Mike Cairnduff from Hello Teacher!

Updated November 15, 2018
Mike Cairnduff

Chinese high school students

China has once again excelled in international education rankings, with its teenagers making the world’s top 10 for maths and science.

The influential Pisa rankings, run by the OECD, are based on tests taken by over half a million 15-year-old students in 72 countries.

The latest results, published in December, show China ranked sixth for maths and ninth for science. It ranked twenty-seventh for reading.

The US and UK, however, only ranked in the middle across all subjects.

Given China is still a developing country, why are its students outperforming their Western counterparts?

Here are some reasons that might explain this phenomenon.

China’s college entrance exams

China’s infamous college entrance examination is known as the gao kao (pronounced ‘gow kow’). It’s the final exam that Chinese senior high school students sit over a couple of days. 

Students who get excellent grades may be able to choose what they study and the university they attend. On the other hand, under-performing students have fewer options and may be forced to move far away from home and attend a less prestigious university.

With a finite number of university slots available, millions will miss out altogether.

Students therefore face immense pressure to perform well in the gao kao. For most students it’s a stressful time because the results can ultimately determine their future.

This high-pressure situation may very well contribute to Chinese students achieving success.

It’s also worth noting that placing high expectations on students starts from a young age; it’s not a situation that is unique to teenagers. It’s ingrained in Chinese culture that children do well at school and eventually become successful adults with a happy family.

School days in China are long

School days for China’s teenagers are long. A normal day usually starts around 8am and lasts until 4pm.

However, it doesn’t end there. On most evenings students are expected to do tutorial classes and, of course, complete homework.

While studying for longer periods may give students more opportunities to learn, it doesn’t leave much time to pursue interests outside the schools grounds. In countries like the US and UK, extracurricular activities are actually encouraged.

Kan Wei, associate professor at Beijing Normal University, believes that copying the long Chinese school day could have unintended consequences.

“Simply increasing the number of teaching hours, shortening the school holidays, and copying East Asian educational experiences cannot improve pupil performance,” he says.

Wei, who obtained a PhD at the University of Manchester in the UK, states that there are significant differences between the education systems, social features and historical background of the UK and China. 

“The East Asian educational experience comes as a package, so increasing pupils’ learning time has questionable merit just on its own,” he says.

Chinese students memorize a lot

Chinese students are expected to remember a lot of information.

This starts from a very young age when they begin memorizing the many thousands of Chinese characters. This method of learning typically continues throughout primary school and into high school.

Due to this deep-seated approach to memorizing, Chinese students can find it difficult to think outside the square, be creative and be able to critically analyse information. 

As an English teacher in China, this makes your job all the more challenging. Some of your lesson plans which aim to open up the creative side of your students’ minds may simply fall flat. That’s why it’s always a good idea to have a trusted back-up lesson plan ready to go.

While many Western educators criticize this rote style of learning, it may actually contribute to Chinese students’ outperformance in less creative subjects like maths and science.

Chinese teachers are more strict, less fun

Chinese teachers are generally strict and don’t play fun (educational) games in the classroom.

Primary school teachers, in particular, can be very stony-faced. They want to be seen as the clear authority figure of the classroom; an instruction-giver of sorts.

Lots of discipline and little disruption means students can focus acutely on their studies.

China’s infamous one-child policy, however, has tested the ability of China’s teachers to manage their students’ behavior.

Classrooms full of sibling-less children, who are treated like angels in the home, don’t get nearly as much attention in the classroom and can be prone to acting out. This is known as the Little Emperor/Empress Syndrome.

Now that the one-child policy has been withdrawn, classroom dynamics might change over time as students become less selfish.

Why do you think Chinese high school students are such high performers? Have your say below.


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