Sunday, 9 December 2012

China's prodigy whiz kid wants to quit school and a quiet life

Shaoyi: Is more comfortable expressing his ideas online.
 
Feng Shaoyi, a 10-year-old junior high school student, has become an online sensation for his micro blog posts about re-inventing education in the Internet era. 

FENG Shaoyi has been hounded by the media after his recent online post about his intention to quit school went viral on Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. It has attracted more than 7,000 comments and was forwarded more than 18,000 times.

The junior high school student has attracted so much attention because he’s too young to drop out. And his harsh yet insightful criticisms of the education system surprised many, especially considering he hasn’t reached his teens.

While many children his age aspire to become scientists like Einstein, Shaoyi argues that people with such “lofty ideals” are destructive to the planet. For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity led to the atomic bomb.

“My dream is to live with the girl I love. It doesn’t matter if I have to cut firewood and pick up rags for a living,” Shaoyi writes.

He claims that he wants to pursue his ideals right away instead of wasting time on “meaningless” homework and exams.

“What is the use of studying? Is it getting high marks and ranks to compete with my buddies for the limited places in top high schools?” the precocious boy writes.

Immediately after his remarks were posted, the media began telephoning Shaoyi’s father day and night. They also converged at the boy’s school in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, to pull him out of an ongoing class for interviews.

“I’m tired of interviews. It’s unscrupulous of some media to defame me,” Shaoyi tells China Daily.

He is referring to a report that quoted him as saying his actions are publicity stunts and that he enjoys seeing so many comments and an increasing number of followers.

“I didn’t say that,” Shaoyi says, grimacing while staring at the floor.

“I said it’s good that my posts have prompted people to reflect on the current school system. I wanted to attract the public’s attention to the contents of my postings, not toward me.”

Shaoyi turned up for the interview with China Daily dressed in colourful clothes, carrying a backpack and wearing a cap bearing the autographs of two of his idols from the aerobatics team of the Zhuhai Air Show.

On his micro blog, he’s outspoken, aggressive and sounds like an adult. For example, he slammed an official’s idea to invest millions to cultivate sorghum to attract tourists to Gaomi, Shandong province – the hometown of Mo Yan, Chinese Nobel Literature Prize winner.

But in person, his chubby cheeks and childish voice give away his age. In contrast to his posts, his demeanour is sombre and pensive.

His answers to many questions are: “I don’t know how to answer the question”, or, “I don’t want to talk about it”.

As he puts it: “I’m more comfortable expressing my ideas online in forums and weibo, and while chatting with my friends on QQ (an instant messaging service popular in China). I’m inspired only when I sit in front of the computer.”

The boy didn’t tell his father in person about his intention to drop out of school but, instead, added his father’s micro blog account in his message to catch his attention.

Shaoyi has impressed many readers with his knowledge. In addition to musing about Einstein and Mo Yan, he also left incisive comments on current affairs, including China’s crisis of confidence in charity and the popularity of dating and job-hunting reality TV shows in the country that reflect the difficulties Chinese face in relationships and employment.

His online postings reveal he’s a military enthusiast who’s well-versed in the different generations of China’s carrier-borne fighter planes. Many were also surprised to read the 10-year-old’s analysis of the differences between Obama and Romney.

“I’ve acquired all the extra knowledge from the Internet. Schoolteachers didn’t teach us that. They’re busy feeding us what’s in the textbooks,” Shaoyi says.

“Teachers think we kids know little about things like the US presidential election. But, in fact, many of my friends and I learned about it online.”

The inquisitive student usually turns to the Internet, rather than to his teachers, for answers to questions that pop up when he reads textbooks.

He once embarrassed his Chinese teacher by asking why some dinosaurs had feathers.

“The teacher didn’t know the answer. I searched for it on the Internet on my own, afterward,” Shaoyi recalls.

“The Web satisfies my curiosity better than school.”

Du Fang, Shaoyi’s favourite Chinese teacher during his primary school years, admits teachers are increasingly pressured to know more than their core subjects because students are exposed to a wide range of online information.

“If I fail to answer a question raised by my student, I will tell him or her that I’m not almighty,” Du says.

“As a teacher, I am here to guide them to distinguish between good and bad, and true from false, so they can make good use of online information.”

Shaoyi’s father, Feng Yingang, agrees the Internet can’t replace scholastic education.

“My son still needs guidance to sift through information on the Internet and build his knowledge base. He is like a kung fu lover, who learns all kinds of martial arts moves but lacks the internal strength to master them,” Feng says.

“It would be great if the schoolteachers can guide my son.”

Shaoyi also admits that he has difficulties digesting the glut of online information.

“I will enjoy school’s lessons better if the teachers can discuss hot issues related to the subject and tell us what materials we can refer to better understand these issues,” the boy says.

“But teachers just regurgitate textbooks’ texts.”

Shaoyi says some textbooks are outdated. For example, he owned his first cell phone at three and is able to download pictures with smartphones. But his computer science textbook covers basics like search engine use.

He also complains about junior high’s heavy study load.

During his primary school days, classes were over at 4.30pm, and he had time for his hobbies. But in junior high, he leaves home at 6am and classes end at 6pm. He goes home and does homework until 10pm.

“School life seems to be all about classes, homework, exams and rankings. Students who score well in exams are called good students, while those who don’t ask teachers questions during the 10-minute break between classes are labelled bad students,” Shaoyi says, crossing his arms and scowling.

Between mumbles, he reveals his aspiration is to become head of state so he can make everyone happy.

He says he doesn’t talk about his dream because everyone seems more concerned about how important it is to get into a top high school, then a top university and, finally, find a good job.

He doesn’t believe this is the ideal route.

Shaoyi writes on Sina Weibo: “Almost everyone in China will say there’s something wrong with you if you tell them your life ambition is to become president, but people in the US would encourage you.”

Whiz kid wants a quiet life

Feng Shaoyi and his father, Feng Yingang, in Zhuhai, Guangdong province..

Feng Shaoyi completed his primary school education within three years, rather than the typical six.

The 10-year-old even had time during those three years to act in TV dramas.

The boy claims that in primary school, he was able to finish reading a textbook in five hours and only needed the same amount of time to memorize a whole chapter, which took his teachers a whole week to teach.

His wish is to be homeschooled and only go to school for exams. Feng says he can ask his dad or surf the "powerful" Internet for answers if he has questions.

His father, Feng Yingang, who works as the sales director of a Shanghai-headquartered chemical company, believes it's unrealistic for him to find the time to tutor his son at home.

"My son wrote the online application asking to quit school to relieve stress, and to seek my attention and comfort. He didn't even know what quitting school really meant until I talked to him," the father says.

"He didn't mean he wanted to drop out. He just wanted a break."

Feng's father believes his son is still adapting to junior high. The boy feels stress about failing his first English examination, he says.

"I can understand why junior high teachers focus so much on grades and rankings," the dad says.

"It's because students need to score high marks to get into high school, which isn't guaranteed by the compulsory nine-year education policy."

He never submitted the leave application that he had completed for his son.

The boy says he still plans to study hard and end up in a good high school and university. "I was just asking for more freedom and a more relaxed studying environment," he says.

"I posted the message online because I believe school education could be improved if more people demand change after reading it."

But the public spotlight's sudden glare has proven too much for the boy.

He says he wants to "study and live a quiet life", and pay no heed to the comments about him - be they praises or criticisms.

"He may end up more stressed out if he really leaves school to study at home: All eyes will be on him, monitoring his performance," says Feng Yingang, who has requested that the teachers at his son's junior high school turn down media requests.

Du Fang, Feng Shaoyi's primary school teacher, was also cautious when talking about the boy.

"(He's) sometimes clever, sometimes mature and sometimes childish," she says.

She made these comments while in Beijing for training. "He's special to me," she says.

"To protect him, I can't say more until I return to Zhuhai and talk to him about his thoughts. After all, he's just a kid."

By Xu Jingxi www.chinadailyapac.com 
xujingxi@chinadaily.com.cn

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