Cramming takes fun out of school holidays

SCHOOL’S out, but try telling that to the many young children whose summer holidays are filled with piles of homework assignments from teachers and never-ending cram courses organized by parents.

In a somewhat ironic example of “do as I say, not as I do,” many of those same parents, born in the 1970s and 80s, came from an era when summer holidays were fun, filled with boundless free time to play with friends and relax. In short, kids being kids.

A recent online post by one mother on social media complained that a class of Shanghai students who will be third graders in September had been burdened with too many summer homework assignments. That led to a squabble between the mother and classroom teachers.

The post said students were told to transcribe text from a textbook for the forthcoming semester and read it five times each day, write a model composition every day and read at least eight books on a recommended list during the holidays.

The teachers defended the summer assignments, saying that the third grade is a “turning point” in the academic life of young students and they need to prepare for the year ahead.

Cathy Sha, mother of a third grader, told Shanghai Daily that her son has to transcribe new words, recite ancient poems, practice fast calculations and do math homework every day on a website designated by his school.

In addition to that workload, he also attends cram schools, including oral English lessons every workday, Chinese classes every other day, written English classes every Friday night, weekly Lego robotic classes and a 10-day intensive training course to prepare for the Math Olympiad.

“I know it’s very tough, but he has to do all this because that’s what all his classmates are doing,” the mother lamented. “He was lagging behind his classmates to some extent. You can imagine how upset we were when we found that most of his classmates in the second-grade oral English class were just out of kindergarten!”

She is not alone in her fear that children who take time off to enjoy themselves during summer break jeopardize their chances of getting ahead in the education system. To parents, that means failure to get into the best schools and inability to snare top-paying jobs.

It’s a herd instinct, with parents afraid to break ranks.

“Don’t ask me why I force my son to spend the summer vacation differently from how I spent mine when I was young,” said the mother of a boy who will enter middle school in September and is attending cram classes to learn middle-school math in advance. “The competition is simply more fierce today than it was two or three decades ago.”

Education experts keep calling on teachers and parents to loosen the reins and let children be children and enjoy their fleeting childhood. They point out that a child’s personal development doesn’t equate to test scores.

Li Zejun, deputy editor-in-chief of the Shanghai education news website said neither obsession, nor cram schools, nor a complete escape from the pursuit of knowledge is healthy for a student’s growth.

“I understand that parents are anxious about their children’s education,” said Li. “The current situation is partly caused by society’s excessive obsession with exam results, including high school and university entrance examinations.

“A person’s development needs the cultivation of quality in other aspects, such as social responsibility and personal interests.”

To give credence to that belief, the website has organized an annual event called “China Good Homework” since 2013. It invites specialists and respected role models to tutor children in exploring the world around them. The students are given tasks to accomplish, but they make their own decisions on which tasks they will take on.

This year’s tasks included the survey of a nearby nursing home, telling the story of an historical site and drawing images of how vehicles might look in 50 years.

Luo Xixian, 71, is a cartoonist participating for a second year. His task for students is to draw four-frame comics based on real or imaginary stories.

“Academic study is important, but non-academic study and social experience are also crucial and are usually neglected,” Luo said. “My life experience tells me that the most useful things in your life are learned outside of books.” He said social interaction is important for young people to develop a sense of right and wrong.

“It’s terrible for children to stay at home alone all the time, doing homework, watching TV or playing games,” he said. “Parents should take children on trips and find interesting things for them to do that feed their natural curiosity.”

He Fajiang, dean of the School of Air Transportation at Shanghai University of Engineering Science, was another of this year’s tutors.

“We pay way too much attention to test scores and neglect the cultivation of attributes like team work and emotional stability,” he said.

What does he do to pique the interest of young minds? He asks them to make paper airplanes that can fly as far as possible.

“That’s fun for children, and along the way they can learn some scientific principles behind flying,” he said.

The government’s efforts to cool parent obsession about academic achievement is taking hold, but slowly, he said.

“Only when educators and parents respect a child’s personal interests can they truly help them grow up into a proud next generation,” He said. “When that happens, we won’t be subjecting young minds to the drudgery of summer homework and cram classes.”

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