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Education and critical thinking

nankai school of Chinese language and culture

This is the Thinking China Digest, a weekly roundup of recent essays and articles published on the Chinese web, with links to translations on the Marco Polo Project.

This week’s post proposes to look at three recent articles exploring the connection between the Chinese education system and the development of critical thinking. Huang Yufeng compares the Chinese Gaokao with overseas examination systems, Zhang Tianpan denounces the manipulation of official data, and Fu Guoyong reflects on the purpose of education, looking back at the Chinese Republic.

Data construction and quantitative magic
By Zhang Tianpan, 06 August 2012
There are many questions on the accuracy of official Chinese data, and suspicions that figures are fabricated. But in this post, Zhang Tianpan focuses more on a global trend towards what he calls data ‘witchcraft’, whereby social realities are covered up by quantitative data, often blurring the actual experience of people, especially those on the lower rungs of society.
The second half of his article explores the question more in details. Zhang Tianpan questions the methods used for data gathering in China – survey data is generally averaged and therefore made more consensual; case studies are not representative. As for solid sample surveys, the sample choice is rarely conducted with adequate rigour, leading to low quality, non-representative data. But as importantly, the figures given in the reports influence the perception – quoting a mean, an average or a median can radically distort the picture. And indicators that would, for instance, reveal the growing gap between rich and poor are often not made public.
Zhang Tianfan therefore invites the central bureau of statistics to make all their data available, in line with the open data movement, rather than only producing reports that distort social reality though the deliberate use of certain analytical lens.
Marco Polo translation: Data construction and quantitative magic
Original link: 数据造国与量化巫术化

The difference between Chinese and overseas university entrance exams
By Huang Yufeng, 12 July 2012
The premise of this text is that a nation’s university entrance examination has a crucial influence on this nation’s overall thinking style. Many foreign examination systems lead students towards independent thinking. Huang Yufeng looks up to France, Japan and Singapore, where students examine deep and complex philosophical questions which many Chinese adults would not explore – “Is there a moral obligation to seek the truth?” or “What do people gain through labour?”. These examination question reflect a desire to develop critical spirit; in order to encourage students in that direction, and adequately measure the results, examiners must not only present important topics, but the subjects must also be clear and precise.
In comparison, Chinese essay topics are often vague and blurry, and it is unclear what students are actually tested on. Huang Yufeng quotes one instance of the last Gaokao, where students were invited to comment on an ambiguous fable about a boat owners and painters covering a hole at the bottom with paint. Such blurry subjects make it very easy for students to digress, and makes assessment particularly difficult. Another shortcoming of the Chinese system is that of intellectual authoritarianism, whereby essays must conform with the dominant views. This, combined with blurry subjects, leads to students writing safe, stereotypical essays, where empty rhetoric covers a lack of actual thinking.
Marco Polo translation: The difference between Chinese and overseas university entrance exams
Original link: “洋高考”试题让我们痛苦地看到差距

The blossoming of education in the Chinese republic
By Fu Guoyong, 02 August 2012
Education is not about success and results; education is an ongoing process of spiritual development. This is the starting point for this meditation on the goals of education by Fu Guoyong, an historian specialising in the Chinese republican period.
He starts by emphasizing the importance of primary and secondary schools to the development of a nation. Their aim should be to equip ordinary people with basic intellectual tools. In the Republican period, these levels of education were well developed, each being its own self-contained system. They were not just a pipeline to university. And teachers in primary and secondary schools enjoyed a high level of social respect. This is the first measure of success Fu Guoyong proposes for a country education system.
The second one is that education should educate people as people, not as tools for business and industry. This comes largely from finding a balance between, the Humanities, science, and civic education. It also comes from students learning the value of reading, and of spending time on the seemingly idle pursuit of knowledge and reflection.
In the second half of the post, Fu Guoyong focuses more closely on three sets of keywords related to education.
Knowledge, methods and perspectives: in this age of widely available information, the goal of education should not be to accumulate knowledge, but to develop critical judgement. Students should build a capacity to discern authentic, reliable sources from those that aren’t. In that regard, schools in the Chinese Republic did well, providing large amounts of time for students and teachers to think and play with intellectual problems, and thereby develop personal judgement.
Interest, health, ability: if schools can allow students to discover where their true interests lie, and let teachers express their own interests in their classes, then they will really provide valuable education. Fu Guoyong then mentions a number of people who, though they never went beyond primary or secondary school, led successful intellectual lives as composers, publishers or journalists.
Personality, temperament, spirit: the purpose of a school is not only to equip students with the means to become successful professionals, but also to transmit the cultural heritage that will help them make sense of the world around them, and give them an ongoing appetite for intellectual and spiritual pursuits throughout their life. And this should apply not to the geniuses or exceptionally gifted, but to all students.

Marco Polo translation: The blossoming of education in the Chinese republic
Original link: 民国教育的花开花落

On this topic, you may also wish to read the following dialogue between He Weifang and Rose Luqiu Luwei: The Reform of China’s education system

All articles in this digest and a large range of other Chinese readings are accessible at Some are available in English, French and Spanish translation. (You can join the project if you’d like to help with translations.)

Danwei is an affiliate of the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. This posting is a result of one project that is part of that on-going collaboration.

China Heritage Quarterly and East Asian History are two other publications supported by the Australian Centre on China in the World.