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April 01, 2007

Chinese educational re-form in NY Times Sunday Magazine

Today's Sunday New York Times Magazine brings a long article exploring evolving attitudes toward education in China. Registration will be required, and the article only accessible for a week or so. I cite two salient paragraphs below. The author asks - but leaves open - the question of how China's economy will be affected by changes in educational strategy that foreground the develpment of the individual and her critical reasoning skill over the rigorous testing of math and science skills in which there can be only one, narrowly defined, correct answer.

This article has resonance. In the last quarter of last year I participated a seminar sponsored by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) on the future of design education. The opening keynote was provided by Roger Mandle, President of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), who had just returned from a consulting and fact finding trip to Shanghai. There he saw a new university of design that was about to open, and (the number shifts in my memory like a fish story) some sixteen-thousand students ready to study design. These students are to form part of China's economic engine. Mandle has recently announced that he will not seek renewal of his contract as head of one of the worlds most famous design schools when it ends in twelve months. His letter to alumni states that he is ready for one final career challenge, which he doesn't detail. I am tempted to jump to conclusions, to make inferences, to creatively connect the dots, because that is what I have educated myself to do. I think he will head up a school in China and attempt to attract the worlds greatest design talents to teach there.

From the article:
Even as American educators seek to emulate Asian pedagogy — a test-centered ethos and a rigorous focus on math, science and engineering — Chinese educators are trying to blend a Western emphasis on critical thinking, versatility and leadership into their own traditions. To put it another way, in the peremptorily utopian style typical of official Chinese directives (as well as of educationese the world over), the nation’s schools must strive “to build citizens’ character in an all-round way, gear their efforts to each and every student, give full scope to students’ ideological, moral, cultural and scientific potentials and raise their labor skills and physical and psychological aptitudes, achieve vibrant student development and run themselves with distinction.” Meijie’s rise to star student reflects a much-publicized government call to promote “suzhi jiaoyu” — generally translated as “quality education,” and also sometimes as “character education” or “all-round character education.” Her story also raises important questions about the state’s effort, which has been more generously backed by rhetoric than by money. The goal of change is to liberate students to pursue more fulfilling paths in a country where jobs are no longer assigned; it is also to produce the sort of flexibly skilled work force that best fits an international knowledge economy. But can personal desires and national demands be reconciled? Will the most promising students of the new era be as overburdened and regimented as before? As new opportunities have begun to emerge, so have tensions. If Meijie’s own trajectory and her Hsylc brainchild are any guide, the force most likely to spur on deep-seated educational ferment in China may well turn out to be students themselves — still struggling with stress, yet doing so in an era of greater personal independence and international openness. Overachievers of the world unite!

and from later in the article:
In 1998, years before the McKinsey report of a talent shortage, Xu heard the wake-up call when he initiated Chinese recruiting for Goldman Sachs.

He picked three graduates from China’s top universities and was impressed that they all scored 100 percent on the exam following the associate training stint in New York — only to be disappointed a year later, when their performance reviews were in the bottom quartiles. “There’s a price,” he concluded, “for 12 years of prep for an exam, and that’s to always think there’s a narrow, right answer. If you give precise instructions, they do well. If you define a task broadly, they get lost and ask for help.” If he and Lin had their way, independent students eager to use their imaginations would be the dominant breed on their campus. They were counting on a rising tide of “broad-minded” parents eager to provide their children with the less-straitjacketed education — a creative mix of the best of East and West — that Xiwai preached and aimed to find teachers able to impart. But as we toured a campus plastered with exhortations to be “global citizens” and to “Smile, Embrace, Communicate, Cooperate, Negotiate,” Xu was also blunt: there are lots of obstacles, not the least of them the gaokao that exerts such sway. “The dilemma is, everybody realized it is the problem, but nobody knows what to do.”

Posted by SWEAT at April 1, 2007 08:42 AM