Each year during summer vacation, when China’s public schools have closed to allow their children a well-deserved summer vacation, another industry braces itself for the onslaught of incoming students. These multitudinous extracurricular programs have long enjoyed success in China, but one in particular that caught my eye this summer was the Lego class.
First designed by the Lego Group, this course has been enjoying immense popularity in China. Younger children between the ages of 3 and 6 basically show up to just play with Lego, but the curriculum begins including elements of programming and robotics as the kids grow older.
For the more price-sensitive parents there are cheaper options provided by other companies, but these still cost on average 8,000 yuan (about $1,200) for a year — a significant price tag for most middle-class families. Nonetheless, the industry is booming because of a widespread belief that the classes will perhaps give children a competitive edge in robotics, thus bolstering middle school and college applications.
However, it seems that most Lego enthusiasts don’t think the classes are worth it. In an online forum of Lego hobbyists, most people I came across agreed that there isn’t any point in paying for classes since children naturally know how to play with Lego. Learning from a teacher also takes a lot of the creative aspect out of the building blocks.
Hobby classes such as this have been spiking in popularity in recent years. A 2013 survey of 12 Chinese cities by the National Institute of Education Sciences showed that 76 percent of 5- to 6-year-olds attend extracurricular classes.
While I’ve never had to sit through a Lego class, I was forced to learn the piano up until junior middle school. That experience was a disaster and nearly convinced me that I had no artistic talent. None of my teachers showed any interest in music or piano whatsoever; the lessons were exam-oriented, and little was said about the music itself or the background behind the pieces.
During each lesson I watched as the teacher methodically pounded away at the keys and then asked me to mimic what I had seen. I went home and practiced every day until I could hit the keys as fast and as accurately as a machine. In an environment where children were judged solely by their piano exam level, I was miserable and quit as soon as my parents allowed me to.
The experience was so scarring that it took me years to attempt another artistic hobby, but I finally did in my sophomore year at Columbia University when I signed up for tap dancing classes — although this time I did it for me, and not to please anyone else.
I initially intended to only take tap classes for one semester, but ended up in them for three years. My teacher was a professional, and it was obvious at first glance that dance was her calling. She gave life to tap and thanks to her I came to understand how expressive the performing arts could be. If taught correctly, tap dance and the piano offered people a medium to convey emotions that are otherwise hard to articulate.
She also taught me an important life lesson. Once, when we were practicing improvisation, she told us that the secret was to trust ourselves. “If you focus, the noises around you will die down, and you will only hear yourself,” she said. It was true — and not only in tap dancing, but to life in general.
I realized how important a good teacher was and regretted never meeting one in any of the extracurricular classes I had taken growing up in China. A good teacher inspires their students and leaves them better off, whereas a bad teacher turns students into exam-taking machines. If teachers aren’t interested in their classes and only see their work as a job, how can they possibly cultivate passion in their students?
I have come to realize that one of the reasons fueling anxious Chinese parents to sign up for hobby classes is that they have never taken a good class nor met a good teacher themselves, and they simply don’t know what to look for.
Unnerved by peer pressure, they have no choice but to swarm to whatever is trendy. “I can’t stay calm when I see all the parents around me signing up for extracurricular classes,” reported a parent in a 2015 survey conducted by San Chuan Ling, a children’s book author. “My child must take a couple too; once the money is spent I feel much better.”
Ironically, many parents overcompensate for what they perceive to be their own failings. In the same survey, one parent wrote that she had given up violin, calligraphy, and dancing at a young age, which she later regretted as an adult. Consequently, she has determined herself to force her son to learn something as a child that he can gain comfort from when he grows up.
I believe this frenzy is further heightened by the fact that few parents truly understand hobbies since they don’t have any themselves. They don’t understand what their children are interested in and simply force what they think may be beneficial onto them. Kids are often too young to articulate what they really want — and even when they do, parents rarely listen.
Every summer armies of young children are chauffeured to extracurricular classes to try and gain an advantage over their peers. Though new types of classes are springing up constantly, the idea behind them is old. Many of these parents sat through these classes themselves as kids and are simply repeating history by forcing their children to now suffer through them. But if little is changed about how these classes are taught and viewed, this circle is futile and entirely pointless.
(Header image: Children play with Lego bricks at the Legoland Discovery Center Shanghai, April 7, 2016. IC)