The Experience of Chinese Youth Adjusting to Canadian Education
A Summary of a Master's Thesis by Naijian Chen

SSTA Research Centre Report #96-04: 35 pages, $11.

The Changing Composition of Canadian Classrooms This report is a summary of a Master’s thesis by Naijian Chen.

This study examined the experience of Chinese youths adjusting to Canadian education and their academic performance in Canadian schools. Using a qualitative approach, data was collected through in-depth interviews with nine secondary school students and some of their parents and teachers.
What makes Chinese students successful?
How well do Chinese students adjust to Canadian schools?
Background of the study
The multicultural and cross-cultural context
The historical context
Adaptation to new cultural environments
Participants in the study
Student adjustment to Canadian experiences
Family influence and parents' perceptions
Choosing a Career
Teachers' perceptions and concerns
How to interpret the findings?
Implications for Canadian education

Back to: Students - Diverse Needs

The SSTA Research Centre grants permission to reproduce up to three copies of each report for personal use. Each copy must acknowledge the author and the SSTA Research Centre as the source. A complete and authorized copy of each report is available from the SSTA Research Centre.
The opinions and recommendations expressed in this report are those of the author and may not be in agreement with SSTA officers or trustees, but are offered as being worthy of consideration by those responsible for making decisions.

The changing composition of Canadian classrooms

The demographic shift in Canadian society towards a greater proportion of Asian immigrants has created a new reality for Canadian schools. A recent statement by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, for example, claims that the language spoken by most Canadians after English and French is Chinese, prompting leading news magazines to publish issues also in Chinese! Major urban centres such as Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg have witnessed a substantial growth of their East-Asian immigrant population, and the increasing number of school-age children especially of recent Chinese immigrants raises the issue of how well these Chinese students are able to adjust to a new school environment.

Once on a bus, I happened to overhear the conversation of two Chinese women. They were talking about their children. One told the other that her son was the only student of the entire second year group at the University of Texas who had been selected for an IBM scholarship. The woman said proudly: "I didn't expect him to do so well, because he came to the United States from Beijing barely two years ago. He just made it." The other woman related her son's experience. He was now at Queen's University after he had done very well at high school where his grade XII average had been 97% and he had won a provincial proficiency award.

Table of Contents

What makes Chinese students successful?

Researchers have often argued that Chinese children perform better academically than their North-American counterparts (Stevenson, 1992; McKnight, Crosswright, Dossey, Kifer, Swafford, Travers & Coony, 1987; Gardon, 1987), and many scholars believe that the educational systems of East-Asian countries have contributed to the rapid economic growth in that part of the world. In particular, cultural values, beliefs and attitudes towards education play an important role in students' educational performance. These can be summarized in three aspects: (1) academic achievement as the central goal of Japanese and Chinese education, (2) group orientation towards learning and (3) parents' and teachers' high expectations of the child, with emphasis on the child's personal efforts (Stevenson and Lee, 1990).

Children's scholastic achievement occupies a more central position in Chinese schools than in the United States or in Canada. For North-American adults, success is generally measured by the ability to hold a good job with good pay and a good chance for promotion. In China, personal achievement has traditionally been measured by academic achievement (Ogbu, 1983). In North-American societies, more recent educational philosophies stress the process rather than the product, and educators (and parents) value experiences that stimulate the child's thinking and establish an extensive basis of general knowledge, regardless of whether or not the child actually masters a certain body of knowledge or a specific skill. As Stevenson (1992) argues, American mothers are more likely to be satisfied with their children's school performance than Asian mothers, and American teachers tend to agree that students should be evaluated against their own abilities rather than against pre-established performance criteria or standards. Many studies (Ogbu, 1983; Hess, 1986; Chen, 1989; Stevenson, 1992) show that most Chinese students, both indigenous and overseas, score high on believing in personal effort, while American students (and their parents) tend to believe in innate ability. However, the emphasis on innate ability lowers expectations about what can be accomplished through hard work, and being happy at school is often considered as being more important than academic success.

Table of Contents

How well do Chinese students adjust to Canadian schools?

It seems to be a fair assumption that students who have suddenly been placed in a new socio-cultural environment will undergo much more personal pressure in terms of scholastic achievement than students who have grown up in Canada. How do these new students adjust to the social, academic and personal conditions in which they find themselves after their immersion in a Canadian school? As the introductory story suggests, Chinese immigrant children seem to be doing quite well in their academic pursuits, and they do not appear to suffer from emotional problems or identity crises related to their new experiences.

Teachers who in their daily work have to deal with students from various minority groups might wonder why this apparently successful adaptation is the case for students from some cultural minority groups and not for others. Not only do some differences seem to exist among students from different cultural minority groups, but even among Canadian-born youth there are groups who have substantial dropout-rates in high schools every year, or students opt out of certain difficult school subjects in order to meet minimum high school graduation requirements. Despite the fact that these students have grown up in their home country and have obtained their education through kindergarten, elementary, and secondary school without interruption, they often come to school with various personal or academic problems. Why, then, do children from particular social and cultural groups do better than others, and how do cultural backgrounds and value systems affect their performance in school?

Table of Contents

Background of the study

This study attempts to identify some underlying reasons why students who have recently come from PR China appear to do comparatively well in Canadian schools. An exploration of their academic achievement and their cultural adaptation may shed some light on this issue and provide useful information for professionals in schools and in communities. For this purpose, I interviewed Chinese students, their parents and teachers as to how they view these students' former educational experience in China and now in Canada, and what their perceptions are of their adjustment to Canadian education. Specifically, the interviews focused on:

1. the students' experiences of adjustment, specifically their perception, interpretation, and response to life in Canadian schools; and

2. the role played by the family, the Canadian school, and the students' previous education in China in the process of adaptation.

The findings of the study will hopefully be of interest to teachers and school administrators for several reasons. For instance, the responses will provide insights into specific aspects of multicultural education theory since, according to Ogbu, "multicultural education models and actual programs convey the impression that educating minority students is a process whereby teachers and schools must change for the benefit of the students" (Ogbu, 1992, p.6). This study will argue that these students (and their parents) have to actively participate in this change for multicultural education to have a positive impact. Certainly, teachers' and school personnel's understanding of minority cultures and languages is important in creating a supportive environment and providing the best conditions possible to stimulate students' commitment to learning. Yet teaching and learning are two-way processes in which the student's own desire and efforts for learning are as crucial as the teacher's preparation and understanding of sound pedagogical principles. By exploring this theme in the context of the perceptions and experiences of Chinese immigrant children in Canadian schools, the study will attempt to demonstrate the importance of students and their parents taking personal responsibility for their educational careers.

There is an additional rationale for this study: In rethinking Canadian education, researchers usually look at educational practices in other countries. But rather than turning to schools elsewhere beyond the Canadian borders, it might just be as appropriate to focus research on the educational background of academically successful immigrant children and draw on their previous experiences in order to incorporate some of those lessons into educational reforms. This does, of course, not mean that families from other cultural groups should adopt, for instance, Chinese families' values and parenting practices, or that Canadian schools emulate the Chinese school model. Instead, the value of the insights gained this way have to be assessed against the socio--cultural and socio--political climate in the various Canadian provinces, and whatever is considered valuable could then be implemented in a modified form.

Finally, this study will help teachers, counselors and administrators to better understand the social and cultural background of a particular group of immigrants who came from PR China, their educational experience, and their problems in adjusting to Canadian culture and education. Parallels can perhaps even be drawn to students from other minority groups who face similar adjustment experiences in Canadian classrooms.

As a high school teacher in China and now a graduate student at a Canadian university, I am particularly interested in Chinese adolescents' experience of adjustment. Adolescence is considered a crucial period in terms of linking childhood to adulthood. The changes in physical maturity, cognitive maturity and social status likely involve stress in adolescents (Antonovsky, 1987). Although this process of maturation applies to young people everywhere, it is still an open question of how much a transition to a new cultural environment exacerbates this stress.

For the sake of clarity, the following terms will be used in this study and have a specific meaning:

1. Chinese youth: In this study, Chinese youth is defined as a group of Chinese students in secondary schools in the cities of Saskatoon and Regina. These students arrived from PR China within the last five years and had had a minimum of five years of formal education in their home country.

2. Adjustment: This is one of the major terms used in the study. It is "an accommodative [process], i.e., establishing a stable and mutually accepted relationship among social actors" (Fairchild, 1967, p.276) and mainly refers to the process of learning to cope with a new environment and to attain goals of academic success within a new linguistic and social system (Zhang,1991).

3. Canadian education: In this study, Canadian education is represented by the services provided by four secondary schools in the cities of Saskatoon and Regina.

4. Achievement: It means progress towards a desired objective or attaining a goal and refers to educational attainment in this particular study.

5. China: The terms 'mainland China' and 'PR China' are used interchangeably. The former identifies the country geographically, whereas the latter is the officially adopted designation of the country. Because of the particular research method chosen for the study, the sample was delimited to nine Chinese high school students, both male and female. At least one of the parents in each of these students' families was interviewed. In the school setting, six teachers and two counselors took part in the study. They were either currently teaching the student participants or had recently taught or counseled Chinese students.

Most Chinese parents from mainland China in Saskatoon and Regina are scholars and/or graduate students. Some have graduated and are now employed in research institutes or enterprises. They are 'middle-class' in terms of their values and attitudes, although not necessarily in actual social class, i.e., their present position in society.

I am fully aware of the fact that not only my personal experiences and cultural preconceptions, but also the parents' lack of fully understanding the intricacies of the Canadian education system may colour the data and their interpretation. Being aware of this bias will force me to be very sensitive to controversial issues. Furthermore, the validity of the findings may be limited by the willingness of the interviewees to cooperate and to disclose the information needed.

It is likely that the interviewees' experiences are similar to those of Chinese newcomers in other cities. Moreover, they may have similar views on the meaning of what they experienced. But the possibility that the story of Chinese newcomers in Saskatoon and Regina may be different from those in urban centres such as Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver or Calgary calls for caution in generalizing the findings beyond Saskatchewan.

Table of Contents

The multicultural and cross-cultural context

As mentioned before, this research project is closely related to multicultural education theory. A survey of the pertinent literature cannot by-pass the insightful work of Ogbu (1983; 1987; 1990; 1992) who has made major contributions to the study of minority education by examining a variety of minority groups and their educational aspirations and achievements. Whereas many other researchers have focused on identifying the reasons for poor academic performance of some minority groups in pluralistic societies, Ogbu focuses his studies on those minority groups which are considered more successful in education as well as those who are likely to fail in the school system. Earlier studies (Philips, 1972; 1983) usually attributed the lack of success of minority students to "cultural deprivation", "cultural discontinuities" or "cultural conflicts". More recently, the "applied ethnography" approach (Ogbu, 1987, p.314) is designed to find out the differences among ethnic groups in cognitive style, communication style, interaction style, and teaching and learning styles in order to provide some strategies for better educational outcomes.

Ogbu introduces the term 'minority status' and differentiates among minority groups in pluralistic societies (1992). According to the way in which they were 'incorporated' into society, he distinguishes between voluntary minorities, e.g., immigrants, and involuntary minorities. Whereas the former moved to their host society usually by their own choice, the latter became members of society through slavery, conquest or colonization. They usually resent their current situation, including the economic, political and social barriers as well as the loss of their freedom and their culture. Conversely, immigrants have joined the host society mainly in order to improve their lives and, in most cases, have their countries of origin as points of reference and believe that they are better off in the new country. Essentially, these two types of minority groups view their relations to the mainstream culture in completely different terms, and they therefore differ in their patterns of coping with the difficulties encountered during the adjustment process.

The Chinese, as members of a voluntary minority group, have generally moved to their host countries with expectations of economic well-being, political freedom, greater educational opportunities, etc. These expectations influence the way they perceive and respond to the daily experiences they encounter in the larger society, including education. They may have initial adjustment problems, mainly due to language differences and inadequate familiarity and understanding of the social and political system, but the problems are rarely permanent. Unlike involuntary minorities, Ogbu would argue, Chinese immigrants do not perceive adaptation to the mainstream culture, including learning the language, the attitudes, and the behaviours required for school success as threatening to their personal identity. One very interesting American study (Yao, 1984) found that recent Chinese immigrants are more enthusiastic in adopting the American lifestyle and speaking English than those who have been residents for more than ten years. With regard to scholastic success, Stevenson (1990; 1992, 1992) conducted cross-cultural studies on educational achievement in five comparable cities in the US, Japan, Taiwan, and PR China. He concluded that most American students are inadequately prepared for competition in the global economy. Their deficiencies in mathematics and science become apparent as early as kindergarten, in reading somewhat later, and these deficiencies usually persist throughout their schooling.

Stevenson's studies provide some clues as to how contemporary Chinese education, in particular Chinese parents, teachers, and school administrators manage to maintain high academic standards. The aspects of Chinese education that he emphasized, such as rigorous teaching styles and clearly defined institutional structures are, in his view, not unfamiliar to North Americans, because they are also part of American educational history (Stevenson, 1992), but some of these traditions seem to have been weakened or even abandoned. The question for Stevenson (and probably a first step towards solving some of today's problems) is whether or not North Americans are willing to bring about change, which would require that society as a whole re-examine its cultural values and social philosophy, including the goals of education and the ways in which teaching and learning are conducted and valued by society.

Table of Contents

The historical context

The Chinese have a long history of settlement in North America, and the attitudes of Canadian society towards them, as reflected by immigration policies, have undergone changes. This history can be broken down into three distinct periods (Li, 1988). First, from 1858 to 1923, institutional racism emerged, which made the Chinese frequent targets of racial antagonism. The second period, lasting from 1923 to 1947, was characterized by exclusion, when no Chinese were allowed to immigrate to Canada, and those who had already settled in their new country were denied many of their civil rights. The end of the Second World War was the prelude to a new era as these Chinese-Canadians were finally accorded full citizen status and started building their communities.

This examination of the historical context will yield a better understanding of the changes in Chinese immigrants' coping strategies, because the social factors often constrain or expand the range of options for individual families. For instance, for early Chinese 'sojourners', who were categorically denied the right of employment as professionals, the coping strategy might have been to get the coveted credentials from Western educational institutions and return to China to have them 'pay off'. When they were confronted with a 'job ceiling' (Ogbu, 1983, p.183), they tended to embark on alternative careers.

In order to understand the uniqueness of immigrants from mainland China it is helpful to also review the political changes since the early 1970s when the communist regime started relaxing its reins over many aspects of social and political life. In international affairs, China established diplomatic relations with Canada in 1970. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was welcomed as the first western head of state to visit communist China at the time. Soon thereafter, the normalization of Sino-American relations ended the three decades of hostility between the two nations.

Cultural exchange programs brought many Chinese students and scholars to the United States and Canada during the last two decades. Along with economic reforms in China came an influx of self-supporting individuals who studied or conducted research in major North-American universities and other research institutes. Many Chinese students and scholars have chosen to live on this continent, more or less permanently, as a result of the Tiananmen Square incidence in 1989. They have gradually been joined by their spouses and children and have formed a group of Chinese immigrants with a unique background. Unlike the new wave of immigrants from Hong Kong, most of whom are financially independent and have brought their considerable financial assets to the host country, these immigrants are not wealthy. The Chinese from PR China can be characterized as a group of well-educated students and professionals, mostly majoring in science and engineering. According to statistics, Chinese immigrants who claimed mainland China as their birth place accounted for 6.1% of all immigrants to Canada during the last decade (Statistics Canada, 1993).

Table of Contents

Adaptation to new cultural environments

The phenomenon of cross-cultural adjustment has extensively been studied by anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists who usually tried to identify 'stages' of cultural adjustment (Lysgaard, 1955; Oberg, 1960; Gullahorn & Gullahorn, 1963). These stages are often described as curves such as the U-curve discussed by Lysgaard (1955) which depicts the pattern of the changes an individual goes through during the adjustment process: The initial stage of euphoria is eventually replaced by feelings of insecurity and frustration, followed by a new sense of successful adaptation and ability to live and work in the new cultural environment. In a similar vein, Oberg (1960) coined the term culture shock. Here, the person in a new culture experiences confusion and disorientation, having lost all familiar signposts and landmarks of social interaction and, most importantly, the linguistic ability through which people are able to orient themselves within the socio--cultural fabric.

More recent studies examine cross-cultural adaptation together with communication (Taft, 1977; Spitzberg & Cupach, 1984; Kim, 1988). According to Kim (1988), a stranger's successful adaptation is possible only when she or he is able to communicate effectively with the host environment (p.85). In order to complete the adaptation to a new culture, a person has not only to be able to speak the host language (host communication competence) but also to think in native ways (complex cognitive structure) and to behave naturally according to the social roles as defined by the host society (behaviour competence). Finally, these strangers have to assume a psychological orientation that is 'favourable' to that of the host culture.

Table of Contents

Participants in the study

Nine Chinese students and ten parents in the cities of Saskatoon and Regina were interviewed. The students ranged in age from fourteen to eighteen years, and they attended grades IX, X and XII in public high schools. On average, they had been in Canada for about three years, ranging from five years to sixteen months.

Almost all the parents of the nine students agreed to be interviewed for the study. These families had a solid educational background, and at least one parent in each family had earned a Master's or doctoral degree in either Canada or China, mainly in the sciences or the humanities. Some of them were still graduate students, others worked on a casual, short-term contract basis or were employed as professionals. Interestingly enough, these families were, with only one exception, single-child families.

Six teachers and two counselors were interviewed in the school setting. They were either teaching the student participants in social studies, mathematics or science, or they were ESL teachers. The two counselors had less contact with Chinese students than expected, and they felt that "these kids have fewer problems than their peers do" or "they don't know much about school counseling and don't seem to feel comfortable using this service."

Table of Contents

Students' initial perceptions and experiences of adjustment

As is true for many adult immigrants, the initial stage of being in Canada was exciting, challenging and confusing for these children as they started attending school as soon as they arrived. On the first day, they were impressed by the friendly and relaxed atmosphere of their classrooms, especially in elementary schools. In high schools, they felt they had to take on more personal responsibilities than they usually would have in China.

The first few days also gave teachers the opportunity to assess the abilities and skills of their new students. Generally, teachers tended to expect too much regarding their oral and written English and to underestimate their skills in mathematics. For example, one student felt that the math problem he was asked to solve in grade VIII was similar to the ones he had to deal with in grade III in China. On the other hand, the teacher's request to write a report on Chinese education proved to be much too difficult!

Academic adjustment in mathematics and science

As one mathematics teacher stated,

In the math area, I do see the image of Chinese students in Canadian school being one of those hard working and diligent. Taking their language barrier into account, math is the area that they can succeed in. Among the average Canadian students in this building, they do have better working habits. In a general sense, I would say that Chinese students I have taught worked out to be the top five to ten percent in the last five years.

These students' performance in mathematics can be attributed to their previous educational experience in China where they received very intensive instruction in this subject throughout their elementary and secondary schooling on which they could build in the new country. At the same time, the participating teachers felt that mathematics is the subject area where it is easier for these students to succeed since fewer language skills are involved. As one female participant said,

I am not particularly interested in math, but math comes the easiest. It's because I don't need to develop anything. I was good at the beginning, and then I keep doing well.

This common experience of the participants allowed them to spend most of their time and effort on improving their English right from the beginning of their Canadian schooling. Being proficient in mathematics was also an important source of self-esteem which countered the adverse effects of culture shock since most of these students gained the respect of their teachers and classmates through demonstrating their ability to solve math and science problems.

Many studies have commented on Orientals' high scores in mathematics (Maher & Noddings, 1991; Stevenson, Lee, Chen, Lummis, Stigler, Fan & Ge, 1990), and although the explanations may vary, most parents participating in the study attributed their children's proficiency in mathematics to the solid foundations provided during their previous schooling in China and to the good working habits fostered throughout the years before they came to Canada. For example, these children had devoted many hours each day after school to homework in mathematics in addition to the intensive instruction and exercises during school hours. As the participants observed, in Saskatchewan high schools, students are required to hand in their assignments or homework a few times each term. Students' work is usually corrected in class by students comparing their homework to the correct answers given by the teacher. Unfortunately, this practice encourages some students not even to bother to do their homework. In China, teachers correct the students' assignments every day, giving teachers the opportunity to identify each individual student's problems and the causes for the mistakes they might have made.

Students' adjustment to examinations

In the opinion of many of the parents interviewed, the good marks their children obtained were partly the reflection of the pivotal role of examinations in Chinese schools. There, students are selected even for key elementary schools through entrance exams, and this practice is repeated in high schools and universities. The fact that even permission to attend advanced classes in a particular school is contingent upon passing an exam places tremendous pressure on students to pursue high marks. For instance, students are used to memorizing verbatim the definitions of concepts, rules and facts to obtain maximum marks. This rote memorization does not necessarily help them in Canadian schools, and although it may be helpful to quote from the text in exams, it will not necessarily guarantee the highest marks. As one teacher explained, the demands on students are more complex than in the past, and to be familiar with an issue, students may have to watch TV programs, read newspapers, magazines or other reference books in order to provide a comprehensive answer to a particular question.

Even for a science exam, not all pertinent aspects are discussed in the textbooks. One student mentioned that his social studies teachers liked to ask questions about the 'long-term' and the 'short-term' significance of an historical event, aspects that had not always been addressed by the textbook authors.

Nonetheless, another student felt that teachers at his school did not take exams as seriously as teachers in China did. They did not spend much time helping students to review the material that had to be covered for the exam, so that students would obtain the best possible marks. In contrast, Chinese teachers would look at the scores of their students as a means for measuring the quality of their teaching as well as measuring the ability of their students.

English language learning and cultural adjustment

Mastering the English language was certainly the major hurdle for all of these students. An ESL teacher commented on the problems they experienced,

Except for the students with disruptive refugee backgrounds who missed much of their formal schooling, Chinese students are the group who have the hardest time learning English. Their main problem is spoken English, whereas they do well in grammar and understanding. The typical student from China, I can see, can get through a demanding reading test with the use of dictionary, looking words up and getting the main ideas.

Although English has long been part of the elementary and secondary school curricula in China, the results are mediocre. Students' comments confirmed the findings of the literature. As Wong (1989) has pointed out, English is taught by teachers for whom English is a foreign language, and many of them are also poorly trained. Most importantly, Chinese teaching methodology usually lacks the emphasis on communicative competence which Western language teachers consider essential for effective second language learning.

Regardless of their initial English proficiency, all Chinese students entering Canadian classrooms were placed in an all-English school environment where their problems in understanding and expressing themselves in English not only resulted in difficulties getting decent marks but also in disorientation in their social lives because of their inability to function effectively in the spheres of language and culture.

One of the female students who had only recently arrived in Canada actually had wished to return to China after a few weeks. She was so depressed and felt so much stress and loneliness that she was ready 'to throw in the towel'. However, she knew that her chances to go to university and to study in the subject of her choice were much better in Canada than in China, and so she kept struggling. To make things worse, she would be graduating from high school next year, and there was little time left to improve her English. Meanwhile, she had completed all her credits in mathematics and science and was now able to concentrate on English and social studies. But she still felt lonely and had a very restricted social life. As her father mentioned, her only contact with people her age was with one or two girls who had attended the same ESL class.

The lack of familiarity with Canadian language and customs also had its humorous sides. One teacher recalled, he had told his students they could call him about an assignment at night or during the weekend if need be, and one of his Chinese students actually did call him -- in the middle of the night.

For other student participants, adjustment to Canadian culture was less 'hazardous'. One student said he was very enthusiastic learning English and participating in his peer culture: His room was full of youth magazines, and the walls were decorated with posters of popular athletes and movie stars. Talking to his peers was an important means of learning both language and culture, and therefore he spent much of his time with his Canadian friends after school or on weekends. Another student recalled his five years of learning English:

I did not start making very close friends until I moved to school X. By then I had graduated from my ESL class. My English was good enough for my classes, but I still had problems expressing my feelings and communicating with others. I made three close friends during that time, and I learned a lot from them. . . . [In high school] the classes were not that tough, except for English where I had an average of seventy percent in grade IX. I had learned many new things about English literature, including word choice, grammar and sentence structure. After that year, my English mark rose to eighty-five percent. . . . Looking back through my five years here, there are stresses and happiness. I don't know exactly how I adjusted to Canadian schooling, but I remember I was even afraid to go out when I had just arrived here. Now I feel good about myself like anyone else.

Researchers in second language acquisition point out that, while immigrant children usually learn adequate social functioning in English within two years, it typically takes six to seven years for them to catch up to grade norm in academic performance in English (Ashworth, 1975; Wong, 1989). Teachers must therefore be cautious in deducing how well an immigrant student has adjusted. Zhang (1991) reported that many adult Chinese students may reach a desirable level of writing competency but remain poor in oral fluency after years of studying in English. Most of the students in the present study also mentioned that they usually received a lower mark for oral presentations than for written assignments.

One of the students who attended the International Baccalaureate Program (IB) was apparently doing quite well in English as well as in mathematics. In his view, he managed to get marks at around 80% for English, and he believed he would receive about 90% if he were in the regular high school program. He explained:

God knows how much time I devoted to English study. I seldom go to bed before midnight. Once I worked on a poem till next morning and got back a good mark. . . . Ask about my strategy to learn English? No trick! Spend as much time as you can to polish your writing until you feel this is the best you can do to the piece of work. I also carefully read through all the teachers' corrections and comments on my assignments to avoid making the same mistakes next time and learn something new perhaps. I go back to ask questions about the feedback if I don't quite get it. My hard work is rewarding, too. I probably need to work more efficiently.

It is interesting to note that this student also chose to take French, and he even had a French tutor for two summers to catch up with his fellow students since he had not taken any French before.

ESL classes were seen as a mixed blessing. One of the female students who had been in Canada for three years and at the graduation ceremony eventually received an award for the highest mark in grade XII commented that

. . . of course, my English was bad at the beginning. I could read but not speak to others . . . .ESL didn't help me very much because, I think, all the people around you didn't speak English, and they didn't have a Canadian cultural background either. I learn English more from TV shows and talking to people around me. In ESL, the only chance to learn English was during class when the teacher talked. The teacher also introduced something about culture, but I didn't really get into it. . . .

Adjustment to social studies and extra-curricular activities

Chinese students were seen as being weak in social studies. According to one counselor, some of them lacked background knowledge in certain areas such as the history of western countries. In addition, teachers pointed at the differences between Canadian and Chinese teaching methods. They saw Chinese pedagogy as being more traditional, more like the schools in North America decades ago:

The criteria for education are broad. For example, in history you need a good thesis topic, analytical and critical thinking. Traditionally, you only needed good background knowledge which you can get from reading books. Another aspect is mastering the spoken language through class presentations. However, the demands are now much higher than they were in the 1950's. You have to argue and defend your opinions.

Chinese students were less than their fellow students involved in extra-curricular activities or other after-school programs. Some of the teachers remarked that they usually see their Chinese students in the library or in the computer room, and occasionally they play badminton or work on a fine arts project: "They, perhaps, do not have time or do not have the same interests as others", explained one teacher.

This explanation was confirmed by most Chinese students who mentioned that the popular sports in China were table tennis, badminton, soccer and basketball, rather than hockey, baseball or football. Another student confessed that he did not feel comfortable participating in sports that involved too much body contact.

Adjusting to the classroom environment

"Canadian teachers often tell jokes in class," was the unanimous comment of the student participants. "They allow students to talk about matters unrelated to the topic under discussion and to leave the classroom during the lesson for all sorts of trivial reasons." At times these students had the impression that the teacher was virtually not teaching at all. They were surprised by the relaxed and friendly classroom atmosphere which occasionally seemed to lack serious educational purpose.

These observations have to be seen against the backdrop of the typical Chinese classroom where student-teacher interactions are characterized by formality, mutual respect and emphasis on the business of learning. Some of the Canadian teachers who participated in the study were very well aware of these cultural differences, especially in student-teacher relationships, and they felt it would take their Chinese students some time to adjust to this unfamiliar experience.

Table of Contents

Family influence and parents' perceptions

The family is the first and foremost place for the child's early socialization, and for these Chinese adolescents, the teaching of family values is both subtle and pervasive. As Stevenson (1992) points out, in Chinese culture, the child is obliged to study and obtain knowledge and skills in order to serve society as soon as he or she starts formal schooling. As the student participants commented, the tenor of their socialization was: "Finish your work first, then you can go and play." For this purpose, parents gave their children extra homework to enhance the understanding of what had been taught in class or to perfect certain skills by encouraging more practice.

Chinese parents cared very much about their children's marks and ranking in class. They expected them to belong to the top group. In turn, children worked hard not only for their own future but also to live up to their parents' expectations. As one student put it,

I have my own philosophy, like in anything I do, I should be the best, stand out in the crowd. I don't know why, to make my parents proud of me? If I am not smart enough, I should work hard for it. For my English class, I have to do homework to get good marks. But for math, I don't need to work hard to be the best.

The students also mentioned that their parents tended to gradually decrease their involvement in the children's lives, especially with regard to personal and educational aspects. 'Being a good student' is internalized early so that the parents' constant supervision of their children becomes unnecessary once they reach adolescence. Thus, it appears that these Chinese students are motivated to achieve and to excel as the result of their socialization.

Searching for a compromise

Nonetheless, parents are fully aware of the possible conflict between Chinese traditional values and Canadian culture and the harm that could be inflicted on the child by insisting on doing things the Chinese way. For instance, some parents criticized the way a traditional Chinese family treats their child.

Chinese people tend to have high expectations of their children. They are not satisfied with their own achievement and tend to make the child work hard to be perfect. This puts too much pressure on the child.

Therefore, they try to find a compromise between this kind of pressure and over-protection and the way in which Canadian families allow their children to make decisions for themselves. The Chinese adolescents thought that the fact that they now had more freedoms than they had had in China was the result of the influence of Canadian culture on their parents after years of being here, and they are now allowed to socialize with their friends after having done their homework. For example, they can go out after supper, but they have to let their parents know where they are going and when they will be back. Although none of the male participants admitted they had a girl friend, they said they would not be afraid to tell their parents.

But despite the fact that many parents felt they had found a workable compromise between traditional Chinese values and Canadian ways of doing things, some of the Chinese teenagers still felt restricted in their quest for independence. As one participant complained, she wanted to study at a certain university in Canada, but her parents insisted that she attend the local university so that she could live with her parents.

Table of Contents

Choosing a career

In North America, the Chinese are over-represented in the fields of science, engineering and medicine. Vernon (1980) found that three times as many Chinese-Canadians in Calgary had obtained university degrees than would be expected from their total number in the population. He also stated that most Chinese-Canadian graduates of the University of Calgary had majored in engineering. physics and the life sciences.

The interviews conducted for the present study revealed that these Chinese adolescents are still looking at these more practical fields for their future careers. Interestingly enough, their decision was less influenced by personal interest than by the perceived prospects in the job market and/or by financial considerations. Family influence on their career choice was evident since there was no discrepancy between the students' choice and their parents' expectations. Of all the nine students, four had already been accepted by different universities, i.e., two in Commerce and one in Pharmacy and Engineering each; the other students indicated they would likely enter programs in Engineering, Accounting and Dentistry. They were possibly also encouraged by affirmative action policies of government agencies and businesses to venture into careers which require good interpersonal skills.

Table of Contents

Teachers' perceptions and concerns

The teachers participating in the study generally held favourable views of their Chinese students, and they seemed to appreciate certain elements of Chinese education such as the development of a good work ethic and the effective transmission of basic skills and knowledge since these elements were seen as the essential function of the school. On the other hand, they had some reservations regarding the students' limited involvement in extra-curricular activities. In general, however, teachers felt there were both high and low achievers among their Chinese students as much as in any other racial group. The fact that the families' socio--economic background is highly influential in students' academic achievement was seen as being confirmed in the case of their Chinese students, but, in the teachers' opinion, it also applied to students from other ethnic backgrounds.

For instance, as one teacher remarked, other Canadian students were by no means lagging behind Chinese students in terms of academic achievement, although the latter tended to score higher in mathematics in some cases. As he saw it,

we try to develop a child from a whole range instead of simply passing on the knowledge from textbooks. . . To me, the Chinese way of educating the child today sounds more like the practice twenty or thirty years ago in Canada.

In particular, Canadian schools emphasize developing students' verbal ability and research skills. They learn to select research topics, check information sources, interview people etc. These positive aspects were acknowledged by the participating parents who were amazed by the learning experiences of their children in Canadian schools such as field work, class presentations and many other in-class activities. Even for a lab report in a chemistry class a Canadian teacher would let students fully develop their ideas and ask them to write a comprehensive report, whereas a Chinese teacher would likely have students fill in the blanks on a work sheet.

The teaching of mathematics was a topic of special interest because the scope and the proficiency of students' mathematics skills are of great importance in an increasingly technological society. "As math teachers we are concerned about our students," one teacher explained,

I have to go through a kind of circle to bring them along. Some students spend a considerable amount of time on fractions even in grades IX or X. We don't get the bare bones of twelve years worth of time. As we repeat things twice or three times, students begin to lose concentration.

In his opinion, mathematics, like many other subjects, should teach the fundamentals. After more than thirty years of teaching, he felt that his approach was rather consistent with teaching mathematics in China, and he preferred the traditional teaching method because of the nature of mathematics as a subject.

Table of Contents

How to interpret the findings?

Despite the fact that their present schools are very different from those in China, these students enjoyed their new experiences and were happy to associate with their Canadian friends and teachers. After overcoming the language barrier in a relatively short time, they used to study hard and did well in their academic pursuits as they had been taught throughout their childhood. According to their teachers, they had good attendance records, were conscientious in handing in their assignments, asked questions in and out of class, and usually ranked among the top twenty percent in their class, especially in mathematics: Only on a few occasions did their report cards show marks of 60%, mainly due to the difficulties they encountered when taking English or French for the first time. Five out of the nine students were on their school's honour roll for which the average mark for all subjects had to be at least 90%, and no single subject could be lower than 75%. Four of the students had received academic awards.

Family influence was less of a factor in the students' adjustment than expected. This finding may partly be explained by the parents' willingness to grant their children more liberties than they would have had in their traditional Chinese environment, and this willingness appears to reflect the impact of Canadian social and cultural values on immigrant families. And yet, there was evidence of the student participants' loyalty to their Chinese traditions. For instance, the strong commitment to do well at school and to work hard for it echoes the family values that were emphasized by the parents. This congruence of the students' and parents' attitudes towards education and the subsequent career choices suggests that the core values of Chinese families are upheld across the generations.

The finding that these Chinese youth appeared to adjust rather smoothly to Canadian schools may need more elaboration. Apart from all the positive factors that make adjustment less stressful, Lysgaard (1955) mentions the possibility that positive memories generate a sense of optimism when an individual experiences a new cultural environment:

We cannot refute for certain the possibility that it is really not adjustment that is generalized, but the memory or perception of this adjustment: One may not remember, or perhaps, one did not at the time perceive, failures in one instance if success was achieved in some others. There may be a tendency to register only the good things. Or, if certain failures were especially prominent, one may have forgotten, or did not even at the time perceive, successes that one really had in other instances. (p.48)

The participants' family backgrounds were found to be similar although these immigrants came from different parts of China and had been in Canada for different lengths of time. Parents and students valued their educational experiences in Canada, providing them opportunities for greater personal and occupational advancement, regardless of whether they would stay in Canada or return to China. Some of the parents experienced difficulties in finding adequate employment, but they chose to remain in Canada largely because they were convinced that their children were going to have a more promising future in Canada.

These families' membership in a voluntary minority group, together with their socio--economic status, facilitated their children's adjustment process in that the parents were not only willing but also capable of assisting their children in overcoming difficulties. Instead of exercising strict supervision and telling their children what to do, they promoted their children's adaptation by providing a supportive family environment, information about the host country's culture and, most importantly, showing their own positive attitude towards the Canadian way of life. After all, as mature adults they understand the stresses and dislocations their children are likely to experience in their new environment since they themselves had to struggle with these issues.

For these Chinese students, their personal aspirations played an important part in shaping their attitudes towards their academic studies and their behaviour in school. Their previous school experience in China helped them in their successful adjustment as well. In particular, they had at an early age internalized the emphasis on learning as serious and hard work as had been required through the rigorous teaching and learning methods in their Chinese schools, especially in the teaching of mathematics.

In the area of English or language arts, the initial difficulties were considerable for these Chinese students. First of all, all of the participating students had very limited communication skills in the English language which can be attributed to the rather lopsided language teaching methods which emphasize grammar and translations rather than communicative competence. Secondly, it is likely more difficult for a Chinese to learn English than for other immigrants since there is a major difference between logographs and the alphabet.

With regard to social studies and the humanities, these Chinese students enjoyed the opportunity to be creative in what and how they learned, despite the fact that many of them still had difficulties in expressing themselves in class presentations. Some of the students mentioned their interest in the study of history since history provided them with a better understanding of Western society.

To sum up, Chinese education appears to be highly successful in developing students' math skills through systematic and meticulous teaching and a massive amount of homework. On the other hand, shortcomings in the teaching of social science and humanities subjects are also apparent. Finally, the strong motivation to be successful in their academic studies can at least partially be attributed to the constantly fierce competition in Chinese education, especially at the high-school level, which leaves many students over-burdened and frustrated. Chinese parents, educators and scholars have become critical of the existing problems in the Chinese education system and teaching methods, and they generally point at the heavy workload for young students and the unduly high pressure of examinations.

Because of their generally solid background in mathematics, the Chinese students were able to concentrate their efforts on learning English. Both parents and students agreed that the schools' ESL programs and the ESL teachers in particular were outstanding in assisting students in their cultural and linguistic transition. In many instances, these students and their parents were more comfortable talking to the ESL teachers than to other teachers or school counselors. The ESL teachers' involvement in counseling their immigrant students was also appreciated by the counselors that were interviewed.

Whereas the U-curve model of cultural adjustment did not seem to fit the experiences of the participating students -- they did not experience feeling of excitement and elation when they arrived in their new cultural environment -- the adaptive pattern for the 'stranger' in a new culture who develops 'host cultural competence through personal ties' (Kim, 1988) certainly applied. Some of the students have already learned to think 'in the Canadian way' and showed a fair degree of individualism, which is definitely not encouraged in Chinese cultural traditions.

Table of Contents

Implications for Canadian education

Parental involvement in education is commonly understood as participation in the school's activities that are organized by teachers or other school personnel. Although the parents interviewed for this study were rarely involved as volunteers or participants in school functions, their commitment to their children's education was tremendous, such as their deep concern for the children's academic work, monitoring and supporting their adjustment to school life, and teaching them respect for their teachers.

Many Canadian parents also acknowledge the importance of family influence on their children's academic success. However, they may not always accept the supervision of their children's academic work as a major part of their responsibilities. Based on the findings of this study, sharing the task of education and learning between parents and teachers might go a long way in improving students' performance in schools and beyond.

In China, academic achievement is the central objective for teachers and schools. For a variety of reasons, the goals of Canadian education are subject to many different and often divergent influences, and academic achievement at times becomes subordinate to other, perhaps more pressing agendas. And yet, schools (and teachers and parents) have to decide which goals ought to have priority, and this decision may greatly affect Canadian educational practices in various ways.

Chinese schools tend to have larger class sizes, ranging from fifty to sixty students. Teachers are trained as specialists in one subject area, even in elementary education. As a result, they enjoy more time outside the classroom than their North-American counterparts in both elementary and secondary schools (Stevenson, 1992). Thus, they also have more opportunities to interact with other teachers or to consult with the master teachers, as well as having more time to spend on lesson preparation. More time outside the classroom also allows them to deal with individual students who have special needs and who, under ordinary circumstances, would slow down the rest of the class. The fact that Canadian teachers are expected to take on a variety of roles rather than concentrate on what they have been trained for, namely effectively teaching their subject areas, not only places a heavy emotional burden on teachers but also drains their time and energy away from focusing on their students' intellectual development. Here, again, the role of parents emerges as a crucial part of a child's education: Meeting their children's emotional and physical needs, and helping their children to keep up with the rest of the class is primarily the responsibility of the family.

The argument can be advanced that Canadian classrooms, in contrast to those in China, are usually composed of students from a great variety of cultural backgrounds, thus calling for implementing the principles of multicultural education such as fostering pride in minority cultures, helping students from minority groups to gain insights into their own as well as other cultures and combating prejudice and racism. However, multicultural education has also been criticized as an "inadequate strategy" to enhance the academic performance of minorities (Ogbu, 1992). As Ogbu has argued, multicultural education must not absolve students from minority groups (and their parents) from taking responsibility for their own learning. This study suggests that minority groups can (and actually do) benefit from multicultural education in Canadian classrooms if they assume responsibility for their academic success, rather than blaming the attitudes of schools and their teachers for the lack of relevance and, therefore, for the failure of children

However, it would be overly simplistic to apply the findings of this study uncritically to other minority groups because of the differences in culture, history and social organization. But since the key to greater academic success seems to lie in the early socialization experiences of children, the solution to the problem of serving the educational needs of all children may be related to the following questions: How can we change the attitudes of some minority groups towards education? What needs to be done to generate an optimistic outlook with regard to future employment and to believe in equal opportunities for the graduates of our schools and colleges?

What should be studied next?

Due to the small sample size and due to the fact that all of the families participating in this study could be characterized as middle class, the findings need to be compared to Chinese families in cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal where the socio--economic mix can be assumed to be greater. By extending the sample population to groups with a variety of occupational backgrounds, such research would provide a broader picture of Chinese cultural influence on students' school achievement and their adaptation process. A more comprehensive study would also allow taking more variables in students' adjustment experience into account. For example, the influence of Chinese peer groups may affect the process of adaptation to the new culture both positively or negatively.

Comparative studies in academic achievement and attitudes towards education between different ethno-cultural groups would help in expanding the literature on the effects of cultural traits on school success. Particularly, the comparison of students from Caucasian and non-Caucasian middle-class families would further illuminate the influences of cultural values and traditions on educational perceptions and practices. Of special interest would be studies of aboriginal students who have been identified in the literature as being generally less successful in education, by including the variables or facts that are considered determinative or facilitating in Chinese immigrants' upwards mobility in education (Ogbu, 1992).

Table of Contents


Antonowski, A. (1987). Unraveling the mystery of health: How people manage stress and stay well. San Francisco: Jusey-Bass.

Ashworth, M. (1975). Immigrant children and Canadian schools. Toronto: McClelland & Steward.

Chen, C. (1989). A study of Chinese and American children's attitudes toward schooling. Paper presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Kansas City, MO, April.

Fairchild, H.P. (1967). Dictionary of sociology and related sciences. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Co.

Gardon, R.A. (1987). The second IEA mathematics study. Comparative Education Review, 31.

Gullahorn, J.T. & J.E. Gullahorn (1963). An extension of the U-curve hypothesis. Journal of Social Issues. 19.

Hess, R.D., C. Chang & T. McDevitt (1986). Cultural variations in family beliefs about children's performance in mathematics: Comparisons among the People's Republic of China, Chinese-American, and Caucasian-American families. ERIC Document No. ED 265962.

Kim, Y.Y. (1988). Communication and cross-cultural adaptation: An integrative theory. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters.

Li, P. (1988). The Chinese in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Lysgaard, S. (1955). Adjustment in a foreign society: Norwegian Fulbright Grantees visiting the United States. International Social Science Bulletin,7.

McKnight, C.C., F.J. Crosswright, F.J. Dossey, E. Kiefer, J.O. Swafford, K.J Travers &T.J.Cooney (1987). The understanding of curriculum: Assessing U.S. school mathematics from an international perspective. Champaign, IL.: Stipes

Oberg,K. (1960). Culture shock. Adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology. 7.

Ogbu, J.U. (1983). Minority status and schooling in plural societies. Comparative Education Review, June.

Ogbu, J.U. (1987). Variability in minority school performance: A problem in search of an explanation. Anthropology and Education Quarterly,18 (4).

Ogbu, J.U. (1990). Minority status and literacy in comparative perspective. Daedalus, 119, (2).

Ogbu, J.U. (1992). Adaptation to minority status and impact on school success. Theory and Practice,31 (4).

Philips, S.U. (1972). Participant structure and communicative competence: Warm Springs children in community and classroom. In C.B. Cazden, D. Hymes & V. John (eds.), Functions of language in the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Philips, S.U. (1983). The invisible culture: Communication in classroom and community on the Warm Springs Indian Reserve. New York: Longman.

Spitzberg, B.H. & W.R. Cupach (1984). Interpersonal communication competence. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Stevenson, H.W. (1992). Learning from Asian schools. Scientific American. December.

Stevenson, H.W., S. Lee, C. Chen, J.W. Stigler, C.C. Hu & S. Kitamura (1992). Context of achievement: A study of American, Chinese, and Japanese children. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. 221. (55).

Taft, R. (1957). A psychological model for the study of social assimilation. Human Relations, 10, (2).

Wong, M.G. (1989). Model students? Teachers' perceptions and expectations of their Asian and White students. Sociology of Education. 53.

Yao, E.L. & F.D. Kierstead (1984). Can Asian educational systems be models for American education? An appraisal. NASSP Bulletin, December.

Zhang, L. (1991). Adjustment experience of PR China graduate students. Unpublished master's thesis, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.

Table of Contents

Back to: Students - Diverse Needs