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A Foolish Inconsistency

Yesterday my colleague the geography teacher asked me to visit the Theory of Knowledge class he began teaching this year. His plan is to ask the students to conduct an analysis of vehicular and pedestrian traffic at the school’s three entrances, to draw some conclusions after analyzing the data, and then to try and fit their work into the “Knowledge Framework” of “Human Sciences.” It is an ambitious plan and will clearly call for a kind of work much different from the rote memorization that people say is characteristic of Chinese education.

His classroom’s chairs are arranged around work tables, not in rank-and-file order. I was immediately struck by the atmosphere of the classroom, which was an amiable order-in-chaos. The longer I watched, the more strongly the unobtrusive grounding in orderliness made itself evident under the chat and banter, including banter with the teacher. Each table was assigned a task, and a spokesman from each table presented to the class as a whole at the end of the lesson for classmates’ and the teacher’s comments. The students took the comments seriously. After the class, he and I had lunch in the teachers’ canteen and had a long talk about alternatives to exam-based courses.

It may be tempting to dismiss this kind of productivity as due entirely to privilege: this is a good school, and Hong Kong has a high per capita GDP. That doubtless has something to do with something, but not all to do with everything. For one thing, the school has a tradition of welcoming and supporting students from comparatively disadvantaged backgrounds, though it is true that they do not constitute a large part of the student population. But Hong Kong itself, including its schools for the poor, has remarkably good results on the PISA tests, including tests that require what we call “higher-level thinking.” And if this class is any example, Hong Kong has many teachers who are ready to try approaches other than stuff-and-examine—this at a time when the American “education reform movement,” as it is misnamed, has brought back the stuff-and-examine model to NCLB and RAT schools, with their Test Preparation.

The example of Shanghai must also discourage glib dismissals of Chinese methods. It has the best PISA results in the world, but its per capita GDP is only 40% of the US’s and a slightly lower percentage of Hong Kong’s. Half its students come from a background of urban and rural poverty. The Shanghai metropolitan area’s population is greater than that of 40 PISA countries, and even the city proper is more populous than 33 of those countries. (I exclude the “city states” of Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore.)  What this means is that excellent education, including “critical thinking,” is being effected on a huge scale in a population that by the standards of “developed” countries can hardly be called privileged.

But the dismissalists will call Shanghai a showcase that gives a false impression of China’s education. After all, China ranks 94th among the world’s countries in per capita GDP. Go to the rural areas, and things will not look so good. Well, that is exactly what Andreas Schleicher recently did. This OECD advisor on education visited rural Chinese schools, including one primary school near the Burmese border serving only impoverished farm villages. He reports to BBC that the education there is of a high standard in spite of the comparative paucity of resources. Maybe Shanghai’s is better, but the rural education appears to be good. The next PISA results will be more inclusive of the variety of Chinese education, but if a city of twenty-five million cannot be taken as suggestive, the explanation may lie in its being dismissed as sour grapes.

The last dismissal is that Chinese culture and American are different and therefore incomparable. It presents an opening a mile wide, but I will step in at only one point. A recent study done at Boston College showed that American primary and secondary students are by far the most sleep-deprived in the world, and that this deprivation is largely due to the use of electronic appliances after what should be bedtime. The authors of the study claim that if these students would turn off their gadgets and get a good night’s sleep, they would do better in school. As it is, their sleepiness leaves teachers having to dumb down their classes. In China’s rural areas no one can afford the gadgets to lose sleep over.

But no teacher whose “effectiveness” is being “rated” by “value”- “added” “metrics” will find the VAM formula modified for the sleep deprivation that is beyond his control. Just so, none of the yes buts applied to China’s schools are also applied to the VAMs by which American schools are now being rated (except, in some places, a weak and useless metric for  “disadvantage”). I know that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, but inconsistency can be foolish too.

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