MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
When American journalist Lenora Chu moved to Shanghai, she needed to find a school for her toddler. She looked at international schools. But they cost a lot, and she wanted her son to learn Mandarin. Soon, she found herself gazing through the black and gold iron gates guarding Shanghai's most prestigious kindergarten. It's a public school where Chinese government officials fight to send their kids.
LENORA CHU: The school is supposed to be one of the best in the city, and it was just down the street. We thought, why not give it a shot? We enrolled our son, at the age of 3, in the state-run system.
KELLY: With that, Chu and her husband Rob Schmitz, who we should mention is NPR's Shanghai correspondent - they embarked on a journey inside China's school system. She's now written a book about it called "Little Soldiers." Chu says she was struck by how much better her son behaved after he started Chinese school. But she was also struck by the conformity demanded of children, even in art class.
CHU: So in (laughter) the Chinese classroom, there's only one way to draw rain. It falls from the sky to the ground, and it comes in little dots. If you think about rain, you know, it blows sideways. There are hurricanes and monsoons. You know, kids in the Chinese classroom learn very quickly not to take risks because if you deviate from this vertical representation of rain, you get your paper tacked to the wall.
KELLY: Well, I was going to ask - yeah - what do they do to you if you draw rain going sideways?
CHU: There is an element to Chinese culture where you use shame to compel behavior. And that's what I saw in this classroom. But what I did find is there are a few things the Chinese do well. And one of this is this sort of concept of eating bitter in the classroom - you know, hard work pays off in the classroom. I began finding studies that showed that in America, we're more likely to believe in talent and innate ability when it comes to performance in the classroom. And that means we're giving up on some kids because we don't believe they have what it takes.
KELLY: You're talking about a system that values effort over innate talent. Is that so very different from the emphasis that a lot of American schools are increasingly placing on effort, on instilling those values in students - call it grit?
CHU: That's right. The difference that I see is, in the U.S., you don't get universal buy-in. There's a lot of, I would say, parental revolt - when we push our kids harder, we're trying a different way to learn math. There is a fear, in part because we are afraid our kids aren't going to feel good about themselves if they can't get it. And you're not hearing Chinese parents really talk in that way. And what's interesting to me is if you look at the way we Americans look at sports, we believe in that - you know, training, getting faster, working harder contributes to results. And I feel that if we just put a little bit of that attitude into the classroom, we'd all be a little bit better off.
KELLY: One insight that I was fascinated by is Chinese and U.S. schools operate with entirely different agendas. The Chinese system is designed to weed out, and the American system is designed to do the exact opposite, to leave no child behind.
CHU: I know. You know, education in China is a sorting mechanism. You advance into the next level of schooling based on a test score. And that can be very devastating if you're on the wrong side of that. I talk about a ladder. And you have 18 million babies born in China every year. In the U.S., it's 4 million, you know. So you can understand the scale of China.
KELLY: Oh, yeah.
CHU: And at that high school entrance exam, you lose 8 million kids.
KELLY: So what happens to children who are not thriving in the Chinese system? You write about one little boy, Little Pumpkin. What happens to him?
CHU: So Little Pumpkin was 3 years old when I met him, and this was the first week of class at a preschool in Shanghai. And he immediately stood out because his head was sort of larger than average, and he was very lively. You know, his arms were always moving. And the teachers were trying to get the children to sit still in rows of three, and he just wouldn't comply. So he was always popping up. The teacher was pushing him down. It was like a game of whack-a-mole. And it was shocking to me - I sit in the back - I was basically shocked at the silence, and I realized immediately how they introduced conformity in the classroom, sometimes by physical methods.
KELLY: Well, let's just tackle the stereotype head-on. The American suspicion is that the Chinese educational system produces children who know a lot of facts, who are really good at taking tests but have little capacity for creativity or independent thinking. As you investigated, did you find that to be true.
CHU: I think the longer a kid stays in the Chinese system, you get less practice at expressing yourself creatively. And you don't get that environment that brings forth new ideas, and that definitely is a problem. And frankly, that's why we plan to pull our son out before too long. But drivers of creativity are different in China than they are in the West. The Chinese, they understand they have these problems with creativity, but they're still teaching science and math with deep rigor. And so creative ingenuity takes both. You need knowledge, and you need process.
KELLY: You do describe your son very proudly marching home from school one day with a big red star on his forehead. Tell us what happened.
CHU: Teachers use rewards as an incentive to compel behavior, and my son was given a red star for sitting still. And it was upsetting to me as a parent because he wouldn't take off the star. He was so proud that he got the star, he wore it to bed. He wore it to breakfast. He wanted to go to a birthday party and show off his star. So basically, I'm an American parent. I landed in this very extreme environment. And I started to think about my own upbringing and what was happening back in America. And teachers in America - you know, they tell me that they're spending more time managing behavior in the classroom than they are teaching. And this is not something that you hear from a Chinese teacher.
KELLY: It's interesting because, as we in the U.S. look to China and think about how we might apply that in U.S. schools, China's doing the same. And as they look at the U.S., are there things that they think - huh, maybe we should try that?
CHU: Absolutely. You know, I met with this Chinese math official. And he says, you know, American math scores might be bad. But when kids love a subject, they love it from the heart. And so the Chinese are looking at us to see how we motivate kids, we stimulate their curiosities. You know, teachers come over to the U.S., and they come back to China and tell me, I saw kids sitting in a circle - you know? - and they got up out of the circle and explored the classroom whenever they wanted.
I mean, these are wild concepts to the Chinese, and they're learning from us. And these are some of the things we do really, really well.
KELLY: Lenora Chu - her new book is "Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, And The Global Race To Achieve."
Lenora, thank you.
CHU: Thank you so much for having me.
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