Reflections on the Compton-Zhao Debate
It’s surreal to hear Dr. Zhao from China working in the US defending the US educational system while Mr. Compton advocating that the US learn from China’s system. One thing is for sure: the world is getting flat.
The rest are open to debate.
As I watched this debate, a story that came to mind was the meteorologist forecasting a severely cold winter after seeing Indians hording chopped wood, while the Indian got the idea from the meteorologist who had suggested earlier that the winter would probably be cold. This happens when you make comparisons between two moving targets. In recent years, China is learning from “developed countries” such as US itself, ways to move away from the test-driven education system toward more “rounded education”. I am a reviewer of an educational journal in China and I constantly find papers describing “US experiences” and their implication for China. In the meantime, school curriculum is including an increasing number of subjects that Mr. Compton might be laughing at, such as life skills training. And here we are: Mr. Compton told us that the US should learn from China. Now what?
In my confusion, I asked Dr. Pendarvis, Professor Emeritus of gifted education at Marshall University, and co-author of Out of Our Minds, what is the problem with education in the US. Here is what she said: “I’ll say that to me the biggest problem with education in the US is that it’s too easy. It allows bright children to go unchallenged too much of the time. We do a good job at (1) providing almost all children a good basic education and (2) building many children’s self-esteem (and the belief in themselves, which I think is part of the courage you mentioned). But in terms of an education that develops their abilities and provides the basis for a full life, emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically, we fall far short of where we have the resources (but not the will) to be.”
In reflecting on Dr. Pendarvis’ points on the problem with education in the US, I think China may be erring in another extreme. We provide excessive training in math and sciences often to a fault and definitely adding to the burden of average learners. This was done in the attempt to modernize China. For a time, numerous cities have Math Olympic training classes that recruit huge number of students. Most of them do not have the talent in math at all (Just think of how many students will make it to the Math Olympics competition.) Something like that should be for students talented in math, while other students may have other talents that could be developed. I wrote a couple of articles against this phenomeon (such as 奥数可能让孩子输在起跑线上 Math Olympics May Keep Your Child Behind). Recently I heard that some cities have started to ban such training, as many schools and educators believe that the trainers are mostly concerned about making money. They don’t care on
In a typical Chinese phrase, our education as it is, is rather lacking in developing 后劲 (literally, “later strength”, or more freely, sustainability) in students’ interest and growth. That does no good to either the country or the individual in the long run. If you visit the blogsphere in China, you’d find that the ministry of education is probably the most criticized ministry in China.
As we often say, people who do not see very far will have imminent threats. To see what works, it is necessary at least to try to see what lies in the future, instead of just adjusting our moves by seeing what the neighbor seems to be doing at the moment. The book A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink offers at least an attempt at keeping the eye on the future. The book interestingly ask people to direct attention towards what he called R-Directed (right brain-directed) qualities such as design, story, symphony, empathy, etc. which the author believes are the keys to the future, not L-directed (left-brain oriented), mathematical and linear thinking. He also said the future can be defined by three “A”s: Asia, abundance, and automation. In spite of what Mr. Compton said about the importance of STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, Pink tells us that in the future you can develop a program to have computers write programs. But the most successful people conceptualize things like Google, Youtube, and the now ubiquitous Twitter which you cannot start by programming them into being. It makes uses of data analysts for sure, but where did these gazelles start? Imagination. Playfulness. The courage to do something different. These are things that I think America is good at educating its children about. Something that should not be lost while trying to improve some scores in math and sciences.
Another important question to ask is in this controversy is, as Dr. Zhao and Mr. Compton have mentioned: from a global perspective, is it necessarily a bad thing for China and India to produce more engineers and scientists and mathematicians? Changes in 2 million minutes may help, but changing the immigration polices and procedures will provide greater leverage. But of course, China has realized its brain drain issue. China is now sending groups after groups of recruiters to New York, Chicago, Boston… all these major cities where universities concentrate to attract talents with attractive packages (such as a RMB 1 Million as a bonus to start with, before the talent has contributed anything.) A silent war for talents has started. Ironically, believe it or not, most parents (Dr. Zhao included) hesitate because we want to have kids receive a US education (which of course is debatable given the scheme of things).
As for competitiveness, comparisons between the two countries can be very difficult to make as there are so many confounding factors that we cannot easily hold constant while trying to measure a particular relationship. As long as this is the case, you can use data to prove, basically, conclusion or preference either way. When I watch the debate between Dr. Zhao and Mr. Compton, there were times I felt they were talking past each other. Dr. Zhao was sometimes speaking for what is in the best interest of the individual, while Mr. Compton, as a businessman, represents interests of the society.
China offers many other advantages that US can learn, but not its curriculum design. China’s curriculum is rather dated and badly needs reform itself. I hate the days when I have to study communist history, socialist construction and the like to pass tests. Things I learned (or rather memorized) and then return to my teachers. Instead of US going to China for inspiration, or the vice versa, educators in both countries should think, as Plato would advocate, about the “ideal” from which both systems are imitations of. Instead of asking what China is doing or what the US is doing, ask what should be the case, where we stand and what the gaps are.
There are many other things US could learn from China, not its educational system. One thing I think that China could teach is the ability or habit to think holistically. This may not be found from Chinese schools but it is part of the Chinese legacy that the US can benefit by learning something about it. I could be wrong, but it looks like that the US system produces all sorts of experts who excel only in one small area because “expertise” and “professionalism” are valued. I often wonder if someone’s teeth are part of the human body since health coverage doesn’t cover it. People in the elitist, professionalism tradition are trained to watch small turfs, without habitually relate things to each other. For instance, insurance companies, health professionals, companies each do their own things (unless Obama seats them together at the same table). They don’t care what each other is doing, which in the professional silos, creates all sorts of holes through which the money of taxpayers, employers and government sink. When a mistake occurs, good luck with handling the paperwork. There is no one in the system who knows what is going on. I am wondering if education has to do with this phenomenon. The US systems are so complex everywhere that you will end up needing experts, professionals and more experts and more professionals. It’s a vicious cycle.
To take the discussion to the next level, there are certain assumptions that should be examined:
1. Is it always good to “develop talents” in a certain area (such as STEM professionals) locally, given the globalized environment? Deep at heart I think it’s the command and control mentality at work. Mr. Compton works with many foreigners in his businesses, so I wouldn’t think this is particularly something that bothers him, but there are people who can only trust “our guys” at work. Several years ago, when China first starts to send Chinese teachers to the Conficius Institutes abroad, there were guys who cried threat and wanted Chinese to be taught by “our guys”. To me this is just paranoia turned absurd. It is a time when it pays to learn to collaborate with people as partners, not as subordinates.
2. Is STEM really the number on
3. What does the US society need? More engineers trained in the Chinese or Indian methods? Then focus more on reforming the legal immigration system, rather than being obsessed with legalizing illegal on
4. Who plays a bigger role in lowering the standard for US students, the curriculum or something else? Such as the lack of competition, bureaucracy of the school districts, or unmotivated teachers? For that matter I recommend Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto. What he said mainly in the book is that there is something innately wrong with the Prussian model that the US has adopted that caused students to be held at lower standards.
5. To echo what Dr. Zhao said in the debate, what’s wrong with having China or India lead for a while? Why does the US have to stay on the “top” in terms of competitiveness?
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