08/29/2014 01:40 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2014

Everyone Admires China's Great Education System -- Except the Chinese

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Chinese are eating our lunch, in part because of the superiority of their education system. In 2012, the year of the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Shanghai, China led the rankings, followed by other Asian nations with very similar approaches to education. China may be a fearsome economic competitor, but it is not because their education is superb. If you don't believe me, take it from a group of Chinese college students.

Several weeks ago I was challenged with the fascinating task of explaining progressive education to a delegation of 30 or so of China's best and brightest. These handpicked university students were in the midst of a several week visit to the United States.

I entered the NYU classroom to a respectful round of applause. The clapping ended abruptly and there I stood, staring at 30 expressionless faces, young women and men sitting at desks in neat rows, all dressed similarly. The casual banter I usually use to relax a group was like pulling teeth. I finally drew a forced smile or two and learned that this was the first visit to the United States for all of them.

A progressive approach to education is hard enough to explain to a group of neurotic Manhattan parents. Here, I thought, language and cultural barriers would make my philosophical, neurobiological, psychological and educational musings sound like utter gibberish. (Which is also how some Manhattan parents hear it!)

But I forged earnestly ahead, as I couldn't think of anything better to present that wouldn't be equally opaque. I talked about Dewey, Froebel, Pestalozzi, Montessori, John Holt and Howard Gardner. I raged against rote learning, cited the abuse of long hours of tedious homework, railed against No Child Left Behind, pointed out that grade-level expectations are crazy when children are not level, argued that humans learn best through experience, ranted about the importance of play. I tried to moderate my cadence to meet their language skills, whatever they were. Now and then I would interject, "Are you understanding this?" and receive a very tentative nod here and there.

I rather critically, apologetically and respectfully alluded to what I believed to be problems with the Chinese system. I cited grim, long school hours, tutoring, debilitating competition and opportunity skewed by social and economic class. A tentative nod here and there. I acknowledged that I was free to criticize China and they might be less so. Only one nod. Finally, when I emphasized a point by dancing like a fool, I got a few wide smiles. By the 40-minute mark the room was noticeably looser.

Just short of the hour limit, I opened the room to questions, fairly sure there would be few or none. A hand went up.

As with all subsequent questioners, this young man rose respectfully to his feet. "I completely support everything you've said, but are these things possible in the larger classes that are necessary in China?" Whew, I thought, this guy really was listening and listening well.

"As you said, Mr. Nelson, the Chinese system shuts off opportunity for many children who don't do well on tests in early years. What can we do to keep dreams alive for children who lose hope at 11 or 12?"

"If I were appointed Minister of Education for China tomorrow, what would you suggest as the very first thing I should do?"

"I very much support progress (sic) education, but we have a long cultural history that makes it difficult to make such change."

At about this time I reminded them that my school uses first names and they should call me Steve. The next questioner blushed, giggled nervously and started, "Steve..." This small shift transformed the room. Questions were delivered with warmth and trust. Smiles abounded.

Space precludes a full description of the 45 minutes that followed, but it was simply remarkable. They had a very deep understanding of the severe limits and inequity of the very system within which they had succeeded.

It could have lasted hours longer. When I finally got ready to leave there were the typical ceremonial pictures. All the formality was gone. I got several hugs.

As I left, a chorus of 30 liberated voices shouted, "Bye Steve!" That afternoon may have been the first time any of them called a teacher by first name.

Just before I turned down the hall to the elevator, the young man who had been my first smile of the day grabbed my elbow. "I must tell you something."

"Yes?" I asked.

"I have one very important wish. I want to be 3 years old again and start over in a progressive school like yours."