On a recent trip to China, I joined a group of American educators to gain some understanding of the world’s largest educational system. We dealt with two central questions as we visited schools in three major cities: What are the essential qualities of Chinese education and why would people who consistently outscore Americans in every major subject test want to attend our schools in greater numbers every year?
The answers are multilayered, of course. Nevertheless, concerns over standardized tests, among them the well-known Gaokao, which one writer has called “an SAT on steroids,” weigh heavily on parents’ minds. Test results are widely publicized and used to determine curriculum and teaching methods in most of China’s schools. The results of this exam not only determine where students go after high school, but also which teachers are promoted and the level of funding in certain schools.
As the Gaokao scores indicate, Chinese students excel at absorbing information and recalling it on exams. Students are attentive and disciplinary issues are rare even in classrooms where one teacher supervises 45-60 students. Most Chinese parents expect their children to achieve at the top level — an expectation of special intensity in a country where most parents have only one child.
Despite a culture that promotes excellence and lionizes success on standardized tests, increasing numbers of Chinese families send their children to study here. The reason for this trend transcends an interest in global citizenship, though that’s certainly a benefit of sending any child abroad. Instead, the rationale that emerged in my conversations with Chinese parents was to expose their children to a different educational model, one that emphasizes a different way of handling information and accumulating knowledge. In other words, Chinese parents recognize that what U.S. schools may lack in covering content, they make up for with a skill that may be more valuable: teaching students how to think.
As I spoke with families, three words kept emerging, and curiously, they all began, in English, with a C. Parents kept discussing how much they wanted their children to cultivate skills in thinking more critically, creatively and collaboratively. So much for the three R’s; the Chinese system covered and far exceeded them. The three C’s were much more significant and they saw our schools handling those qualities more effectively.
Critical thinking, the intrinsic process of questioning information from a variety of sources, develops an ability to infer and investigate. Students skilled in critical thinking more easily see parallels and identify potential problems before they occur. To be successful critical thinkers, students must first analyze a problem and generate possible solutions. Then, they must choose the best solution and learn to evaluate its effectiveness.
The next C, creative thinking, relies on innovative approaches to existing ideas or the generation of new ideas. Creative thinkers draw confidently on a wide range of sources and pull information from disparate fields to engage in effective discourse with others.
That leads quite naturally to the benefits of collaborative thinking. Students who work collaboratively remain open to a variety of solutions to problems. Collaboration also requires students to have flexibility and develop empathy for the group. What students may sacrifice in control of each step, they gain in momentum through the ideas and energy of those with whom they work. Students who have learned to think this way have greater comfort relinquishing control of individual projects with the goal of improving performance for the team as a whole.
As you can imagine, teaching critical, creative and collaborative thinking is challenging. The elements mean different things to different teachers and curricula designed to cultivate these skills are difficult to quantify. In my experience, the best method is to model them for students. Team-taught classes, particularly interdisciplinary ones, are valuable for students as teachers can shift more easily between their roles as instructors and learners. And curricula that ask students not just what but why things happen tend to enhance these skills. Finally, these skills are best modeled and taught over years through encouraging students to investigate further, making and defending their conclusions in an environment that values these methods of thinking. They are also nurtured in small groups with individual attention. And they are not driven or evaluated effectively through standardized tests.
In short, these qualities lead to quite a different notion of success than what I witnessed in China. Yet there’s a hunger for them both there and here. Perhaps the path that offers students the most satisfaction and the richest achievement lies in a blend between the two: mastery of content carefully mixed with the ability to think critically, creatively and collaboratively, held inside an awareness that no one test can measure a person’s intelligence or worth.
Brad Choyt is head of school at North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth.