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Pushing education not always the best answer  

2011-08-27 03:16:08|  分类: English |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Amy Chua, the Yale University professor who coined the term "Tiger Mom", created a lot of controversy with her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.

But a majority of Chinese commentators dismissed or disapprove of her overbearing parental methods. After all, Chinese children are already heavily burdened.

Most Chinese know that something is severely wrong with the Chinese methods of education. For a time, many focused on the curriculum, which places greater emphasis on main subjects such as Chinese, math and English. By doing this, subjects not tested on the College Entrance Exam were marginalized, but it is these topics that are largely responsible for making or breaking a student's dream of becoming elite.

As problems with the teaching-to-the-test pedagogy come to light, and as families become more affluent, parents seek to develop their only children into renaissance men and women who are equally excellent in math, English, and music.

Author and professor Howard Gardener, who supports multiple ways for people to learn and process information, once joked that his multiple intelligence theory spurred some Chinese parents to get their children to develop in all these areas, instead of tailoring their child's development by identifying their talents.

In China, a well-rounded education is called suzhi jiaoyu. Suzhi is a rather broad term that means comprehensive or top quality. This explanation, I admit, is as clear as mud.

In search of this vaguely defined suzhi jiaoyu, parents require their children to take part in extracurricular activities, such as music lessons.

However, the conventional wisdom that music makes a good person was challenged earlier this year. Yao Jiaxing, a 21-year-old music student at the Xian Conservatory of Music, was convicted and executed for the murder of Zhang Miao. Zhang, the mother of a 2-year-old boy, was stabbed to death after Yao tried to cover up a crash. This case caused widespread public outcry. How can a lover of Chopin stab a young mother eight times?

I first became aware of the education issue when I was studying education at Syracuse University in 2002. I encountered numerous challenges in the beginning, including adapting to America. Fortunately my ego was not destroyed, thanks to the help of Firouz Rahmanzadeh, who died last year. He made me feel that having such issues was a normal part of studying overseas.

Rahmanzadeh was from Iran and married a student adviser in the International Office, so he understood adaptation issues from the inside, outside, up, down and sideways. Knowing our struggles, he tried to involve international students. A group was created to help international students adapt, in terms of language, as well as driving in several feet of snow, which is typical during the spring semester in New York.

Most Chinese students at US campuses tend to have adjustment issues. Deborah Hefferon, a consultant for International Education, which helps US universities recruit international students, surveyed university officials involved with professional recruiting tours to China and other countries. Based on their responses, Chinese students face academic, language and social challenges at US colleges.

Language challenges provide a glimpse into the lack of purpose in the Chinese pedagogy.

Chinese youths spend years studying English, but many don't become masters of the language. This inhibits their ability to "engage with the local population, develop more than superficial relationships, pursue a full course of study and complete an undergraduate degree", one official observed. Language often sets the limit on how long Chinese students can continue living in a foreign culture.

In China, language is often perceived as a tool, with little purpose beyond exams. Further encouraged by snake oil language trainers who cut corners to get students to pass language tests, many students don't develop an appreciation of the language and don't understand how it really works.

The shortsightedness in learning any language is apparent in many other areas. "Graduate students are more focused on employment than classes," another official wrote in the survey.

It is indeed tragic that many Chinese students are not able to pursue their dreams and interests and have greater ambitions other than getting a job. This may make some of them look boring compared to enthusiastic youths in the US who want to change the world when they grow up. With the focus on tests before college and employment during college, many Chinese students grow old psychologically before they grow up.

The survey also reports that younger Chinese students lack maturity, discipline, or even survival skills to cope with parental pressures, roommates, group projects or relationships with other ethnic groups.

Problems, such as binge drinking and bullying, are also emerging. Such immaturity can partially be attributed to the "single-child syndrome", as Hefferon calls it.

"As Chinese families, especially in the cities, now have only one child and are doing better economically, the single child is often more spoiled and indulged. These young people have different experiences and expectations."

One silver lining is the newly found assertiveness that Chinese students previously lacked. In China's search for a well-rounded education, educators should learn from responses like this. In designing interventions, China can learn from character education programs in the US to help students develop interpersonal and intrapersonal skills such as conflict resolution, stress management, cross-cultural collaboration and time management. These types of skills are developed in K-12 classrooms in the US, but rarely discussed in China, where scholastic aptitude and artistic cultivation receive greater attention. Social skills and attitudes are more difficult to develop and harder to change when people grow older.

Many officials also find Chinese students face challenges on the academic front. Some examples of predominant learning styles are academic integrity, critical analysis and rote memorization.

"Creative thinking and thinking outside the box are new concepts that aren't widely applied in the Chinese education system," Hefferon says. "Living in the 'gray area' and 'making it up as they go along' causes discomfort."

I think there is an element of stereotyping in such observations. Because of the holistic nature of Chinese thinking, students can feel rather comfortable in flexible, on-the-fly thinking styles once they are told what their academic expectations are.

After some time in America, most Chinese students are able to adjust. Of course some initial orientation activities would make a difference. I am more worried about the students who never make it to the melting pot to experience alternative ways to study and socialize.

Symptoms of educational issues are ingrained in Chinese students. Will this be a mere difference of small consequence, or is this going to be a big deal in an increasingly intermingling society? Maybe the next version of a well-rounded education starts with identifying issues addressed by American instructors.

The author is an instructional designer and literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues. Deborah Hefferon of Washington also contributed to this article. 

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