Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hold That Tiger?

There's a fascinating article on Chinese education in the Times today, on Nicholas Kristof's blog, by an American college student who spent a year in a Chinese high school. He'd noted the very high science and math scores Chinese students have with respect to the rest of the world, very much including the USA, and had hoped to learn a lot. He became disenchanted quickly:

But we cannot take those successes and implement them here. A cafeteria approach to Chinese culture – “I’ll take the work ethic, but not the stress-producing, creativity-killing exam, please” – doesn’t work; the baby is inseparable from the bathwater. Kristof often measures his praise with criticism of the Chinese model, acknowledging that it causes stress or stifles creativity. But these criticisms are more than disclaimers, they are inextricably linked to the model’s successes. The same gaokao that puts heavy stress on students also makes them willing to do homework over the summer and the emphasis on mindless rote memorization is precisely why students score highly.
The question we need to ask is not “How have the Chinese produced such hardworking students?” but rather “Is it possible to instill such a work ethic without a high-stakes exam to scare students into submission?” Instead of “How have the Chinese achieved such measurable success?” we must ask, “Is it possible to succeed without revolving around tests?”
China’s solutions won’t work – what we need are answers of our own.

Richard Feynman, in (I think) 'What Do You Care What Other People Think?', told of his experience in Brazil, where he found a similar system, restricted to rote repetition at the expense of creativity. A friend whose daughter attended the Sorbonne in Paris had similar stories to tell. In Japan, entrance into Tokyo University is key to advancement, as is the Ecole Polytechnique in France. Once the ferocious competition is over, students in such places slack off considerably, perhaps (don't know for sure, speculating here) behaving as do, say, Harvard legacy students 'earning' gentlemen's C's.

I'm reminded of John Searle's Chinese Room argument against the notion of artificial intelligence arising solely out of algorithm, as a digital computer program would. He imagined a man, speaking no Chinese, in a room with a Chinese dictionary and other books. Through a slot, questions would appear in Chinese. He'd take the books, and render them into Chinese, and send them out the slot. The man would know no Chinese at all. Neither would a computer doing the same thing. So, in another example, the computer chess program Deep Blue, executing a gazillion instructions a second, beat then world champion Garry Kasparov, who couldn't possibly match it in its method, and used, perhaps, another. This isn't universally accepted, and can be attacked in several ways. But would the man in the room be encouraged to creativity, to brainstorm with others, to solve problems or even define previously unrecognised ones to solve? Dunno...

1 comment:

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