My most recent class contained a record number of non-native English speakers, most of them from mainland China. Initially, I had worried. Might these students flounder with the more technical, densely written articles? Or with the linguistic mechanics of writing clear responses to these articles in their weekly papers? But the Chinese nationals, in particular, soon proved to be producing the best papers in the class. Their English skills were excellent, and, invariably, they not only captured the key points in the readings, complete with specific examples, but also shared interesting, original reflections on these key points and details.
Papers by other students also contained reflections, but, particularly among the younger of the American-born, the thoughts were often free-floating; detached from the specific content of the articles; sometimes fatally skewed by imperfect understandings of what they had (or perhaps hadn't) read.
This weekly contrast--between papers that carefully digested the readings and grounded new ideas in specific details, and papers that contained fewer details and more free-floating ideas--made me think about something else I've often blogged about. That would be (starting here) the popular American stereotype of East Asian students: great at rote learning but deficient in open-ended thinking and creativity. And, as I read through these papers, I'd find myself picturing a proponent of this stereotype--quite popular among American educators--looking over my shoulder and seeing exactly what s/he wants to see. S/he would see the papers written by students with Chinese names that appeared to be mostly regurgitating the articles, in contrast to other papers that abstracted away from the details ("higher-level thinking") and reflected at length ("critically") on the bigger picture.
But what I saw was the difference between students who had really engaged with the reading and absorbed it well enough to really get the main points and carefully take them one or two steps further vs. students who hadn't processed the readings enough for their reflections to go much beyond what they could have come up with before they even did (or didn't do) the reading.
True higher-level thinking, after all, requires a strong foundation in the material you thinking about.
I thought most recently of my Chinese students when reading an article in last week's Times:
Chinese primary and secondary schools are often derided as grueling, test-driven institutions that churn out students who can recite basic facts but have little capacity for deep reasoning.
A new study, though, suggests that China is producing students with some of the strongest critical thinking skills in the world.
The unexpected finding could recast the debate over whether Chinese schools are doing a better job than American ones, complementing previous studies showing Chinese students outperforming their global peers in reading, math and science.
The study, to be published next year, found that Chinese freshmen in computer science and engineering programs began college with critical thinking skills about two to three years ahead of their peers in the United States and Russia. Those skills included the ability to identify assumptions, test hypotheses and draw relationships between variables.The article goes on to discuss a leveling off of these skills once Chinese students attend Chinese colleges and universities. Possible culprits are the miring bureaucracy and lax academic standards at universities, the less energetic and demanding teaching, and/ or the decline in student motivation once the tremendous pressure of the university test, the gaokao, is over.
Unfortunately it is probably this leveling off of critical thinking skills that the proponents of East Asian stereotypes will remember, rather than the 2-3 year boost provided by those supposedly grueling, test-driven elementary and secondary schools.