The Chinese educational system can be understood at two levels- compulsory and non-compulsory.  The first nine years of education are compulsory. At the end of this educational phase, students have three choices for secondary education: high school (senior secondary school), vocational school, or enter the work force. In China, high school is three years long and is fee-based, which means students of low SES have limited access to school. 

Traditional Chinese classrooms differ from tradition U.S. classrooms in the following main ways:

  • Chinese classrooms tend to be much larger than U.S., with an average of 55 – 60 in middle school  in China, compared to 22 – 25 in the U.S.  (OECD, 2012)

  • Teachers are more authoritative and less facilitative; it is less common for students to ask questions or participate in classroom discussions in China.  The teacher is the authority and questioning that authority by asking for clarification or stating an objection is seen as extremely disrespectful.  (Pavlik, 2012)

  • Exams tend to test rote-memory rather than critical thinking skills, and most teaching is done solely to help students do well on exams, the most important of which is the national college entrance exam, or the gaokao. (Kirkpatrick & Zang, 2011)  

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