In 2008, a devastating earthquake measuring around 8 on the Richter scale hit the Chinese province of Sichuan, killing over 70,000 people. Despite their initially sterling work in responding swiftly to the disaster, the government soon started to come in for stick as details emerged of the thousands of inadequately engineered schoolrooms that had collapsed when the quake hit. The Chinese themselves coined a new phrase that translates as tofu-dregs schoolhouses to convey their disgust at the death traps that had claimed so many young lives. Parents around the province accused local officials and builders of cutting corners in school construction, citing that after the quake other nearby buildings weren’t damaged anything like as badly. In the aftermath of the quake, many local governments promised to formally investigate the school collapses, but little official word followed.
The artist Ai Weiwei started posting the names of dead children on his blog until the content was officially ‘harmonised’. He later made a heart-wrenching installation entitled Remembering on the facade of the building where a retrospective show was held in Munich. It was constructed from 9000 kids’ backpacks and spelled out the sentence “She lived happily for seven years in this world” in Chinese characters – a quote from a mother whose child died in the earthquake.
A year or so later, a film called DISTURBING THE PEACE emerged and is now available both on DVD and online. The film follows Ai Weiwei’s attempt to attend and protest against the trial of Chinese activist Tan Zuoren, who was charged following his research into the collapse of schools and into student casualties. Should you be interested, you can watch the whole thing here.
Now, you’re doubtless wondering why I’m telling you all of this, aren’t you? Perhaps this is a crass and clumsy metaphor, in which case I apologise in advance, but the issues of cutting corners, building on shaky foundations, purported fast tracks that turn out to be dead ends, the dash for cash and China have all been on my mind of late as my place of work has had a bunch of Chinese students fail their eleven-week pre-sessional courses, be denied access onto the degree courses they had been hoping to take and find themselves instead on General English courses. I’m teaching some of them; colleagues of mine are teaching more. And what’s most notable about them is the fact that they’ve so clearly been hot-housed to pass IELTS that they’ve experienced the linguistic equivalent of stunted growth. Seemingly fed from the very onset of their language-learning careers with the academic word list and Chinese equivalents for each item, along with endless memorised blueprint examples of writing for the different possible permutations of the writing section, they can more or less string groups of abstract nouns together and produce answers to the Writing 1 part of the exam that might just about scrape a 4.5 in the exam, but cope so poorly with everyday English that the bulk of them have ended up in Pre-Intermediate and are having to come to terms with the fact that they’re facing at least a year of intensive General English before they’ll be anywhere near ready to take the test again.
At this stage, I should state categorically that I teach lots of Chinese students and for the most part, love doing so. I’ve learned a lot not only about China, but about life in general from teaching them; I’ve been made to laugh uproariously on more than a few occasions by them; I’ve socialised with them, been to their houses and had them come to mine and stayed in touch with them after they’ve returned home. That’s all by the by.
The crux of the matter is this: now that British universities have introduced fees that exclude large numbers of home students, there’s a dash to attract more foreign students, and obviously this ideally means more foreign students with cash. This in turn means increasing pressure on the institution itself to gear up to processing students through the language training part of their studies so they can get onto the more lucrative under- and post-graduate courses. Inevitably, this means there is at least a temptation to try to force lower-level students through the system. If you add to this the fact that there have been repeated questions about the validity of many IELTS scores, then it should come as no great surprise when institutions such as London Met find themselves in hot water for being unable to produce “proper evidence that the students’ mandatory English levels had been reached”. It’s a slippery slope and if you work in higher ed in the UK, one you’re doubtless also on.
At the same time, schools have emerged around the world – and I’m certainly NOT, by the way, suggesting these issues are in any way unique to China. It’s simply that our latest cohort originate from there – offering short cuts and easy routes to academic success. One of my older Chinese students was telling me recently that many schools advertise themselves as being able to get students from IELTS 0 to 4.5 in a short period of time. However, this is clearly not simply a speedy route to somewhere useful down the line; rather, it’s leading students into dead-ends from which they struggle to retreat.
In much the same way as teachers who have experience in, say, rough inner-city secondary schools and who then embark on CELTA courses often struggle more than the fresh-faced raw recruits simply because they have to unlearn much of what has become ingrained before they are even at the starting point the others begin from, so too this new breed of learner at some point has to come face-to-face with the facts and realise they’re miles from where they need to be, and that to go forward, they first need to go back (to basics) and learn, for instance, that we say DO you enjoy it, not ARE you enjoy it because ENJOY is a verb not an adjective.
Anything that we as teachers can do to dispel the notion of quick fixes and magic bullets and to gently break the news of the long, hard slog ahead to the already disheartened can only be for the good.
As the old saying has it, the road is made is walking.