As the education debate intensifies back home in the great U.S. of A., I’d be wrong not to comment on the topic as one who has participated in numerous national education conferences in China and is currently helping Chinese students apply to enter the gates of America’s most elite academic institutions every year. Whether or not you consider yourself to be involved in the education debate, I invite you to consider whether the topics that do concern you are at all related to education. Politics, the economy, literature, science, engineering, medicine— take a moment to think about what would happen if the entire approach to your field changed. Even closer to home, imagine what it would be like to have a spouse who is incapable of communicating or problem-solving and lacks skill beyond their occupation. All of this is grounded in a person’s education. The future of our world depends less on what position or opinion we take in arguments and more on how we argue. I will never forget the words of my tenth grade social studies teacher: “Never enter an argument unless you are willing to change your mind.” Otherwise, debate is a fruitless indulgence in the ecstasy generated from hearing oneself speak, and is quite frankly a waste of time.
The reason I bring up the notion of what one argues verses how one argues, is that I see this as one of the primary differences between the U.S. and Chinese education systems. Standardized testing teaches us what to argue, a proper education complete with rich experience teaches us how to argue. Knowing how to argue is having the ability to recognize that debate is merely a tool to enable both parties to progress in the right direction, which often requires one or both parties to adjust their initial opinion. How one approaches arguments becomes even more important when the answer is not simply black or white, not “A” “B” “C” or “D”, but somewhere in between. Finding just the right hue requires both parties to give and take, to brainstorm, to think outside the box, to utilize lessons learned through past experience, to research, to communicate— and to do so efficiently and effectively in a selfless pursuit of the answer. I dare say that these qualities are not gained through mastering facts for a test, but through living freely, passionately, and with opportunities to explore the world up close. The U.S. education system has long been considered unique around the world to the extent that it teaches the “how”— i.e. how to think, how to argue, how to problem solve— by bringing reality and first-hand experience into the classrooms.
The center of the current debate about whether to standardize the U.S. curriculum at a national level hinges on the perceived value of standardized testing in education. Conveniently, the country I happen to work in puts their students through one of the most rigorous testing systems in the world. For those who are not familiar with the Chinese education system, I will be brief: Elementary school consists primarily of memorizing, with students expected to copy traditional Chinese poems and literature into their notebooks every night before solving dozens of math problems. Testing occurs for every subject on the same day every two weeks, resulting in major cramming sessions. Weekends, which for most 8 year-olds around the globe means cartoons and a date with the ballpark, are usually booked with “extra” classes— tutoring courses that parents feel obligated to sign their children up for so they don’t fall behind. Indeed, in a country with the largest population in the world, “competition” earns a very different meaning from the definition we assign in the U.S. Childhood is not categorized by pursuing one’s passion by dropping horseback riding one week to try out piano or tap dance the next— it is about securing the grades that will ensure one does not wind up working in a factory with nowhere to turn. Secondary school is much the same, and middle school students must take a final test that determines where they will go to high school. From there, one enters a three-year high school, which again consists of memorizing, completing daily homework assignments, and attending tutoring courses on the weekends. The only difference is, instead of merely preparing for tests every two weeks, one must somehow find time to prepare for the ultimate turning point in one’s life: the “gaokao” (高考) or a two-day, 11-hour test that will determine what college one gets into. The gaokao is offered exactly once a year, and unlucky students who come down with a fever or stomach bug on that day have been known to commit suicide— pressure to test well is inconceivably high, admittedly higher than any pressure I have ever experienced in my soon-to-be twenty-three years of life.
This past week, a mother and son came into our company to obtain advice about how to prepare for college in the U.S. After considering his records (top student in mathematics, a few volunteering activities, leader in TEDx group) my coworker and I determined that his “extracurricular talents” i.e. art, athletics, and music, were lacking. American schools look for the most well-rounded students— or at least that’s what our education used to stand for. The mother then explained that because her son does not attend an international high school, the entire curriculum has been adjusted to allow students to prepare for the “gaokao” (that test to get into college). When I asked her to be more specific, she said that “all sports teams and after-school activities essentially end by sophomore year of high school”. In other words, the lives of these students literally consist of test preparation alone. Chinese students, and I meet with them every day, have limited skills beyond what they memorize in textbooks. Their overall level of maturity, communication skills, personal skills, creativity, and ability to have confidence in individual ideas or aspirations is far below that of American pre-college students. For most Chinese students, the fear of being wrong so heavily outweighs the benefits of guessing correctly that many refuse to answer a question unless they are 100% confident in their response. The fear of being penalized for guessing wrong corrupts not only their confidence, but also their willingness to think outside the box, their willingness to be creative, their willingness to problem solve. Everyone says China lacks creativity and the ability to innovate. China does not lack creativity— children go through their education essentially fearing to be creative— to be creative is to enter a multiple choice question with no answer choices. There is no right or wrong in creativity, yet these students fear that there is some hidden answer on the horizon, one that upon discovery may potentially prove them wrong and result in severe consequences. Some assume creativity can be taught, but I disagree. Creativity is innate, it is natural, and therefore it is different in every individual. What it needs is to be fostered, and that is what a good education does. Penalize a kid for being wrong (the essential result of an education centered about standardized testing) and you fail to foster creativity. You take away all time for natural experience and shred a child’s confidence down to a number, 0-100, while persuading he or she that all questions in life only have 4 answers, and the “right” one has already been determined by some testing company somewhere— there is no need for creativity.
Not surprisingly, many in China have awakened to the flaws in their education system and are turning their heads towards the West for ideas, with the United States front and center. The photograph below features some of China’s top educators at the 47th Education Conference in Zhengzhou, China, where they compared the Chinese and American education systems in an effort to adopt the best features from each. These guys are passionate about improving education, and I remember that on the day I took this photo, the guy in the pink shirt suggested they not break for lunch in order to continue the discussion and pursue concrete conclusions.
The photo above shows the audience for the two-day conference, which included top teachers from every province in China.
Now I’d like to share a quote that I recently read on Weixin, a cell-phone app that allows people to chat over the web and post twitter-like statuses. The statement was made by Yazhou Liu, 刘亚洲, a high-ranking official in the Chinese army, and touched upon everything Chinese should “fear” about the U.S., in terms of what positive characteristics the U.S. has (other than a strong military) that makes it superior to China. In his statement, Liu said, “The tragedy of our China, from the entire country down to individual companies, is that most of the time, those with ideas are not the ones making decisions, and those making decisions have no ideas. Those with brains have no seat, while those with seats have no brains. America is exactly the opposite, they happened to get a bunch of elites into the hierarchy.（我们中国的悲剧，大到国家，小到一个单位，多数的情况是，有思想的人不决策，决策的人没有思想。有脑子就没位子，有位子就没脑子。美国正好相反，他的宝塔尖体制，正好把一批精英弄上去了。）”Elites” here refers to intelligent and talented people— not merely those with wealth or connections.
Are we really the opposite of China? Or are we heading down the same path? A Harvard grad born and raised in Ireland recently published a short essay in the Harvard Magazine describing how a U.S. college education changed her perspective on learning. Most notably, she recalls, “Classes, instead of being full of answers, were full of questions. And for the first time, I discovered that I suited questions a lot better than I suited answers. I returned home filled with difference— with different ways of thinking and different types of friends, with different words for different worlds… I had knowledge that I could find an education of questions— a place where ceilings are only made of sky.”
That’s the good ol’ American education I know, and the rest of the world apparently knows it too. Let’s not allow our system to succumb to simplicity, convenience, and profit. All eyes are on us, and I dare say that no small number of people around the globe will be disheartened to see America’s education rust. If protecting the freedom and inspiration of our children in education is not a good enough reason, perhaps protecting our country’s influence on the international stage is.