Students arrive at York English Primary and Kindergarten. Photo: Edward Wong
The exaggerated advertisements of China's profit-seeking institutions of early childhood education have misled the country's parents into becoming irrationally crazy about early education. In the absence of proper regulations and industry standards, the industry has become a fertile ground for unwarranted educational dogmas and reflects the contradiction between the weak social governance and rising demands of the middle class.
The 45th issue of the China News Weekly magazine, which was published on December 5, 2016, ran a cover story, which depicts the dark side of China's early childhood education industry and explores what good early childhood education should be like.
Below is the excerpt of the article.
"Do you believe that a seven-month-old infant can recognize thousands of Chinese characters? Do you believe that a little baby can read Chinese classics? ... Don't deliberate on the theory behind it, because it will be too late before you figure it out. Antenatal training and early childhood education in the first 10 months after birth is of great importance (to one's success)," a middle-aged woman spouted before an excited audience at a lecture hall of the Shandong University of Technology on a November morning. Her speech was punctuated by several waves of applause by the audience.
The sophistical speaker is Meng Danmei, who is the founder of Babies Reading Classics, or Dujing Baobao in Chinese (读经宝宝), a so-called educational product designed to teach little children to read Chinese classics. Meng was promoting the educational product that morning, which she labeled as China's first set of early childhood education resource.
Meng, 46, established a full-time private school in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen in 2007 to teach children aged 3-13 how to read Chinese classics for the purpose of brain development. But a People's Daily article criticized the practice because making children read Chinese classics "goes against the educational and cognitive rules and will create mediocrities". Regardless of the criticism, Meng even extended her classes to infants aged below 3 years, and even the fetuses.
Ironically, the 46-year-old woman is not specialized in pedagogy, brain science or Chinese classics. She has a humble educational background and worked as a dancer in the military. But her charming demeanor and excellent oratory skills create the perception of an intellectual, and help her win over the audiences.
One of the examples Meng often uses to advocate the benefits of reading Chinese classics in her speeches is that of her own son, who she said could recite Chinese classics at the age of three. But the truth of the story cannot be verified.
In 2001, Meng made acquaintance with Wang Caigui from Taiwan, who was leading a campaign of encouraging children to read Chinese classics in the 1990s. Wang's doctrine is simple: Chinese children need to read and recite lots of Chinese classics.
Years of working with Wang as an assistant enabled Meng to nose out the potential business opportunity in the educational market targeting children aged below 3 years. Whereupon, she began to publicize Babies Reading Classics in 2008, when the population of this age group was 70 million and various institutions of early childhood education were springing up in China.
"Actually, (Meng) just sells her product in the name of advocating traditional Chinese culture and through emotional speeches (to potential buyers)," said an industry insider, who confessed to be a supporter of Wang Caigui's campaign. He blamed Meng for commercializing the movement and combining it with the self-professed educational concept.
A full set of Babies Reading Classics curriculum, which includes an audio equipment, books and word cards, is sold for as much as 16,800 yuan.
Meng's so-called educational concept is a mixture of Chinese and exotic educational ideas, which she said could train the brain of children aged under 3 years through more exposure to information. Meng's word card method is derived from Glenn Doman's flash card approach, which is used to teach babies to read. But Doman's flash card methodology has been dismissed as "unscientific" by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Meng also makes use of famous Chinese people as examples to back what she advocates, attributing their ability of speaking various languages to reading Chinese classics during their childhood.
A lucrative market
Shadowed by her miserable childhood when she was often snubbed by her bad-tempered mother, Hong Yu (alias) yearns for providing her child with high-quality education. When her child was three months old, Hong was worried about which early childhood education school her baby would go to.
After comparison, Hong finally chose an indigenous early childhood education institution, which charged her about 16,000 yuan for 124 classes. It was a great sum of money for the young mother who lived in a small southern Chinese city.
GymChina (精中教育) introduced the American early childhood education brand Gymboree (金宝贝) into China in 2003, and was among the first educational companies eyeing the children's education market. Initially, GymChina took aim at highly-paid, well-educated overseas returnees and Hong Kong and Taiwanese people working in the Chinese mainland in order to build Gymboree into a premium brand in the country. For this purpose, GymChina only recruited versatile teachers with excellent English speaking ability, with each earning a monthly salary of 7,000-8,000 yuan. Chen Yidong, chairwoman of GymChina, regarded the employment standards as a tool to promote Gymboree.
Wang Yuming (alias), who runs an early childhood education institution, admitted that they would drop the visitors a hint that their children would lose at the starting line to their peers if they did not receive early childhood education.
In her book, a famous American journalist wrote about the high likelihood of the parents being misled by toy makers and media companies due to the sense of insecurity which could lead to the notion that they would deprive their children of the opportunity to unlock the potential if they do not buy some educational products. Now, the view is widely accepted by more and more Chinese parents.
According to statistics from shentongchina.com, an online platform providing information about early childhood education, in 2011, there were 12,450 early childhood education institutions in the Chinese mainland, 17.8 percent of which were foreign-funded.
At the annual CPPCC session held in 2015, Liu Yan, a professor of Beijing Normal University, sharply denounced some early childhood education institutions in China for overcharging. Yin Fei, a Nanjing-based home education expert echoed Liu, claiming that charging high tuition has become an effective marketing tool used by early childhood education institutions in China, which boast that their courses, teaching facilities and learning environment reach the international standards.
Misinterpretation of neuroscience
Feng Dequan is typical of those selling expensive educational products under the cloak of science. Feng's educational product is titled Revolution of Early Childhood Education, which includes several books and audiovisual materials. It is hyped up as a "three-dimensional teaching method" which is used to develop children's potential in areas of language, judgment, memory, thinking, art and personality.
But Sara Mead, a senior analyst of educational policy in the US, said in an article that the twisted notion held by many promoters of early childhood education reflected the public misunderstanding about the brain science and neurology.
Neuroscientist Carla Shatz from Stanford University also argued that there was not enough evidence to indicate that stimulating the nerve cells will enable children to become smarter. Shatz further noted that education in the first three years after birth was not the most important thing to a child's brain development.
Adversely, Feng highlighted the vital importance of the first three years for unlocking children's potential, putting reading at the top of brain development efforts. Feng said that his educational product could help a 4-year-old child read books and newspapers smoothly.
In 2009, a China Central Television program accused Feng's Revolution of Early Childhood Education as a fraud, questioning his identity as the advisor of the Ministry of Education. Later, the ministry said in a statement that it never appointed Feng as its advisor.
However, the criticism did not stop Revolution of Early Childhood Education from selling as a hot cake in China.
Chen, the chairwoman of GymChina, recalled that she once interviewed a job applicant, who closed his startup company doing business about early childhood education after feeling ashamed of offering useless courses nominally imported from foreign countries.
Beijing Normal University professor Liu has long been concerned about the phenomenon. She pointed out that some Chinese institutions of early childhood education ushered in the so-called foreign-grown courses, which are not actually recognized by foreign governments.
Worse still, some institutions of early childhood education misuse the famous educational theories for the purpose of profitability, with many teachers taking up the job after days of simple training.
Wang Yuming revealed that a foreign-funded early childhood education chain simply duplicated courses used by its competitors, which it said were tailored for Chinese children. Wang Yuming added that 90 percent of the early childhood education institutions operating in China lacked the ability of research and development and management, which would normally lead to bankruptcy.
In 2003, the Ministry of Education issued a document, urging to enhance the parenting skills of parents and caretakers of children aged below 6 years. In 2013, the ministry launched a pilot project in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, which is aimed at establishing a management and service framework for the early childhood education industry.
However, Zhang Wenguo, an associate professor from East China Normal University, voiced his doubt over the ministry's efforts, as early childhood education is not currently covered by the country's compulsory education system and lacks a set of industry and occupational standards.
Love is best education
Zhang Meiling, a psychologist from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that what the children aged below 3 years need most is the love and smile from the parents that help establish children's sense of security during the childhood.
The expert suggested that the parents should have as much conversation as possible with their children during the period when speaking ability is cultivated, but she did not recommend the parents to expose their children to Chinese classics because it is beyond their cognitive ability.
The development of children's intelligence is closely connected with the growth of nerve cells, which Zhang said can be fulfilled by means of parent-child interaction.
Zhang added that it is unnecessary for the children aged below 3 years to attend courses offered by institutions of early childhood education because family and nature are the best teacher.
(The article is translated and edited by Ding Yi.)