The Chinese education system has been known for its utilitarian approach. Education exists for the purpose of nation-building, rather than helping students fulfill their potential and ignite their curiosity. From the early days of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, education has had clear objectives to fill in relation to the national development , such as transferring knowledge and skills for the development of science and technology, and training people to have a definite viewpoint and moral character .
As such, the education in China remains exam-oriented, relying on memorization and repetition as the primary approach, and uses test scores as the primary or only criterion to evaluate students. For instance, the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, also known as the Gaokao, is usually the only benchmark for student acceptance to Chinese universities. But the memorization and regurgitation of facts start from early stages of education and many times it is reinforced by parents (as this mother recalls, parents pushed their 5-year-olds to learn multiplication tables). Indeed, the Chinese education system has been frequently described as a factory of test-takers.
How does the focus on examinations affect Chinese students? How do foreign teachers perceive its impact? Are the differences between the way students learn and the way western educators teach noticeable? Particularly, do teachers struggle to engage students in critical and creative thinking? International teachers have expressed concern when trying to teach critical thinking to Asian students . Here is the experience of a liberal arts teacher and the strategies she uses to teach critical thinking in an exam-oriented education system.
The Story of a Liberal Arts Teacher
Silvia Perdiguero has been working in the Dalton Academy, one of the houses of the Affiliated High School of Peking University, for the last 6 years. She teaches Liberal Arts in 12th grade. The Dalton Academy accepts Chinese students who aim to study abroad, primarily in North America. In fact, several students from her school have been recently accepted to very prestigious universities in the US.
Most of the students who enroll in this high school come from middle schools with a Chinese curriculum. However, the department where Silvia teaches has a very different approach: It is one of the few schools in China with a student-centered approach. For many students, the change from a knowledge-focused education to a student-centered classroom is a great challenge. In the Dalton Academy, students are responsible for their own learning; the teacher’s role is to guide while the initiative to learn remains in the student’s hands. As Silvia explains, classes are largely discussion and cooperation based, exams are rarely used in her classroom and student’s independence is encouraged.
During her time as a Liberal Arts Teacher, Silvia has perceived the impact of the exam orientation of her student´s previous education in three main ways: Students (1) have trouble expressing themselves, (2) they focus exclusively on their grades and (3) are unfamiliar with critical thinking. It’s not hard to see a connection between these characteristics of Chinese learners and its influence on critical thinking and creativity. For instance, it could be that the fear of expressing oneself “wrongly” and getting a bad grade causes students to remain silent in class. Because they fear their ideas might be challenged, their critical and creative thinking are hindered.º
As Silvia says, many students struggle with shyness and anxiety when speaking in public. “In other countries, when students have a question or an opinion, they say it. In China, students are generally quiet and they prefer to talk to a classmate if they have a question. They lack confidence in themselves.” She says even in the 12th grade, the last year of high school, some students still struggle with these issues. “No matter how much we try to immerse students in a foreign-style education, students still live in China.” Outside of school, students have the constant input of Chinese culture in which beliefs and behavior patterns perpetuate the inhibition of personal expression. One such belief is the fear of losing face, which can be roughly translated as the fear of losing one’s reputation, dignity, and honor. (As pointed out here, sometimes it’s just better to let someone be wrong than to point out that they are wrong, for the sake of not losing face).
Overcoming fear of expression
To make students feel more comfortable expressing themselves, Silvia has many strategies, but she suggests focusing on the following three. First, when she asks an open question, she tells students to write the answer in their notebooks. This way they feel more comfortable when they have to say it out loud; it makes them feel like they are just reading, which takes away part of the anxiety of public speaking. The second strategy is to divide the class into teams and have them discuss the question in small groups where they feel more comfortable speaking. The third strategy is to ask students to write their comments anonymously on a piece of paper and turn it into a ball. After, students throw their paper balls into the air, pick one up, read it and comment on it. This way all students´ opinions get a chance to be heard and get feedback, without students having to worry about being “put on the spot.”
Silvia also gets ideas from pedagogical websites such as Facing History, where there’s a compilation of teaching strategies for encouraging discussions, ones that don’t rely on just speaking in public. For example, the barometer teaching strategy helps students share their opinions by asking them to line up along a continuum based on their position on an issue. Another strategy is the silent conversation where students comment on a stimulus (text or image) and ask questions of each other in silence by writing on a big sheet of paper. This strategy can also be modified by asking students to respond to the stimulus in a non-verbal way, using a symbol or an image.
Overcoming focus on grades
When it comes to the focus on grades, Silvia thinks it’s a harder problem to overcome. Even though she thinks the most important thing in education is the process, she also understands students need a score to get into university. In her opinion, a way to put more value on the process and shift away from the sole focus on grades is to make students feel valued as persons, not just for their grades. One way she seeks to convey this message to her students is by taking time to have informal conversations with every one of them and learn more about their interests. Furthermore, Silvia keeps her student´s interests written down in a notebook and tries to relate the content of the class to them as much as possible. This way students can identify with the content of the class and see more value in it.
Another way she thinks teachers can help students feel valued is by being authentic, that is, by being sincere. “For them to believe you care about them, you need to be authentic. If I tell them volunteering is important, it’s because I believe volunteering is important and it is something I do. Also, if they perceive I am authentic maybe I can become a person who inspires them to be better people.”
Familiarizing students with critical thinking
When it comes to training students to think critically, Silvia thinks it’s important to start with them thinking about their own learning. At the beginning of every school year, Silvia has her students create a classroom contract, in which students decide the goals, rules, and consequences of the class. Once students reach an agreement, they write the contract on a large piece of paper and everyone signs it. This gives students an active role in their learning, instead of being passive receptors of knowledge. Also, it provides them the opportunity to think critically about the decisions they have to make to reach their goals.
Another technique Silvia uses frequently is thoughtful questioning. Silvia tries to provide as many opportunities for students to engage with questions that promote the evaluation and synthesis of facts and concepts. Thoughtful questions are open-ended questions that start with words such as “explain,” “compare,” or “why” and go beyond knowledge-level recall. One specific teaching technique that uses thoughtful questions is the Socratic seminar, in which students help one another understand the ideas, issues, and values reflected in a text through a group discussion that starts with an open-ended question. Other strategies Silvia uses are writing daily questions on the whiteboard for students to answer during their free time and keeping a questions box for students to write any questions they have about the content of the class. As Socrates believed, thinking is not driven by answers but by questions.
The impact of the utilitarian approach of Chinese education, as seen through the lens of a foreign teacher who implements a student-centered approach, impacts students in diverse ways: fear of expressing ideas and opinions, devaluation of the process of learning and unfamiliarity with critical thinking. These characteristics of students seem to be a product of Chinese society and not just the education system. As such, cross-cultural pedagogy in China is up against a great challenge, but not an impossible one. The strategies highlighted here focus on providing students with diverse channels to communicate their ideas, tailoring lessons to student´s interests and giving students an active role in their learning.
Are you currently teaching in China? What challenges have you encountered and what strategies do you use to overcome them? Leave a comment below and share it with our community of educators.
I am an advocate for art education, although my drawing skills disagree. For two years, I worked as a project coordinator at an international art center for kids in Beijing, where I got to promote, design and participate in creative events. The best part of my job was getting to meet art educators with diverse styles and specialties.
Illustrations by Nichalia Schwartz, Creative Commons Attribution