Tuesday, January 18, 2011

China's Winning Schools (a response)

In response to this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/opinion/16kristof.html

Every Chinese I've ever discussed the topic with has lamented the horrible state of their schools: based on rote learning and constant testing, the "most successful" students here are often ones who know how to take a test well and memorize material, but can't solve even the most basic practical or creative problems. Some Chinese joke that their best universities (Tsinghua University and Peking University, both in Beijing) are only fit to putting out teachers, because the students who get such high scores on the Gaokao (the Chinese universal university entrance exam, and more-or-less the only qualifier for getting into a Chinese university) only know how to get high scores... and nothing else.

I often ask teachers and students about this, because it seems to me that everyone in China--students, parents, teachers, administrators, and officials--laments the state of their schools, but despite this, no widespread reforms seem to be in the making. They reply that a country as large as China, with many vested interests in the current system (most prominently the students and parents of students who are preparing for the Gaokao even from kindergarten--they'll say as much!--and the teachers and administrators who don't want to invest time or money in changing teaching methods), has a lot of difficulty making changes to that system.

For one thing, currently college admissions decisions are made based on a exam result number spit out by a computer. That number not only tells students which colleges they are eligible to attend (usually a list of about 4 or 5 schools, to my knowledge), but also which programs in which colleges they may attend. Often students have a dilemma between studying the money-making subjects at less-regarded colleges, or studying impractical and monetarily-useless programs (history or philosophy) at a good college. As far as incentive, they will usually take the better brand college, because college programs in China are generally thought of as useless in teaching practical knowledge (the author of the article is indeed right to call China's college system a national disgrace, but more on that later).

As for results from the Shanghai PISA testing, that can be explained in several ways: (1) from the excessive hard studying that Chinese students put in (a typical student starts his day at 6 or 7 AM, doesn't leave school until 6 pm, and studies until 1 AM); (2) Shanghai is a place that attracts the best, brightest, most resource-rich (to invest in the education of their children), and ambitious Chinese; (3) Shanghai, as well as a few other places such as Beijing and Shenzhen, serves as an experimental zone for further reforms. Like Americans, the Chinese have learned to make societal experiments on a smaller level before attempting to apply them to society at large. The reasoning being that societal change can be vastly destabilizing, the Communist Party is absolutely opposed to any change that could threaten its own survival. (Another couple reasons the school system hasn't changed on a wider scale in China being that their children (and childrens' futures) are one of the few things all Chinese will stand up and fight to the death for, and the other being that the children of Party members usually benefit from early access to promising experimental reforms.)

One important thing to note: do not be fooled by Chinese statistics with regard to education. There is truth in saying that China has done a good job improving education for even rural areas... because most of those areas did not even have formal education even quite recently. However, the education most receive in the countryside is still quite terrible by national or global standards, lacking resources or many qualified teachers (few Chinese are likely to do something akin to Teach for America as a character-building act of charity; although I have known a few students who talked of doing something of that sort, I'm sure their parents will probably talk them out of it). China, as an example, claims to have a 98% literacy rate, and yet official definitions of literacy in China only extend to the person understanding 1700 characters, rather than a requirement to be able to read or write coherently (the latter is the UN definition). That is to say that while China has undoubtedly accomplished a lot in terms of education, numbers and statistics provided by testing are often not an accurate way of gauging their success or any "threat" they may pose to other countries in the race to have the best education, and thus the best economic futures.

Now as for colleges/universities in China, they are generally quite pitiable. Several causes can be identified: (1) Students, after studying hard for the Gaokao all their life to that point,  have finally made it past the great winnower and so they relax; (2) schools have been given the remit from the government in the past few years to expand massively to accommodate the vastly increased numbers of Chinese who can afford a college education; (3) schools have been partially weaned of government support, making them increasingly reliant on profiting from student tuition fees in order to both expand and to skim off private profits for administrators and teachers.

We can see a few major problems developing when we look closely at the model. The schools relying on tuition for their butter (or at least their extra butter) means that they are loathe to expel students (students = $). The result is a rash of diploma mills, grade inflation, and unmotivated students who correctly do not take their college seriously, and (perhaps) rightly want to take a breather after the long grind they've been put through. Students also know that--in China even more so than in other countries--the name of the school you graduate from matters infinitely more than the grades you achieve there in the finding of a job; most of the teaching being theoretical rather than practical, hiring companies disregard the content of that education to great extent. What we have, then, is a massive increase in quantity of degrees churned out yearly and a vast decrease in the value of those degrees--not just in quality, but also in terms of supply and demand. I imagine, in fact, that it could take a century or more for many Chinese institutions of higher learning to recover from this vast loss in the quality/quantity ratio. They do have futures as a respected institutions, but... quite a ways in the future.

One point alluded to here (and mentioned more in-depth in other articles) is that many Asians of the Confucian system succeed in education despite, rather than because, of the specifics of their country's education systems. Chinese value education, thus when students get vacations, they do not get time off, but rather get private tutoring and training that may indeed be more practical, creative, and valuable than the bulk of the studying they do for their public school testing. Chinese parents are more than willing to invest in the education of their children. As it quickly becomes clear (and has done in the past few years) that a college education is no longer a guaranteed path to a well-paid job, it is the private training centers that will indubitably pick up the slack, not the public school systems.

So yes, I would take the message of the article to heart: America should learn from the Chinese societal admiration for education (rather than repudiation of it); America absolutely should not copy by rote the Chinese trap of studying and testing by rote. Moreover, America should do what the Chinese have not yet successfully done: it should put more emphasis on reforming the education system holistically--with parents, teachers, unions, administrators, and government each doing their part.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

First Contemplations of the New Year

As I see it, chaos is without structure. It may consist of changing
forms, but those forms have no meaning because they have no context,
one to any other. They have no relationship, one to the other.
Thoughts, then, work to create relationships as well as boundaries.
Relationships cannot exist without boundaries: a link between two
things helps create a definition of those things (at least in what
they have in common). The more such links, the more defined a thing
is, and definitions--by definition--are exclusive. They exclude.

So, thoughts are the method by which we relate observed or conjectured
things. Thoughts define. These may (and probably always are)
approximate definitions. Models for understanding the universe that
work most--but not all--of the time. In this way thoughts restrict
meaningless chaos; thoughts channel its mutations. This leads to
something much more interesting than either changeless order or
indefinite chaos: complexity. One theory of the universe (God),
becomes many (multiple religions), and then even more complex (all the
many laws of physics, growing ever more complex, from Newtonian to
Einstein's theories to quantum). In a universe moving from a
highly-ordered state to a completely chaotic one (the third law of
thermodynamics), complexity is the best we can hope for.

The genesis of this particular pondering came from a friend's byline
which stated that 'not knowing' is intelligence, because the unknown
is boundless whereas thoughts are strictures. If that means that
remaining malleable to the surprising, shocking, paradigm-shifting
experiences life offers is wisdom, then I would agree. If it suggests
that thoughts themselves are at fault, I disagree. Thinking is not the
same as knowing. With thinking, there is always room for
reinterpretation and additional perspectives, even radical
redefinition. We see this happen in language, arts, and science.
Slang, new ideologies, and social adaptations would not exist
otherwise. Knowing, on the other hand, is assumption: taking for
granted. Rather than using the definitions provided by thought and
accepting their potential mutability, being used by those definitions.
The path to fundamentalism--whether of the secular or religious sorts.

As a matter of course, however, we all fall prey to the necessity of
knowing things we cannot absolutely know--erring on the side of order,
rather than complexity. We have finite resources of mind within which
to build our civilizations. We will all make assumptions, so that we
can devote energy to mundane tasks of survival, rather than
questioning--every second of every day--whether the ground beneath our
feet will dematerialize, whether we will spontaneously combust, or
whether we will vibrate into another dimensionality.