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China’s Educational Challenge When Going Global

Educating a generation of students who can innovate in their thinking is a cornerstone for China’s future success.

At Nottingham University Ningbo China (UNNC), students are prepared for China to go global. Taught in English according to Western standards and under strict quality control of the British campus, they receive an internationally competitive education and globally recognized degree. However, while Chinese students achieve very good to excellent results in written assessments, one key cultural challenge remains. At the UNNC, active class participation is encouraged, but Chinese students are often shy and passive throughout their education, experiencing difficulties with innovative and critical thinking.

The Issues

China’s current educational system is exam-oriented. Although quality-oriented education has been advocated in educational circles, it is hardly implemented in China. The aim of Chinese education is to answer questions correctly, achieve high marks and pass exams. Therefore, all questions have a standard answer, even so-called “open questions.” Under pressure to prepare students for tests, most teachers will not attach importance to nurturing their creativity and curiosity. As a result, Chinese students are good at rote-learning but lack their own thoughts. They are frequently described as delivering “high scores and low abilities.”

The Chinese educational mode is passive. Teachers instill the minds of young children with fixed ideas. Students are encouraged from early on to accept all knowledge provided by their teachers, to listen carefully in class and to remember all content in exact detail. Moreover, asking questions freely is discouraged, in favor of keeping quiet in class for teachers to better transfer knowledge. Any interruptions are perceived as disrespectful, and doubt may be considered a threat to a teacher’s authority. As one student put it: “If we want to ask questions, we have to hold special postures and raise the right hand [and] then wait for the teacher to ask us. Sometimes a teacher will not give us the chance to ask. Sometimes we will be criticized or mocked by classmates if the question seems stupid.”

The consequence of this Chinese educational culture is that students do not like to ask questions and cannot easily open up in seminars. Most students are not good at critical thinking because they were never encouraged to think critically before, let alone communicate with teachers and their peers.

Influenced by the passive educational mode, most Chinese students have developed a habit of just listening and accepting the instilled knowledge, without independent thinking. Many students keep quiet in class because they may not even understand some questions.

In China, teachers have a high status, and students often perceive the relationship between a teacher and student as unfair. The teacher is always right. Students are told by parents that a teacher is sacred and whatever they say must be right. Students should accept what teachers say without any doubt or conflict, in order to show respect and get high marks. In many schools, slogans cited from “Di Zi Gui” — a famous standard for students in ancient China — are put up on the wall to educate students to respect their teachers. A very typical slogan is: “When facing an elder or teacher, do not show off and challenge your teacher.” Therefore, for most students, they have the impression that a teacher’s authority cannot be challenged.

The Chinese educational mode is passive. Teachers instill the minds of young children with fixed ideas. Students are encouraged from early on to accept all knowledge provided by their teachers, to listen carefully in class and to remember all content in exact detail. 

Before answering questions, most Chinese students enter a psychological struggle: Should I answer this question? If so, what will others think of me? Will they think I am showing off? This is a universal phenomenon and remaining “low key” is the prototypical behavior of most Chinese people. In other words, low key is perceived as a virtue — the virtue of humility. Too much activity is perceived as eccentric behavior, and Chinese students do not want to become alienated among classmates.

Most students like to express themselves when they are young. If they always receive praise, they will be more willing to answer questions. If they are always repudiated, it will have a negative effect. In a Chinese class, each question has only one standard answer and it is either right or wrong. As some students reflected, they have been repudiated after expressing their own opinion; although their answer is very similar to the standard one. In this situation, Chinese students are afraid to express opinions. “If I provide a right answer, there are not many benefits, but if the answer is wrong, I will be mocked and lose face — this contains [a] high risk.” So when they are unsure about an answer, they will choose not to speak up to minimize this risk.

Most Chinese students lack confidence in conversing in English. When asked a question, they might not speak up, even if they know the answer. They will organize their response first and only answer a question if they can express it accurately. However, the process of organizing language takes much time, including checking a dictionary and structuring a sentence. Sometimes, they are not confident enough and give up. Most of the time, before they get ready to answer a question, the teacher will already have moved on. However, the language problem is not the main reason. It is simply typical for Chinese university students to always keep quiet.

Although taught in English, Chinese students tend to use their native language in class. Similarly, Western foreign exchange students use their own native tongue to communicate. The Chinese integrate little with predominantly international student groups, while international students integrate better into groups of Chinese students. This is because language and cultural differences make communication difficult for Chinese students, since they typically arrive with a lower level of English skills at the university.

Faced with these difficulties, Chinese students choose to escape. Due to the one-child policy in the generation born after the 1980s, most students are the only child in their families. Children receive more love and care than before. Parents use their experience and wisdom to make all decisions for their children, in order to help them avoid failure. However, this may limit a child’s development and deprive them of the right to experience life and make mistakes. As a result, many students become used to depending on their parents and lack independence. When facing difficulties, they tend to escape instead of taking the bull by the horns.

The Solutions

So what are the solutions? Most Chinese students are very careful about what others think of them. It is of crucial importance to show students that language is just a tool for communication, no matter how good one’s proficiency is. The aim is to communicate and exchange ideas, so that no one will mock an accent or grammar mistake. In order to encourage Chinese students to speak, it is key to emphasize content over language and grammar for written assessments. This can effectively encourage students to express their own perspectives.

The new Chinese leadership puts a heavy emphasis on innovation to turn China into a competitive global player, and move away from the economy’s reliance on manufacturing cheap goods as the factory of the world. Educating a generation of Chinese students who can innovate in their thinking and be critical is a cornerstone for China’s future success. 

Traditional Chinese education puts a lot of pressure on students when trying to communicate with teachers. In order to change this situation, teachers need to create a lively, friendly and relaxed class atmosphere. Students should feel that having lessons is like conversing with friends. Humor can be a key component of breaking barriers. Using humor to illustrate concepts encourages students to share their opinions. For instance, some students enjoy the education style of “New Oriental,” a famous English training organization. Their teachers are perceived as humorous, friendly, lively and interesting. Students feel no pressure when talking with them and are unafraid of making mistakes.

Teachers need to encourage students to prepare before class. For instance, teachers may ask each student to prepare presentations on relevant topics as part of active class participation. For example, the UNNC graduate course on qualitative methods has almost no teaching materials; the only materials are different articles selected by the instructor to be discussed in a seminar format.

In class, seating is fixed in a circle. Students sit very close to each other, making them feel more comfortable with sharing their perspective. All knowledge is transferred during discussions and learning takes place in a conversational style. Other methods may include discussing videos, theater and role-plays. A great team-building tool can be the use of group simulations with competing teams, since Chinese students are very competitive.

To tackle the students’ fear of making mistakes, teachers need to provide substantial praise and encouragement throughout class. If students believe that answering a question does not have many benefits, they will be deterred from doing so. Even being graded by active class participation may not be tempting enough for them. Arguably, praise or encouragement is a much more powerful type of reward. Respecting students’ answers is crucial to building up their confidence, even if they misunderstand questions. It is helpful to find a friendly way to value each answer and avoid any negation to build self-confidence.

One technique is to encourage students to contradict their teachers and give high marks to any insightful or novel perspective. Students should be willing to freely express their ideas and enter discussions. As one student put it: “Even if we believe the Earth is flat, not round, we can discuss with the teacher because we clearly know that there is no absolute right or wrong answer in his eyes.”

Looking Ahead

The new Chinese leadership puts a heavy emphasis on innovation to turn China into a competitive global player, and move away from the economy’s reliance on manufacturing cheap goods as the factory of the world. Educating a generation of Chinese students who can innovate in their thinking and be critical is a cornerstone for China’s future success. The educational experiment of the Nottingham University Ningbo China, the first true joint venture between a Chinese and Western institution of higher education, provides valuable lessons on how to educate the next generation of Chinese leaders.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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