By Grace Rybak, Breck School Senior


Group photo of Breck Student & Parent Group with their hosts at Harbin No. 1 High School

Chinese high schools differ from American high schools in many ways, primarily in structure. A Chinese school day is much longer than an American school day. While American students usually attend school for about seven hours each weekday, Chinese students spend much more time in school. For example, at Harbin Number One High School, students begin school at 7:00 a.m., and remain until 8:20 p.m. The seniors, preparing for their final examinations, stay later, even until 10:00 at night.

Class structure varies as well. In contrast to the American system, where students have each class in a different room with a different set of classmates, Chinese students remain in the same classroom all day, with teachers rotating in and out. As a result, the Chinese language has a special word to distinguish classmates of the same class from classmates in the same grade. A classmate of the same class- tóng bàn tóng xué- is naturally a closer bond because these students are in class together for the entire day. Inside these classrooms, students remain at the same desk all day, and at the Harbin High School, they each share a desk with another person. The classrooms of each grade are separated, with the oldest students taking classes on the top floor.

The two countries also follow their own system of grade division. In China, kindergarten through 6th grade is called elementary school (xiǎo xué) and 7th through 12th grade is called middle school (zhōng xué). At American schools, the most common system classifies kindergarten through fifth grade as elementary school, sixth through eighth grade as junior high school, and ninth through twelfth grade as high school.

In addition to structural dissimilarities, Chinese high schools also differ from American high schools in the college application process that students undergo. In the United States, colleges use a holistic application system that takes into account a student’s high school grades, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, teacher recommendations, application essay, and often a personal interview. Students apply to colleges by January, find out where they are accepted by April, and select a college by May. Because students are accepted to college by April, the last few months of senior year involve relatively little work and almost no pressure. The Chinese college admission process is very different. College acceptance is determined entirely by standardized examinations administered once a year at the end of each school year. Although students take these tests at the end of their first and second years of high school, the test that really matters is the exam taken at the end of their final year of high school. The enormous significance of this final examination leads to a tremendous amount of pressure on students to work hard all year, particularly in the final months of senior year. The test is only given once a year, and if a student is sick that day, he or she must delay college for a year until the test is offered again. The pressure placed on this test means that many students attend classes on weekends to ensure preparedness.

The major way in which Chinese and American high schools differ is in the way information is taught. In America, personal expression is valued heavily. Many classes are based around discussion of the material, and teachers expect students to be engaged in this dialogue. Classroom participation, meaning how a student contributes to the class discussion, is a significant part of a student’s grade, so a student who is attentive but never speaks up could receive a lower grade as a result. Chinese classrooms do not place this same emphasis on classroom participation. Class is based on the teacher lecturing and the students listening quietly. This means that students can do well in class by being diligent and attentive, but it also means that less interaction exists between the teacher and students. This difference extends to the overall classroom attitude. In American classrooms, students are likely to talk not only when participating in classroom discussions, but also when talking out of turn. As a result, the classroom can become noisy and boisterous. Students often develop a friendly relationship with teachers over the course of the year. In Chinese classrooms, respect towards teachers is emphasized far more. Students are much more quiet and attentive than many American students, and when a student is called on to speak, he or she is expected to stand. This classroom atmosphere is more formal and respectful.
The differences between the educational experience in America and China are significant because they reflect a great deal about the broader differences between the cultures. A good example of this is the differing levels of formality between American and Chinese classrooms; these differences exist in culture as well. The Chinese language reflects respect far more than the English language, particularly the more formal word used for second-person address, which elevates the speaker’s tone and bestows respect.

Comparison of American and Chinese educational systems is important because the education students receive plays a big role in the way they act in society as adults. In some ways, the educational systems reflect the society’s direction as a whole. The United States, operating under a democratic government that values free speech, follows an educational system that encourages students to express their opinions freely. China, operating under an autocratic government, places more emphasis on obedience and respect. As China’s rapid development and prominence in today’s economy shows, the Chinese educational system has produced many high-achieving, industrious individuals. However, some worry that China will be at a disadvantage if Chinese students miss out on encouragement to think for themselves and express these thoughts. In China Road, NPR correspondent Rob Gifford remarks on the importance of creativity in today’s economy, and wonders: “Can you become a player in the “knowledge economy” if you restrict the teaching and flow of knowledge?” (70) China’s current educational system has clearly succeeded in fostering capable students. The coming years will show whether free expression, encouraged heavily in American education and less so in Chinese education, is an essential skill needed for a country to become a world power. 

Grace Rybak will be attending Columbia University in the fall.

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