The constitution of the People’s Republic of China states that Chinese citizens have “have the duty as well as the right to receive education [and that they] have the freedom to engage in scientific research, literary and artistic creation and other cultural pursuits.” Yet anyone who has set foot in a Chinese classroom — or any classroom, for that matter — knows that “education” can take many forms. Are Chinese people being taught to think critically, and creatively?
Chinese Secondary Schools
In educational circles, Chinese pedagogy is notorious for being outdated, but it’s hard to blame the government for not having found an apt replacement for the rote memorization that dominates Chinese primary and secondary schools. Furthermore, to say that all Chinese education entails rote memorization would be woefully inaccurate. China’s best high schools, for example, equal or even outclass America’s best public and private high schools.
Last year, I had the opportunity to visit an elite Chinese high school with a delegation of faculty and students from an American boarding school. Wuxi’s Shibei High School (website currently down) boasts educational facilities that take the breath away: rooms full of models that demonstrate physics concepts, working reproductions of historical artifacts, a veritable zoo of animal models, even an on-site earthquake measuring tool. One of my fellow travelers, an administrator at an expensive American private school, gasped when he walked into the first room of physics models. “We have nothing like this,” he said.
Clearly, Shibei teachers understand the value of hands-on education and varied teaching methods, and their school’s elite status allows them access to the funding needed to build such top end facilities. But even here, the great weight China’s population places on its educational system is evident. Class sizes remain large — about fifty students to a class on average — and teachers are not free to write curricula as they see fit. Their students, like all Chinese high schoolers, must prepare for the Gaokao, China’s high-stakes college entrance examination. So, while Shibei students also have access to a full suite of artistic and creative classes, their days are mostly filled with academics. There are few discussions, and few opportunities for creative expression or critical analysis. In informal conversations with some of the teachers, it became clear to me that they understood the effect these limitations had on their students, but practical alternatives to the current system seem few and far between.
And, of course, schools with facilities and pedagogy as developed as Shibei’s are the exception, not the rule.
The American Education System
In the interest of comparison — and because there was no way to take myself out of this particular piece, anyway — I spoke with my father, who has been a secondary school educator in America for over twenty-five years, has worked for the College Board (the company that runs the SATs and other standardized secondary school tests), graded AP tests, and worked as a college counselor. Responding to my questions about how the US system teaches critical thinking, he said,
I think impediments to that sort of education keep cropping up. High-stakes testing, for example, forces teachers to teach to the test. If the test can somehow accurately measure critical thinking, etc, that is fine, but I do not have a sense that that is the case. AP courses and AP exams – at least in US History – certainly still put a premium on critical thinking, or try to, so it is possible to design tests (and therefore the curriculum that leads to them) in that way, but it is also very expensive. Other impediments include budget cuts, which put more and more students in a single teacher’s classroom, making it harder to assign and correct analytic essays, etc., and union contracts, which make it harder for school districts to reward creative teachers who stimulate critical thinking and to eliminate others who don’t.
The effort is certainly there; my sense is that the success rate varies a great deal.
Indeed, American schools have a long way to go before they can claim to be teaching critical thinking successfully, but they do seem to be ahead of their Chinese counterparts, even if both are far from perfection. What’s more, the American college application process requires applicants to be well-rounded individuals. Successful applicants to the most prestigious universities must demonstrate not only good test scores, but also creative thinking, productive interests and hobbies, athletic merit, etc. The Chinese system, in contrast, asks only for a single set of student test scores.
Chinese Higher Education
Having myself attended a college that, to overstate slightly, worshipped at the altar of the twin gods creativity and critical thinking, I was curious as to what extent Chinese higher education, where students and teachers are relatively unburdened by the threat of high-stakes testing, effectively taught critical thinking. To get some answers, I spoke to Alec Ash, who has been writing about young Chinese and China’s higher education system through his blog Six: young Chinese in new China, which follows the exploits of six Chinese young adults. Having studied at both Peking University and Tsinghua University, he explains his impression of the difference between China’s elite universities and its second and third tier schools:
I have friends in lower tier universities, all of whom have complained at one time of another of a restrictive and rote learnt education. One didn’t like it so much that he dropped out after three years of studying Food Sciences. He told me: “I don’t like education in school. It’s not free [自由, that is – intellectual freedom – not 免费, as in no charge]. You must learn political communism, the ideas of CCP, and must do what your teacher tells you. You can’t do what you want to do…I want to live my life, not another life.” From this and other conversations, I’d venture that at lower tier colleges, far too little emphasis is placed on critical thinking of the ‘think for yourself’ kind (this, of course, is very different from saying that none of the students there think for themself). Students at such colleges, I find, worship the very mention of a 名牌 (‘brand name’) school like Beida or Qinghua, taking for granted that it must be a world apart over there.
But is it? Well, I’ve certainly come across more cut-yourself razor-sharp critical thinkers during my two years at Beida and Qinghai than I can count – all of whom I’d happily compare to students at Oxford, a university which looks down on rote learning with the kind of disdain which sometimes only the English can summon up. They must be doing something right, even if it’s simpy attracting the one in ten thousand students who truly are the cream of the crop (that figure, by the way, isn’t pulled out of a hat – it’s an estimate based on how many students score high enough in their gaokao to get into Beida). But, I hear the same kind of complaints from Beida students as I described above: the learning is too rote; subjects are covered too broadly, without deep analysis; lectures are too ‘power point’. I heard that last phrase all the time. So I’d say there’s a strong feeling that Beida and Qinghua are great schools, but no exceptions to a flawed education system (and that’s without even touching the goliath issues of admissions and access equality). Or, if you will, it’s a difference of degree but not of kind.
Ash also related a friend’s experience with American elite higher education as a point of comparison:
A friend who studies international relations at Beida took a summer school course in Yale last summer. From America, he wrote me an email which I’ll bore you all by quoting at length. The courses there, he says, are “quite different from the lectures in PKU, which involve more people and less discussion. In Yale, we have more opportunities to raise questions and debate … Students step into a specific field of study through reading the first-hand publications instead of learning from powerpoints prepared by their teacher. In PKU, too many courses are squeezed into one semester (7-8 for me, maybe more for students from other schools) so that students prefer to memorize the main points during final weeks rather than read the original writings. And many Chinese students have lost their interest in discovering. They want to know “what it is” or “what it should be” more than “why was that”. I guess the education system is responsible for this. Yet there are many factors standing behind it, including a large population, a planned social framework and a big government, almost equal to the size of the society. I understand that it’s easier to blame this system than to revise it.”
On whether or not these schools foster creativity, Ash said,
Creativity I think is mostly up to a student to find themselves. And I saw plenty of it at Beida: empassioned environmental activism groups; skepticism of anything which looks too much like propaganda; witty xiangsheng performances […] There’s undoubtedly a lot of it at Tsinghua, too, even if it’s hard to see it past the buzz-cut-head-down engineering feel of the campus. I’ll pass on regular schools, but I’m guessing: ditto.
This said, in an elite school – indeed, any school – the pressure is very intense if you want to get ahead. We’re talking ten hours of study a day, all with a competitive job market at the end of the road which will look at your score, a number on a page, first and last. That’s not an environment which engenders creativity.
The Effects of Censorship
Another question worth pondering is to what degree censorship (both government-mandated and self-censorship) affects the academic and cultural discourse that’s happening in China. Popular Chinese writer, blogger, and race car driver Han Han had this to say in a recent speech:
We have too many restrictions. This is a restricted country. How can a restricted country produce a rich and abundant culture? I am a comrade who has very few restrictions. But when I write, I cannot help but think: I can’t write about the police, I can’t write about the leaders, I can’t write about government policies, I can’t write about the system, I can’t write about the judiciary, I can’t write about many pieces of history, I cannot write about Tibet, I cannot write about Xinjiang, I cannot write about mass assemblies, I cannot write about demonstration marches, I cannot write about pornography, I cannot write about censorship, I cannot write about art … I am unable to write anything elegant.
Ash agrees that censorship can have an adverse effect on academics:
[…] in an unfree academic environment, teachers are always going to be guarded, self-censorship will always lurk, and there will always be panderers to the Party line. So if Chinese officials are wondering how to push Beida and Qinghua up into the top ten of global university rankings* (Beida was number 50 in the Times, Tsinghua 56), academic freedom wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Rightly, Ash also cautions against misunderstanding the degree to which academic discourse is censored in China. “You can openly discuss most topics in class, from Taiwan to Tibet,” he writes, although some topics (Tiananmen 1989, for one) remain taboo.
Does Critical Thinking Matter? Does Creativity Matter?
Of course, the seeming superiority of American schools when it comes to educating creative thinkers may have its downside. American students routinely lag behind their peers internationally in math and science assessments, and overall, they tend to spend less time in class than Chinese students, too. So is fostering creativity and teaching creative thinking worth the trade off (if there really is a trade-off, which is debatable)? Is it worth teaching these more “abstract” skills rather more practical ones? My father thinks so:
I think teaching students to think critically and creatively is one of the primary goals of good teachers everywhere. I also think in these changing times it is even more important than ever. I am not among those who see education exclusively as “training” for what comes next, but in an environment where “what comes next” is almost impossible to predict, what training would be better than training to think critically and creatively, to communicate well and to solve problems?
What, then, will become of China, whose students don’t seem to be being well trained in critical thinking? Will it breed a generation of leaders who aren’t capable of thinking things through? Alec Ash doesn’t think so:
I’m not going to fall into the trap of despairing for China’s future because I don’t think its top universities foster independent thinking enough. Whoever will be deciding China’s future in thirty years will have had the time, regardless of the education they’re receiving now, to think for themselves what they consider best for their country (or, at least, for themselves. What’s more, I’ll bet that many of the next generation of leaders will have studied at top universities abroad, as well as at home. It didn’t seem to hurt Deng Xiaoping, or hinder what he did for China.
Ash makes a valid point. After all, Chinese schools have never been particularly focused on critical thinking, yet China has churned out its fair share of leaders, both competent and incompetent, just as all nations have. The cynic in me wonders, though, whether it isn’t somewhat deliberate. Critical thinking involves constant questioning, something that those designing the education system in China have no real interest in encouraging the Chinese population to do. At the very least, they want to control which questions are being asked, which seems a clear obstacle to implementing curricula that teach real critical thinking skills.
So critical thinking cannot be taught while there remain taboo subjects — subjects that cannot be questioned. But that doesn’t mean that critical thinking cannot occur in such an environment. Indeed, if what we read on the internet from Chinese netizens and bloggers is a fair representation, critical thinking is alive and well in China despite the fact that it isn’t properly taught in schools (and despite the fact that students still have to slog through thousands of hours of political ideology classes, according to Ash). As Han Han told his audience at Xiamen University:
I think that many of you present today are not silent — it is just that we are being harmonized.
Indeed. Let us know what you think about education and the importance of critical thinking in the comments.
I wish to thank Alec Ash and my father for their contributions to this article. -ed.