Take tests, but not study for them

Q: Why are you teaching/learning these words?

A: Because they are in the list of HSK4 vocabularies.

Q: Why are you assigning/writing this essay?

A: Because it might appear in the IB Chinese test.

Q: Why are you recommending/studying this book?

A: Because it gives all the tricks to get high marks for tests!

Conversations like these are quite familiar to many teachers and learners of Chinese. It seems that tests are the ultimate goal of learning Chinese. Coincidentally, there are quite a number of tests out there, HSK, SAT Chinese, IB Chinese and GCSE Chinese, just to name a few. These tests have increasingly shaped Chinese programs at countless schools. 

Unfortunately, this test culture is not limited to Chinese, it is quite widespread in our society. Tests have become the ultimate goal of education. High marks imply successful education. Low marks imply failed education. Educational institutions use test results to measure how successful they are, their students are, even students’ parents are. For instance, every summer, Hong Kong media will go through the motion of which secondary school students have the full marks in the DSE tests, which schools they study at, which universities they are going to, their family background, and so on. 

Honestly, there is something wrong with this test culture. And I believe many people will agree with me. However, since other people are trying to do well at these tests, it becomes a tremendous force forcing all of us to do the same. 

Test (考试) was invented in China. The first record of test can be traced back to 1115BCE. In China, Keju Test (科举考试, imperial examination) had been a good vehicle to choose able government officials, and subsequently promoted social class mobility. It was a successful system, and had been implemented throughout dynasties. However, Keju Test was abolished in 1905. It was because this test had become very rigid. Scoring high no longer proved the person had the skill set which the society needed. After dominating the society for thousands of years, Keju Test was replaced by new and different tests. Seeing what happened to Keju Test, we could very well speculate that the current tests would face the same end in the future, if the sole purpose of learning is to get good marks in these tests? It is not to say that tests are not important. Tests are still important, and will remain so in one form or another. It is just that they should not be the goal of education. Moreover, with AI technology is advancing so fast, I would not be surprised to learn that a computer beats all the human students at these tests. 

Let’s get back to teaching and learning Chinese. Things have changed quite a bit during the last few decades. However, the traditional method of teaching and learning Chinese remains. 

In a traditional Chinese classroom, teacher is the center. Teacher says something, and students listen and take notes. Teacher provides word to word translations, explains what radicals are, and lead students to repeat multiple times. But in today’s digitised society, all these activities can be replaced by a smartphone. Moreover, APPs and products which can do simultaneous translations are constantly telling us that learning Chinese, or any new languages, is no longer necessary. 

I think learning Chinese is still necessary, perhaps more necessary than ever. Good learning encourages us to be curious, allows us to grow, makes us to be responsible, to respect others, to be open minded, and to learn from our mistakes. No machine can do these for us. No test authorities can test us on these. Also, learning is the only way to develop our brains. Babies are not the only ones who need to develop their brains through language stimulations, adults need to do so as well. And human interaction from different parts of world would be better if it is not intermediated by APPs.

Hence, we should explore different ways of teaching and learning, which serve a different end other than test results. As for tests, take them, and take them seriously, but don’t study for them.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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