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Chinese teaching needs more critical and creative thinking

Which country — the United States or China — will make the 21st century its own?

When President Barack Obama recently called for American young people “to be makers of things” and focus on subjects such as science and engineering, it was partly a nod to China's rapid growth. Had he lived, taught and consulted in China for the past 33 months, as I have, he might have urged American students first to follow his example and study the liberal arts. Only technical knowledge complemented by well-honed critical and creative thinking skills can help us regain our innovative edge. China's traditional lack of emphasis on teaching these skills could undermine its efforts to develop its own innovative economy.

I once challenged my Chinese MBA students to brainstorm “two-hour business plans.” I divided them into six groups, gave them detailed instructions and an example: a restaurant chain. The more original their idea, the better, I stressed — and we would vote for a prize winner. The word “prize” energized the room. Laptops flew open. Fingers pounded. Voices roared. Packs of cookies were ripped open and shared. Not a single person text-messaged. I had touched a nerve.

In the end, five of the six groups presented plans for, you guessed it, restaurant chains. The sixth proposed a catering service. Why risk a unique solution when the instructor has let it slip he likes the food business?

Although I admitted the time limit had been difficult, I expressed my disappointment and reiterated what I had expected — originality — and why. But they had been so enthusiastic that I couldn't deny them a winner. After a polite discussion of the merits of each idea, the Haagen-Dazs gift certificates were awarded, but not without controversy. Runners-up later complained that an identical concept had been featured on CCTV the night before.

My students weren't recent college grads. They were middle managers, financial analysts and marketers from state-owned enterprises and multinational companies. They occupied the space in the developing economy that has spawned a small industry of articles about “China's great talent shortage.” Most were intelligent, personable men and women, not without talent or opinions, but they had been shaped by an educational system that rarely stressed or rewarded critical thinking or inventiveness.

The scenario I've described occurred in different forms throughout my two years at the school. Papers were routinely copied from the Web and the Harvard Business Review. Case study debates meant to be spontaneous were jointly scripted by the opposing teams and memorized. Students frequently posited that copying is a superior business strategy to inventing and innovating. When they considered the wealth that Chinese industry had amassed in such a short time, it was hard for them to believe otherwise.

Throughout the semesters, like students everywhere but more so, they wanted to know exactly what they needed to memorize for the mid-term and final. Considering it takes me a week just to commit several Chinese phrases to memory, I had to respect their skills.

May 8, 2009    xuterrence@
He really does understand the dilemma of Mainland China. Hard to believe an outsider could see it so clearly. China government should listen to the advice of Randy Pollock and allow its people to develop that part of their potential.
September 1, 2009    nobody826@
The call for a need of critical thinking in Chinese teaching sounds reasonable but hard to yield any desirable result, for criticalness goes hand in hand with democracy, which decides whether an individual has the right to voice his opinion, and to what extend one can exercise this right. In a culture featured by asymmetrical hierarchy which lays strong emphasis on harmonious interpersonal relationship, and whose people are characterized as obedient, submissive, and conflicts-avoiding, fostering critical thinking is more a challenge to the time-honored Confucian discourse system than a mere modification of the teaching.
November 3, 2010    alisa.c.mappes@
Agree with the above comment - am currently working and teaching within the Chinese system. I have found it extremely difficult to introduce 'critical thinking' (now dubbed by Sir Ken Robinson as 'divergent thinking') into my classroom! That presents a problem for me, as I have not been educated in the same pedagogy as my Chinese colleagues, so I've only got my 'western' thinking to depend on, but my students can't access it from their frame of reference. There must be some middle ground somewhere...
January 16, 2012    brynag@
xuterrence@ wrote:
He really does understand the dilemma of Mainland China. Hard to believe an outsider could see it so clearly. China government should listen to the advice of Randy Pollock and allow its people to develop that part of their potential.
Are you kidding me?!?!?" Understanding the dilemma of mainland China" is like 'understanding' the alphabet -- it's just there, 26 letters staring you in the face.
January 18, 2012    olichu@
I agree with your column in part with regards for the need to have a more stimulating / creative education system in China. However, the examples mentioned leave out one important aspect; I would like to add that creative/critical thinking needs to begin from adolescence preferably during the kindergarten age. By the time they are college students, the creativity that was present during their school-age have been "beaten out" of them. In a society that looks down upon individualism and free thought, and curiosity, it would be near impossible to foster/change the education system in China.
February 2, 2014    vivian-li@
It's possible that the Chinese students in your 'business plan' example above merely misinterpreted you as requesting a business plan in the food service industry. Other than this, I would generally agree with you about the lack of critical thinking skills on the part of Asian students (though this seems to be a much bigger issue for recent Asian immigrants and those living in their homeland countries, rather than North American born first generation Asians, who have fortunately adopting more of a "critical thinking" mindset thanks to the 'Western' education system.

Indeed, contrary to stereotype, Asians aren't exactly "intelligent", in the traditional meaning of the term, as much as they are capable of tasks involving rote memory. This is why, as a group, they are concentrated in Math/Science/Business/Medicine programs rather than the Social Sciences and Humanities. I've also observed that most of the Asian students I've met at my university cannot hold an intelligent/interesting conversation (while this doesn't seem to be a shortcoming for the non-Asian students I've talked to). I most definitely think it is the cultural upbringing -- I'm Chinese myself, and have first-hand experience with the hostility many Asian parents have to critical thinking and questioning the status quo (which is a major reason I don't get along with my own family).
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