China's education system revolves around make-or-break examinations that test students' ability to memorise texts, characters, dates and concepts, but make few demands in terms of critical thinking or analysis.
Educators criticise China’s way of teaching
Today, China's education system continues to revolve around make-or-break examinations that test students' ability to memorise texts, characters, dates and concepts, but make few demands in terms of critical thinking or analysis.
"They conduct mechanical drills in learning the language, the numbers, some science concepts," said To-chan Sing-pui, a lecturer who specialises in curriculum development at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
In some respects, China's educational achievements are to be envied. The literacy rate is 94 per cent. In international standardised tests co-ordinated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development last year, pupils in China came out as the best in the world, beating their counterparts in Singapore, which is renowned for its standards in schools, and way ahead of children in major western economies such as the United States and United Kingdom.
While many have questioned how meaningful these results were, as the Chinese students were all from Shanghai, which has the best education standards in the country, they illustrate the strides the country has made in the decades since the Cultural Revolution, when youngsters were encouraged to denounce their teachers.
Yet set against this is an economy that for all its furious growth, shows comparatively little sign of innovation and lags behind in creative sectors.
Some academics believe the education system could be to blame. While once China's examinations created the most advanced bureaucracy of its time, today many in the field of education believe an over-reliance on drills and rote memorisation is failing to develop people who can think for themselves.
The education children on the mainland receive "stifles creativity", according to Lee Yuk-chun, a senior instructor in the department of curriculum and instruction at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"They just try to memorise the thing and write exactly what they have got. To an extent that mode of thinking will affect them," she said.
Cramming for examinations takes priority over research projects, problem-solving, presentations and other ways of learning that emphasise initiative. The most crucial test is thegaokao, the high school test that determines which university students will attend, and in which recall trumps analysis. Throughout, the system is characterised by long hours, lots of homework, intense competition and little time for physical education, drama or music. "During the senior high school, the basic education is to memorise," said Chen Kai, 18, who is in his final year of high school in Beijing. "My parents are concerned about a high score. They don't pay attention to creative education. This is important, but we have no chance - we have to focus on the entrance examination."
Experts say the pattern largely continues at university.
While some western countries have tried to move to a more disciplined, structured, test-orientated mode of eduction amid concerns about lagging standards, in China there have been initiatives, such as new textbooks, aimed at addressing the failings of the recall-based system. Yet attempts to introduce teaching methods that emphasise creativity are hampered by a lack of funding in mainland schools, said Mrs To-chan, because more innovative methods are often more expensive.
However, the main factor preventing reform is the overwhelming importance of tests such as the gaokao, which prevents teachers from focusing on developing pupils' broader abilities. The test is likely to retain its pivotal role because it is seen as the way to guarantee that opportunities in the education system depend upon ability and not connections.
Even in Hong Kong, which has a more western-orientated education system, there is resistance to reform.
"The Hong Kong government makes a lot of suggestions, but in the local schools the teachers are not following them," Ms Lee said. "There are so many constraints they go back to the old system."
Few in education expect significant changes to China's education system in the coming years, and that means concerns over methods of teaching will remain. In a hard-hitting blog entry recently quoted in media, Professor Yang Dongping, a researcher at the Beijing Institute of Technology, warned that young people were being failed by an overly competitive system that does little to develop individuals.
"Do we want to have human beings with personalities or do we want to raise a generation of robots?" he asked.