Yesterday we looked briefly at a typical lesson in a Chinese classroom, today we’ll continue looking at education in China by exploring the ways in which the system works against creative thinking. I hope to further illustrate the methodology used in Chinese classrooms, and discuss why these methods are so prevalent.
First I would like to highlight a few examples of where creative thinking should be present, but is not.
- At skit competitions in Guangxi universities, and at the Jiangsu Department of Health English competition, students/doctors simply copied entire performances from online sources. This resulted in 2 groups performing the exact same skit in both competitions.
- I learned Chinese from “top” language teachers in China at Beijing Foreign Language University (北京语言大学) by reciting texts word for word 4 hours a day for 2 months. I never once was asked to speak my own sentences.
- A teacher in Jiangsu asked on a test what the “best” line of the poem was, and marked the students’ answers right or wrong (he did not ask them to explain their answers either).
I could go on, but I think you get the point (I hope if you have more examples you will leave them in the comment section below).
I have also participated in teacher training programs that tried to demonstrate the effectiveness of creative thinking activities to middle school and primary school teachers (if you’ve been in an American or European classroom in the last 20 years, these methods would be very familiar to you).
The activities were welcomed with great interest initially, but after the first few examples teachers would start claiming these activities would not work in their classrooms (even though I had used them in my own classes in China with great success). A few weeks after the demonstration most of the teachers had abandoned the new methodology and had returned to having their 6 and 7-year-old students repeating vocabulary in unison.
I believe that the teachers avoid trying new methods because if anything went wrong they would be severely criticized, while mediocre results with “traditional” methods would be considered acceptable.
The reason for discouraging creative or independent thinking is clear, if you want to get into a good college you need to be able to choose the “right” answers on the college entrance exam.
The College entrance exam (Gaokao) is the Chinese equivalent of the SAT/ACT, only it is more comprehensive (Not just math and English, but also some science, politics, and history). The entirety of high school is spent preparing for this exam since no other factors will determine which colleges you would be admitted to.
This test is why teachers focus so much on rote learning, it is the only method that they think will ensure that the students will be able to consume and regurgitate the knowledge they are supposed to possess.
I discovered last year that in schools in poorer areas, whose students have already fallen behind in education, the schools will cancel mandatory classes in favor of more test preparation. This meant that even though the state required geography classes, few of my students had ever actually taken that course since geography isn’t on the Gaokao. After all, high schools and teachers are evaluated almost entirely on Gaokao scores.
These methods of learning acquired in middle school become the pattern for acquiring knowledge. In colleges throughout China there is “daily morning reading” where the students sit at their desk and read dialogues aloud instead of actually using their English with their classmate sitting next to them, or frantically write their vocabulary lists over and over instead of creating new sentences.
Tomorrow we’ll continue our look at education in China by digging into the importance of creative thinking.