top of page

On Process and Product

As our tolerance of and interest in subtle, nuanced argument diminishes under the withering blast of sound-bites and social media, so we have become more vulnerable to measures of success and achievement that privilege ends rather than means, products rather than process, destinations more than journeys.

Product before Process

This migration towards the instantly-measurable has been accompanied by an equivalent predilection for one-dimensional rankings that purport to perform as ludicrous a calculation as evaluating 'the best universities in the world' by counting their research papers, evaluating their research programmes, or reducing their graduate populations to numerical metrics.

This love of products is evident everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more obviously than in the People's Republic of China where in a bizarre inversion of anything that purports to be egalitarian and - in some sense or other - 'Marxist-Leninist', 'communist' or 'communitarian', a political system that began by claiming to right the wrongs of an unequal distribution of available resources has become one of the most hierarchical, oligarchic, unrepresentative and undemocratic societies in the world.

This obsession with 'results' is nowhere more evident - and arguably nowhere more damaging - than in education, where in 2024 over 13 million students competed in the national gaokao examinations for a little over 4 million university places. A considerable amount of the motivation to 'study abroad' is driven by this dearth of higher education at home. It is for the most part a romantic delusion to suppose that parents are sending their children abroad because of a realisation that 'western' values are better; they are simply trying to find higher-education places for their children anywhere they can.

Because at gaokao (which means nothing more than 'big test') only marks matter, the dead hand of final summative assessment falls like a shadow across the entire Chinese education system. Children who do the zhongkao (middle test) at the end of grade nine start preparing for gaokao almost immediately for fear of being one of the nine million whose ambitions are not fulfilled. Some will refer to the Chinese aphorism 'Don't lose at the start' in justification for so quickly and willingly placing their feet on yet another treadmill. Many switch to so-called 'international' schools to do UK A levels, USA AP exams, or the International Baccalaureate, but the education tends only to be international in name and syllabus; the method of delivery is still predominantly - and often destructively as measured by mental and physical health - Chinese.

Process before Product

The Chinese system is driven by parental anxiety about results, and even when alternatives to the brutal gaokao are sought, the same considerations are transported to the new schools and syllabuses: only the final grades matter. And because so many Chinese students, trained in the zhongkao primarily in mathematics and the sciences, do their high-school studies in those subjects, there is no great demand for or interest in such things as critical thinking, independent learning, an inquiring mind-set or a willingness and ability to 'think outside the box'. On the contrary, Chinese education discourages children from thinking outside any box other than that of the prevailing Chinese system with its narrow objectives, values and methods.

A Single Source of Truth

As a result, if and when very 'successful' Chinese students with top grades in A levels, the AP or the IB, travel abroad, they suddenly face the need to climb a vertical cliff of new expectations for which they are ill-prepared or not prepared at all: to think for themselves; to motivate themselves; to control and direct their own study in terms of time and place; to run their own lives including providing food, shelter, healthy habits and self-disciplined social relations; to ask questions and challenge prevailing assumptions; to be ready to disagree with one opinion and adopt another in a menagerie of possibilities completely alien to their experience in China where their parents, their society, the teacher and the system presented them what Swift programmers have come to call 'A Single Source of Truth'.


A key characteristic of the Chinese education system is the notion that children should endure hardship in their study in order to obtain a future reward. They should respect, revere and honour their teachers precisely when they are harsh with them because - so the prevailing logic runs - it gives the teachers no pleasure to censure their recalcitrant pupils, but they do it for all the pain it causes them as teachers because they recognise that it is necessary. Their pupils should accordingly be grateful to them for their - the teachers' - self-sacrifice.

Chinese culture provides philosophical, social and ideological support for this brutal process by holding up fortitude in the face of danger and difficulty as one of the defining characteristics of a loyal and noble citizen who has learned how to live life. In a bizarre amalgamation of Marxist-Leninist and Confucian thinking, respect for authority, for elders, for ancestors, for leaders and rulers somehow gives rise to a social expectation that parents, teachers and leaders be regarded as beyond contradiction and that every child has a duty to 'do its best' and 'work hard' for the common good irrespective of how inhuman and inefficient the system may be.

Completely absent from this entire picture is any sense that the journey itself might be enjoyable, or that enjoying learning might somehow make it more efficienct and effective. A laser-like obsession with final results obliterates any sense that the journey matters; indeed, the more unpalatable and painful the journey, the more the bizarre logic of social duty and self-abnegation for the common good renders it noble. It is not only that parents, teachers and social norms do not see that an enjoyable journey might enhance the effectiveness of learning; there is also a sense that to enjoy the journey, to enjoy learning, even to enjoy life, is somehow improper, self-indulgent, liberal, western, capitalist and a symptom of insidious corruption.

Yet innumerable Chinese parents are also acutely conscious that their children are unhappy, stressed, anxious, even suicidal, and will readily ask educators what they can do to alleviate the growing-pains of their children, to ensure their success without stress, without anxiety, without mental and physical ill-health. There is a huge irruption of concern for well-being in China, but nobody dares to suggest that the cause of the problem is the underlying set of values that drives it and is in large measure responsible for its extraordinary economic rise over the last 25 years.

The Solution

The single biggest change that would help alleviate these stresses and strains would be if Chinese parents, teachers, students and society as a whole could learn to appreciate that the educational journey should be enjoyable in itself while it is being undertaken.

Only a few weeks ago a very prestigious developer called Andrej Karpathy posted on Twitter/X that 'Learning is not supposed to be enjoyable', but that is about as wrong as it is possible for anything to be: of course learning should be enjoyable; and if it isn't, we are either learning the wrong things or learning them in the wrong way. 'Learning is not supposed to be enjoyable' could count as the epitaph for an education system: it embodies in seven words everything that is wrong with the education system as we have inherited it, whether in the west or the east. Yet it is a deadly legacy of totalitarian régimes that citizens demonstrate their loyalty to the system by their readiness to submit to an inhuman education system because the authorities deem that system the only one that can possibly deliver the skills required by the country as a whole.

Teaching Someone to Fish

There is a well-known Chinese proverb often wrongly attributed to LaoTzu 'Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day; teach a person to fish and you feed them for a lifetime'. The Mandarin is slightly different: 授人以鱼不如授人以渔, which means 'giving someone a fish is not as good as teaching them to fish'. The proverb, although Chinese and widely quoted and venerated, says that we should do the opposite of education systems that teach content, which effectively 'gives a fish': we should teach methods and processes, which effectively 'teach fishing'.

Memorisation and Understanding

The key to success in Chinese examinations is readiness to memorise vast numbers of solutions or answers in the hope of covering all the likely questions that can arise. That this requires enormous numbers of hours of study is reflected in the widespread regard for 'hard work' in Chinese culture; that it nevertheless places enormous strain on students, causes mental health issues, and crushes any love of learning is acknowledged but regarded as a 'painful necessity', precisely the kind of noble suffering that paves the way to success.

This memorisation works in effect by accepting the combinatorial explosion that accompanies the extension of a syllabus. Figuratively, it is as if we were asked to memorise all the probabilities associated with rolling a set of dice rather than learning how to do the calculations.

Understanding, while often slower than recall in its speed of solution, entails greatly reduced memory and considerably less work. If I know how to calculate probabilities, I can find them based on 'knowing little to achieve much'; if I try to memorise them, I do not reduce the information content to something manageable.

But some political systems have vested interests in seeing which citizens are ready to 'kow tow' to the unreasonable and inefficient demands of the system. We need only go back to the Cultural Revolution to see how readiness to suffer was counted as a mark of loyalty and how such things as 'being an intellectual' who might reduce the workload by applying understanding were regarded as a justification for being purged.

The Education Stakes

So there is a great deal more at stake in educational organisation than mere cultural transmission. On it hangs the entire social-political-economic system because by reinforcing patterns that are reflected in social structures of power and measures of wealth and success régimes around the world ensure that they have compliant populations of citizens whose spirits, like their minds, have been broken by a system designed for exactly that purpose.

Nor is this solely a problem for supposedly totalitarian societies and their education systems: capitalist systems also use education to inculcate sets of values and expectations, measures of success and failure, that support their own capitalist objectives. That has been true since we disingenuously pretended to be introducing universal education out of a sense of philanthropy rather than to service the requirements of the industrial revolution. That's something of an over-simplification, but the essential point remains: education systems are controlled by the social and political systems of whichever country they are in, and accordingly service its self-selected objectives.

Nobody ever asks whether the people these systems supposedly 'serve' really share the objectives and have the values that these systems are built upon because everyone inherits a systems and the system itself discourages us from questioning or departing from it. Education is, therefore, a classic example of a Protection Racket: something that presents itself as the solution to a problem of which it is itself the principal cause.


bottom of page