to stretch their wings in the shadow of authority. They both have an extraordinary ability to make everyone around them happy and like them.
If we continue to summarize, there are many other things we could mention, such as their excellent English, their love for fitness, and their outstanding work performance.
Zou Rui said, “Du Jing and Yang Jing are both young people trained by the Chinese education system. They will not lose to anyone on the international stage. In the future, there will be more and more young people like them in China, not less. So, we must have confidence in Chinese children.”
China’s large population gives it an advantage in competition with the United States, according to a recent interview with two Chinese educators, Zhang Yan and Zou Rui. “We have a large population base, and our top children can compete with American children. We can’t say that we will win, but we certainly won’t be inferior. Isn’t that enough?” said Zhang Yan. Zou Rui added, “Besides, Chinese people are born hardworking, which no other country in the world can compare to. Although the United States also has a large population, there are too many lazy people there. Nearly 20% of people in the United States rely on various subsidies from the government each year, including cash, food, housing, and insurance. Among the over 50 million people living on government welfare, a considerable portion are young and able-bodied people who can work but choose not to.”
China’s education has obvious advantages and remarkable characteristics compared to that of the United States, but of course, there are also significant issues and numerous challenges that cannot be ignored. Today, we did not wear masks or earplugs. Although we are not sure what the future will be like, in China, every family, school, and even the entire society, as well as the central government at a higher level, are aware that the future competition ultimately comes down to people, especially young people who have received a good education. All individuals are striving forward at their own pace, although the steps may not be uniform and the rhythm may not be synchronized, as long as we are all making efforts, the final results will definitely not be inferior.