Shanghaied, After All?
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.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:
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.
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 . . .