Education, Critical Thinking, and Creativity

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In educational circles, Chinese pedagogy is notorious for being outdated, but it’s hard to blame the government for not having found an apt replacement for the rote memorization that dominates Chinese primary and secondary schools.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.

Shibei High School in Wuxi, China
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.

Han Han at Xiamen University
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.


0 thoughts on “Education, Critical Thinking, and Creativity”

  1. Anyone knowledgeable about other countries with a entrance exams? E.g. Japan, Korea? Their education systems don’t seem to have impeded their ability to produce creative products…


  2. Ash mentions briefly the “and that’s without even touching the goliath issues of admissions and access equality.”

    To expound upon this a bit more, I’ll use my fiancee as an example.

    My fiancee is from Henan province, which is the most populous province in China with 98,690,000 people as of 2007 (thank you, wikipedia.) A friend of hers is from Tianjin, with a population of 11,760,000 as of 2008.

    The way the gaokao system works in China is that every year, Chinese universities decide on an exact amount of students they will take from each province in China. These numbers are not exactly the same from each province, however, they are generally within a narrow range of each other. Let’s say then that Beida will take 10 people from each of the 34 provinces, and then 10 people from each of the 5 special economic zones. So that means that 10 people will be chosen from a population of nearly 100 million and 10 people from a population of nearly 12 million.

    As a result, my fiancee tells me that with her 589 on the gaokao, if she had been born in Tianjin, she could have gone to Zhejiang University or Fudan, among the best school in China. Instead, she was assigned her major and her university because they had not yet received enough matriculates. Her friend from Tianjin ended up dorming with her after receiving a 450 (or less, she says, but she’s not entirely sure.)

    I think this is a good example of the goliath issues that Ash mentions. If there are others, I’d like to hear them.

    He also mentions that when he was at Beida and Qinghua, that there were too many classes every semester with 7-8 classes. My students (I worked at the same university where my fiancee went to school) typically had 10+ in any given semester.

    Finally, Custer, you and Ash both seem to agree that whoever ends up taking the reins of China’s leadership in 30 years will probably have had plenty of time to think about things themselves and may have even received a university education from abroad. I think this is actually only a small part of the picture, though.

    James Fallows did an article on American decline earlier this year (or was it late last year?) where he, naturally, made comparisons between America and China. In the article, he discusses how a quarter of the National Academy of Sciences were born outside the U.S. and after coming to the U.S. to do their graduate degree, continued their research and made some sort of major breakthrough. While I haven’t checked the author’s sources, I also remember reading recently that the only two major research labs in China are funded by Google and Microsoft, the former of which may very well quit China entirely. Additionally, the academic environment in China caters to a “Herr professor” attitude that essentially involves waiting for your mentor to die before you, as a young and up and coming scientist, can be recognized for your own achievement.

    Based on this information, as far as the future of China goes, in terms of things like research and development, I think it’s going to take quite a while before we see an increase in the amount of major inventions coming out of China.


  3. Rui,

    To my knowledge, Japan and Korea both have similar national college entrance examination systems, as does Ireland. I wonder, however, what the actual college system is like once you’re in the school?

    Having worked at a medical university in China, in my own experience, there was almost nothing that fostered creative thinking at all about their academic environment.

    One important thing to note is that a lot of the products that come out of these countries (Japan, Korea, and the US) are born in research labs that are funded by companies like Honda and Nintendo.


  4. My own experience taking undergrad courses in the 中文系 at Beida was that there was basically zero classroom interaction: lectures stuck very closely to the textbooks or assigned readings, though one of the younger professors (who was teaching the graphology class, and had some experience teaching abroad) did make additional materials available online. Class sizes were probably about 80-100 students per class. It was very different from the classes I took in the US — except, come to think of it, for an intro course to the linguistics of writing systems, which had a large class size (because it fulfilled a general requirement) and didn’t feature much in the way of classroom interaction either. Then again, the courses I was taking were all linguistics or literature courses, so there may have just been a natural inclination to present the material as set facts.
    Interestingly, the Chinese-as-a-foreign-language classes I’d taken the semester before (also at Beida, through the 对外汉语学院) had much smaller class sizes and a much livelier tone, though they did stick pretty closely to the (abysmal) textbooks too. Even the literature and composition classes — two courses that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a high degree of classroom interaction — had a lot more back-and-forth between the students and the instructors.


  5. Great post. Coming from the critical thinking-heavy environment of LSE to Fudan University as an MA student, I was definitely plunged head first into a classroom of zero debate and immense repetition. I also found that, if questions were asked, lecturers responded far more welcomingly to those from male students, rather than their female peers.

    Further, and without wanting to fall into a ‘West-is-better-than-the-rest’ trap, I felt a marked difference between lecturers who had been educated in the West versus those who had not, namely that they asked ‘why’ much more and were far more open to a classroom discussion.

    Perhaps mention could have been made of China’s huge brain drain (stats produced in 2007 claim only a quarter of China’s 1.4 million students who head abroad to study actually come back to the PRC). Is this (perhaps in part) due to a dissatisfaction with the Chinese system of learning?


  6. A few things:

    – Necessity is the mother of inventions. With China becoming the workshop of the world, the necessity is there, so we’ll see the inventions follow soon.

    – Creativity isn’t worth too much unless you know your ABCs, the very reason the Chinese (and many other Asian and Eastern European) schools put so much emphasis on that. In many of the world’s top research institutions you can see Chinese take up a sizable portion of the research staffing, because they have the PhDs (not always from a US or UK university), required qualifications and research training. You can’t fill those positions with any creative guy on the streets. These Chinese will eventually move up the ladder and become the driving force of the creativity.

    – I always think, and still think, that science teaching inherently promotes critical and creative thinking. There’s no need to deviate from the official curriculum in these subjects because the official ones are pretty good already. Excessive class discussions on these subjects only waste the students time to think for themselves. It’s not possible to recite your way up to a good grade in proving Euclidean geometry theorems anyway. It takes long hours of hard thinking, focus, and patience to be good at those subjects, and along the way, I bet many Chinese students had their “Eureka!” moments. Comparing the science exam papers from the US, UK, and that from China I’d say Chinese science education promotes creative thinking better than its western counterparts. I’d think nobody who consistently gets good grades in the Chinese exam system can be categorized as non-creative. It’s mostly those average students who can’t be bothered to study hard that complain, who lack the enthusiasm in those subjects in the first place. I tend to think those students should be diverted to do something else, something they’re more interested and would like to pour more of of their energy in.

    – There may appear to be a lack of creativity in the social science arena but I’m not so sure. In any case it’s pretty lame to use the required political education curriculum to justify the lack of interest in obtaining a higher education. In my case, I never spend more than 2 days before the exam to get a pass in those subjects. And I skip political education classes like everyone else. Even if I’m in the class, I can always do my math homework.


  7. From what I’ve read, in Japan, tertiary education is not very important and students take a very relaxed attitude towards their tertiary education. It’s still important to get into a university and graduate, but it’s more of a vetting process than a training system and real training occurs when you get your first job.

    Regarding the Chinese education system, what I’ve read from James Fallows is that the Gaokao system is considered within China as the least-worst system. For the level of corruption in the political system, the Gaokao system is more easily implemented than a balanced American-style application process, where if applied to China, may result in recommendations by bribery and so on.


  8. One more thing:

    Chinese who don’t appear to be creative on one thing may be quite creative in another. Just come across this and think it’s funny as well as thought provoking:

    This seems to point to the conclusion that more of the Chinese creativity needs to be put on things that counts. I hate to admit but very few committers in FOSS projects are from China, although nobody can say China lack good programmers.


  9. @ Inst: Indeed. There are bigger issues than that, too. Population-wise, China’s size makes an American-style process pretty unwieldy. Math and science teachers would be writing hundreds of recommendations per year. Elite colleges like BeiDa and Qinghua would have to hire small armies just to read all the recommendation letters, personal essays, etc. And since there are so many students who are high-level academic achievers, the differentiation between them would fall to extracurriculars, which would mean Chinese high schools would need to totally re-calibrate their approach in the first place…


  10. ^^^and students from villages would be completely excluded entirely since extracurricular is pretty much completely unavailable to them.


  11. When dealing with higher eduction between countries people tend to get caught up in the political aspects while missing the most obvious point. Items like Classroom size and breakthrough research projects are tied to funding more than anything else. If you compare tuition between Chinese and foreign universities on classroom size you might as well compare their tuition too. If Chinese universities’ charge as high of a tuition as 50k USD per year then you can be sure to see differences in quality.

    Even with the high tuition, elite US universities cannot run by themselves without extensive alumni networks. If you look at per student spending at the better American schools like MIT, it’s way north of $100k USD. With endowment funds rivaling fortune 500 companies, the elite US universities are able to continue their path to excellence not by only . When money do get tight, take some of the UC schools for example, you get the same problems where the student/teacher ratio is too high, or people simply can’t access available classes. As the result, many students in the more demanding UC schools end up spending 5 years rather than the standard 4 in order to graduate.

    Chinese universities lack the tradition to solicit funds from alums. Likewise it lacks an efficient process to distribute the money even if people are willing to donate. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the fact that China’s economic rise just happened in the last decade or so. You don’t give away when you have nothing to give. Now that the elites in China are getting wealthier, it’s only a matter of time before you do see more alums demanding better and more transparent alumni donation processes in place to help their Chinese universities.

    Lastly, in terms of teaching styles I would also like people to think beyond politics. Let’s be honest here, some of the more innovative Chinese talents are not teachers or professors. The most capable Chinese in the last decade do not go into or stay academics for obvious reasons. If you the technical know-hows as well as leadership, why the heck would you want to be or stay professor there are far more rewarding (salary and excitement) career choices.


  12. Funding is a completely legitimate point. And based on talking to my students, ranging from high school students to mid-career professionals, I can confirm that many, as much as they’re frustrated with the Gaokao, feel that it’s at least fair. While rich families can buy tutors and extra classes for their children to do better, that’s still a much, much smaller advantage than what they’d get if bribery entered the picture.

    I can also say that student and young adults in China are very aware of what kinds of limitations their education system has. That’s not to say that they’ll ape the American system given the chance; in fact I agree with their assessment that American students don’t have enough appreciation of math, science, and the facts of the humanities. As (or if) funding increases and corruption decreases with time, I do think that we’ll see a lot of reforms from the Chinese education system.

    Obviously, Chinese education is one of those multifaceted things that’s really hard to put into a sound byte. Yes, on the one hand, there’s a lack of opportunities for creativity and critical thinking, meaning that many of the high value jobs and industries will be limited in China. On the other hand, it’s an incredible accomplishment what the Chinese education system has achieved in the past 30 years and does do remarkably well in teaching subjects that are more rote and technical, which is a large part of why the Chinese economy has succeeded like it has. On the gripping hand, their education system is going to evolve quite a lot in the next 30 years and a lot of the conclusions we try to make now may not pan out.


  13. You can say this or that about Chinese education but the fact remains that the higher education system in China is a very corrupt thing.

    “With China becoming the workshop of the world, the necessity is there, so we’ll see the inventions follow soon.”

    “These Chinese will eventually move up the ladder and become the driving force of the creativity.”

    These statements are just wishful thinking. They can’t be proven so why say them?

    “Comparing the science exam papers from the US, UK, and that from China I’d say Chinese science education promotes creative thinking better than its western counterparts. I’d think nobody who consistently gets good grades in the Chinese exam system can be categorized as non-creative.”

    How does good grades prove critical thinking??? I’ve met many top students in high school and university. They might be smart (smarter than me) but they generally won’t bother to think very critically when their hands are still tied by gov’t nonsense and the worry of finding a job and having the pressure of showing the family (gf and her family) what all that hard work was for.


  14. Nice post, I like it a lot.

    Re American high schools: I just recently realized that I could have just dropped out of high school my junior year, taken classes (for free, through the local Running Start program) at the community college and then gone to university once I got an AA or GED. Instead I went through the trouble of going out of my way to complete certain classes required for graduation (health, for example, and occupation education, which amounted to learning how to use a PC). American high schools truly fail people nowadays. Sometimes I feel it is a reflection of the value people place in intellectual growth and rigor; our society is at times highly anti-intellectual. There is a lot of emphasis nowadays in American universities to produce majors that are specifically tailored to the job market, rather than the task of cultivating intelligent and rigorous minds, and I think this is a tragedy.

    The problems with Chinese higher education are real, but on the other hand the student (and teacher) are still highly respected roles in Chinese society, whereas the social equity given to college students in the US nowadays is fairly marginal. In this sense Chinese culture lends a huge advantage to its future educational prospects, as soon as the technical problems with the system can be worked out. Chinese college students are not expected to take part-time jobs like American students sometimes are, because the role of a student is seen as valid enough that it can be the one and only thing you do for four (or more) years. Unfortunately the same isn’t true in the US.


  15. @bert:

    “…wishful thinking…”

    Increasing number of Chinese faculty members get published in top journals, promoted to lab leaders and fellows in the top research institutions, and the Chinese factories are churning out new products at faster pace. If these can’t be taken as proofs I don’t know what can. It’s easy to dismiss Chinese products as garbage and Chinese engineers as unthinking drones when you neither produce the goods nor engineer the assembly line. Quite a creative way of dismissive thinking I’d say.

    “How does good grades prove critical thinking???”

    That is a good question. It really depends on what exam you’re taking I guess. Taking SAT you’d get questions easier than the 2nd in this article (, where good grades indeed does not prove much. Taking a Chinese Gao Kao exam you’d get questions that without critical thinking skills you’d never get a good grade. I don’t know who spread the myth but you can’t possibly recite your way into a top Chinese university. That’s not just my personal experience. Ask any good Chinese high school teacher and s/he’d tell you that.

    “They might be smart (smarter than me) but they generally won’t bother to think very critically when their hands are still tied by gov’t nonsense and the worry of finding a job and having the pressure of showing the family (gf and her family) what all that hard work was for.”

    How do you know they’re smart? Is it because they memorize everything written in the textbooks or it’s something else, e.g., quick, clear, and novel way of thinking? How does people can’t be bothered to think “critically” on things you consider important prove they are not critical thinkers? They might be quite good thinkers on subjects they consider important, e.g., math and science. Where does the gov’t nonsense come into the science education? Does the government still require a Mao quote for each geometry proof? (BTW, normally I can’t be bothered to engage in discussing Chinese democracy with anyone who starts by draw parallels between China and Nazi Germany. Not sure this is related to this discussion though.)


  16. It’s more helpful to think about the different level of education separate. At the high school level, the problem may have more to do with the narrowness of the college entrance exam and political indoctrination requirements.

    At the college level, the current problems have more to do with the massive expansion of college enrollment. Since the late 1990s, undergraduate enrollment has increased probably 600-700%. This has led to a drastic deterioration in the quality of the education process, as you can imagine with such a rapid expansion. Funding for teacher salary also has not kept pace with the expansion in enrollment. University teaching salary is lagging farther and farther behind non-teaching jobs with similar qualification requirements. Monthly salary for teachers at Peking University, one of the best funded of China’s universities, is around 5000 yuan per month. Lots of teachers take jobs outside the university to make ends meet and spend little time on teaching. College teaching is becoming more and more the route for those who have few other job options.

    See this thread below for an on-going controversy at the law school of Peking University on compensation for teachers:



  17. My experience teaching undergrads at a UK university was that Chinese students did the work whereas western students didn’t. They were lazy and had to be pushed to do the bare minimum. I think creativity is over-rated, certainly in science and engineering. You need to do a lot of repetitive hard work to absorb the knowledge and techniques, and in this, the Chinese students leave their western counterparts in kindergarten. There’s a big cultural difference in attitudes to education. For many western students, education is about personal growth and wish fulfilment, hence the popularity of interesting but useless courses such as media studies. Chinese students are more pragmatic and they are certainly more creative when it comes to getting the result they want. Singapore seems to be a society where educators are facing up to the ‘rote learning vs creativity’ debate, as the younger English-speaking generation are unhappy with the old-style Chinese teachiing methods.


  18. @CnInDC: Done that already.

    Also, I don’t think anyone’s arguing that Chinese people aren’t creative thinkers, or that those who get into top universities just recited their way there. In fact, in the post, Ash says the exact opposite of that. The question, however, is whether Chinese schools are teaching critical thinking as a skill, or whether it’s just the naturally sharper students who score well because they have picked it up on their own.

    Because the naturally sharper students were going to be fine anyway. But the middle and lower level students who may not have picked it up naturally, what about them? (And trust me, I currently teach adolescents, as crazy as it sounds I would say that 50% or more of them consistently demonstrate little to no critical thinking in their academic work. This is in the US, but I had similar experiences in China).


  19. Exactly, don’t worry about creativity. Worry about structural issues. Genius is born, not taught. But only under the right supportive environment, which the US might be a good example of, will genius amount to much.


  20. @C. Custer:

    “Done that already.” I don’t think you’ve translated the math and science papers, which illustrate my point much clearer than the language papers. Even in the language papers, it’s sufficiently clear that reciting the Yu Wen textbooks gets you nowhere in Gao Kao. Your unwillingness to touch the math papers, however, seems to to explain the difficulty for me to get my point across that science teaching inherently promotes critical and creative thinking.

    “The question, however, is whether Chinese schools are teaching critical thinking as a skill, or whether it’s just the naturally sharper students who score well because they have picked it up on their own.”

    I think I’ve answered that question but apparently I’ve over-valued my language skills. Let me try again.

    Whether Chinese schools are teaching critical thinking as a skill? My answer is yes, at least in the math and science teaching. I’m also tempted to add another clause: it’s more effectively taught by good teachers to the students who are willing to learn and who get their ABCs right. These teachers and students are more densely concentrated in those good schools, where Gao Kao scores are much higher than an average school. The correlations are not a coincidence but a self-enhancing loop (refer to the book Outliers for more details). The good facility you saw at Shibei High School is a very small part, I dare say a negligible by-product, of its success. Its teachers, who carefully design the lectures, classroom exercises, homework, and exam papers to facilitate higher Gao Kao scores, and its students, who are motivated, proactive, and hardworking to indeed achieve the higher scores, are its more valuable assets.

    I’m not sure how true it is across the board but I think the trend in the Gao Kao exam papers affect the way the schools teach the students in a very significant way. Each year there’s a good chance you have a few problems in the Gao Kao math and science papers that were notoriously “活” and you always get many others at various levels that are designed to trap those mere reciters. Full marks in these subjects are very rare, in contrast to the GRE math section, a Chinese student could have called him/herself hopeless if s/he doesn’t get a full mark (quote a New Oriental teacher). This calls for the teachers to teach and demands the students to learn creatively.

    Drawing from my own experience: my high school math teacher (a grade 1 math teacher) never bothered to deviate from the official curriculum. He didn’t do a lot of class discussions either, which is apparently a time waster in the class of 60 or more. However for one math exercise on the textbook, he’d challenge us for 2 or more different approaches. Sometimes he listed one, the most obvious approach on the blackboard and forbid us to go that route, then laugh out loudly at our narrow-mindedness. He’d flash homework problems one after another and merely ask us to speak out, in a university challenge style, on which potential trap he could have embedded into it. He’d shut the top 20% students up with a more difficult optional problem then play the games with the other students. In one occasion he exempted a top student from attending his classes, instead gave him a more advance math book and design homework with him. For him and for us, math can be a mind-sharpening game if we play along.

    Whether the Chinese students learn the critical thinking as a skill, that’s a totally different question. People love to blame the others for their own failure. It’s the human nature, I guess.

    “But the middle and lower level students who may not have picked it up naturally, what about them? ”

    In my high school days the solution was obvious if not political correct: sub-divide the students based on their performance. We reshuffle the league each year, better performers got promoted to “faster” class. The teacher would then tailor the teaching style based on the students’ level.

    You’ll always have student who are not interested in studying whatever you teach, creatively or not. I think the more fundamental reason for this is because their interest is in somewhere else. It would be more productive to divert them to the things they’re more interested in. If he wants to be a chef then don’t waste the time. Enroll into a culinary school early.


  21. The difference in China 20 years ago than today is that 20 years ago if you studied abroad and came back to China you entered a government position, today if you study abroad you go into private companies. The government will have a large brain-drain that will likely cause more corruption.


  22. @ CnInDC: I don’t think I buy that math and science just magically teach critical thinking inherently. Sure, the teacher you’re describing certainly did — at least to those students who had a good enough grasp to keep up and were interested enough to keep from writing him off. But that’s one teacher’s creative approach. How many other math teachers did you have like that? It is very possible — in fact, much easier — for teachers to run math or science classes based on rote memorization — ‘when you see this type of problem, do this’ — than it is for them to spend time coming up with a variety of approaches that can appeal to different learning styles. Their prep time is limited, after all, and with 60+ kids to a class, it’s difficult to tailor anything to your students, even if they’ve been split into advanced and basic classes based on prior performance.

    I think what you said about students’ interest betrays a bit your willingness to write off students who “aren’t interested” in the subject teachers are teaching. But part of a good teacher’s job is to spark that interest, to give the students reasons to be interested, to try to make some connection with every kid and draw them into the subject. Obviously, doing that is harder with 60 kids/class than 30 kids/class. I agree that at some point, if someone really wants to be a chef or whatever then they should be allowed to pursue their interests, but interests can and are sparked by teachers every day. Before I went to college, I had absolutely no interest in China or Chinese, but I ended up by chance in a class on Daoism with a great teacher, and here I am. I am glad that no one decided to ship me to culinary school before then, so to speak.

    And yes, GaoKao math is harder than GRE math. GRE math should be very easy for someone who has taken the GaoKao. While some of the GaoKao questions may require critical thought, the fact that the test requires teachers to cover a lot more content than, say, the SATs do in the US means that teachers have less time for explaining things, less time for sparking student interest, less time for trying different approaches to help the students who don’t naturally “get it”. Take it from a teacher who comes from a family of teachers: having to teach to a test doesn’t make it impossible to teach critical thinking, but it inevitably ties your hands a bit.

    Anyway, I’m sick today and having trouble following my own train of thought, so I will leave it at that for now.

    And I’m “unwilling to touch” GaoKao math questions because I’m not capable of translating them. Math was the subject that didn’t come to me naturally, and thanks to a series of rote-learning teachers and math nerds like the one you describe who didn’t know how to explain concepts in ways that I could understand, I stopped taking it after pre-calculus and haven’t looked back. At the time, I was as capable of doing the problems as anyone else in the class (rote memorization does work in math and science, to a point — I think my final grade in Pre-Cal was an A-), but because I was never taught to think critically about the subject, I have forgotten pretty much everything I knew.


  23. It’s impossible to “teach” how to think creatively, all you can do is instill its value into the students. It’s not the absence of creative thinkers that’s problematic for china, it’s the lack of an appreciation for creativity. The problem with the west is western students are lazy. Chinese students work ten times harder then we do and they’re not even aware aware of it. Then again, most US college students wont even bother to put their college GPA on a resume unless it’s above a 3.5 – what we do is more important (depending on what position you’re trying to get) . So for China to a certain extent it’s a structural problem that in turn creates a cultural problem.

    And though I’d choose the American education values over the Chinese education values any day, I’d argue that some memorization is important. Full disclosure, some friends and I, while playing a drinking game, realized we could not name all the fifty state capitals. A Chinese student could name for you all the provinces, their capital cities, AND each city’s GDP…

    @ 凯文: not so sure about the brain drain. of the chinese students at my university (in boston), there tend to be two types: those that driknk the kool-aid and those that will take any and every opportunity to go a rambling tirade about how awful the CCP is. Of the former group, though I know fewer of them (they tend to only hang out with other chinese), most plan to go back to china – they have money and guanxi and have come to the states for the english and the prestige. Of the latter group, none of them have any plans to go back to China. So it won’t be a total brain-drain, just a drains that are fearless enough to think for themselves and express themselves independently – which is just what the CCP wants.


  24. josh,

    I don’t know if western students’ laziness really applies to tertiary education. I think anyone who has taught in a Chinese college can vouch for the probability that once Chinese students have gotten past the Gaokao, there’s no reason to put much effort in anymore.


    I’ve noticed one thing that recurs repeatedly throughout your posts that has been vastly different from my own experiences in China: the quality of your English language abilities. You’ve said in a number of posts that you attended high school in China, but I’ve never spoken with a single person in China whose English language writing abilities seemed so closely matched to a native speaker. In fact, it wasn’t until #23 that I noticed any grammatical mistakes from you at all, and clearly your word usage demonstrates lots of familiarity with western culture.

    So my question for you is how come your English is so good? Is it something that you’ve found easy throughout life? Did you only develop these skills after arriving in DC? Or are you the product of much-better-than-average schooling which clearly is not reflective of the norm in China?


  25. @C. Custer,

    I agree with a lot of what you said. Yes, rote-memorization can be used in teaching math and science, and shows good results, to a point. My niece can be used as a perfect example. At 8 years old she was enrolled in the notorious “Liu Jia” Math Olympic Intensifying class and her first assignment was to memorize a book of 1000 types of possible math Olympic competition problems for elementary schoolers. The objective was to pocket a few Math Olympic awards during the elementary school years, which would secure her a slot in a good middle school. Both my mom and I strongly advised my brother against it, pointing out the best way is to focus on the official curriculum and take the hard way of learning by understanding. He didn’t listen. My niece turned out to be a great reciter, and indeed pocketed a few city-level awards before the age of 12, got admitted into a top middle school (similar to Shi Bei), which, by all its merits, normally would land its students in good colleges. This initial success encouraged my niece to insist on that learning style. Then her math and physics grades deteriorated dramatically. There’s no way she could have enumerated the types of problems possibly encountered in her middle school geometry exams, but she couldn’t do away with this fixed way of learning math by rote memorization. None of my mom’s and my math tutoring yielded any change in her style. She refused to understand the theorems, turned extremely impatient when we questioned her understanding and kept demanding we show her how to solve that particular homework problem so that she could quickly memorize it. She nod fiercely when asked if she understood then failed miserably given any problem she hasn’t encountered before, which was abundant in the math and science books of problems. A whole afternoon’s tutoring might result in her questioning a very little bit of what she’s memorized before may be incomplete or can be refuted in occasions she didn’t expected, then she quickly referring to some other math tutor’s words that those are corner cases and irrelevant, and in her last exam when a similar problem was given she indeed scored, etc etc. She is the very target student those traps in the Gao Kao exam papers are designed for. In the end her Gao Kao math and science scores were abysmal, landed her in a high tuition third or forth tier college. Actually my mom is a retired math professor, and I had taught engineering subjects in both Chinese and UK universities. This bit of background info is to illustrate that we may actually know a little bit about teaching. We really have tried. And we didn’t give up that easily. But in my niece’s case, there’s not much we could have done but didn’t.

    However this does not diminish the point that the Chinese Gao Kao centered math and science education exposes the unimaginative teachers and students much faster than its US/UK counterparts, therefore driving the teaching and learning styles towards the more creativity focused manners. To be fair, my niece’s school was pretty good, and she couldn’t keep up in the first year of the junior middle school already. The rote-memorization style of math and science teaching and learning does not get you as far under China’s Gao Kao system. Just try one math paper you’d know it.

    Also, I disagree with your characterization of the Chinese math and science curriculum. Actually they are not much wider than their US counterparts, instead a lot deeper, requiring the students to actually understand the concepts and know how to creatively apply the knowledge to solve the problems rather than rote memorization. I tend to think the Royal Society of Chemistry guy who put up this comparison would agree with me. Knowledge wise both problems test similar knowledge points but the Chinese problem requires a lot more understanding, visualization, and the creative use of the theorems. It’s long proved that the so-called “题海战术” does not work very well on Gao Kao math and science papers. The fact it’s still being widely used exposes more of the (not so good) schools’ and their teachers’ lagging on improving the teaching styles rather than the deficiency of the Gao Kao system as a whole.

    “… means that teachers have less time for explaining things, less time for sparking student interest, less time for trying different approaches to help the students who don’t naturally “get it”…” I’d say this is again not the case, at least in math and science teaching. Chinese math and science curriculum requires a lot more lecturing and problem-solving hours as well as homework than the US schools, which provides more than sufficient time to do all these, that is, if the students are receptive and work harder enough. On top of that, in all my school years, math and science teachers always take higher priorities over the teachers in the other subjects and they got the school hours as many as they needed. My junior middle school (quite an average one. I went there mostly because it was close to home, so you’d expect this in most schools I believe.) math teacher used to barge in the History and/or Politics class in the middle of the lecture to admonish us on mass failing to solve a math homework problem she considered “easy”, then gave us 10-minute make-up quizzes on the spot. The History and Politics teachers happily yielded their time. My high school math teacher required the lower 80 percentile students to take 2 extra hours per week make-up problem-solving classes after school with him and nobody dare to object. These days the time-grabbing game may have been forbidden but then it takes the form of after-school tutoring classes. Everyone knows what the priority is so I don’t think there’s this lack of time issue, at least in the math and science classes. Moreover, typical high schools stop teaching new contents in the last year. The full year is dedicated to strengthen what we’ve already learned over the years and prepare for Gao Kao.

    As for the naturally “get it” bit, I don’t think most people naturally get it. The lectures, the exercises, and the homework played a big part to gear the students towards getting it. But there’s only so much a teacher can do in the class of 60. For some average to lower level students, they don’t even try harder enough to simply follow the pace, let along getting it.

    The structural problems as others pointed out also plays an important role. Not all teachers are as enthusiastic in and/or capable of teaching creatively. Many take it as just any other job that pays the bills. For them, you really can’t expect a lot more than just reading out loudly what’s written in the textbooks.

    Then I disagree strongly with many of the attacks on “应试教育”, or test based education. IMO diminishing the role of the exams is quite a bad way to approach a well intentioned goal. If Ms. Rhee assesses the DC Schools performance by test scores, why should we not do so given our exams are designed better than theirs?


  26. @Josh,

    That’s quite a compliment. … blush… but,

    – I’m much older than the average Chinese undergrads in your class.
    – Much as you said about them, I skipped most of my undergrad classes and wasted a sizable chunk of that 4 years in the library’s British Council reading room browsing magazines and watching videos.

    But I dare say I did study a lot in my high school years, the very reason I appreciate Gao Kao to this day.


  27. CnInDC: Yeah, I guess part of my issue is exactly what you’re talking about: the intense focus on math and science. Obviously, I have less experience in Chinese math education than you do, so I’ll concede the point about critical thinking there, but then what about history, or english/chinese, or politics? In the US system, these are the classes where students tend to develop skills that are universally valuable: decent writing, the ability to construct a persuasive argument, the ability to predict the future based on behavior patterns, etc.

    The skills that science and math teaches are sometimes useful, but not always. Personally, the most complex math I have had to do in the past 9 or ten years of life is multiplication and division. Outside of a classroom, I have never once had to use algebra, geometry (ok, well, geometry that required any sort of calculation), or calculus (which I didn’t even take). Nor have I needed to know what mitochondria were and what purpose they served in the cell, or how far a tennis ball will fly if it’s fired out of cannon at such and such an angle blah blah you get the point. In fact, among my circle of friends, only one of them ever has to use any kind of math that isn’t taught in primary school in his professional life (he’s a computer programmer).

    Suddenly, I see this discussion heading down the road of humanities vs. sciences….humanities, dammit, humanities! lol…

    Anyway, another issue is that basing judgment of students on test results isn’t always accurate anyway. If you’ve taught, I’m sure you’ve run into students as we all have who know and understand the material but for one reason or another (pressure, mostly) consistently blow it on tests.

    What’s nice about the US system is that students who have learned what they’re supposed to learn aren’t totally fucked if they have a bad day when the SATs roll around.

    That said, I agree it’s stupid to judge a city’s schools based on tests. In fact, that’s probably the main thing (or one of them) that’s killing urban education in the US (see season 4 of The Wire for some great criticism of this aspect of the US system, not to mention one of the best TV shows ever made).

    Another sidenote, but thinking of that college friend who does computer science made me think about how terrible both countries are at educating students in computer programming (a skill that is already ridiculously valuable and only getting moreso). In the US, there is some rudimentary computer education, but nothing real (I recall many of my classmates in primary school took computer classes as a time to goof off and print anonymous creepy messages while the teacher wasn’t looking), and my impression is that in most Chinese schools there is none at all.


  28. This is an interesting debate. To my American friends, I would like to make a few observations about undergraduate education at a large public university in America.

    1) I think it is grossly unfair and impractical to simply dump every freshman who either could not make into one of the professional colleges (Engineering/Business/Pharmacy etc) or was simply not a very good student into the social sciences. It is unfair to the genuinely dedicated and smart students who want to study Philosophy/History/Government, that their majors effectively become ‘easy’ or ‘party’ majors.

    It is impractical because although a society needs its philosophers and historians (in the long run) just as much as its engineers and managers, it does not need them to be ‘produced’ on the small scales. There are bound to be fewer historians and political scientists than electrical engineers just based on the nature of the modern economy, and dumping all the ‘stupid’ kids into liberal/fine arts distorts this profoundly.

    2) Networks matter, and currently American public universities do not have a good setup for allowing students to establish them. Of course, there is the problem of size but organizing departments along smaller, more compact lines and designing the curriculum so that people end up taking atleast 3 or 4 classes together will help enormously. Right now too many American college grads are graduating with a lot of debt and little in the way of good professional networks than can help them get jobs.

    Aside: And if I may be excused for bringing the dreaded I-word in a China-America discussion, a recent Hindi movie called ‘3 Idiots’ has become the highest grossing Indian movie of all time. It is about college students not happy with their education and their society,
    Tertiary education seems to be a problem everywhere.


  29. CNinDC

    “Increasing number of Chinese faculty members get published in top journals, promoted to lab leaders and fellows in the top research institutions, and the Chinese factories are churning out new products at faster pace. If these can’t be taken as proofs I don’t know what can. It’s easy to dismiss Chinese products as garbage and Chinese engineers as unthinking drones when you neither produce the goods nor engineer the assembly line. Quite a creative way of dismissive thinking I’d say.”

    “Increasing” still doesn’t show that “the inventions follow soon.” Chinese make up a large percentage of the world population so it is inevitable and likely that there will be many top scientist’s and engineers and others with Chinese nationality anyway.

    Churning out new products of their own design with success? Absolutely, I think it is possible. For example?

    I didn’t say their products were “garbage” nor the “engineers as unthinking”. Why did you make such a statement?

    “anyone who starts by draw parallels between China and Nazi Germany.” What? Who did that? Again, why did you make such a statement?

    I would say that that gov’t nonsense is a huge factor in keeping many of these smart and critical and inventive thinkers down.

    How do I know they are smart? Because I am a dummy and I was just being nice 🙂


  30. @bert:

    My main argument that “Necessity is the mother of inventions” may be partially reflected by the patent indicator, refer to section A2, page 15, World Intellectual Property Indicators (, where I see a clear correlation between the indicator and the GDP/productivity. When Russia and Japan’s economic development slowed down, their patent indicators clearly reflect that change. The same can be said about South Korea. If the past can be used to infer the future, I see no reason why China’s patent application should not be increasing if the economy keeps growing, therefore the claim “inventions follow”.

    However I concede that:

    – I can provide no hard proof that the patent filing equals to or even can be used as an accurate indicator for the creativity and critical thinking.
    – I can provide no hard proof that the increase of the GDP is the driving force of the creativity instead of vice versa. But at least it was commonly agreed that China isn’t even close to an innovation driven economy so a GDP driven Chinese innovation model sounds more convincing to me.

    That said, a few things strike me as obvious:

    – There’s no major change in the situation of the Chinese Gov’t nonsense during 1997 to 2009 where the patent indicator increases at a stunning rate.
    – There’re no less gov’t nonsense in Russia during the CCCP era than in current China, but its per capita patent indicator is somewhat comparable to that of the US from 1967 to 1987.
    – During the past 20 years, Japan and South Korea’s per capita indicators are at comparable level with that of the US, if not higher. However the teaching style in these two countries do not differ significantly from that in China (I’ve used translated Japan math workbooks myself so I think I know a little bit).

    I think these facts contradict many claims made in this thread.


  31. I think that one important aspect of the Chinese education that is missing from this discussion is the pervasiveness of plagiarism and cheating in the Chinese educational system. I would sum up the attitude of the average Chinese student with a belief that it doesn’t matter how the test score is achieved. Having attempted to teach English composition in private and public schools, I can say that inevitably the first hurdle is always teaching them not to copy from other sources, those of their classmates and even the classroom textbook. They all seem to know that its wrong in the abstract, yet how can it be so wrong when their own Chinese teachers have used it to advance their own credentials? I am, therefore, very reluctant to unquestionably accept claims about the increased number of academic papers published. It seems that in China, it;s only plagiarism when the writer is caught.


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