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Self-learning Tale Challenges the Chinese Educational System

In many ways, 14-year-old Ding Lei is a miracle worker. At the age of 11, he has completed post-secondary English courses, and received a bachelor's degree with a major in computers from Shandong University last year.

Yet this year, when the ambitious young boy applied for postgraduate studies, free of entrance examinations, to several leading universities, he was turned down.

"I believe in my son, and I always encourage him to be confident," said the boy's father, Ding Longxing.

Superior ability

When the boy was only three years old, his parents divorced, and he went to live with his father.

To look after his son, the father had to resign from his job as an oceanliner radio officer.

Ding began to study English at the age of four, when his father discovered his superior memory ability. The boy could easily match the right words in textbooks after listening to tapes.

To test his comprehension, Ding took the primary level examination for the General English Certificate in 1995 while still a second grader.

To the joy of his father, Ding passed the exam, which firmed the father's decision to further encourage his son's English studies.

"I chose the national self-taught examination for him although it was challenging," said the father.

Although Ding finished all required courses four years later, not all went smoothly.

Ding had to make three attempts to pass basic English exam; he finally scored 71. On the test of English grammar, he achieved a qualified mark after two attempts.

With a diploma in English, Ding chose to major in computer studies and information administration. It took another two years for him to acquire his bachelor's degree.

Bachelor's degree

Ding never considers himself a genius, and his father has repeatedly stressed that the boy is only an ordinary person of average intelligence.

"He just did not follow the traditional education system attending primary school and middle school year by year," the father said.

In his father's mind, the traditional education system has been designed for the majority of people, but is not the only way for children to learn.

"The traditional way does not suit everyone," said Ding's English teacher.

"People can choose the way that fits them best, and Ding Lei proves that."

In his eyes, the boy is a pioneer who choose a totally different way to study and made admirable achievements.

"His case highlights some of the drawbacks in the country's current education system, and the national entrance examination to universities is not the only way to success," he added.

Although Ding has acquired his bachelor's degree while his peers are still in middle school, some teachers and experts are concerned that Ding gave up many subjects at school, and only learned course related to his self-taught examinations.

Ding did not attend classes, but stayed at home to study his own courses, just taking the final examinations at school.

His teachers said Ding was an average student in class, and had to take make-up examinations several times.

Yet the father did not think that the Ding's knowledge structure is incomplete.

"Different from some other children who only excel in literature or computers, the boy developed an all-round way," he said. "He still passed examinations for many other courses such as geography, Maoism theory, philosophy and college level Chinese."

Introverted boy

Ding's father has long worried about his son's introversion.

Ding has been keen to study but shows no enthusiasm for socialization.

To help his son to be more open, the father managed an English corner to help the boy practise English and talk with strangers. Later in holidays, the boy worked in companies and would assemble computers for buyers to improve his social ability.

"Now, I am preparing to open my company, and I just go for meetings and negotiations myself," the lad said. "In meetings, people do not treat me as a child."

The father said he will find a stable job after Ding starts his career.

"I entertain no extravagant hopes for him," said the father. "I just guide him and expect he can make his own way."

(Shanghai Star May 23, 2002)

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