Olympic-Sized Problems for Pint-Sized Students
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2016-12-14 09:47:55

It has been more than 20 years since Liu Song won a gold medal for China. At the age of 17, Liu traveled to Canada with five other Chinese teenagers and achieved a perfect score at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), a problem-solving competition held annually since 1959. China’s gold medal tally stands at 142 — more than any other country in the history of the competition. But Liu admits that today, he wouldn’t stand a chance of earning a spot on the team, let alone winning.

“If we as kids then had to compete against our own kids now, we would fail. We were lucky to be born early,” says Liu as he watches his son practicing sums. “The current standard of preparation — especially in Shanghai — is far beyond our own time.”

Every weekend, Liu’s son attends a three-hour training session at a Xueersi — “learning and thinking” — academy, a wildly popular chain of supplementary education institutes that has ballooned into a billion-dollar industry. Liu and his wife, Echo, sit in on the class as well: They’re expected to take notes. Along with 15 other sets of parents, the family studies IMO-specific problems involving algebra, number theory, geometry, and combinatorics. Liu’s son was on a waiting list for six months before being given the opportunity to join the school — and to pay 10,000 yuan ($1,400) per year in tuition fees.

Rocky Liu poses for a photo with his son Teal’c in Shanghai, Nov. 26, 2016. Juli Min for Sixth Tone

Rocky Liu poses for a photo with his son Teal’c in Shanghai, Nov. 26, 2016. Juli Min for Sixth Tone

However, unlike in the ’90s, not every father and mother sitting in the plastic chairs at the back of the classroom at Xueersi dreams of their child winning gold in the Math Olympiad. Instead, most have a more obtainable goal in mind: getting their kids into a top middle school.

If we as kids then had to compete against our own kids now, we would fail. We were lucky to be born early.

In 1997, China abolished middle school entrance examinations. From that point, all students in the public school system gained automatic entrance to their district’s middle school at the age of 12. Yet even as universal access to education was becoming the norm, a new system — minbanbegan to emerge. These schools, which receive both funding from the government and tuition fees from parents, admit students via an independent selection process, for which the applicant’s primary school-level Math Olympiad score has become an increasingly important factor.

Yang Bingyu, a math teacher at Jianxiang Primary School in Shanghai, says she has noticed her students putting in extra hours to study advanced math. “Classes like those at Xueersi can be quite difficult for young kids,” Yang says. “Their methods are rigorous, but I can’t deny that they help students improve their math performance.”

Liu himself was introduced to math at the age of 9. But his own 9-year-old son Teal’c — who named himself after a character from the American sci-fi series “Stargate SG-1” — has been absorbing figures and symbols since he was 5 years old. “The youngest case I’ve ever heard of was a 4-year-old studying for the Math Olympiad,” Liu says. “At least 50 percent of my son’s classmates are also studying here [at Xueersi].”

Fortunately, Liu’s energetic young son seems to have inherited his father’s gift: He’s already a year ahead of his peers at Xueersi.

Young students and their parents attend a Math Olympiad class at a Xueersi academy in Shanghai, Nov. 26, 2016. Juli Min for Sixth Tone

Young students and their parents attend a Math Olympiad class at a Xueersi academy in Shanghai, Nov. 26, 2016. Juli Min for Sixth Tone

The grueling course loads and fierce competition students in China face from an extremely young age have long been topics of discussion, both domestically and abroad. Howard Shen, founder and CEO of Ginseng Education in Shanghai and a graduate of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, works with students as young as 6 and as old as 26. He believes academic competition in China has spiraled out of control.

“It’s torture for students,” Shen says. “It’s just been built up by peer pressure and is completely unnecessary. Kids feel pressure, have negative thoughts, and find it difficult to get enough sleep.” When asked about admissions criteria for middle schools, Shen says without hesitation that students’ academic records and letters of reference should be the primary considerations. He adds that his own 10-year-old daughter does not study a Math Olympiad-based curriculum.

[The competition] is torture for students. It’s just been built up by peer pressure and is completely unnecessary.

But gold medalist Liu sees things differently. To him, competition is about learning to be the best version of yourself, whether you go to a training school or study independently. “The exam evaluates raw IQ and is a good indicator of future performance,” he says.

Hard work and respect for intellect are ingrained in Chinese culture. To most parents, there is no clearer indicator of successful parenting than an academically exceptional child. Parents are intimately involved in their children’s schooling, and a growing middle class has more resources than ever to pour into education. Yet as parents’ ambitions for their kids become loftier, competition for spots at prestigious minban schools becomes more cutthroat.

Catherine Li’s 9-year-old daughter Sarah also studies a Math Olympiad curriculum at a Xueersi branch in Beijing. Sarah often struggles through her weekly classes and has yet to compete in any competitions, and Li, who declined to use her Chinese name, is worried that the weight of expectations will break her daughter’s confidence.

Zhang Weiqi, the founder of NextGen Parents, an online forum and social network for Chinese parents with more than 1 million users, often sees one particular phrase mentioned on his site in combination with the Math Olympiad craze: wunai, or “there’s nothing to be done” — a term that captures the futility parents feel in resisting putting pressure on their children. “Ultimately, there are very few ways to select so few students out of so many from a single test,” Zhang says. “The only direction to go is to make the test harder and harder — so hard that you find the top of the top. This is what’s happening with Math Olympiad.”

A crowd of parents wait for their children outside an examination hall for a Math Olympiad competition in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Dec. 10, 2016. Long Wei/VCG

A crowd of parents wait for their children outside an examination hall for a Math Olympiad competition in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Dec. 10, 2016. Long Wei/VCG

In recent years, Shanghai’s local education bureau has tried to evenly distribute public resources for young students. Schools are now grouped together, with one top school leading several lower-ranked schools, and top teachers rotating between the different institutions. The top school is evaluated based on how many lower-ranked schools it leads and on how well it supports them with resources and personnel. But these changes have also had the effect of deterring parents from the public system and increasing the demand for minban schools, which are not bound by government mandates or reforms.

Despite his enthusiasm for his son’s early years of Math Olympiad education, even Liu has no strong desire to push Teal’c toward an entirely competition-based future. “Because of all the time I’ve spent studying Math Olympiad, I’m not well-rounded,” Liu says. “I didn’t take many classes in other subjects, not even in the sciences. Instead, I spent 20 hours a day on math. For a normal student, if they want to achieve what we did, they have to give up their interest in hobbies or other subjects.”

For now, though, Math Olympiad training will continue to be a feature of everyday life for young Teal’c and his peers — a necessary step, his parents say, to getting into one of the best middle schools in Shanghai. 

(Header image: A mother gives parting words to her daughter before a Math Olympiad competition in Shanghai, Dec. 3, 2016. Beatrice Di Caro/Sixth Tone)