Comparative Education Seminar

February 15, 2013

28 students gathered to discuss comparative education between China and the United States. We started the discussion by comparing the differences between

the education systems in the two countries. Then students broke up into groups to discuss whether they thought the categorization on the chart to be right. After the students came back together, the discussion focused on the structure of the class as lecture-intensive versus discussion-based. International Chinese students brought the insight that the stereotype about Chinese students not having discussions is wrong; actually students discuss after school. However, admittedly, Chinese school cannot afford to have many discussion-based classrooms given the large population (50 students/class on average).

Chinese Classroom

Then the participants went on to discuss the incentive of becoming a teacher in China. An Asian American student (Kexin) first described her observation that teachers in the United States do it for love and wondered what the situation in China is like. International Chinese students then agreed that teaching is not the best-paid job in China, but people still tend to view it as a good way of making a living. Some students mentioned the monetary incentive from giving after-school tutorial programs. Also, education has a highly culturally-rooted value in Confucianism; teacher receives respect and high social status. Moreover, it’s a job of high stability, and actually raises one’s prospect of marriage.

Then the conversation moved on to discuss why Chinese students tend to study math and science over other subjects, and why there have been so many “math genius” Chinese students. After some back-and-forth discussion between Chinese and American students, we found rote memorization and drilling to be the key to success in math and science. In fact, to excel at these subjects, you just have to practice a lot. On the contrary, American students who tend to go with subjects and learning methods that are enjoyable and interesting dislike repetitive and mechanical practices.

Also, an Asian American student raised a point that what makes Asian students smart and successful is culturally rooted. From a young age, Chinese kids are encouraged (if not forced) by their parents to do more work instead of playing outside. A Taiwanese American student offered a valuable insight that the Asian population in the United States represent a highly educated group that qualified to immigrate to the United States via admission to American graduate school programs. China has a lot of people, and it’s not like everyone is smart. The Asian American students usually come from high-achieving families, genetically and environmentally advantaged, and with disciplines cultivated by hard-working parents.

Then Phil asked a really good question: given that culture and education shape each other, how does that shaping impact the interaction between Chinese people and American people? From a cognitive science perspective, the memorize-vast-information Chinese learning style cultivates convergent thinking, and the critical thinking and liberal arts American approach, divergent thinking.

Then the discussion slightly changed direction toward what criteria that college selection is based on and how that shapes students. The same Taiwanese American student raised a good point that schools want leaders; they want to educate people to become managers, if not game-changers, in their fields of expertise. Therefore, American students do a lot of extracurricular activities outside of class to demonstrate their leadership capacities. Then the international Chinese students commented that the purpose of Chinese colleges is also to select leaders. However, given the large population in China, it only needs 0.003% of the population to become leaders to run the country. These are the people who go to the top-notch schools to get the best training in knowledge and establish elite social relationships. The best way to do a fair selection would be a standardized examination that filters the 0.003% brightest and screens out the rest. Given the large population, it’s almost impossible for each individual to get attention, and college education is rarely for self-discovery or learning for enjoyment. Those outside of the 0.003% will receive little support and are pretty much on their own to get a college education. And even for the0.003%, college is constructed around getting grades and internships in order to get highest-paid jobs. The idea of studying what you are passionate about and what makes you happy in college (credit to Hannah), therefore, is a foreign idea to them. Then someone said that actually many people in China have mental illness because they spend so much time and efforts on studying what they don’t enjoy. More statistical validation needed. But it’s a serious concern.

Next, the discussion touched base on the relationship between economic structure and education. Chinese people used to favor majors in science and math since its industrialized economic structure guaranteed the most secure jobs with these majors. Nowadays, Chinese students, no matter those who are studying-abroad or in the homeland, find majors in economics and business attractive. Once again it’s because jobs like accounting and finance offer security and monetary prospect. To get a college degree for job security is nevertheless a pitch in the United States too. But students’ areas of interest are more diverse and the competition less severe.

However, it’s noticeable that the premise for American students to major in a diversity of subjects is a matching job market. There has to be a market demandfrom the employers, or at least acceptance, for political science or sociology majors. Employers in China would find such majors with little credibility or qualification due to their unfamiliarity with the subjects. And the knowledge structure in China isn’t yet updated and matured for such majors to put their skills and knowledge into use. It’s even more interesting to compare the relationship between economic structure and education to that in the UK. As the UK enters a design economy, more emphasis is being put on human value, namely creativity, passion and connection with people. The schools consequently put more focus on cultivating creative students who are passionate for what they do, since that’s the best way to do a best job.

It was a thought-provoking discussion on comparative education tonight. It’s also the first of its type at UNC. Stay tuned for a bigger event one to come in two weeks!

-Zishu Chen

Thank you to all those who attended and all who showed interest in our event.