Chinese Students: Great Thinkers or Great Memorizers?

I had wanted to put this quote in from the governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, because it made me laugh. He made this remark after the NFL postponed the Sunday football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings (which was played last night and the Vikings won). The NFL called the game off because of the danger of fans getting safely to and from the stadium because of a huge snowstorm.

“We’ve become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything,” Rendell added. “If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.”

The "doing calculus on the way down" made me laugh. But then there was this interesting piece on NPR today about Chinese education. Basically, the point is that they are great at learning and memorizing facts but not very good at analytic, problem-solving thinking. Even their principals admit this but like many bureaucratic issues, it's recognized but no one knows what to do.

From the piece:

"Developed countries like the U.S. shouldn't be too surprised by these results. They're just one index, one measure that shows off the good points of Shanghai's and China's education system. But the results can't cover up our problems," he says.

Liu is very frank about those problems — the continuing reliance on rote learning, the lack of analysis or critical thinking — and he says the system is in dire need of reform.

"Why don't Chinese students dare to think? Because we insist on telling them everything. We're not getting our kids to go and find things out for themselves," he says.

Mr. Liu, who is a principal in Shanghai, also points out that the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results were for Shanghai students who were the only Chinese students to take the test. Shanghai is apparently the best city for education in China.

Here's what a student had to say:

Zhang Chi, 17, was one of those students, and she noticed the difference in the way the PISA questions were framed.

"I can't go straight to answer the questions. I must think a while for the question, and give me some time to think," she says.


The trouble is that despite all the talk of educational reform, combining East and West, Chinese and foreign, is, in the end, simply not possible. However well she did in the PISA test, or however much she liked the questions, Zhang has to sit down next summer and take the high school university entrance test — the gaokao — where writing different, creative answers gets you nowhere, and writing the standard answer that you've memorized gets you into a good university.

I believe we have serious issues in this country in public education. The achievement gap is stubbornly hanging in there, the issue that girls are doing better and boys falling behind, uneven resources and opportunities and social promotion when students truly are not ready are some of the issues. I get annoyed when I hear ed reformers say that if you don't want bold change, you support the status quo. Not true. But as I have said before, I want MY district to examine all the avenues and make a decision about what we will try based on our district, our resources and our situation.

The "Sputnik" moment that some have called the U.S. results versus international students may not be as serious as some say. Not to brush off serious issues but we do need to realize the context of these international tests. The U.S. is a huge country with more race and cultures than almost any other place on earth. We don't have, educationally, one rote way to do things. When you have China skewing their results by only testing one city, then you have to take a step back and ask what would happen if you only had American students in one district/city take the PISA.

The question is how to marry the seriousness with which the Chinese take education with the U.S. spirit of fresh thinking. (More on this in another thread.)


Anonymous said…
Here's another take on the the same study of educational achievement that makes some sense to me. When the US results are broken down by ethnic/racial group, each group in the US outperforms the same racial or ethnic group in other countries, with a very few exceptions. The achievement gap is a global phenomenon and drives the US's poor performance relative to other countries comprised of higher achieving ethnic/racial groups.

Any thoughts?;_ylt=Amb39mufIfvMgw9eooMfsdyets8F;_ylu=X3oDMTJnNjFrM3JiBGFzc2V0A3VjLzIwMTAxMjI4L29wXzMzMTY0NjAEcG9zAzEEc2VjA3luX3BhZ2luYXRlX3N1bW1hcnlfbGlzdARzbGsDd2hvb3duc3RoZWZ1
hschinske said…
I think the Steve Sailer fan is going to get deleted due to being anonymous, so I won't respond directly. But I did want to point out that there's an interesting story in how much Finland has improved over the past 25 years, while presumably not changing much demographically.

"As recently as 25 years ago, Finnish students were below the international average in mathematics and science. There also were large learning differences between schools, with urban or affluent students typically outperforming their rural or low-income peers. Today, as the most recent PISA study proves, Finland is one of the few nations that have accomplished both a high quality of learning and equity in learning at the same time. The best school systems are the most equitable — students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. Finally, Finland should interest US educators because Finns have employed very distinct ideas and policies in reforming education, many the exact opposite of what’s being tried in the United States."

Helen Schinske
Helen, you hear about Finland a lot. I wish some of the people making decisions would pay attention. This is the flip side of American thinking - we think our ideas are always the best.
zb said…
Can I quibble, and say that this should say "students in China" rather than Chinese students? Since the word Chinese might be used to refer to either a nationality (what you mean, I think) or a ethnic/racial group, you invite "Asians are good at math" and ethnic/racial comparisons. And, I think the data you're citing actually refers to educational systems.
Charlie Mas said…
I keep hearing people talk about the value of creativity, problem-solving skills, critical reasoning skills, and innovative or outside-the-box thinking. I see that value and I agree that we should definitely support and encourage that sort of teaching and training.

What I'm not seeing, however, is a lot of folks talking about HOW to do that sort of teaching and training. I believe that talk is absent for three reasons:

1) Everyone already knows how to teach this thinking and train these skills.

2) The teaching and training methods are not scalable nor are they reducible to a set of fixed rules.

3) There are no easy assessments for these skills.

For all of the talk about these being "21st century" skills, the fact is that they have more in common with the sort of work that people did in pre-modern era than in the post-modern era.

I don't have much more to say about this, although I could write a lot more to fill in the outlines of this picture. Since the beginning of the modern era we have since increased productivity from workers. One man on a tractor can do the work of dozens. In the post-modern era this productivity has leapt exponentially. You can easily imagine one man sitting at a computer controlling dozens of automated tractors. Even tasks that were once regarded as personal professional services have been subject to modernization and post-modernization.

Teaching has resisted post-modernism. There has been some effort along those lines, but it has found success only with instruction in the most rudimentary knowledge and skills. There isn't much - if anything - done to teach critical thinking skills on a mass scale.

The leaders of post-modernism hate it for that and continue to crack the whip in their efforts to drive teaching to the same productivity levels as other endeavors.

I don't know if they see their efforts and motivations this clearly. While I honestly wish them success, I'm convinced that they are going about their efforts all wrong. Their approach will only yield rote learning or mass confusion. See for reference the outcomes from constructivist math curricula.
Chris S. said…
For a thorough discussion of this phenomenon, see Yong Zhao's Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization. If I try to distill his point, it's that we are/were doing some things right, but our obsession with international competition on standardized tests is leading us down the wrong path. There's also some fascination tidbits: there ARE tests for creative thinking and they correlate better with adult success than the usual standardized test. And a great practice in elementary school is an audition-free talent show - really sets up the culture that all talents are valued. Great book, anyway. Read it.
Jet City mom said…
John Burbank ( he ran against Reuven Carlyle), is Finnish-American & he has a bit more about child development & education in Finland.
what finland gets right,
Anonymous said…
Thanks Chris. I love the no-audition grade school talent show idea.

I have a friend who sailed through UW in biochem after graduating from the Japanese school system. But she's a big critic of it: the pressure is enormous, you are not taught to think creatively, and it's not ok to have a desire for a different path. (I asked, what if you don't want to be a scientist? What if you want to go into the trades, or be an artist, or open up a hair salon? Answer: You are shaming your parents.)

So we are all racing to, where, again? Not all kids are going to be super in science or math. Not all kids are fast learners. Why should they be? Why can't we honor what is great about each kid, instead of forcing them to feel inadequate if they are "just" at grade level? Why does every kid have to be a round peg, the round hole being STEM at the university level?

Because the governor and society want people who do calculus on the way to the football game?

We need schools that rigorously prepare kids who want to go the STEM route and not shame them for being smart. And schools that value and build on the gifts of kids who aren't headed for advanced calculus.

karyn king said…
I thin we could combine the best of both American and Chinese system if we pay attention to the realities of child development. First, we need to teach directly, explicitly the basic tools that students need to master (math facts, parts of speech, etc.)at an early age. Once they have those skills, we emphasize the creative use of them in problem solving and critical thinking. The problem I see is that many intermediate and secondary students waste too many of their cognitive resources trying to "discover" the basics, so they get frustrated by the time they're asked to do the tougher, higher order thinking required for "21st century."
Effective curricula builds instruction this way. If we just had someone at the district who cared about implementing this kind of common sense curricula in various subjects...I know, dream on.
Jet City mom said…
While Summit had other issues- one of the things I liked and thought was appropriate for all learners was ( to appropriate a term from SAAS), a "culture of performance".

The whole school had a yearly performance night, with grade school choirs, tap & swing dance, modern dance & jazz. ( this was separate from the theatre performances from the grade/middle & high school- it was also separate from the middle school history project, that required students to do an individual performance piece of 5 minutes of a real life ( non -american) person from history.)

While my daughter went on to another high school, what she learned in preparing work to present to an audience- are skills that transfer disciplines.
seattle citizen said…
Yong Zhao, whom Chris mentions, spoke on creativity and said that many of the so-called "high-performing" nations that are looked at as beating us somehow have themselves seen that their curricula is too narrow, to much memorization in the later years; they see the US as beating THEM in the creativity department, and are changing their ways to follow suit. I wonder what China, for instance, is learning about the teaching of creativity in the US, how it's done.

Zhao goes on to say that creativity is exactly what's necessary in the US, economy-wise: With the new global micro-markets, niches for all conceivable products, and with the power of the internet (and the growth of UPS globally: see today's paper) creative people everywhere have an economic power in being able to think up new things that some small group of people, scattered around the globe, will like.

Brings up corollary issues of the environmental costs of shipping, but it's a great point.

I think WV has been filled too full of the holiday spirits: It's taking poetic lysengsh with its words.
KSG said…
The problem is that in most competitions where creativity is encouraged, Chinese students also do really well.

For example the International Math Olympiad, in the past 10 years China has won it 8 times, and placed second twice.

The USA hasn't won since 1994 (although we do consistently place in the top 5).

In the ACM Programming Contest, Chinese schools have won 3 times in the past 10 years. A US school hasn't won since 1997 (Harvey Mudd).

It seems the one thing that top US students do better in is writing English prose. But I suspect we're far worse at great Mandarin prose.

The Chinese may produce great memorizers, but they're also a country that is putting out the best of the best analytic minds too.
Can't compare apples to oranges said…
If poor rural Chinese families don't have finances to send their children to school; kids don't go to school.
wsnorth said…
@Anon - Any thoughts?

I can't open your link, but I don't understand your post.

"...each group in the US outperforms the same racial or ethnic group in other countries, with a very few exceptions"

So, you are saying in African countries, for instance, the White/Asians outperform the African population? In Asia the white/Asians outperform ... who? In South America the white/Asians outperform who? If it is a global phenom, how can it make the US look particularly bad?
KSG said…
@wsnorth, what anon is trying to say is that Europeans in the US perform better than Europeans in Europe. Asians in the US perform better than Asians in Asia, etc...

Of course this misses some serious selection bias. And it doesn't control for some basic stuff like parental income or education (although the data is available).

And lastly, giving it every benefit of the doubt, it shows that the US, with its vast resources, is a bit better than average (for example, even controlling for European descent, we still do much worse than Finland, and several other European countries). I guess its supposed to be comforting that we're not the worst country in the world.
seattle citizen said…
Today's NY Times has an article about the issue of memorization vs creativity in Shanghai
Anonymous said…
Comparing the two is apples to oragnes.
In college (UW, early 90s), I took Poli Sci 101- easy grade, or so I thought, based on the extensive Poli Sci foundation provided by my AP European History teacher in HS. My AP Euro teacher encouraged divergent thinking and I excelled in his class.
Poli Sci 101 was a classic UW 101 class with a 450+ student lecture class and a subset of sections taught by a variety of TAs. Mine was taught by a TA from China - here on some prestigious scholar program to get his advanced degree in Poli Sci. It was from this teacher that I received my only 0.0grade for a 10 page paper. And this was after a series of low scores on similarly lengthy assignments. Each paper I received back from him-comment free. Because I had struggled with writing my entire academic life, I chalked it up to my poor skill set. It wasn't until the 0.0 that I actually went to him and had a conversation about why I received a 0.0 on a paper that I had poured my heart and soul into. The topic was to write about the similarities or differences between communism and capitalism based on the reading of "Behind the Urals." I choose to write about the similarities between the two connecting FDR's series of plans for economic recovery to those of Stalin and other USSR leaders. According to him, my answer to the prompt was wrong. There were no similarities between the two systems, only differences. I received the grade because I was wrong to see similarities. I shared with him that in the US, we had the differences drilled into our beings from very early on and to regurgitate this in an 8-10 page paper was simply a waste of my intellectual time. I choose instead to focus on what I could see was similar between the two countries during the same point in history covered in the book. After going several rounds about the expectations of teacher and student in classrooms in China vs. in the US, I filed to have my work reviewed by a different TA and for a different TA to score my final. In China, the teacher is never questioned, he is always right. There is one theory, one way to understand, one correct answer to the question. My divergent thinking killed my success in his class.
While I could understand why and how I received the scores I did from him, I knew that it wasn't "right"- even at the U. My revised grade for the course was a 3.2, which I could accept as a more accurate reflection of my content knowledge and writing skill issues.
I think that it is great that China is now seeking out critical thinking pedagogy. However, I am sure they will find it difficult to implement with students and their parents not knowing how to operate within a system where multiple answers are possible.
wsnorth said…
China and India, like all countries, are composed of individuals. The state may indoctrinate most students, but some will always find their own way, and we shouldn't stereotype all in one group.

ttln's post is very interesting and representative in a lot of cases, I'm sure.

I, myself, had a somewhat similar experience here in the US. One of my degrees is from a Catholic University. By fa my worst grade was in "ethics" because I basically refused to toe the line and follow the reasoning of the ordained staff who was teaching the class. It is all a matter of perspective, and I didn't share his (at all).

The Chinese system turns out many brilliant scientists and engineers, as does ours.

PS. I still just don't get the anon /any thoughts post and would like to read that link if it worked.
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