A few days ago, I had a get-together with my dear graduate school friends. They are all native Koreans. As I am in Korea right now, we got together. What do Ph.Ds talk about when they get together? Education.
They shared with me the educational system in South Korea and how much pressure children have from academic studies. For example, it is a common practice for students to go to private learning institutes after school hours are over. These private classes are offered daily, including the weekends. During the weekdays, students go to these classes from 5pm to 10pm.
These hours seem extremely long to me. You must be thinking, there wouldn’t be that many parents sending their kids there?
My friends shared with me that policemen have to come to control traffic. That’s how popular it is. Imagine Black Friday shopping during the Thanksgiving break in the US. This school scene is definitely comparable to that if not more crowded.
This conversation with my friends reminded of my K-12 experience in China. I still remember these dark times vividly even to this day. I received my K-12 & undergraduate education in China in the 1980s. After I got my undergraduate degree, I later came to the U.S. to pursue post-graduate education in 2003.
In this article, I share with you how this type of exam-based learning in an insanely competitive environment killed my interest in learning and even made me hate learning. I share some tough emotions, but this story has a happy ending and lots of good Albert Einstein quote images.
Full disclaimer: There are thousands of kids who survived and thrived in this type of educational system in China. I am only speaking from my personal experience. In no way am I intending to critique the system as if I were an education reform specialist. I am simply sharing a story from a girl who went through the K-12 education in Beijing, China.
The Beginning: I was Born as an Inquisitive Child
I was born as a happy and healthy girl. My biggest strength was that I had an inquisitive and curious mind. Even when I was very young, I always engaged in discussions with my dad. I loved asking him how the universe was formed, why light objects could float on the river, where did the sun come from, where did humans come from, etc. I was extremely curious about everything in life. When people asked me at the time, what’s my favorite subject? My answer was always physics. I loved learning and talking about it.
Then School Started: Things Started to Change
The pressure wasn’t that bad during my primary school. But then the competition and pressure became a lot worse in the second year of my middle school, eventually becoming unbearable at the end of high school, when everyone was competing to enter college. Unlike the SAT exam in the US, students cannot take China’s College Entrance Exam multiple times and use their best score. You can only take it once a year. If you are not happy with your score, you have to wait for another entire year and take the exam again.
How many years can we afford to waste? If you live up to 100 years old, there are altogether 36, 500 days in life.
That’s scary to think about, right? In addition, there are only a few Ivy-League schools in China and everyone is trying to get to these schools in Beijing. Imagine the pressure.
Challenge ONE: Unlimited Exams
I felt my entire six years in middle and high school were to prepare for that life-defining College Entrance Exam. Even sometimes when I didn’t feel that way, teachers made sure to remind us of that. As that big day became closer and closer, my school hours, homework, and exams multiplied substantially. I remember during the last year of my high school, I was there from 6:30am to 9pm and sometimes 10pm, not to mention the extra private classes that I had to attend during the weekend. At the same time, hours spent on arts, music, and physical education, when I needed them the most, were reduced eventually to nothing.
Remember I said earlier that I loved physics? Not anymore. I hated it. At the same time, learning to me became finishing the mountains of homework, preparing for the unlimited numbers of exams, and trying to study harder for and score higher in the next exam.
The worst part of this was that every single student’s grade was displayed in public on a huge piece of paper glued to a gigantic wall. To this day, I still remember what that wall looked like. Unfortunately, many times I scored horribly … Imagine the humiliation as a teenager.
Challenge TWO: Standardized Answers to Everything
There was a right answer for everything. Even for open-ended questions related to Chinese literature, politics, or history, there was a standardized answer.
There’s no need to understand. Just memorize everything.
No individual opinions or perspectives were allowed. Nobody cared about what and how you think. The only thing that mattered was the correct answer, in a singular form.
I wasn’t happy. But, I never questioned this either. Why? Because it’s the norm. Everyone did the same thing. For example, do you ever question why you wear clothes when you go outside? Do you ever ask why you have to eat? Exactly! That’s my point. It’s like asking a fish to describe what water is. The fish doesn’t know unless she is outside of water. I was lost in the water until I came to the United States to pursue post-graduate education.
The End is Only the Beginning to a New Chapter in My Learning Journey
Unfortunately, in my case, I lost that curiosity through my K-12 education in China. Even worse, I lost my interest in learning. I didn’t want to go to college. I still remember the day when my mom held my hands and “forced” me to fill out the paperwork to attend a college. I fought and I cried. Little did I know that day had become a life-changing moment. I am forever grateful to my dear mother who believed in me and saw my potential beyond the limitations of the system. Without her, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Forget about M.A. or Ph.D, I wouldn’t even have a college degree.
Coming to the U.S. to pursue post-graduate education rekindled my interest in learning. I became fascinated with the liberal arts environment, open-mindedness in the pursuit of knowledge, and diversity in cultures and thinking (I learned there is NOT always a correct answer to every question asked). I felt liberated and fell in love with the freedom in learning. My curiosity and inquisitive mind slowly came back.
In retrospect, I am also grateful for my K-12 experience. To a great extent, it shapes my interest in education and motivates me to be on this journey to identify ways to make learning more enjoyable, useful, and transformative. Nowadays, as a mother to two young boys, my most compelling concern in raising my children is that I want to keep their innate curiosity in learning. Interestingly, I happened to read an article by Isaac Morehouse, founder and CEO of Praxis, where he discussed why “curiosity is better than knowledge.” I definitely agree. Let’s end today’s blog by revisiting the following powerful quote from Albert Einstein. Let’s all work hard to protect our children’s curiosity.