Education: Thinking Process
Image Credit: Satoru Kikuchi

Education: Thinking Process


As a Chinese public high school curriculum director, every day I have an organizational meeting with my Chinese staff, teach a class to my Chinese students, and then close the day with a curriculum meeting with my US faculty.

Last week I asked my Chinese staff to write two reports.

First, I wanted a marketing plan for our English summer programme. The week before, as my staff furiously took notes, I had outlined the parameters and goals, focus and direction of the programme. I then opened the floor to questions, comments, and suggestions, but my staff stayed reticent. After two days my staff handed me a report that was word for word what I had articulated that previous meeting.

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I also asked my staff to report on the trend of Chinese students going abroad to US high schools, and I expected a bullet-point one-page summary of background information and facts. What I received was a thick disorganized booklet of Internet print-outs. There was neither an executive summary nor a table of contents, and I had to wade through information that was neither sourced nor cross-referenced.

When I went to my English class, my students turned in their homework, which was a re-writing of an essay into a five-paragraph essay. A couple of students did not put their names on their homework, and every one of the twelve had been careless and sloppy: grammar and spelling mistakes abounded, but so did simple punctuation and capitalization errors. Instead of teaching, I spent the class going through their grammar mistakes, only to discover that they knew these mistakes—they just didn’t check their work.

I ended the day with a curriculum meeting with my US faculty, four fresh-faced university graduates. For two months, we’d been teaching our students the five-paragraph essay, and I handed them some essay models. There were questions and discussion about direction and methodology, and after that they began marking the essays and planning their classes. After a semester together we had a smooth working pattern whereby I would set the parameters and goals, and they would cater the material to their individual teaching style and the needs and level of their students.

What I’ve just described is instantly recognizable to Western-educated managers in bi-cultural offices in Beijing, Tokyo, or Seoul. Yes, we all find our local staff honest and loyal, hardworking and responsible. But it seems that they constantly need supervision and micromanagement. It seems that if you give a Chinese a test to conquer or an assembly line task to master through repetition he’ll do fine. But in tasks that involve judgment and discretion he will be at a loss.

Western observers say that Chinese lack ‘independence and initiative’ and ‘critical thinking skills.’ Both are true, but another explanation is that Chinese don’t understand ‘process.’ In a society where students’ futures are determined by their ability to get the right answers quickly in three days of multiple-choice examinations, ‘process’ is in fact an alien concept.

In contrast, a Western curriculum emphasizes process over results. In science class, students conduct labs by asking a question, building a hypothesis, experimenting, observing, and drawing a conclusion. In English and history classes, students write a research paper by planning, researching, assessing and analyzing information, formulating a thesis, writing an outline, and editing drafts. Even in a mathematics examination, students are expected to show their work processes. Process is time-consuming and frustrating, and high school teachers and college professors drill it into us until it becomes force of habit.

That’s why my US faculty was able to work independently and effectively once I provided them with sufficient guidance. By giving them the first step (the essay models), the end goal (ensure students understand the structure of the five-paragraph essay), the means (read the essay line by line, and discuss relations among the constituent parts) they knew how to do the rest.

Not so with my Chinese staff. When I asked them to develop a marketing plan I asked them to do Internet searches on existing summer programmes, and to talk to our students and parents on how they sought and selected summer programmes. I would then expect them to compile a list of possible strategies, and do a cost analysis of each strategy. If they followed this process—asking questions, seeking multiple sources, and analyzing the information—then they would discover that the most effective marketing was constant messaging in Internet education chat rooms, while at the same time asking our students and parents to promote the program in their networks.

This was what I clarified to them in our next meeting, and I told them to construct a list of Internet chat rooms where we could promote the programme. I told them to study carefully as many chat rooms and Internet sites as possible. Because I had emphasized process over and over this time they provided me with a useful and relevant list of over two dozen Internet sites, ranked by popularity.

With my Chinese students I spent a week teaching them the process of editing. I divided them into two groups, and had each group correct a student’s five-paragraph essay. I then had the two groups correct each other’s corrections. I gave them an editing check-list, and made sure that these exceptionally hardworking and intelligent students slowly and methodically went through the check-list one:

1. Is my name on the homework?
2. Is my homework dated?
3. Is there a capitalized title?
4. Does the structure of the homework make sense and follow a logical order?
5. Does a topic sentence introduce each paragraph? Does the topic sentence summarize the paragraph?
6. Do I use the principles of balance and parallelism?
7. Do I use simple words and simple sentences?
8. Do I limit my use of adjectives?
9. Do I leave 5 spaces at the start of each paragraph?
10. Do I capitalize all my words at the start of each sentence?
11. Do I punctuate properly? Do I leave two spaces after a period, and one space after one comma?
12. Are there spelling mistakes? Do I use correct American spelling?
13. Are there grammar mistakes?
14. Do I maintain consistency of tenses?

For students used to rapid-fire 45-minute lectures, this exercise in the re-reading of a one-page essay searching for mistakes that may or may not be there seemed tiring and pointless. But in class I made them do it, hoping that through constant practice and emphasis they will develop the proper study habits – patience and discipline, precision and meticulousness – that will turn them into successful professionals in the global marketplace.

Process is, of course, only one part of the equation. There’s also co-operation and communication, and ultimately everything is mingled together. I’ll discuss co-operation and communication in detail, but in my next post I’d first like to introduce the pivot and anchor of China’s education system: the head teacher.

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