‘Little Soldiers’ explores Chinese grit and American individualism in education

Author Lenora Chu gave a talk on her book “Little Soldiers,” which deconstructs the Chinese education system, at the Boston Public Library on Sept. 23. (Image courtesy of Lenora Chu.)

Author and journalist Lenora Chu gave a talk on her book “Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve” at the Boston Public Library on Sept. 23. As an American of Chinese descent with a bilingual young son attending one of Shanghai’s most elite state-run schools, Chu lifts the veil on China’s elaborate education system from a unique perspective, as a “person of two worlds.”

Chu noted the key differences between American and Chinese school models, emphasizing the authoritarian, top down teaching methods found in Chinese classrooms. The Chinese education program focuses on the advancement of the group rather than the individual, which can sometimes be at the cost of creative expression. In one instance, this ideology was demonstrated by an art project where students were encouraged to draw identical images, rather than envision their own designs. A positive tendency in Chinese culture is to attribute achievement to hard labor, or “eating bitter,” while Americans favor the idea of innate talent.

“You’ll never hear a teacher say, ‘oh, you’re so smart,’ or ‘you’re so intelligent,’” Chu said.  “It’s always about working harder.”

In spite of these contrasts, Chu indicated there is a lot Americans and Chinese can learn from each other’s philosophies. The Chinese maintain a high level of reverence for teachers, and Chu explained that if “we give our teachers more respect and autonomy, that can go a long way.” Likewise, the Chinese have observed that in American schools, teachers help children develop critical thinking skills and stimulate their curiosity.

“My message is let’s just be a little bit more open to some of the other options out there, because our kids are more resilient than we think,” Chu said.

Chinese education is taking steps towards transformation. Schools in Beijing are giving students choices of electives to participate in, from Frisbee to rock climbing. In some programs, children rotate from classroom to classroom, with the intention that varying faces encourages sociability. In Shanghai, students are allowed to take the college entrance exam twice.

“I have hope, especially in the urban areas, that things will change, especially as ideas go back and forth across borders,” Chu said. “I think change will be messy and slow, but it’s moving in the right direction.”

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