Col­lege stu­dents in China: Are they crit­i­cal thinkers or not?

China Daily (USA) - - ACROSS AMERICAS - Matthew Turner Con­tact the writer at matthew­turner@chi­nadai­

Can col­lege stu­dents in China do crit­i­cal think­ing? That ques­tion was an­swered by a head­line in The New York Times on July 30 atop a Stan­ford Univer­sity study of Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion: “Study Finds Chi­nese Stu­dents Ex­cel in Crit­i­cal Think­ing. Un­til Col­lege.’’

The study of Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion shows that Chi­nese high school stu­dents per­form above in­ter­na­tional av­er­ages, but this trend either stag­nates or drops dur­ing col­lege. By look­ing at scores and other data, the study con­cludes that hap­pens be­cause of a lack of “crit­i­cal think­ing”.

In its as­sess­ment of prob­lems in Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion, the study is largely cor­rect. But it also as­sumes that crit­i­cal think­ing can be taught by re­ori­ent­ing ed­u­ca­tion around skills- and jobs-based mod­els. The two have lit­tle to do with each other.

I know this be­cause I taught high school and col­lege in Bei­jing for six years. And like any­one who has been on the in­side of the Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem as a teacher or a stu­dent, I will read­ily ad­mit that there are many prob­lems – but a lack of crit­i­cal think­ing is not one of them.

Classes can be over­crowded and at­ten­tion ap­pears to be paid mostly to quan­ti­ta­tive data. With a de­clin­ing job mar­ket, many stu­dents also feel that their schools are not pre­par­ing them for life af­ter grad­u­a­tion. But this has lit­tle to do with crit­i­cal think­ing.

Whether or not “the Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem kills cre­ativ­ity and kills in­no­va­tion”, as Eric X. Li, an en­tre­pre­neur and a spon­sor of the study, says in the ar­ti­cle, is sim­ply be­side the point. The study is con­fus­ing crit­i­cal think­ing with what one needs to get a job — which is largely a ro­bust econ­omy.

If one wants to see crit­i­cal think­ing on Chi­nese col­lege cam­puses, it can be found eas­ily, just not nec­es­sar­ily where one ex­pects.

Dur­ing the time I taught, I had a range of stu­dents from dif­fer­ent eco­nomic strata and with dif­fer­ent life goals. At one school, stu­dents who wanted to ma­jor in the nat­u­ral sci­ences were as­signed to the de­part­ment of for­eign lan­guages, where I taught Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture.

In my classes there I would of­ten have un­en­thu­si­as­tic stu­dents, but I also had many stu­dents that sur­prised me. They com­pre­hended on a high level what we were study­ing, and I found many stu­dents both cu­ri­ous and ea­ger to work hard. If pos­si­ble, some wanted to con­trib­ute some­thing to the field.

In other words: crit­i­cal think­ing and in­no­va­tion.

Later I re­al­ized that I’m not an es­pe­cially gifted teacher or scholar — cer­tainly no more than the thou­sands of other ed­u­ca­tors in China. I also taught stu­dents zero about job skills. I taught lit­er­a­ture, af­ter all.

So why did my stu­dents demon­strate ex­actly the qual­i­ties that the Stan­ford study says are lack­ing when it claims to “mea­sure crit­i­cal think­ing”?

I asked James Wil­liams, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Ren­min Univer­sity of China, one of the top uni­ver­si­ties in China, what he thought the rea­son was: “I think the ma­jor is­sue is that stu­dents are not asked to en­gage in crit­i­cal think­ing at the univer­sity level. If you ask them to be crit­i­cal of a text or idea they are more than happy to oblige,” he said.

This speaks to my point. By claim­ing to mea­sure crit­i­cal think­ing and then of­fer tech­ni­cal or job-based so­lu­tions, the Stan­ford study misses the mark. In a for­est of so­lu­tions and data, all that was needed was to ask stu­dents what they thought the prob­lems with Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion were.

The stu­dents in­ter­viewed for the ar­ti­cle needed crit­i­cal think­ing skills even to an­swer the ques­tions posed, so where is the lack?

The so­lu­tion to some prob­lems in the Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem may in­deed lie par­tially in bet­ter job skills and smaller classes, but that has lit­tle to do with crit­i­cal think­ing.

If one wants to see crit­i­cal think­ing, one sim­ply needs to lis­ten to what stu­dents have to say.

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