Dear Jan Björklund,
Let me shortly sum up my message. Despite taking a battering in the Pisa ranking, Sweden has nothing to fear when it comes to education in China. Nor anything to imitate from my old school in Shanghai.
It’s that time, again. Pisa released its notorious ranking of international education systems and yet again it’s bad news for the Swedes. I spent a long time scrolling down until the word “Sweden” appeared at a depressing 38th place. I can imagine that for you, as education minister, these fateful digits — three and eight — are beginning to weigh down on your conscience. You are looking for answers.
When you notice "Shanghai" at the top of the Pisa list, it might look to you like the only beacon of hope. Sweden is desperate and learning from the Chinese educational system seems like the salvation. But let me tell you that this is not at all true. I know. For two years, I attended a local Shanghainese high school and this is the truth: the teaching is terrible.
In fact, in my view the Chinese education model is not just bad. It’s archaic. Believe me — adopting the Shanghainese educational model would be a step backwards, not forwards.
Chinese children are masters at test-taking. This is because China has over 199 million students studying at elementary to high-school level and the best way to organize these masses is by testing, grading and categorizing them. Sans cesse.
Students in China are not treated like humans, they are treated like development statistics. The Chinese method is to totally abandon struggling students and to focus merely on the elite. Already in elementary school, there is a strict hierarchical system where some children are assigned the role of "class monitor" and are allowed to punish the students that do badly in class. My little sister was a victim of this.
In Sweden on the other hand, all students are encouraged to learn, even those that are doing badly. At a young age, students do have homework and quizzes, but this is combined with two hours of “fritids” everyday, when children have a chance to be creative. This doesn’t exist in China. My nine-year-old sister left Shanghai in a state of near-depression. Today, in Sweden, she comes home excited to tell us about her day in school. It’s evident, Jan Björklund, that the Chinese system is beyond challenging, it leaves scars on a child's self-confidence.
Another weapon of Chinese education is humiliation. For several of my Shanghainese teachers it was OK to judge a student by their answers or by their appearance. My history teacher would not hesitate to mock you in front of your friends if you gave a stupid answer. In my sister’s grade, a boy who was struggling in class was given the nickname “fatty” by the teacher. In Sweden though, it’s different. Here, even when my classmates give frustratingly harebrained answers, the teacher nods intellectually. The Swedish principle is that every answer is precious and students are encouraged to participate. Isn’t this, Jan, the purpose of education? To value each and every idea?
Let me also introduce to you a hair-raising Chinese invention that rivals gunpowder: the “gaokao”. The gaokao is a university entrance exam that takes place each spring in the last year of high school. Swedes will immediately start comparing it to"högskoleprovet", but they are not at all the same thing. The högskoleprovet shows whether you have the minimum requirement needed to get into a university. The gaokao is the only way to get into a university. Your points on the test correspond to a specific university or none at all. Trust me, Jan, there is no test in the world quite like it. In 2006, a record high of 9.5 million students took these tests (as many students as there are people in Sweden). They cover math, English, Chinese literature, physics, and chemistry and involve countless hours of intense memorization.
Teenagers pay for "cram classes", which are usually three-hour sessions on the weekends to fill in any gaps in their knowledge. Our street in Shanghai was a cram-school heaven to which students flocked every week with their backpacks filled to the brim with textbooks. The entire senior class is sent to an isolated campus to ensure that students are not distracted by social life. This is because the gaokao defines your future. If you fail it, you are dead to society.
Another aspect of education is the ability to analyze and criticize, two skills in which Swedish students excel and which Chinese students are deficient. In most Chinese schools, teachers expect the students to absorb facts without a second thought. Of course, there are well-rounded students in China but when you talk to them you realize that they are self-taught. The Chinese education system does not reward this type of knowledge. Sweden does, and we should take pride in this fact.
It’s ridiculously obvious that Shanghai’s Pisa result has nothing to do with the quality of Chinese education. Chinese students are test-taking gold medalists and they are especially good at quizzes that are specific and focus on detail. The system breeds Pisa champions, but it ruins young lives. Should Sweden copy China? No. Should we feel threatened by China? No. It would harm us more to copy China than to continue as we are. Of course Swedish education needs improvement, but the truth of the matter is: all countries do.
Saga Ringmar is a high-school student at Katedralskolan in Lund, southern Sweden. She cannot decide if she is a Chinese Swede, a Swedish American or a combination of both. Saga is a columnist for Shanghai Family Magazine and a poetry reader at The Adroit Journal. She was a commended poet in the Foyle’s Young Poets of the Year Award 2012 and her writing has been published in Poetry Quarterly, Wilderness House Literary Review, Crashtest Magazine, Red River Review, and more.