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Dec 23, 2016

This is part three in a series. The second part can be found here.

I was hardly able to smile at all last month. On Oct. 30, all the students at Lhasa High School finished their midterm exams. There are 16 classes in the 10th grade, and most students did not even reach the pass mark.  

The results of the individual subject tests made for grim reading. Ten of the classes are made up of Tibetan students, and the other six are Han classes. All students are only required to score 60 percent to pass each exam. On average, the Tibetans scored just over 60 percent on language and literature, 45 on math, 40 on chemistry, 30 on English, and less than 30 on physics. The Han students’ marks were not much better.

Such low performances at schools elsewhere in the country would have been considered an educational disaster. Serious questions would have been posed to the teaching staff. However, low scores are the norm around here. 

There is a stereotype at schools across southwestern China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) that Han children are better learners than Tibetans. However, my students’ marks show this alleged discrepancy to be false — or at best, negligible. While the Han students’ overall marks were slightly higher, they were still well below the pass mark. 

Others think that the quality of education in China’s remote western provinces is not as good as elsewhere, and that this explains students’ low grades. However, Lhasa High is very well-equipped to offer students top-notch education. Teachers here are just as qualified as, if not better than, those outside the province. 

If the problem doesn’t lie in the school facilities or the teachers’ qualifications, where does it lie? A discussion with two of my colleagues yielded some interesting responses. One of the teachers, Zela, teaches English; the other, Chen Biao, is a visiting physics teacher from the experimental high school affiliated to Beijing Normal University (BNU).

Lhasa High School is the best high school in the TAR. If students here lack motivation, I can only imagine what it’s like at other schools.

The first thing we concluded is that the students at Lhasa High lack motivation. There are a number of individual factors behind this, but two of the most common are students’ tendencies to feel overworked and to harbor frustration at being unable to cut loose and explore their non-academic interests. The crisis of motivation is reflected in all aspects of the students’ academic lives. When they are given recitation assignments in Chinese and English, for instance, many are happy to take punishment for reading directly from the textbook rather than actually taking the time to memorize them. Many students also copy one another’s homework for political science, history, and geography classes.

The widespread lack of motivation also means that students do not review their textbooks outside of class. If they haven’t processed the knowledge taught in class and don’t bother studying after school, it becomes next to impossible to get good grades. Most worrying, Lhasa High is the best high school in the TAR. If students here lack motivation, I can only imagine what it’s like at other schools. 

Second, homeroom teachers at the school are only paid a paltry 500 yuan ($72) more per month than other teachers, which gives them less incentive to put effort into tasks outside of teaching their subjects. When the students aren’t trying hard enough, homeroom teachers should be responsible for encouraging them. However, at Lhasa High, many of these teachers neglect the guidance and motivational duties that their role demands. Besides taking roll call in the classrooms, they don’t often follow up with the students and urge them to review their lessons. 

There are still dedicated and responsible subject teachers, though they are also relatively few in number. Visiting teacher Chen says that homeroom teachers’ salaries at BNU’s experimental high school are considerably higher than those of subject teachers. As a result, successful applicants to the role are more likely to be exceptional teachers.

Third, the learning environments at junior high schools in the region are not up to standard. At Lhasa High, we all believe that this contributes to students’ difficulties adjusting to high school. 

The diminishing quality of education in secondary schools is not directly reflected in students’ grades. In the TAR, the exams that students take at the end of junior high only contain material lifted directly from the textbooks. Because of this, any student can score well as long as he or she memorizes everything. Yet students’ grades do not reflect their true learning abilities, which also include analytical, problem-solving, and creative-thinking skills. These are the abilities tested more rigorously in the gaokao, or national college entrance exams, at the end of high school, but high school teachers have no way of knowing whether incoming students have an aptitude for these skills or not.

This last problem is the most serious, requires the most urgent attention, and has caused many high school teachers the most grief. The first two issues can be solved internally at Lhasa High, but to solve the final issue, we would have to reform the entire regional education and examination systems so that core academic skills are being tested at the primary and junior high school levels. Then, maybe junior high school teachers will start to focus on teaching the students how to learn, instead of merely memorizing facts. Until this happens, students will not be able to understand the true value of education, let alone take pleasure in learning.

(Header image: A student revises for the gaokao in a school corridor in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, June 3, 2013. Liu Kun/Xinhua)