The Difficulties Chinese Students Have With Western Style Education


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A New Student

Recently I was asked to spend two hours coaching a 14 year old girl who was a few days away from flying to England for an interview at a music school.

She’d had very little previous contact with foreigners and while her English skills in reading and writing were competent, her active listening and speaking skills were lacking.

This is a common occurence in China.

English speaking skills are left to languish as they represent only a small part of testing. The emphasis is on reading and grammar, thought there have been recent reports that this could change in the near future.


Mimi’s Goals

At fourteen she’d excelled in  both piano and bassoon and was now aiming to study at a good music school in England where she’d be interviewed face to face in less than a week’s time. In addition she’d play pieces on her instrument and tour the school facilities. Her parents, of course, would be with her every step of the way.

How Could I Help?
Mimi walked into my room five minutes early wearing a big smile but as soon as I asked her how she was, her smile faded away and I didn’t see it again until it was time to leave.

Obviously she was understandably nervous so I took my time with her, spoke to her gently in short sentences and gave her time to think through her responses.

However, it wasn’t long before I realised that I had encountered a younger, less surer version of Grace.

Do you remember Grace?

She was a brilliant young woman, aged about 18, who I’d coached for several weeks. She was hoping to attend a prestigious private German college and, on academic results alone she would have passed with flying colours, but that just wasn’t enough.

You can read more about Grace’s fascinating story here

So What Happened With Mimi?

More or less the same as what had happened with Grace.

Mimi was a sterling product of the rigid Chinese educational system of learning by absorbing and repeating. If she’d already been taught the answer to the question being asked she was fine. Her confidence level shot up and her response was clear and audible. But, if you took her left-field with an extension question, and I mean only a little bit left-field, not a lot, she’d literally dry up.

She’d break eye-contact, her shoulders hunched in and for the next minute or two she’d offer a total of three or four words, unconnected and with no structure.

Do you know how long a minute feels when someone is waiting for you to speak and you can’t get the words to go from your brain to your mouth?

Here’s an example of an extension question I used:

Initial question (which she’d already learnt and practiced)

‘Mimi, tell me about your family?’ 

Her response was immediate and fluent. Three to four good sentences with no grammar or pronounciation errors.


Now here’s the extension question (left-field and unexpected).

What kind of games do you like to play with your younger sister? 

She gave little or no response without heavy prompting from me.

A great place to think
Futian Greenway in Shenzhen, China. Where I went for a walk to think about Mimi and Grace

And So….?

I never got to hear her play her bassoon, but I bet she’s great. I never got to see her chatting with her friends and family in her native language, relaxed and at ease, but I bet she’s good company.

I did the best I could which was try to prepare her for unexpected questions which she already had the answers for; ie ‘what do you like best about China?’  but felt that she didn’t because she hadn’t consciously pre-learnt and practiced them.

In short they were outside of her box.

I felt sad because I know she will be asked extension questions in England by people she doesn’t know, who’s accents may sound too strange or too fast or too scary for her. I wish I’d had more of an opportunity to try to get her to speak from her heart, but maybe that will come as she gets older.

In the meantime, Mimi, jaiyou! Good luck for your  interview and play beautifully.










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