Struggling on your own? A reflection on Chinese education philosophy

A recent New York Times article writes about differences in Chinese and American learning philosophies. Here is NPR’s report on this topic.

The simplest way to summarize her findings (Jin Li’s) is that Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.

Jin Li’s arguments make a lot of sense to me. The Chinese education values hard work and sees it as the only way to perfection. But perfection itself is loosely defined. In the Chinese context, it is more about excelling others than exploring the truth. Rankings are constantly posted and a tension between peers is always present. As I see it, the Chinese education places too little importance of teamwork.

Critical thinking ia another missing link in Chinese education. The lack of critical thinking of Chinese students is especially salient in graduate school. In my first semester’s seminar class, I simply felt reluctant to ask questions. My mind seemed to be accepting whatever it encountered, without ever asking “Is this true” or “Why is this so”. This weakness in critical thinking may have stemmed from the reverence for authority in Chinese culture. In a classroom setting, the teacher is the authority. Teachers are painted as knowledgable and superior figures offering guidance to students. Students are therefore supposed to follow the lead and work hard towards perfection. A fundamental fear of authority prohibits the development of our critical thinking.

My mentor, a senior business executive for a large company, once mentioned how hard it is to find a good executive in Asia. Senior leadership roles require much more than only completing the assigned tasks. “Hong Kong education is better than the mainland,” he says, “but it’s still far from satisfactory in terms of building up people’s leadership and teamwork ability.”

I’ll end my discussion with a joke I saw a couple of days ago. “A typical discussion session in *** (a university in France) works like this: French students identify the problems. Then German and Chinese students solve it. British students tell jokes when people are tired. Finally, American students present their project in front of the class.” It may be exaggerating, but there’s certainly some truth in it.


11 thoughts on “Struggling on your own? A reflection on Chinese education philosophy

  1. You may wish to check out some of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s writings on pedagogy. He has many books published on education. A large portion of his project is dedicated to awakening questioning within his readers–to “only accept truth when one sees it for oneself,” as opposed to the traditional and fallacious practice of accepting truth on authority.

  2. Here is an article in Mandarin on the math education in China from a series of reflections on the whole system by the Southern Weekly, a liberal Chinese newspaper.

    I found the author’s argument of how an education system may shift the distribution of math “talents” quite interesting, and I generally agree with that. Also, the pizza problem exemplifies distinct approaches to solve the same problem adopted by students in the two countries, although it may not necessarily, as one of the reply post has argued, tell which approach is superior.

    • Thanks Xudong, for recommending this great article. Would be great if it has an English version. The pizza example actually demonstrates the different thinking patterns between American and Chinese students. I sometimes feel that we Chinese students are equipped with so many technical tools that we can hardly think out of the box and propose novel solutions.

      • Thanks for the prompt reply. I just did a little search and found the paper by Jinfa Cai, who conducted the pizza experiment. The title is “U.S. AND CHINESE TEACHERS’ CONCEPTIONS AND CONSTRUCTIONS OF REPRESENTATIONS: A CASE OF
        TEACHING RATIO CONCEPT”, and it is available online.

        I totally agree with what you said about the education in China. As a PhD student in economics myself, I’ve seen how my non-Chinese colleagues excels in coming up with ingenious research ideas from “ordinary” phenomena. To me, economics is a discipline that requires both novel insights and proficiency in technical tools (e.g. mathematics and statistics). As “products” of the Chinese education system, many Chinese student are obsessed with intricate techniques while ignoring the intuitions lying behind. Among many consequences of this thinking pattern are lack of zeal in doing research, limited research scope, and lack of fundamental and groundbreaking contributions to the economics profession from the Chinese community as a whole.

        By the way, I learned of your blog from following the blog by Marc Bellemare, who is joining our department this fall. I like your writing and thinking a lot!

      • Thanks Xudong. I’m glad to know you. Professor Bellemare does a lot of research on food policy and he is a marvellous teacher and mentor. I took an international development seminar class with him last semester and learned a lot from him.

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