Are Chinese students really the smartest?

03 Jan 2020

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.

Lost generation

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.

Extreme focus

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.

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