Culture Chronicles #1 – A Lesson from China

January ’08 – “You do know that we scoff at your American obsession with class size and ratio?”

So asked the head of school of one of China’s premier secondary schools. (Actually, an interpreter did the asking as my host spoke no English and I spoke no Mandarin.)  He did so with a wry smile, as if to tweak my nationalist pride into a bit of friendly debate. Little did I know that before long, we would be sticking it to each other like two high school kids in a gym locker room.

It was February of 2008 and we were in our initial year of enrolling our first cohort of Chinese students at Hyde. It was the first of what has turned into many Hyde trips to China. This time around we stuck to the major cities: Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.

Preparing to spar with my host for a round or two, I replied, “Oh? And why is that?”

He plunged ahead: “Your country obsesses over these things because your national culture no longer possesses sufficient discipline.  As your discipline continues to decline and you continue to respond by reducing your class sizes, it will be interesting to see what will happen when they get so small that the strategy is no longer economically sustainable.”

Fumbling a bit, I shot back, “OK, what is your average class size?”

My host replied, “About 52.”

Vexed, I responded with something like, “That’s interesting. I’d love to see for myself how it works in your school.” My timing was perfect… for him, anyway… as he suggested that our dialogue had reached the perfect point for a campus tour.

As we walked from classroom to classroom, I cannot say for sure whether the average class size was indeed 52 – I mean, it would have been poor form to stand there and count! — but the classes were obviously much bigger than any I had seen in any American school, public or private.

Then, all of a sudden, as we entered a math classroom, it presented itself: an opportunity to give back a little bit of the razzing I had endured.

There, only a few rows ahead of us, plain as day, sat a student fast asleep with his face buried in his arms and books. Suffice it to say I did not pass on the chance to point this out to my host.  Nodding my eyes and head toward said student, I inquired, “OK, What about that young man?  What about his sense of discipline?”

Without missing a beat, my host replied, “That’s not a problem for us.” As I wondered how he would backpedal out of this apparent contradiction in his system, he came at me with a perfect change-up: “That is a problem for that young man’s parents. And we will surely call them before day’s end.”

Sensing my puzzlement, he continued, “You see, in our country, it is the teacher’s job to deliver the math and it is the parent’s job to deliver the discipline. We don’t mix the two. In your country, not only do you expect the teacher to deliver both, you completely let the parents off the hook. And that is why you have little choice but to focus on class size and ratio.”

Game. Set. Match… My host left me wondering what the Mandarin translation might be for: “You got me there, Pal.

Obviously, I have never forgotten this exchange.

Onward, Malcolm Gauld