Are Chinese students really the smartest?
For years now Chinese students have scored high on international performance lists. But they’re not better at everything. There’s still hope for young Europeans.
Chinese students are the smartest. Slightly smarter than Japanese or Korean students, definitely smarter than the smartest Europeans, and even intellectually superior to their American peers. Or so you are likely to conclude as you leaf through the PISA report, a triennial publication by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) that compares educational performance worldwide.
It was 2009 when Shanghai first took part in the study, which tests fifteen-year olds on reading comprehension, maths and science. The Chinese promptly ended up at the top, a feat they repeated three years later. They surpassed the best European country, Finland, in every category. In maths, Shanghai even performed 20% better than the OECD average. The Netherlands has been hovering around that average for years.
Yunting Liu (20) Exchange student Psychology
‘At the Bachelor stage, where I currently am, Chinese students don’t usually go abroad for an exchange. A good internship in China is worth more on your CV than a semester abroad. Besides, going abroad is much more expensive and many of the credits aren’t transferrable. If people do go abroad, they usually choose the United States because the universities are better known. So there’s not much competition if you apply for a university in Europe.
I’d visited Europe twice already before going abroad and I knew I wanted to come here for a longer exchange. I also wanted to go to a country I’ve never been to before, which is one of the reasons why I chose the Netherlands. Other reasons were the number of courses in English you can take and Radboud’s good reputation in the neurosciences.
I’m studying Psychology at my home university, but here I’m focusing more on Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience courses. Some of these courses are very challenging because of the different focus I’m following here – but I love the topics so much I don’t mind. For me, my time abroad is just like a gap year. I’ve really enjoyed it so far.’
You might almost think today’s young Europeans are a lost generation, intellectually overshadowed by their Chinese peers. But what does this kind of score on an educational ranking actually say?
Not much, says Ard Lazonder, Professor of Educational Science at Radboud University, reassuringly. China’s standardised education, with its strong focus on cognitive development, may help students excel in PISA scores, he says, but it does so at the expense of other things. ‘For example soft skills, like teamwork and presentation techniques. These skills aren’t paid much attention in Chinese education, whereas European countries really focus on them.’
Creativity suffers too, as studies show. For example, in 2012, US researchers concluded in scientific journal On the Horizon that China struggles to produce innovative and creative entrepreneurs. For its innovation the country is highly dependent on students being educated abroad and returning home with new ideas. If China doesn’t rigorously reform its education, the researchers conclude, it’s unlikely to ever develop the innovation- driven higher education system it dreams of.
Jingmeng Cui (22) Student research master Behavioural Sciences
‘I did my undergraduate degree at Peking University in China and graduated with a double major in Chemistry and Psychology. Chinese universities have more polished research programmes in the natural sciences compared to the social sciences, so I decided to go abroad because I wanted to pursue a more research-oriented programme in Psychology. That’s how I ended up enrolling for a research master in Behavioural Sciences at Radboud.
I chose the Netherlands by weighing the quality of the programme against practical things. It still took a lot of administrative preparation for me to come here and it wasn’t easy. It was, however, easier to apply for the university and for the visa than to apply for American universities with programmes that were equally good or suitable for me.
The courses I’m taking at the moment are very manageable. I am, however, required to read more on my own before attending the lectures than I was used to during my undergraduate degree. Also, it takes some time to adjust to the amount of English I have to speak in front of my class in this degree. And the grading system in the Netherlands is stricter. It’s almost unheard of for students to get a higher grade than 9.’
But still. Are the excellent PISA scores of the Chinese really only the result of the extreme focus in classrooms on rote learning for tests and multiple-choice questions? No, says New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In a 2013 opinion article, he provides another reason for Shanghai’s success: the consistency and systematic way in which Chinese lecturers improve their pedagogical skills. For example, they spend a lot more time planning lessons than their American colleagues. Partly thanks to this professional investment, the level of Shanghai secondary schools has gone from ‘average’ in the early 2000s to ‘world-class’ today, says Friedman.
So the question of whether Chinese students really are smarter is not that easy to answer. But the doomed vision of young Europeans as cognitively inferior to Chinese pupils and students certainly requires some qualification.
Jiaqi Wang (24) student master Biology
‘I came to the Netherlands because my boyfriend is Dutch. We met during an earlier exchange I did in Lyon and after being in a long-distance relationship for a while, I decided to come here for my Master’s.
I chose to study in Nijmegen in particular because I found the programme very interesting. I followed an undergraduate degree in Water Supply and Wastewater Engineering back in China, which is quite different from what I’m doing now, Water and Environment.
There are some key differences between the Dutch and Chinese system. The interaction between students and professors for example – Dutch professors really encourage interaction and are very open, whereas the hierarchical structures in China are much more pronounced. The Netherlands also has a much stronger focus on group work. And while understanding the material is important in China too, it’s something the Dutch system really emphasises.
So far, I’m not finding my degree very hard, but I think this is mainly because it interests me so much. I don’t know whether you can say Chinese students are smarter, but I do sometimes have the idea that they work harder.’