Extracurricular activities for children in China have limited practicality

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In the United States, parents typically enroll their children in extracurricular activities with the goal of helping them improve their personal and academic outcomes. However, according to researchers at Penn State and Shandong Normal University in China, investing resources in extracurricular activities is not an effective strategy for Chinese families due to an education system that prioritizes entrance exams over high-stakes university rather than interpersonal skills development.

“The biggest difference (between Chinese and American attitudes towards extracurricular activities) comes from an education system designed fundamentally differently,” said Katerina Bodovski, professor of education (educational theory and policy) at Penn State’s College of Education.

Bodovski has spent a significant portion of his career studying parenting practices and cultural capital in the context of education systems in the United States, Eastern Europe, and particularly Russia. In the field of sociology, cultural capital refers to general skills, attitudes, beliefs, style of speech, style of dress, etc. that promote social mobility in a stratified society. Research has shown that by participating in cultural activities – for example art, music and structured extracurricular activities – students gain opportunities to accumulate cultural capital that facilitates their social mobility.

“My research is part of the body of research that examines not only the role of social status or family income, but also more general skills / knowledge that play a role in shaping various educational outcomes.” , said Bodovski.

In a new article, “An Active Investment in Cultural Capital: Structured Extracurricular Activities and Educational Success in China,” Bodovski worked with lead author Minda Tan, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Education, Shandong Normal University. , and Liangliang Cai, another faculty member of Shandong Normal University, using a set of techniques to study the mechanism by which participation in structured extracurricular activities affects students’ academic performance. The researchers used data from the China Education Panel Survey (CEPS) administered by the National Survey Research Center at Renmin University of China. The database is designed to study the influence of family, school and community on the academic performance of high school students.

“It’s the same conceptual framework that I have been using for almost 20 years,” Bodovski said. “And now we have this opportunity to test this model in a different national context.”

The article recently published in Youth Studies Journal.

Tan, who graduated from Penn State in May 2020 with a double doctorate in comparative and international education, said he was inspired to continue researching the role of extracurricular activities in the Chinese education system in part by reading an assigned book in one of Bodovski’s classes. : “Unequal childhoods: class, race and family life”, a 2003 ethnographic study by Annette Lareau which examines the impact of social class on parenthood and family life.

“This was the first time I seriously thought about the impact of social stratification and family differences on children’s educational experiences,” Tan said.

In their article, Tan, Cai, and Bodovski cite research from the Chinese Childhood Development Annual Report showing that in 2018, more than 60% of Chinese elementary and secondary school students participated in structured after-school activities and that the average student expenditure for these activities was 9,211 yuan. , which represented 12.84% of parental income.

“The existing literature increasingly recognizes that structured extracurricular activities after school can promote ‘comprehensive education for the child’ by improving children’s soft skills and facilitating their academic development,” the authors wrote in their report. article.






Katerina Bodovski, Professor of Education (Educational Theory and Policy) at Penn State’s College of Education, discusses the fundamental differences between the education systems of the East and the West. Credit: Pennsylvania State University

Analyzing CEPS data, the researchers found that, consistent with previous findings in the Chinese context, the family’s high socioeconomic status and high school ranking increase the likelihood of eighth graders to participate in extracurricular activities. . However, unlike the results of studies conducted in Western settings, researchers have found that engaging in extracurricular activities organized after school does not directly or indirectly benefit students’ academic performance.

Additionally, the researchers found that “engagement in extracurricular activities appears to have little direct or indirect relationship to students’ social relationships, including frequently received praise from teachers and supportive friendships.”

According to Bodovski and Tan, the usefulness of extracurricular activities in China is limited due to cultural factors and the structure of the education system. For starters, the popularity of extracurricular activities may reinforce educational inequity because families with limited means may not be able to afford them.

“Parents need to be careful when they are involved in this ‘arms race’ between families, as children can neither benefit academically from participating in extracurricular activities nor feel happy in the process,” said Tan said.

Rather than investing money in extracurricular activities, he added, he believes that a more effective strategy for families with limited financial means is to invest financial resources in additional educational activities after the school year. school.

Additionally, Bodovski said, most of the existing research that has demonstrated a positive association between active investment in cultural capital and educational success has been conducted in a Western context. In countries like China, Russia and South Korea, education systems are distinguished by high-stakes university entrance exams, where test scores are the main determining factor for admission to college. ‘university. Participation in extracurricular activities does not tip the scales in favor of admitting a student to a university.

According to Bodovski, the East-West differences in college admission criteria are not simply cultural or philosophical, but rather the result of opposing institutional paradigms. In Eastern countries like China, school systems are very centralized and the Chinese central government guides educational standards. The United States, on the other hand, “lacks the capacity to make regulations because states, school districts, and even schools have some degree of autonomy over what is taught and how. (knowledge) is tested ”.

Another barrier to participating in extracurricular activities in the form of time management is the highly competitive entrance exams, the researchers cited in their article. Chinese secondary schools are characterized by a long school day and a heavy school load.

“The growing involvement and family investment in extracurricular activities indicates that the trade-off between children’s limited leisure time and non-academic skills is seen to provide relatively high returns for students,” the authors wrote. “However, little empirical evidence supports its positive impact in an education system very different from those in Western contexts.”

Tan said that due to mass media and increased awareness of American culture, many Chinese parents may have been influenced to adopt Western parenting practices such as enrolling their children in extracurricular activities. Additionally, Chinese parents tend to be particularly interested in using education as a way to help their children improve their social status. This anxiety is compounded by the fact that, unlike the United States, there are relatively few highly rated universities and therefore individuals have limited avenues for success.

“Chinese parents and students believe that they can take advantage of education to maintain or promote their current social status,” Tan said. “That is why they are willing to invest in their children’s education, whatever the cost, sometimes.”

Bodovkski and Tan pointed out that a myriad of cultural practices impact different attitudes towards extracurricular activities, including the limited role of sports scholarships in non-Western cultures. They added that parents with considerable financial resources who wish to cultivate their children’s cultural capital in countries like China and South Korea may choose to bypass the highly competitive testing systems of their home country by sending their children at universities in the United States or Europe.


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More information:
Minda Tan et al, Active investment in cultural capital: structured extracurricular activities and educational success in China, Youth Studies Journal (2021). DOI: 10.1080 / 13676261.2021.1939284

Provided by Pennsylvania State University

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