Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

10 Lessons We Learned from China’s Tutor Culture

by Staff Writers at

 China’s test-focused, achievement-driven education system has spawned an educational phenomenon in the country: tutoring. Tutoring has seen an explosion of interest, with companies specializing in it bringing in record revenues, top tutors attaining rock star-like status, and students feeling peer pressure to sign up for after-school sessions. And tutoring isn’t just limited to students who are lagging behind, as even top performers are getting extra help to ace college entrance exams and stand out from their peers.As America continues to look to other nations for ways to improve education at home and remain globally competitive, this newfound national obsession with tutoring in China brings up the question of what lessons American students and educators can learn from the situation. While most Americans won’t be jumping on the tutoring bandwagon just yet, there are some valuable lessons that the tutoring culture in China and surrounding nations can teach us about our own educational goals, beliefs, and systems that are worth considering more closely.

  1. life needs balance

    Students who spend their evenings and weekends in tutoring sessions could be missing out, something that even parents, educators, and tutors in China are keenly aware could be a problem. There is little balance in a student’s life when schoolwork is the center of all activities, neglecting the importance of spending time with friends, playing an instrument, participating in sports, or just having time to oneself. Chinese students already spend far longer in school each day and working on homework each weekend, and the addition of more school-focused activities might not be a positive thing for students who don’t truly need the help. Many American schools are moving toward a similar model, however. Expanded school days, loads of homework, increased importance of standardized testing, and hyper-intensive charter schools are pushing kids to spend more time studying and less time being kids. While it might improve grades and help some students, it’s yet to be seen what the long-term effects of such an imbalanced way of pushing students will be.

  2. equality should be key in education

    While tutoring in China has helped some students to excel, it’s having another, less positive effect as well by broadening the already substantial gap between rich and poor. The best tutors and the greatest amount of educational resources are available to students from wealthy families, just as it is here in the United States, leaving some students from poorer families unable to catch up. In Pakistan, where tutoring is also popular, researchers found that tutoring could worsen social inequalities, cause stress for families, and reduce the time students spent on other activities. In Singapore, parents have expressed concern that social mobility may be limited by an education system that requires tutoring to do well. In America, educators are keenly aware of the pitfalls that come with unequal access to education, with students in poor schools lacking high-quality teachers, resources, and the tools to allow them to move on to college and out of poverty. The tutoring craze in Asia is just another reminder of the importance of providing equal access to education for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, something top-performing nations like Finland are already doing with great success.

  3. peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing

    While there are undoubtedly some Chinese students pressuring their friends into doing things they really shouldn’t, the tutoring craze has proven that not all peer pressure is of the negative variety. After-school tutoring is trendy, and like most things trendy, there’s peer pressure to take part. A 2005 survey by the University of Hong Kong found that 70% of high school students and 50% of elementary students had hired tutors, leaving students who can’t afford or don’t want to be tutored feeling like they’re missing out. Yet this kind of peer pressure, provided that it doesn’t single out those without the resources to buy tutoring time, isn’t really a bad thing. It creates a culture where school, education, and success are cool. American educators and policymakers could learn a thing or two, as this kind of adoration of a school-related activity is almost unheard of stateside.

  4. not everyone needs to be a top student

    China may be using its tutoring system to boost test scores and get students access to some of the best colleges and training facilities in the world, but that may not be enough. A report published this year shows that Chinese students are struggling just as much as American ones to find jobs. A quarter of recent college graduates in China are unemployed and many end up working in jobs unrelated to their undergraduate degrees. For many, attaining elite status means giving up social activities, personal interests, and the fun of just being young, yet all that hard work may not be paying off in the way that parents and students had hoped, with students faring little better in the long run than their much more lax American counterparts. A highly competitive school system has created legions of engineers, programmers, and doctors who can’t find work in their home country because there are simply too many for the available jobs. Even worse, uneducated workers often have an easier time finding work and get paid on par with college graduates. China’s drive to produce a country full of intelligent, white-collar workers doesn’t reflect the reality of its economy, something that American schools are slowly learning as well, as community colleges and vocational programs grow in popularity in the wake of high unemployment in a variety of college-related fields.

  5. education can require sacrifice

    Parents all over the world want their children to have the best, and the Chinese are no exception. Many parents, even those with little disposable income, are spending big bucks on tutoring as a way of giving their children an edge in school and hopefully later in college. In some cases, parents are spending almost as much as the government does on education every year, a hefty investment that not every family can match. Education is a valuable resource to many in China and provides the only path out of poverty for many. Sadly, the same is true in the U.S., and for many low-income families, education is the only chance they have to beat the odds and make a better future for the next generation. To get there, however, many families will have to skimp and save, forego other necessities, and make do with less. The striking dedication of families in Asia to spend generously on education is a reminder of how important and respected education should be in our own country, regardless of income.

  6. even world-class education systems need support

    China’s students consistently rank among the best in reading, math, and science scores on global tests, and their school system seems to have largely been successful in teaching a wide range of students the essentials they’ll need to move on to college and successful careers. Yet something must be lacking if so many students are driven to pursue additional tutoring and educational support in their off hours. The prevalence of tutoring in China is a reminder than even in world-class education systems, students may not always get the help or focused attention they need to truly succeed. Some may need more one-on-one interaction, others a little additional explanation of difficult concepts. It’s a helpful reminder that there is room for improvement and reform no matter what level of success you’re achieving.

  7. standardized tests may not be the best educational tool

    When asked about their prospects, Chinese tutoring gurus say they feel they have little to worry about so long as there’s even one required standardized test out there. Students will be driven to excel on the test to get into the best schools and win top positions when they graduate. Yet this focus on test-taking hasn’t been shown to be the best educational tool thus far. China’s infamous gaokao test determines almost every aspect of a student’ future life, a heavy mantle for any teen to wear. Poor performance on the test can result in students not getting into college, and as a result schools have become nearly entirely focused on helping students learn things that will help them do well on these tests, to the exclusion of everything else. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a more extreme version of the standardized-testing fanaticism that has become the norm in many American schools. In order to perform well and score more funding, many schools downplay the importance of creativity, problem solving, and the arts in favor of lessons centered on topics that will find their way onto state tests. If we raise our eyebrows at China’s test-taking culture, we also have to take a hard look at our own.

  8. not everything that sounds good for education is necessary

    Chinese students and parents may be clamoring to sign up for tutoring and other after-school educational opportunities, but many have asked whether or not these kinds of programs are really necessary. Not all students who sign up for tutoring are doing so because they’re struggling to keep up with their classmates; many top students also make use of tutors. Do they really need it? Some would argue that time and money could better be spent elsewhere. The tutoring culture in China is just one example of many around the world that showcase attention on education being focused on things that may not be key to the success of students. Throwing more money at educational problems isn’t a fix all, nor is simply supplying schools with more technology, but many have lauded these as ways to fix educational shortfalls. It’s a global issue and one that’s not likely to go away anytime soon.

  9. being the best isn’t everything

    Are top scores and achievement really all that matter when it comes to producing students who are ready to take on the working world? Some would argue that that isn’t the case. Replacing activities outside of school with more school in the form of tutoring may not necessarily be a positive thing, and could result in students who aren’t well rounded and who may not know how to interact with those outside of their success-driven culture. A drive for perfection is a double-edged sword, helping students succeed on one hand but holding them back in others. For example, in a team environment, being the best and vying to stand out may even be counterproductive to success. While top scores are great, it’s important to remember that other values, traits, and skills are necessary to be successful in the world.

  10. creativity is also an essential part of education

    One of the biggest criticisms of the Chinese education system, however successful it may or may not be, is that it stifles independent thought and doesn’t value creativity. While Chinese students may excel at memorization and learning academic concepts, many feel they aren’t ready to enter a global marketplace that in recent years has begun to value innovation and creativity over many other attributes. Many economists caution that if China wants to remain competitive, it needs to offer more than just a strong work ethic and well-trained employees. It also needs to foster entrepreneurship and creativity, something the school system isn’t currently doing. While American education systems are freer, the same criticisms have been made. It’s something to seriously consider as we make the transition into a knowledge-based economy, as our willingness to value creativity over conformity will mark the dividing line between success and decline.


1 Response »


  1. True Education Of A Child « Life is Mysterious

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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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