I’ve started a career out of comparing and contrasting all the educational similarities and differences I’ve seen as an American transplanted to Asia. One of my favorite similarities was how Chinese teachers I worked with projected corrections for all the perceived failings of their schools on to American education and vice versa. American teachers, for the most part, imagined Chinese students as highly attentive, studious, disciplined, respectful students – packed 100 to a class but still dutifully listening to Teacher, completing all their homework, and studying for all their exams. My Chinese coworkers imagined American high school classrooms as approximating The Dead Poet’s Society for every class, every day of the week.
One of my favorite contrasts is higher education enrollment. Let me start with what I dislike most about the Asian higher education system I’ve encountered: I taught at a Chinese “polytechnic” and worked with some brilliant students there. The students took a single test, the gaokao, which determined their entire educational future in one go. Couldn’t sleep well the night before? Welcome to ______ Polytechnic. Or nowhere. Once graduated from the polytechnic, there was (functionally) almost no chance of getting into a four-year university. On the university side of thing, (functionally) no one fails. Once you’re in, you’re in. The dies were set and cast the moment the gaokao tests were scored.