Before this post goes anywhere, please note in advance that it is about education. And perhaps most of you are saying, “Well, duh, what else could you possibly be talking about???” For others (me, for example), that might need to be clarified
The last few weeks for me as a college instructor of both oral and written English have meant final exam administration and grading. The oral exams were mostly tedious – especially sitting immobile in a room for four hours straight with visible clouds of breath coming out the mouths of both examiner and examinee. There were moments of delight when a student came out with a particularly dazzling answer that wasn’t memorized and/or spoken in a monotone, and there were also moments when it was clear no preparation had been done whatsoever. But my goal was to try to get the kids to relax and take a (chilly) breath. I know exactly how nerve-wracking an oral examination in a foreign language can be, and I believe that as an examiner, I have a responsibility both to inspire confidence and to try to take nervousness out of the equation in order to get an accurate measure of ability. That’s hard in China as the students have the added pressure of believing you, as the teacher, will be mad at them if their English isn’t perfect. I try to remind them that I am not Chinese, and their ability won’t influence me personally. I’d rather them be unique, try hard, and make mistakes than deliver a flawless, but feelingless, set of memorized utterances. The point of language is to communicate. That is definitely not how language is seen in the Chinese educational system.
So, then came the written exams. I have two first-year classes. They are forced to write part of a standardized, international English test in order to get their grade for the course. There are a few problems, of course. First, their English level is too low for the course – not enough vocabulary, and poor, poor grammar. Second, they don’t know how to put together a paragraph in a logical fashion or put together support for an idea. And third, the exam they are given isn’t an accurate measure of what is covered in the course. I wasn’t given the questions ahead of time (nor was I told they would write this exam to get their grade), so I couldn’t plan a syllabus that covered what they needed to know. Even if their English were better, they still wouldn’t know how to approach answering some of the questions they were presented with. But this is the Chinese system. No planning, no logic, no meaningful outcome measures.
Needless to say, the written examinations were atrocious. But one plus to what was a painful grading process was a collection of some of the phrases they came up with. And the best one for me was:
We need to work harder and harder for the Black Hole.
The question had been about addressing the challenges people face when they move to a new city or county, and the paragraph this little nugget was found in had to do with the high cost of housing. Most of the essay was incomprehensible, including this statement in relation to what had just been said. But in another sense, it was a deep and meaningful statement capable of describing the economy, their education system, and the daily grind. It was perfect.