This past week was China's 'Gaokao' week – the week when Chinese high school students sat the exams that determine the rest of their lives. The emergency services were on stand by for students who faint, building sites hushed, flights redirected, and the whole nation put on tip toes during the exam period. Competition is intense – parents and children endure ridiculous amounts of stress. But it is easy to understand why.
This year's figures from the Chinese Ministry of Education show that 9.15 million students are competing for only 6.85 million college slots. (Huffingtonpost, 07/06/2012)
The measures employed to ensure success are extreme by Western standards:
Students have reportedly been given pre-exam injections and intravenous drips designed to boost energy levels, while girls have resorted to hormone injections and birth control pills to delay menstruation. (Brisbane Times)
But from the perspective of an English teacher, I have the impression that until this exam system is reformed and takes on a more communicative style of assessment (e.g. testing speaking and listening skills in a realistic manner), the whole system of language education from kindergarden to high school will remain largely uncommunicative. That is, it will hinder classroom teaching from producing communication skills because all that matters is preparing for the exam.
At the moment it is the Gaokao exam that shapes the type of teaching strategies used throughout Chinese schooling, and so if there is to be change in language teaching pedagogies (and that is another topic for discussion), reform must first take place in the Gaokao.