Experiencing China: its culture and education

Mesmerizing view of 'The Great Wall'
Mesmerizing view of ‘The Great Wall’

Between all the hustle and bustle of the spring semester and a trip of 3 days right after it, I was left with hardly any time to prepare myself mentally for the soon to begin globalization program to China. Hence, as I stepped into the bus that would take me to the Detroit Metropolitan airport I was confounded by feelings of happiness and melancholy. Seeing my friends on the bus, calmed my feeling of sadness of staying away from family for the coming three weeks. I soon began feeling exhilarated as I looked forward to this international exposure that would help me expand my cultural and intellectually horizons. As we landed in Beijing we were met on the airport by our tour guide Jo, who from the first day we met her was a delight and enlightened us with her vast knowledge about Chinese history.

High school visit (Vivek's missing)
High school visit (Vivek’s missing)

Through our visits to schools, I was fascinated to observe the prevalence of doctrines of Confucianism in the way education was structured and the pedagogy that was employed by teachers at schools and universities. With the high regard for education advocated by confucianist views, it is to China’s credit that it strives to keep its cultural values alive by actively engaging students in such learnings.

A primary learning that emerged for me was from one such visit to a high school in Beijing, where we obtained the opportunity to communicate with a chemistry teacher who explained to us the nuances of international education in China that diverges from traditional learning which is solely based on memorization. These schools advocate teaching students from “inside out”. Coming from affluent families  some of these students prepare themselves beginning from high school to enter international universities which puts a lot of burden on them to perform well in both school as well as in entrance tests. I was intrigued by this similarity with my experiences as a student in India and the pressure that is build up on students in high school to prepare for highly competitive standardized examinations so as to pursue careers in “elite fields” like engineering and medicine. I had constantly felt this pressure as a teenager, and hence I struggled to keep the expectations of my parents and teachers. Fortunately for me my parents soon realized that I was under significant burden to perform at school and this would in the long run hamper my psychological growth. However, my case is an exception and students constantly experience the pressure to get “good grades” in schools and universities in India, thereby, pursuing careers they were never interested in or those being neglected being victims of depression. As our time in China was limited, I am still left with this question of, “Do students find it stressful to prepare for such examinations in China as well?” or “Is it just my perception that they do?” For the meantime these questions remain unanswered as there is much to reflect and research on as I think about my experiences in China.

Art class in a school we visited in Beijing
An art class underway in a school we visited in Beijing

Another prominent element that emerged from our school visits was that of creativity. The interpretation of creativity in schools was distinct from how I perceive it based on my experiences and knowledge in US and India. The solution to making a shift to an innovative economy lies in imbuing the concept of creativity in schools which I felt China understands well. However, schools in China, or at least the one’s we visited, are mostly hierarchical, drilling students in the type of memorization that results in success on standardized tests. Hence, students score highly on international tests. But creativity researchers and learning scientists know that this type of knowledge doesn’t support creativity. I observed creativity as part of art, music, dance, and other like activities. However, it is yet to be conceptualized in subjects like science and math. During the 19th century scientific body at large started to recognize that certain creative thought patterns lend themselves not only to disciplines like art and music but even to disciplines like science and math. And soon creativity models began to emerge and it became a part of education in US. For me creativity comes in the form of problem solving that allows me to express myself both personally and intellectually. As Mihály Csíkszentmihályi puts it, “Creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to different situations and to manage  with whatever is needed to reach their goals.” Creativity has nothing to do with how “smart” or “intelligent” one was a child, it has nothing to do with age. Creative individuals are divergent thinkers. Divergent thinking stems from unusual association of ideas that in turns leads individuals to come up with great quantity of ideas and solutions for a single problem.  This is my brief window and small attempt at helping people understand that it is up to you to create your own meaning of creativity. Anyone and everyone can be creative.

There is much left to be said, but I leave that for my next post. I am thankful to MSU and SWU for giving me this opportunity to meet scholars who are pioneers in their field, to explore three beautiful provinces of China, and to know closely the culture and extraordinarily kind people of China.

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