Sunday, July 31, 2016

Go to college and ... lose your thinking skills?

I justify playing bridge online with an argument that it helps my thinking skills!  Ahem, one needs to be able to think to even offer such arguments, right?  I have blogged in plenty, like here, on how my teaching is really all about helping students think.

One of the many problems that I had with the undergraduate program in India was that it was quite a bit about preparing for exams in ways that did not have to deal with thinking skills.  It was more about turning out technicians, it seemed like, than about graduating thinking professionals.  A recent study notes that contemporary China is no better:
A new study, though, suggests that China is producing students with some of the strongest critical thinking skills in the world.
But the new study, by researchers at Stanford University, also found that Chinese students lose their advantage in critical thinking in college. 
The system turns sharp thinking teenagers into boring exam-takers!
The findings are preliminary, but the weakness in China’s higher education system is especially striking because Chinese leaders are pressing universities to train a new generation of highly skilled workers and produce innovations in science and technology to serve as an antidote to slowing economic growth.
But many universities, mired in bureaucracy and lax academic standards, have struggled. Students say the energetic and demanding teaching they are accustomed to in primary and secondary schools all but disappears when they reach college.
All over the world, apparently universities favor research over teaching! In China too:
The Stanford researchers suspect the poor quality of teaching at many Chinese universities is one of the most important factors in the results. Chinese universities tend to reward professors for achievements in research, not their teaching abilities. In addition, almost all students graduate within four years, according to official statistics, reducing the incentive to work hard.
How terrible :(

An essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (sub. req.) argues that such a sorry state of affairs is consistent with"the triumph of the graduate-school model of teaching and research."

Oh well ...

BTW, I looked up the bio of the author of the Stanford study. His name was the reason: Prashant Loyalka.  The first name is from India.  But then the stereotypical immigrant from India does not do research about education, and is a computer science faculty, right?  I wondered whether the author was born and raised here in the US--which then frees up the mind from the narrow prescribed paths in the old country.

Guess what?  His undergraduate degree is in economics, from Stanford, which is one solid piece of evidence that Loyalka was born here.  Even more fascinating is this in his CV:  He is fluent in English and Mandarin but only conversational in Hindi.

I tell ya, I think about everything--even an author's background ;)


Ramesh said...

Sceptical about the study even if it is authored by a Prashanth !! It does not match with what I have observed during my time living in China.

I don't know what "critical thinking" is defined as, but it is unlikely to be what you and I might define as "thinking". I note that the study was exclusively restricted to computer science and engineering students at China's top 11 universities. Perhaps they would be very good at finding better ways of coding or machining some part. But if you define thinking as broader, which is what you have argued for years in this blog, then I would be very very surprised if China was not way way down the order in global rankings at any stage - be it school, college or at the work place. This is one of the greatest weaknesses of their political system; it actively discourages the sort of thinking we would understand as critical.

Sriram Khé said...

I had to re-read your comments to make sure I hadn't misunderstood ... you are saying that if the study had been about a broader set of students and about the broader kind of thinking skills you have in mind, then the Chinese rankings will be way, way low, right?
If so, then I have no disagreements at all.
There have been a few recent news items about Chinese higher education, and they have all been uniformly negative. In fact, this is one of the major reasons why an American college diploma--even if it is only from the university where I teach--has so much cred back in China.

BTW, I was talking with a student who recently returned from a three week study program in China ... not many good things were said, to put it politely. Even more interesting was the comment that huge apartment buildings are being built like crazy, and most of the finished ones are vacant ... I wonder if in education and in real estate, a whole of wheels are spinning in order to create an illusion that masks the reality ...?

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