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Down the middle path toward a great degree

Updated: 2015-08-31 08:01
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

Chinese way of teaching and learning - with both its strengths and weaknesses - is revealed on a BBC show.

The BBC's three-episode experiment with Chinese-style teaching did not so much set off the spark as fan the flame, which is the intermittent and often heated discourse on the merits, or more accurately lack thereof, of the traditional way of Chinese education.

There was the flashpoint four years ago of the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, whose central character, Amy Chua, used a typically Chinese approach to bring up her two daughters in the sharply contrasted learning environment of the United States.

Down the middle path toward a great degree

Despite the dramatically enhanced cultural clashes so well packaged in Are Our Kids Tough Enough: Chinese School, the British documentary-cum-reality show neither surprised me nor shed any new light as far as I am concerned.

I'm no expert in education, but I see myself as the benefactor of both the Chinese way and the Western way (American way in my case) of learning. So I'll base my arguments on empirical knowledge only.

First, as I see it there is no "best way", a phrase so frequently brought up in the BBC series. I will not even say categorically that one way is better. But I do feel that for certain students or in certain phases of learning one method could be more effective than the other.

Contrary to the conclusion of many in the show, I tend to believe that the Western way is better for those who are bright and motivated. Generally, students in Western countries have more resources at their disposal, and family inadequacies tend to be less of a hindrance. For those who are smart but less motivated, the Chinese way gives the extra push one needs in one's transformative years.

And honestly, for those at the bottom in terms of both intelligence and dedication, neither system will be their savior.

Down the middle path toward a great degree

If we divide learning into roughly two components, imparting knowledge is the one in which the Chinese method really excels. There has to be a certain amount of hard learning, for example, memorizing historical dates and mathematical formulae. Sure, you can provide the context even for the most obscure facts, but it may not suit a 15-year-old.

It is in tickling imagination that the Chinese way falls flat, as almost every Chinese intellectual knows, and as is amply demonstrated in the TV program. Students are not encouraged to ask questions or challenge authority figures in other ways.

That is why China is capable of producing bevies of top-notch artisans but far fewer first-class artists. The latter - the kind of students who may even find Harvard or the University of California in Berkeley suffocating, let alone a Chinese school - have to think out of the box. And Chinese education puts everything into boxes.

When one of the Chinese teachers said on the show that "the parent is always right", there was a palpable gasp of disbelief in the classroom, and possibly in front of screens in China as well. This is the Chinese way to the extreme.

Even none of my teachers ever said that, and I received much of my education in the 1970s. My teachers would say: "Your parents want the best for you. They have been working really hard for you. So, don't fail them", or "Your parents may not always talk to you in the best way or make the best choices for you, but they mean well."

The best - and the worst - Chinese teachers are like your parents. I was lucky enough to have several teachers before I went to college who were like parents to me - without the constant nagging. They were very strict yet approachable.

I could feel their love. Yes, it was more than a mere professional relationship. If I could potentially get 95 in a test but ended up with 85, they might be sadder than I was. In that case, "You could have done better" is not a putdown but an accurate gauge of my ability and, hence, a word of prodding.

I am a contrarian in discussions about the superiority or otherwise of education systems. I find myself defending the Chinese way when it is portrayed as devoid of any value - mostly by Chinese pundits - and I would argue for the Western way when someone touts the virtues of the Chinese way as a panacea.

Ideally, the solution should be somewhere in the middle - the Chinese way of mastering the concrete of the edifice of knowledge and the Western way of adding the touch of personality that makes it hold together perfectly.

I am well aware that both sides will accuse me of compromises, but I truly feel that East-meets-West can create a system of learning better than either one alone. Then again, every person is different, responding differently to different ways of learning, so I won't be surprised if people take to one or the other of their own volition.

On the whole, I believe encouragement from teachers works better than belittling as a way of motivating a student, and the old Chinese way, which has begun to be phased out in recent decades anyway, is too stingy with words of support. But, its indiscriminate use may work better at massaging the egos of certain students and fail to prepare them for the true nature of our society, which is very competitive.

If someone has the potential to get 90 out of 100 in a test - and assuming that test scores more or less reflect one's true ability and potential - it would be irresponsible for a teacher to say "well done" when a student's mark is a mere 60.

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 08/31/2015 page20)

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