Sunday, January 02, 2011

Shanghaied, After All?

Shanghai Students
Photo by Ryan Pyle
(Image from New York Times)

In a recent blog entry, "Chinese Students Shanghaied into PISA Stunner?", I speculated about reasons for Shanghai's top showing on the PISA competition (Program for International Student Assessment). Apparently, I'm not alone, for David Barboza, writing "Shanghai Schools' Approach Pushes Students to Top of Tests" in the New York Times (December 29, 2010), cites some skeptics:
The Shanghai students performed well, experts say, for the same reason students from other parts of Asia -- including South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong -- do: Their education systems are steeped in discipline, rote learning and obsessive test preparation.

Public school students in Shanghai often remain at school until 4 p.m., watch very little television and are restricted by Chinese law from working before the age of 16.

"Very rarely do children in other countries receive academic training as intensive as our children do," said Sun Baohong, an authority on education at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "So if the test is on math and science, there's no doubt Chinese students will win the competition."

But many educators say China's strength in education is also a weakness. The nation's education system is too test-oriented, schools here stifle creativity and parental pressures often deprive children of the joys of childhood, they say.

"These are two sides of the same coin: Chinese schools are very good at preparing their students for standardized tests," Jiang Xueqin, a deputy principal at Peking University High School in Beijing, wrote in an opinion article published in The Wall Street Journal shortly after the test results were announced. "For that reason, they fail to prepare them for higher education and the knowledge economy."

In an interview, Mr. Jiang said Chinese schools emphasized testing too much, and produced students who lacked curiosity and the ability to think critically or independently.

"It creates very narrow-minded students," he said. "But what China needs now is entrepreneurs and innovators."

This is a common complaint in China. Educators say an emphasis on standardized tests is partly to blame for the shortage of innovative start-ups in China. And executives at global companies operating here say they have difficulty finding middle managers who can think creatively and solve problems.
Being himself Chinese, Mr. Jiang is surely knowledgeable in his criticisms, but I also recall that in the previous article by Sam Dillon in "Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators" (NYT, December 7, 2010), the PISA evaluators noted something unexpected:
Large fractions of these students demonstrate their ability to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very creatively in novel situations.
I therefore wonder if Chinese education is really so rigid if the Shanghai students topped out on the PISA in creative skills. But if it truly is so rigid as the critics maintain, perhaps that sort of education doesn't stifle creativity quite as much as is often thought. I'm going against the grain of my own views on this knotty point, but perhaps rote memorization does provide something of substance that the creative mind can work with among those students who already tend toward creativity.

But even if rote memorization doesn't stifle all creativity, I suspect that it does stifle curiosity by encouraging passivity, and without curiosity, students won't pose questions and pursue them far enough for their creativity to come into fruitful play.

Standardized tests probably have no way of gauging whether or not a student's mind is actively curious. I've noticed that my Korean students, who are usually passive in class, tend to get revved up for tests, so they all appear rather active then, but outside of those artificial circumstances, they generally shut down and fail to express much curiosity.

But maybe that's a problem with students worldwide . . .

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At 7:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My, my Jeffery, very unusually coincidental your posting of today. I must admit to a degree of almost incredulity.

You haven't perhaps, been emailing anyone in Wellfleet have you?


At 8:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No, I haven't emailed Malcolm lately. Did he have something to say about creativity or curiosity? I saw nothing on his blog about either. Did I miss something?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nope. You know the sort of websites I tend to read of course. It would appear some 23% (avg) of US students who perform well enough on standardized tests to grab a high school diploma, nevertheless are unable to qualify academically for the military.

As you probably recall, when you barked it was the other way 'round - if a student couldn't get a diploma, the military was an acceptable alternative.

A flurry of emails ensued leading me to grab my dusty copy of E.D. Hirsh's tome, Cultural Literacy and ask a few questions myself.

My "Non-Peer Reviewed" study left me shaken. (I didn't bother asking the students who'd already negated themselves by [A] being obese or [B] "graduated" felony school.)


At 2:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ah, the good ol' days, back when joining the military was a way of avoiding prison.

These days, I guess only the Foreign Legion allows that . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As for stiffling creativity, I think it is also important to make a difference between the influence of rote learning and the influence of enforcing a strict hierarchy, especially when comparing the level of creativity between Korean and Chinese society.

In my opinion, enforcing a strict hierarchy significantly stiffles creativity in Korean society (strict Confucionism), while this is probably less so in Chinese society.

At 7:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, you may be right, if China is less hierarchical. I don't doubt that Korea's strict Confucian hierarchy restricts curiosity and confines creativity.

Thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not know the logistics of the administration of the PISA exam, but I would not take the China scores at face value. The Chinese excel at putting on their best face, which might mean covering up blemishes with a heavy layer of foundation. As the SARS epidemic was starting to get international attention, WHO officials visited hospitals in China to investigate. Doctors and nurses in Beijing hospitals took very ill SARS patients out of their beds and hid them in closets, offices, even put them in taxis and drove them around Beijing while the WHO officials were in the hospital.

Unlike other international metropolitan areas, only city-dwelling students in Shanghai were tested, not students in poorer schools in outlying areas. There is a huge socioeconomic difference between city schools and county or rural schools. Migrant kids wouldn't have been tested because they're not allowed to attend school since their parents don't have residency rights. On top of all those preselective conditions, I wouldn't be surprised if Shanghai stacked the deck further by choosing which schools or classes took the test.

I know that Chinese students work very hard and that Chinese schools do a great job teaching literacy and numeracy, but I don't think Chinese schools are as model perfect as the PISA scores of Shanghai students might indicate.


At 8:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

From the amount of cheating that takes place on exams administered in Korea, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Chinese students cheat a lot, either, though this might be difficult on the PISA exams.

Jeffery Hodges

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