A standard class in high school in China should consist of 45 students. However, a class of 45 students is a rarity in most parts of the country. In some developed metropolises like Shanghai, a class of 45 students may be a reality. In most Chinese provinces, province-level autonomous regions, and municipalities, the number of students in a class can reach as many as 90 or 100. In my school, located in Hubei Province, many classes have over 70 students. Some have 80 or more. None of the classes are of a standard size.


The government has set the rule on the size of a class, but this rule is not strictly enforced. When watching TV shows about schools in the West, Chinese audiences are often amazed by their almost empty classroom and by the way desks and seats are laid out and the interior is decorated.

chinese high school classroom 

Many of the problems and difficulties with Chinese schools have got something to do with monster classes. It is plain truth that a student’s right to education is flagrantly violated when the class is too big. In a monster class, students are not treasured as individuals. Instead, they are processed more like products on an assembly line. It is impossible that a teacher gives due attention to each and every student of a huge class. An instructor thus tends to mass-teach, with the result that lectures are a predominant practice in Chinese school classrooms. Lectures do have their roles to play, but in most cases target skills should be taught and learnt through hands-on activities and tasks rather than through the teacher talking them into his pupils’ heads. An inevitable consequence of a monster class is lack of communication between teacher and students and between the learners themselves. That’s why observers of Chinese classes invariably come to a conclusion that the teacher is a talking gadget and that his pupils, being fed the knowledge and skills, are passive.


Across Chinese society from bottom to top, it is acknowledged that education reforms are badly needed, yet over the decades most attempts seem to have come to nothing. People complain that the exam system binds them hand and foot. They say that whatever changes you might make, your students will have to sit a paper exam at the end of the day. Among educators and frontline instructors countrywide there is a prevalent sense of helplessness. It seems as if China’s education vehicle, mired in a bog, were motionless if not touched, and sank deeper with each fresh stir.


In my personal opinion, change could be initiated with one aspect of the institution. Class size should be controlled, the standard maintained, and to go one step further, the number of students for a class reduced to 30.


A number of issues would have to be resolved to install small-class instruction. First of all, where does the money come from? Can the government afford it? The answer is a BIG yes. China’s national wealth has been increasing year by year. The government have invested heavily in overseas markets. China’s Space Programme costs astronomical amounts. Enormous quantities of resources have been channelled into developing a state-of-the-art arsenal. All the evidence manifests that the government have vast riches under their belt. Why not invest in education, which is the foundation upon which a nation stands and her future rests?


Secondly, small-class instruction would take a great deal more teachers, administers, catering staff, and other supporting workers. Teacher training would be the key to better instruction. It would have to take place at all levels, nationally, provincially, and locally.


Thirdly, most schools would have more hardware put in place – classrooms, dorms, labs, libraries, and canteens.


Last but not least, the government and the education authorities would have to implement rules and regulations on class size. In reality, the authorities at all levels turn a blind eye to the fact that a lot of schools under their administration violate the rule and cram more and more pupils into a classroom. The government should and must play their role in seeing to it that the rule is put into practice. It is their job. On Chinese press I read about the measures that the provincial education department in Shandong have taken to oversee the size of a class. Those headteachers and local education bosses who failed to abide by the rule were disciplined and reprimanded.

american high school classroom layout 

Small-class instruction will bring about new ways of teaching and learning. Hopefully some persistent maladies with Chinese classroom practices can be alleviated, and at length cured.


Better communication


One prominent issue with current Chinese classroom teaching is lack of interaction in the classroom. The teacher does not know his learners well enough; the learners do not know each other well enough. Some classroom instructors attempt to bring in more communication yet they feel that it is hard to do so owing to the number of students under their charge. Even if a teacher puts the students in groups or pairs, he will find that he cannot take part in the work of each group or pair. How to discipline and supervise 70 or 80 students simultaneously is a big question.


In a smaller class of 45 students or less, a teacher has more opportunities to engage each and every learner. A learner feels valued, and he is. The learners themselves know each other better in a quieter setting.


Lectures to tasks and activities


A core change in school education in China will have to be a switch from lectures to tasks and activities. The teacher lecturing dates back tens of hundreds of years in China. In a class of 70 or 80 students an instructor is left with no choice but to talk to his students most of the time. However, a young learner learns best when he is doing something or exploring the subject with the teacher’s help. While he is doing, he is trying the new knowledge and skills. He might fail, but he can try again. By trial and error, a learner keeps his mind active and thus his cognitive capacities are fostered.


A smaller class would pave the way for tasks and activities. It is an almost impossible mission to have the learners engage in tasks and activities in a monster class, especially when they are supposed to work together. The teacher has difficulty monitoring them all, and the seating renders it impractical for the learners to move around and mix up. In a smaller class, desks should be mobile; they need not be laid in a fixed manner. If needs be, they can be put in a circle, and in different rows and columns.


More articulate and cooperative teens


People have an impression that Chinese teens cannot express themselves well, especially in public, and that they are not cooperative. That is to a large extent a product of mass-teaching. When an instructor talks all the while, the learners will have no opportunity to express themselves, and it seems as if an invisible gag were on them. And how can they learn to be cooperative when they are deprived of any chances to cooperate in the classroom?


In a smaller class, when tasks and activities are going on, learners have to work on their own, and with their mates as well. They can learn how to make themselves understood and to collaborate with their peers and teacher in the process. By partaking in the learning rather than just hearing the contents from the teacher, they will think and speak more, which helps to de-gag them.


More individualistic, less collectivistic


Collectivism is a vital part of Chinese traditions and culture. It works, but if it goes too far, we Chinese will lose individuality. This nation needs citizens who put the group’s interests before their own; it also needs citizens who are outspoken, creative, and daring. A monster class reflects and contributes to excessive collectivism. A smaller class is conducive to nurturing more individualist pupils, who will function as the backbone of the nation in due time.


A starting point of more changes


Should the government implement the rule on class size, more changes would come about as a consequence. Superficially it is assumed that changes come slow and with difficulty because the hardware is not in place or because China’s mammoth population stands in the way. On a deeper level, however, there goes a conflict between diehard traditions and initiatives, and between the bondage of an out-dated system and a burning desire for a better vehicle to meet the surging challenges that confront this ancient nation globally in her rise. Smaller classes will help to kick-start more changes and reforms. Being a piece of hardware, smaller classes reduce their own physical being and bring closer together teacher and students, thus eradicating some deep-rooted practices such as teacher monologues and his dis-connectivity with the learners. A change in critical hardware will usher in new software – new attitudes and new ways of going about teaching and learning in the classroom.

american high shcool classroom 

A better China


With its economic and military power growing, China’s clout increases. The nation has to shoulder the responsibility that comes with its weight. A nation’s power lies in its leadership, which matters of course. More importantly, a nation’s power is shared and reflected by its citizens. What qualities are Chinese citizens supposed to take on for the nation’s new global role? Well-informed, confident, open, and assertive Chinese citizens are a best answer. The hard question is: do we educators in China bring out such qualities in our pupils if we mass-teach them? Will the next generation be confident, open, and well-informed when we instructors, day in day out, play the role of a talking machine and an undisputed authority in the classroom?


It is time to change. Yet changes do not come easy. We have witnessed the difficulty. At times we hear and see pessimism and powerlessness among Chinese educators and the general population, thanks to failure to change, governmental inactivity, and the impasse we are stuck in.


Change cannot come about on a large scale all of a sudden. Change CAN come about first with one small piece of the system – the size of a class – and then with it comes a bigger and deeper and fundamental revolution, gradually, eventually.


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