Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The stereotype of rote learning in East-Asian classrooms, III

(Third in what's become a series.)

This installment begins with a few more thoughts on Fareed Zakaria’s recent Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous--which, for all its problems, is certainly thought-provoking:

Americans should be careful before they try to mimic Asian educational systems, which are oriented around memorization and test-taking. I went through that kind of system. It has its strengths, but it’s not conducive to thinking, problem solving or creativity. That’s why most Asian countries, from Singapore to South Korea to India, are trying to add features of a liberal education to their systems. Jack Ma, the founder of China’s Internet behemoth Alibaba, recently hypothesized in a speech that the Chinese are not as innovative as Westerners because China’s educational system, which teaches the basics very well, does not nourish a student’s complete intelligence, allowing her to range freely, experiment and enjoy herself while learning.
Jack Ma was born and educated in China and lives there now; thus creatively undernourished, how is he qualified to talk about creativity? For that matter, how qualified is the Indian-educated Zakaria, who, as he himself claims, went through a system oriented around “memorization and text-taking.”?

The fact that there are plenty of creative individuals educated in India and China should make us wonder whether the claims of these two particular Chinese and Indian-educated individuals--not to mention so many of us native-born Americans--are actually true.

When it comes to China in particular, Americans have hopelessly incoherent opinions. On the one hand, with our stereotype-confirming fish tank experiments, we think the Chinese (along with Asians in general) are more into group harmony than we Westerners are; on the other hand, with their competitive exams and tiger moms, we think they are more into competition and individual success. We carry on about how steeped in memorization the Chinese education system is, ignorant of how most of this is an artifact of a logographic writing system that demands thousands more hours of memorization than what our alphabetic system demands. Those hours do limit how much time Chinese K12 schools spend on a broader curriculum—e.g., on history, science and art—but, when it comes to math, their curriculum is akin to the highly conceptual Singapore Math.

Americans carry on about China’s college entrance (Gao Kao) exams, conflating stiff competition with rote memorization. Yes, the exams are highly competitive, and students study very hard for them, and, like most exams the world over, they favor the wealthy. And, by the time they take these exams, exhausted, sleep-deprived students may feel like mindless zombies.

But the exams aren’t rote. Both the Chinese and English sections include essay questions, and the problems on the math sections are highly conceptual. In many ways the Chinese Gao Kao exams are more demanding of conceptual understanding and creativity than America’s Common Core exams.

Sample essay question for the Chinese section of the Gao Kao can be found here and include questions like:
"You can choose your own road and method to make it across the desert, which means you are free; you have no choice but finding a way to make it across the desert, which makes you not free. Choose your own angle and title to write an article that is not less than 800 words."
Sample essay questions for the English section, found here, include:
A pencil laughs at a shorter pencil, which is almost used up, saying: "You're nearing the end!" You are discussing a picture with an English friend. Describe your understanding of the illustration, and the reason why.
And sample math questions, found on the slideshow on this site, include:



Critical thinking and conceptual understanding, anyone?

It took me only an ounce of skepticism and a handful of clicks to track down this information. But most Americans (including, apparently, naturalized Americans like Zakaria) are so sure that the Chinese system amounts to mindless rote learning that it hasn’t occurred to them to spend a few seconds verifying what their own mindless rote learning has taught them to take on faith.

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