James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
  • In defense of the 高考: Chinese, foreigners rally to its support!

    Yesterday, two reader-arguments (here and here) that the gaokao or 高考, the standardized, nationwide college-admissions exam for students in China, plays a central role in the parts of Chinese education that people inside and outside the country dislike. (On that larger debate, here.)

    Since then, a flood of correspondence from people generally offering a "Yes, but..." defense of the gaokao. Yes, it's not connected to "real" education. Yes, it makes students' lives hell. Yes... But: it has other advantages. Or, the obvious alternatives would be even worse -- especially given widespread Chinese fear that any more "subjective" system would certainly be rigged. 

    Here is a sampling. Judge for yourself -- and be convinced, at least, that allocating educational opportunity in a country with the scale and extremes of China is a complicated business.

    1. From a reader in China:

    I just read your posts on the nationwide college-admissions exam, the gaokao.  While I agreed that this system did focus too much on memorizing books and exam preparation, it cannot be replaced for the current sociaty.  The advantage of this universal exam system is relative fairness.
    Yes, there are much unfairness in the exam system, i.e. Beijing and Shanghai got too many quotas for the colleges entries, minority groups got extra points, and some can get in based on their privilege and wealth.  However, this system is the most fair and practical one compared to all other alternative systems.  The American system including essays, reference letters, community service experiences...all too subjective and easy to manipulate in China.  The privileged ones will benefit even more from American system and squeeze the poor talented ones out of the best schools. 
    I am all for a reformed education system to promote innovation.  But the first thing the education should achieve is fairness: the best students can be selected to get the best education. 

     2) From Ella Shengru Zhou, a Chinese student who has just finished college in Beijing and will enroll in a Harvard graduate school this fall. She has worked with me as a interpreter and assistant.

    Officially done with my college study today, I feel I just have to say something about the discussion on China's education. I don't think gao kao is the problem in China's education.
    First, any student who has done every year's gao kao exams since 1995 could tell you that the exam itself has been changing. The test-makers have been making a conscious effort to make it rely less on memorization but on creativity. Second, despite the occasional cheating, and different bars of college acceptation for each provinces, gao kao may be the only fair chance a Chinese student has in breaking out his or her social context. The upward-movability for most Chinese is first achieved through this gao kao system ever since its ancient model keju was established.

    Third, it is much easier to criticize gao kao than to suggest a workable alternative. Essays, interviews sound nice but are prone to subjectivity and therefore corruption. China would give students more chances to take gao kao if it could, like the SAT, but the amount of human resources and coordination went into each gao kao is immense. Fourth, it's not the exam, it's the school. I won't even put parents on the list, because a good enough school would get parents' "blind" trust. And this is where I prove my case with my high school.

    I'm one of the unlucky ones that didn't go through gao kao, instead I was accepted by my college half a year before gao kao, through a bao song (recommendation) system reserved for the national science awards winners and top students from the 13 foreign language schools established under the order of Zhou Enlai. When we met , you commented on my English skills, but I owe every bit of that to my high school - everyone from my high school speak good English. We were taught by Chinese, and didn't have more class hour than other schools, but we had a shockingly free environment that encourages ideas, innovation and self-learning.

    Our school was tiny, I enrolled with 80 other students. Now among them, there are soon-to-be Oxford lawyer, philosopher, scientist, Stanford computer scientists, MIT physicist, Columbia mathematician, Peking University historian; there are those who already got into The Foreign Ministry, Xinhua News, and various other crucial national organs.

    But we were not educated under the stereotypical Chinese education model. Self-learning, peer-critique, critical thinking were all essential in our school. We were encouraged to rebuke propaganda - and yes we were a school that commemorated June 4th; we had free press - student magazines, newspapers flourished; we had all sorts of student clubs, from the utterly ridiculous to student rights groups that often made direct demands to the administrators.

    Did our parents know how we were taught in our school? Were they worried that we might be "too liberal for our own good"? Probably yes, but because our graduates are doing so well, our parents had little ground for complaint or interference.

    Most importantly, all this happened despite the fact that the majority of our students had to take gao kao.

    So I think pinning down the problem on something only the government can change, like gao kao, is really not very helpful, the real problem lies with the school, and that is something many people could make a difference in, including the exact same people who are criticizing gao kao.

    3) From a non-Chinese teacher at a college in Shenzhen:

    One of the things I've taken from my experience in Chinese education
    is that issues of efficiency and real-world usefulness play second
    fiddle to an entirely different concept of fairness than what
    Westerners are used to. It's hard to spot unless you ask the right
    questions. A case in point is shoving 50 students into a classroom
    with huge variances in ability simply because they all happened to be
    ranked, sorted, and placed in a homeroom-style class studying a major
    they cannot change and may not have actually chosen. I have nearly
    fluent students mixed with those who melt when asked how their weekend

    When I've asked the local teachers why this is, and why not have
    foreign language classes based on ability (Conversational English
    I/II/III) that students work their way through, they looked genuinely
    shocked. It would be unfair - how could you think to punish a
    struggling student by putting him into a bad class? All students
    deserve the best possible English class.

    If you look back at the old imperial exam system, it had in in-built
    check against nepotism. Theoretically, anybody could memorize a vast
    amount of nearly useless texts written in an obscure non-vernacular
    language and rise to the highest ranks of government. It was mindless
    meritocracy at it's best, measuring tenacity and at least one sort of
    mental skill.

    I think we're witnessing the same thing today. Though my students
    *hated* the Gaokao and know it has little correlation with intellect,
    I get that same shocked expression when I ask if it's the same as in
    America - richer students get higher scores, getting into better
    colleges, repeating a cycle. Most of my students got fairly low
    scores, but blame it on break-ups, stress, or simply being lazy.
    Despite everything, they do believe it's fundamentally fair and most
    students at the top schools did, legitimately, earn their way to the
    top however ridiculous the contest was.

    4) From another non-Chinese person at a university in Hong Kong:

    If you're interested in the subject of examinations and their influence on
    culture, I would HIGHLY recommend that you read (and recommend to your
    readers) this book:

    Author:     Zeng, Kangmin
    Title:      Dragon gate : competitive examinations and their consequences
    Imprint:    London ; New York : Cassell, 1999

    It's a comparative and historical analysis of the examination systems in
    Japan, Taiwan, & Korea. It's interesting to see how these systems were
    influenced by the Chinese examination systems in pre-19th century and then
    heavily by Japanese systems under colonialism and have then developed
    further.  Although it does not deal directly w/ Chinese examination
    systems, I think it offers many insights.

    One particular thing I remember from it was that parents in Taiwan were
    very much against anything BUT "gao kao" results being used for university
    entrance, because it was assumed that grades, teacher recommendations,
    coaches recommendations, etc. were too easily manipulated through bribery,
    favoritism, and other forms of  corruption.

    On anti-hackneyed-language principles, I am against any book about China that has the word "Dragon" in its title (except the ones I like). But this book is ten years old, and maybe the imagery seemed fresher then. It's available here.

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  • Aftermath on Buffalo / Colgan crash

    About the public hearings on the terrible crash in Buffalo three months ago, in which 50 people died:

    - Authoritative wrapup of the situation here by Andy Pasztor of the Wall Street Journal, who has had well-informed stories on this topic from the beginning.

    - This more-complete information supports the hypothesis Pasztor raised early on, as discussed previously here, that the cause of the crash was  a basic and fatal failure of airmanship. That is, at a moment when saving the airplane would have required pushing the plane's nose down -- to regain airspeed and avert an aerodynamic stall -- the pilot apparently fought the autopilot, which was trying to push the nose down, and succeeded in pulling the nose up. This further reduced airspeed and, apparently, put the plane into a full stall, at which point it stopped flying and fell to the ground. If you're not 100% confident on the difference between aerodynamic "stalls" and normal stalls, see the note after the jump.*

    - The complete transcript of over-the-airwaves transmissions and in-cockpit chatter, available in PDF from the WSJ site here, has the intrinsic horrific fascination of any document of this sort. You know you are observing the routine preoccupations and chit-chat of people who don't realize, as you do, that they are in their final moments of life. I don't share the total astonishment of some commentary about how much of the en route talk is "unprofessional" -- about career plans and family problems and the rest. Given how things turned out, any banter whatsoever now looks very bad. But none of it would have mattered save for the one horrible error in judgment and reaction. Had the pilot pushed forward on the stick rather than pulled back, in all likelihood it would have been another normal flight -- albeit in rough winter conditions -- and he and everyone else would now be going about their regular lives.
    - Of course the big question is how much the loosey-goosey atmosphere in the cockpit had to do with that awful error. Miles O'Brien, a pilot and ex-correspondent for CNN, has his thoughts on the subject here.

    - This is NOT crash related, but for a way to see what it is like to descend into a cloud bank on an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) landing, check out this YouTube video taken from inside the cockpit of a Cirrus SR-22 in the last three minutes of its approach to runway 16R at Van Nuys airport. (The Cirrus is a four-seat single-engine plane of the type that, as it happens, Miles O'Brien flies and that I used to own and fly before coming to China.) The shot does not concentrate on the instrument panel during the descent, which is what the pilot is obsessively scanning when he can't see anything outside the window. Also,the propeller appears to "stop" or move jerkily at times, just because of a strobe effect with the camera. But the beginning and end of the clip conveys something most passengers never see: how it looks to enter the clouds, and then finally to see the runway -- in this case, underneath quite a low cloud ceiling. Really, watch this and you'll have an idea of the mantra drummed into your head a million times in instrument-flight training: that you've got to watch the instruments and trust the instruments, because there is no other guide to where you're headed.

    (UPDATE: YouTube appears to be getting Firewalled again in China, as happens from time to time. I posted this link while using a VPN, as I do most of the time to get around the firewall. But after hearing complaints from others, I turned the VPN off and couldn't reach YouTube from Beijing. Oh well.)

    - Speaking of runway 16R at Van Nuys Airport, here is the site for a movie called One Six Right, about that very runway and the activity that surrounds it. It's for sale on DVD rather than free download, but it is visually very rich, eye-opening, and fascinating to watch. It also talks about all the routine safety measures that are normally built into aviation, and which in this Buffalo case didn't prevent a huge tragedy.


    * Stalls: There really should be a different word for this aerodynamic phenomenon, because people assume it's like an engine stall -- which it isn't. Fundamentally, an airplane stalls when it flies too slowly to stay in the air. That's not the technical definition, which has to do with the "angle of attack" of the wings, but it's close enough. In most cases that is because the pilot is pulling the nose up too high into the air, and in most cases the remedy is to push the nose down. (There are other options in some cases, like easing off from a too-steep turn.) Pushing the nose down makes the plane go faster,  which can take it back above its dangerous "stalling speed." The easiest way to think of this is like riding a bicycle. When a bike goes too slowly, it can't stay upright. Heading uphill, which is the equivalent of pulling the nose up, slows the bike down and increases the risk it will topple over. Heading downhill -- pushing the nose down -- does the reverse.

    There is a special circumstance in which pulling the nose back could have been the right option. This would be if the airplane had suffered a "tailplane stall," as discussed here. But there is no evidence that this was the case -- and anyway the flight crew never discussed that possibility, or anything about their declining airspeed, before the pilot made his fatal mistake.

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  • Further on the 高考

    From Joshua Davis, a foreigner teaching English in China, a further critique of the nationwide college-admissions exam, the gaokao, following this one earlier today by another foreign teacher. These are worth noting less for the novelty of the complaint (objecting to the effects of the test on Chinese education is like objecting to the effects of money on American politics) than for giving examples of how central and powerful the test's effects are. Mr. Davis writes:

    Earlier this year, I decided that one of the things that stifles creativity in China more than anything else was high school. All Chinese students are required to take an all inclusive, end-all, be-all exam at the end of their high school careers called the Gao Kao.. If I can remember from the top of my head, this test includes physics, biology, math, politics, Chinese, English, history, geography, and maybe 3 or 4 others.

    Because this is the only grade that actually matters in high school, it's the sole determiner for students going on to college. There is no college essay, interviews, etc. The only thing that matters is the gao kao.
    Now combine that with the fact that modern Chinese society under the one child policy produces extremely edgy parents who desperately want their children to succeed in a society that produces 4 million college graduates per year and only 1.6 million college level jobs. The result is that high school students in China are under extreme pressure to score highly on the gao kao. Thus, since high schools also compete with each other for government grants in the form of higher scores on the gao kao, you have the average Chinese high school student's day looking like this:

    Wake up
    Morning reading
    Evening reading

    Also, though it varies from school to school, most of my students tell me that in high school, they only got 2 days off every month. Quite a difference from when I was in high school and after 2:30, I just went home and played video games and slept all day on the weekends!...  In my experience, most of the time, if the student is not doing required homework, they are doing extra homework, taking extra classes, doing extra reading (class related -- I've actually been told that parents who discover their children doing recreational reading will scold them for not studying), taking private English lessons, and in rare cases, studying an instrument. This sort of pressure, I think, is the reason why, when I taught some of my Chinese friends here how to play American football yesterday, none of them knew how to throw a ball effectively; and why when I first met my (close to 200) students, only 2 actively practice Chinese martial arts, 1 plays soccer, and none play an instrument.

    Lastly, a strange phenomenon that I've not heard of anywhere else is that students in high schools can often be seen reading in classrooms here -- and then looking up at the ceiling and mouthing the words they just read. The goal here is to memorize what's been written. As an example, I work at a medical university with over 100 foreign students. A few of the students told me that they were attending a lecture one time, given by a Chinese student, in English. They noticed very quickly that they were able to read exactly what the student was saying as she said it from their textbook because she had memorized, word for word, her entire lecture. Another example can be seen with students who take the post-graduate entrance examination and memorize, again word for word, all the essays that will be tested in the exam.

    I think it's this linear, memorization-based (as Randy Pollock noted) learning environment with an absolute lack of recreational time in an extremely high pressure society that smothers the students' creativity.

    Some Chinese perspective coming shortly.

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  • Today on Chinese education: shadow of the 高考

    From Benjamin, a foreign teacher who recounts what his Chinese students don't like about their educational experience. The big focus here is the 高考, or gaokao, the nationwide college entrance exam that, as in some other Asian countries, is the make or break moment for many life prospects. Americans think their kids are stressed by the SAT.  Hah!

    The ripple effects of the gaokao (and its Japanese and Korean counterparts) are a familiar theme in complaints about Asian school systems. But after the jump, Benjamin gets his students to explain what a better Chinese school system would look like. He writes:

    Having taught English here for the past year, mostly to recent high school and college graduates (and a few primary and middle school students), I have had countless opportunities to hear what Chinese students have to say about their educational system.

    They don't like it that much, and it goes beyond ideas about critical thinking and creativity. They have said that they find it a very stifling experience, filled with long days focused on boring books and lectures with rote assignments to ensure that they've memorized the essential facts (and pre-decided interpretations) and mastered the essential skills.

    Which skills and facts they have to learn are decided, of course, by what will appear on the college entrance exams. Concerns in America about standardized assessment leading to a "teach-to-the-test" mentality pale in comparison to the opinions I've heard from my students. They tell me that their lives up until the end of high school have been almost exclusively focused on prepping for that test.

    Their English skills provide the perfect example of what this does to their abilities. I couldn't tell you off the top of my head what the subjunctive mood was, but my students certainly could. At the same time, they have trouble with anything more than basic spoken conversation. I tell my students that practice is more important than studying for learning a language, and they agree with me. But they also say that the tests they have to take focus on recognizing esoteric vocabulary and grammar rather than being able to use the basics in flexible and expressive ways. And their classes throughout grade school and college are built towards those tests.

    They also have issues at the college level. The truth is that, for the vast majority of my students, their parents and their test scores choose their college majors, and even when the students have much of a say, there is a strong cultural bias towards "practical" (business, engineering, medicine, and law) majors. Than again, having been so focused on the test for so long, many of them have no real idea of what they would choose even if they had the chance.

    Most of their motivation in studying comes from a desire for a good job when they graduate rather than an interest in the material. I have a friend who teaches International Affairs at a major university in Beijing, and after an informal survey, she realized that most of her students were in her class because their scores weren't high enough to get into the International Business program.

    There is a strong silver lining in all of this: the students themselves are very aware of the limitations that their school system creates, and they earnestly desire to make up for it. They want more chances for analytical essays, independent research, class discussions, and, most interestingly enough, social and community development.

    With each batch of students, I run an activity of designing a new high school, and there are some striking trends. They want:

    - smaller classes and more choice in the classes they can take. While still fairly directed by American standards, they mostly set up schools that have a few classes that everyone has to take, but then a few concentration areas that students can choose between. Also, they wanted to be able to forgo an academic class or two for the sake of pursuing the arts, such as singing, dancing, or painting.

    - more chances for independent analysis. They want to do some of their own research and have class discussions. They don't want ideas to simply be handed to them.

    - more of a connection to the real world. They want to have the chance to do community service near their schools, such as tutoring and helping to take care of their elderly, and they also want to take their classes outside of their schools. One of the most impressive examples a student gave me was for an environmental science class being built around an effort to clean up a river, stream, or forest near the school.

    - the chance for social development. They want clubs and sports, but they also want things like more free time to spend with their friends, school dances, and for dating to be allowed on campuses. I even had a student say, in full seriousness, that he thought there should be a class teaching students how to interact with the opposite sex.

    So I'm fairly optimistic about the future for the Chinese education system. The most important people, the students, are aware of the limitations and have a lot of good ideas for how to change things for the better.

    This is a more optimistic conclusion than many other correspondents reach. (His students apparently are more "creative" in their thinking about school design than the Harvard freshman Jerome Doolittle mentioned.) Some of those other conclusions appearing soon.

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  • Design aspects of software: maps as "thinking tools"

    I don't talk about it as often as, say, small-plane aviation or, recently, Chinese education, or my doomed quest in Asia for good beer. But for many many years I have been fascinated by the relationship between "pure" acts of thinking - logic, memory, argument, expression, the process of making connections and finding distinctions; all of which rely fundamentally on words - and the various tools, cues, shortcuts, and stimuli other than words that can play an important part in what we think of as thought.
    I'm not talking about entirely separate realms of expression - like music, which obviously conveys meaning beyond words, or the emotional or imaginative power of artwork, photography, illustrations, and other visual representations. Rather I mean systems specifically designed to help the plain old reasoning parts of the brain do their job better, by shoring up common weak spots or by giving more or better material for the "real" brain to work on. For an Atlantic article on this topic from 2007, go here. Things have changed since then, mainly for the better, in ways I'll go into in coming days.

    Today's design theme: the potential of argument maps. These are something like sentence diagrams, without the drudge-work overtone. I was introduced to them through two programs from the Austhink company of Melbourne, Australia: bCisive, whose name is I think a pun on "decisive" and is a tool for decision-making, and Rationale, which is supposed to help students improve the logic of their presentations. Tim van Gelder, who teaches philosophy at the U of Melbourne and founded Austhink, weighed in here yesterday on the Chinese education, defending the proposition that critical thinking can be taught.

    Here's one illustration of an argument map, a small portion of a complex map prepared by Austhink director Paul Monk (an author and former intelligence officer) to weigh arguments about who "really" killed JFK. Different kinds of maps, and reading about them, after the jump. (His argument map on the proposition "The war on Iraq was illegal" is here.)

    Another kind of map, from the online site Debategraph.org. When you click on any part of it, subsidiary arguments pro and con pop up. This site is a very interesting crowd-sourced effort to refine the arguments on a variety of big global issues.


    Are these "maps" just a gimmick? That was my initial reaction. But I've changed my mind as time has gone on and have begun to use them not so much to lay out things I write (for that I use normal outlining) but to think about big choices.

    The best article I have read on the subject is "Enhancing our Grasp of Complex Arguments," by Monk and van Gelder, presented as a speech five years ago. They make a powerful point: if we recognize the need for graphic aids to help us keep track of mundane matters like street directions, might they not also be useful in keeping track of the much more consequential and complex arguments that go into major public and personal choices? This paper is very much worth considering by anyone interested in human intelligence, machine intelligence, public decision-making, and the potential and limits of public discourse. Seriously, I have thought about this paper often since reading it.

    Also worth reading: this paper by Charles Twardy, plus many links at the Austhink and Debategraph sites. And "What is Argument Mapping," by van Gelder.

    Bonus illustration: A nice excerpt from the van Gelder/Monk paper about the interaction between verbal and visual reasoning:

    "Here is a prose description of an area of London.

    "Pentonville Road runs from east to west, then turns into City Road, which comes to a T-junction where East Road meet Moorgate City Road. Running roughly south from Pentonville Road is first Gray's Inn Road and then King's Cross Road, which turns into Farringdon Road after the intersection with Clerkenwell Road. Where Pentonville Road turns into City Road, St. John's Street runs south. As you go along City Road, you come to Goswell Road (which turns into Aldersgate Street) and Bunhill Row running south. As you go down Gray's Inn Road, the first intersection is with Guildford Street, which continues to a T-junction with King's Cross Road. The next intersection, as you continue down Gray's Inn Road, is with Theobald's Rd, which at that point turns into Clerkenwell Road, though you could veer of NE along Rosebery Avenue which crosses King's Cross Road before it joins St. John's Street near the junction of Pentonville Road and City road. Gray's Inn Road terminates at High Holborn, a major E-W road which, as you go east, turns into Newgate Street and then Cheapside. St. Paul's Cathedral is between Newgate Street and Fleet Street, which runs roughly parallel to Newgate. Southhampton Row goes south intersecting with Guildford Street, Theobald's Road and High Holborn, where it becomes Kingsway, which continues south to a T-junction with the curve of Aldwych, which begins and ends on Fleet Street. From Roseberry Road you can head east along Lever Street, which crosses St. John's Street and Goswell Road before finishing at Bunhill Row where it meets City Road. Heading south down St. John's Road, you cross Lever Street and then Clerkenwell Road. Goswell Road also crosses Lever Street and Clerkenwell Road (which at that point becomes Old Street). Goswell Road becomes Aldersgate Street. Hatton Garden goes between Clerkenwell Road and High Holborn. Streets running south from High Holborn are Kingsway, Chancery Lane and Farringdon Road. Chancery Lane is a short street finishing at Fleet Street. Fleet Street ends at a large intersection just east of St. Paul's. Aldersgate Street continues past London Museum (which is at the corner of Alsdersgate and London Wall) down to Newgate Street. Beech Street runs E from Aldersgate, turning into Chiswell Street before it meets City Road. East Road runs south, past the intersection of City Road, over Old Street and London Wall, where it becomes Moorgate Street.
    "Now, please tell me, based on the information provided here: How does one get from St Paul's Cathedral to London Museum?  The information is all there. What makes it difficult to answer the question? You could figure it out, given enough time, but you are, surely, both a little frustrated at the unexpected difficulty of the task and puzzled at why I would present the information to you in this form.

    "Why not in this form?


    More to come.

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  • Expats in China: NOT being called in for health checks (updated)

    Yesterday I posted a report from a teacher in Hangzhou who, along with other foreigners on the staff, was being called in for special health checks as part of anti-flu precautions. The teacher wondered whether this was a Hangzhou localism or a wider policy.

    Since then I have received no reports of special health checks for foreigners, and many comments to the effect that "all is routine here." So it appears to be a one-city or even one-school policy. Worth noting.

    Update: Have heard from one teacher in Suzhou about health checks there too (not far from Hangzhou, so maybe....) and an expat in Beijing about getting temperature checked on the way into his apartment building gym. Adding: "(lucky they didn't take it one the way out. Would have been quarantined for sure. Or perhaps shipped out to a morgue)."

  • May 12

    News and events in China today are dominated by commemorations of the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008.

    In that spirit, here is a link to a video released today by Afterquake, a project by Abigail Washburn and Dave Liang, American musicians living in China, to document and assist the recovery effort. 


    I think most people will find the video affecting but not depressing. It certainly makes clear why this event so dominated the country's consciousness last year. The only thing the post-earthquake scenes don't convey is how vast the devastated area was. You could drive for hours, far away from the epicenter, and still see crushed buildings and shaken-down mountains like those depicted here. 

    Further links: Sichuan Quake Relief charity
               Additional site on Vimeo for English version of video
               Sites for Chinese version of video on Tudou and Youku
               SexyBeijing.TV, whose Luke Mines shot and edited the video

  • Here it comes: more on Chinese & non-Chinese education!

    From a Chinese person teaching in America; then an American teaching somewhere else; and finally the man who kicked the whole thing off, Randy Pollock himself. (Previously here.)

    First, from a Chinese reader:

    I had a pretty low opinion on Chinese education when I was in China. Certain subjects such as history and Marxist philosophy are just crammed in without any critical discussion. But when I came to US and worked as TA for a top state university, I changed my mind a bit. Almost none of my students (first-year economics) are interested in understanding the materials critically. Most of them are just looking for a good grade. Also the math preparation some of my students received are so inadequate, I doubt they would be able to graduate from high school in China, not mentioning entering a top university. My classmate told me a story that one of his student could not do 7*7 by hand. From what I read in newspapers about quality of inner city schools in US, the situation may be even worse than I see. So the conspiracy theory one of your reader talked about that the poor quality of rural area schools is set on purpose by Chinese government to keep people ignorant is far-fetched. Compared with some of the public schools in US where so much resource are spent with so few results, I think the education system in China is not so bad.

    I don't think Nobel Prize is a valid measure to compare different education systems. Most of the best scientific talents in China are attracted to US, studying and working here. This alone can make any comparison meaningless. Also scientific research in US was weak till 20th century. I remember reading Schumpeter's discussion about why there were so few first-rate American economists till very late in the 19th century, his explanation was that the best talents in US were attracted to entrepreneurial adventures in a fast growing economy. Similar things may be happening in China right now.

    Next, from an American expat:

    I've been reading your series on Chinese education because it so greatly resembles my daily life as an English teacher. The thing is, I don't teach in China, I teach in a Eastern European country.
    When your correspondents talk about students who all say and do the same thing and colleagues who will never tell you if there is a problem, they could just as easily be discussing my school. It's uncanny--just like Terry Foecke's experience, getting information out of my colleagues is best done over a meal, because you'll never get them to say anything negative during regular work hours.

    I can only speculate why my experience so closely resembles that of an utterly distinct culture thousands of miles away. Perhaps it is the shared legacy of communism--in my country the older folks who spent most of their lives under communist rule regularly say "sticking your neck out is a good way to get it chopped off." Frankly though, I think it goes deeper than that. I think America is the outlier; our brash outspokenness is stranger than the prudent silence which dominates in other cultures.

    Now, from Randy Pollock:

    Readers who question the power of liberal arts to transform students' critical minds could find clarity in this nice piece from Cal-Berkeley's site. At the sidebar, they will find a convincing quote from Einstein, the best scientist ever recruited across an ocean:
    "The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks." --Albert Einstein
    Critical thinking can't be taught? Nonsense. It is a skill. Over the years I have personally seen hundreds of college students from a wide range of national, socioeconomic, and educational backgrounds learn to think more incisively and critically. Champions of repetition and summary have routinely evolved into convincing analysts and rhetoricians. Reality Show addicts have learned to lay bare the flaws of Euripides--and gone on to work for Google. To say students can't be taught to think is like saying athletes can't be coached to play.

    As a bonus on this last point, about the teachability of "critical thinking," we have this from Tim van Gelder of the Austhink software company in Australia. By pure coincidence, a discussion of one of Austhink's products, for "argument mapping," is the next thing I've been planning to post, in kicking off the "design in software" series...

    It is frustrating to see Jiang Qian, in comments quoted on your blog, rehearsing a view that unfortunately just never dies:  "In fact, as  [an attached article] points out, "critical thinking" is not a skill like reading or carpentry that  can be taught, but rather something attached to a specific set of  knowledge."

    There are two related debates going back many decades now:

    (1) Is critical thinking a "generic" or domain-independent skill?
    (2) Can critical thinking be taught as subject or skill in its own right?

    People who answer no to the first question also tend to answer no to the second as well. 

    However these positions are definitely in the minority in the community of experts in this area. 

    To me, questions (1) and (2) are scarcely worth debating any more.  The existence of generic skills can be proven simply by pointing to examples.  The teachability of critical thinking can be proven by teaching it successfully.  I devoted about half a dozen years of my academic career to working on methods for effective and affordable teaching of critical thinking.  We were able to reliably generate substantial gains over one semester.  Ergo, critical thinking can be taught.  Case closed.  [For more detail, we have a meta-analysis of hundreds of empirical studies in this area.]

    What is true is that standard approaches are inculcating critical thinking skills (such as putting people through a college degree, even a liberal arts degree) make disappointingly little difference, and attempts to directly teach critical thinking also usually make little difference. 

    But there's a very simple explanation for this.  Critical thinking is a skill, and like any complex skill, it takes a very large amount of deliberate practice to make any significant (in the sense of substantial, not "statistically significant") difference.  Our educational system has never been prepared to, or indeed able to, invest the kind of resources needed.

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  • For expats in China: being called for health checks?

    A foreign teacher in Hangzhou writes with a question:

    I was informed this past Friday by my school's Foreign Affairs Dept. that we should report our "health status" by 3 pm daily. Only the foreign teachers have been asked to report their health (whatever that means, we are still not really sure) according to my Chinese colleagues. I was wondering if you had A. heard any other reports of such behavior and B. Does this indicate that the virus is in Hangzhou? (It doesn't seem likely if Chinese teachers aren't also being "checked") Or is this just another example of over-response (since none of us have been out of the country in over a month)? 

    I have not heard of or experienced anything like this, and my default explanation for regional variations is that it's a great big country with lots of different things going on. But if anyone has experienced something similar, let me know and I'll collate results. Meanwhile, stay healthy!

  • If you're looking for something new to worry about...[IMPROVED!!]

    ... how about the prospect that the GPS system will be the next part of America's neglected infrastructure to be in trouble, with ripple effects on modern commercial life?

    It is impossible to overstate the importance of GPS to the worldwide modern economy. Trivial recent example: the other night in Beijing, my wife and I were lost getting to an address. Didn't see street signs around, although streets in big Chinese cities are usually very well marked. We pulled up the Google Map function on my Blackberry, and it showed us (via the "my location" function) that the street we were looking for was the one we just passed rather than the one still ahead. [This cut is an important improvement to the post! On the reasons for this improvement, see below*] Multiply this a million-fold each day in operations of the world's navigation and transportation functions, and you see how economic life is being built on GPS almost in the way it has been built on electricity over the last hundred years. The world's airlines, to choose one obvious case, would be in huge trouble without reliable GPS.

    And so it is with heavy heart that we learn about a new Government Accountability Office study (here in PDF), via Michael Cooney's story in NetworkWorld, saying that the U.S. Air Force, which runs the GPS satellites, has not managed to get new "IIF"-model satellites ready in time to replace the ones that are wearing out.


    For years, other countries have said they needed their own alternative to the GPS system, precisely because it was run by the U.S. military and, in times of crisis, could be used as a strategic tool. Simplest version of the fear: that in an emergency the US could block or encode signals so that only its own receivers could interpret them, meaning the American military would know where it was going and no one else would. You can get the idea from the illustration below, included in the GAO report, showing sample "aviation" and "ground navigation" uses for GPS.

    There's a long history on this score, mainly involving the European Galileo project, plus Russian and Chinese efforts; plus the Pentagon's gradual willingness to make high-precision signals available to the world generally, rather than deliberately fuzzing the open-use civilian version. All for another time; I invite you to look it up for yourself. 

    But the nightmare scenario no one thought to worry about was that the US-run system would start to crumble and wear out. Arrrgghh!
    * IMPROVEMENT!!!:  Let me quickly shift from Arrrggghh to OOOOOPSSS!  Let's entirely forget that struck-out part above, in light of this item from TelecomAsia.net that a technically sophisticated friend just sent me.

    Ummm, I don't know what I could have been thinking. Of course my Blackberry couldn't do anything like that....
  • While I'm at it, a Chinese and an American view on Chinese education

    Recently we've had Chinese and non-Chinese perspectives on Chinese schools (background here). For balance, a Chinese and a non-Chinese view in the same post!

    Reasons I'm offering such long first-hand testimony: (1) no one has to read it!  (2) many things about life in China -- and yes, life in other places -- are conveyed not in theoretical summaries but in accumulations of day by day experiences, like those recounted here. Several more still in the queue. Also, bear in mind that the foreigners writing in are ones who generally came to Chinese schools to "do something good." They're not here for the big bucks or the easy life but because they thought it would be valuable as well as interesting to be part of China's development at this stage.

    First, from a foreigner now teaching in China:

    The articles that you have featured are focused largely on University students in China. I teach English in the public middle schools (what we call grades 6, 7, and 8). The problems in Chinese education show in the University students, but to fix them you need to look at what's happening with students who are much younger.
    My eighth graders had a unit studying the radio, so I asked them to write their own radio shows. I put them in groups and told them to write 3-4 segments, including at least one conversation. Their English is more than good enough for an activity like this, and I did get several good shows, including a show where the news segment had some fake news and ended with the reader telling listeners that "some of this news may be fake, and we are not responsible for what people do after hearing this information".

    I also, however, got an enormous number of segments taken word-for-word from their books or newspapers; news items read directly from something they printed out or a magazine article; etc. Several students attempted to make conversations by having people alternate reading sentences from one of these printouts. The most extreme was when one group took a printout from a radio show and "wrote" it by changing the names. None of this was hidden - they know that I've seen the books and newspapers they were quoting from, and sometimes they would show me a magazine article and ask me how to pronounce one of the words. Often they'd understand the very general gist of the story but not the details, and it was very apparent in the way they said the words.

    It's not unusual for middle school students all over the world to try to cheat, or to get out of doing things, and god knows my students have enough homework. The problem is that they considered this to be perfectly acceptable and did not understand why I had a problem with it. I am constantly confiscating homework from a student, only to have another student explain that it's actually his homework but the first student was using it. If you ask one of my students, they'll say "cheating is bad", and they have many reminders in their English books that they shouldn't copy, but they seem to dissociate this from their daily lives.

    This problem has many sources. I ask my students how their holidays were, and they uniformly say "bad", because they have too much homework - it's no wonder they don't have time to do it all. My classes have 50 students; it's difficult for a teacher to parse each homework assignment and ensure that it was not copied from someone else. But the biggest problem is with the emphasis on rote learning, on one right answer. If there is only one acceptable answer, it's nearly impossible to identify copied homework. Two correct papers look exactly alike. But if there are many correct answers, as there should be in subject like English, two papers that look exactly alike should arouse suspicion.

    Creativity and critical thinking can't be taught, as Jiang Qian said, by steeping students in original business plans; they can and must be exercised, however, by asking students to once in a while exert them. Science breakthroughs, business start-ups - these require creativity, but the Chinese educational system doesn't foster this. Maybe it is true that the system is good for all but the top 10%, but I believe that a dose of creativity is beneficial to everyone, no matter what they do. And when it comes to those top 10%, an inability to exercise these skills is, in my opinion, pretty much fatal. It's depressing for me to see my really talented students truly believing that this is what I want.

    Now, from a Chinese person with extensive experience overseas:

    I had a pretty low opinion on Chinese education when I was in China. Certain subjects such as history and Marxist philosophy are just crammed in without any critical discussion. But when I came to US and worked as TA for a top state university, I changed my mind a bit. Almost none of my students (first-year economics) are interested in understanding the materials critically. Most of them are just looking for a good grade. Also the math preparation some of my students received are so inadequate, I doubt they would be able to graduate from highschool in China, not mentioning entering a top university. My classmate told me a story that one of his student could not do 7*7 by hand. From what I read in newspapers about quality of inner city schools in US, the situation may be even worse than I see. So the conspiracy theory one of your reader talked about that the poor quality of rural area schools is set on purpose by  Chinese government to keep people ignorant is far-fetched. Compared with some of the public schools in US where so much resource are spent with so few results, I think the education system in China is not so bad.

    I don't think Nobel Prize is a valid measure to compare different education systems. Most of the best scientific talents in China are attracted to US, studying and working here. This alone can make any comparison meaningless. Also scientific research in US was weak till 20th century. I remember reading Schumpeter's discussion about why there were so few first-rate American economists till very late in the 19th century, his explanation was that the best talents in US were attracted to entrepreneurial adventures in a fast growing economy. Similar things may be happening in China right now.

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  • Two non-Chinese views on Chinese education, management, etc

    Following this Chinese view a little while ago, and this kickoff to the discussion.

    First, from reader Terry Foecke. After the jump, from a non-Chinese person currently teaching in a Chinese school who doesn't want his (or her) name to be used. I'm not planning to run every letter that comes in -- lots have -- but these are very representative of views from non-Chinese people working inside Chinese schools or companies and valuable in that way. They also resonate with Randy Pollock's LA Times op-ed about his business students.

    Foecke writes:

    My connection with these effects is through working with second- and third-tier Chinese suppliers to US-based companies.  My job was to improve the production process (mostly electroplating, with some heat treating and stamping/machining) enough to assure consistent results.

    After a personal run-in period, I finally got it through my head that even my own (Chinese) engineers were extremely reluctant to deliver bad news.  Furthermore, their definition of "bad news" was far broader than I could have imagined.  This leads to a lively chase when Step 1 is "Identify Problem(s).

    We did our best work when we had a late night and stopped for their kind of Chinese meal. 
    Over beers and stinky tofu [name of a dish, not a perjorative anecdote] and too much of everything we would finally bond and they would let loose some details.  But next day all was non-lubricated and reluctant.  I was told by factory rats more grizzled than I that this was due to their education, or the culture, or that they had been working in an SOE [State Owned Enterprise] where only quantity not quality mattered.

    I don't think I ever heard a convincing train of logic, though.  The closest I came was when my business partner (resident in China for 18 years) suggested that expecting linear reasoning and what he called "single" answers was not going to work very well.  Every answer has a context, he explained, and sometimes if the context changes, the answer changes.  Everything is fine when you are measuring thickness-0.001 mm is always just that.  But terms like "withdraw quickly" or "bend until snaps" or "high gloss"-to say nothing of shades of colors-were not going to be very useful.  And asking if a worker is "well-informed" or "a hard worker" - even in the interest of process investigation-was pretty much hopeless.

    I think I get it, but I don't, not really.  Some is just working in another language.  I've done process optimization aimed at sustainable manufacturing all over the world, so I know how poorly I actually can communicate.  But China is different, and might be different in some ways that education can't reach.

    A foreigner teaching English in China writes:

    Man oh man! We are up to our lips in this, this, mmmmmm, stuff!

    Left to ourselves with the customers, because we are at a third tier school glad to have us (basically a money pump for 'economically motivated' local leaders) and because our students understand us for the well intentioned, take no prisoners, YOU WILL LEARN TO DO THIS, jerks that we are, we are having a wonderful time initiating many projects, some based on Mr. Liu's ideas. [An educational reformer profiled in this China Daily article.] This is not a common Chinese experience for expat teachers of English.

    I come firmly down on the 'China's education system sucks and must be completely remodeled for the country to have a future' side of the discussion. China (including Tibet and Taiwan) has been awarded six Nobel Prizes. The United States, with less than one fourth the population, has been awarded 309. Canada has 17! [List by country here.]

    The Nobel is just one indicator of course, but it is awarded for creativity. Chinese college students have had creativity leached out of their systems by the stupefying experience of their first 12 years of school. I have been, as I trust you have as well, in Chinese rural schools from Baotou to Lhasa. They are a disaster. I have come to believe that such horrific conditions cannot be an accident. Ignorant people are easier to control than are those who have a glimmer of understanding, and ideas of their own.

    I think it is a well thought through, deliberate policy. Perhaps these news articles [the one on Mr. Liu, plus this] are signs of high level change?

    I am extremely chary of using Nobel prize lists as a proxy for anything. The literature prize is notoriously "political," to say nothing of the peace prize. The economics prize -- technically not a Nobel prize but the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Memory of Alfred Nobel -- is often political in its own way. And the hard-sciences prizes are in part a proxy for the wealth and sophistication of the research establishments in various nations. Ie, working in an advanced nation may be a necessary though obviously not a sufficient condition for front-line research. Someone with the most inventive and creative mind imaginable might have a hard time doing prize-worthy work if she spent her life in, say, Equatorial Guinea.

    Still, the huge disproportions on the list do show something -- especially given (a) that Chinese emigrees and ethnically Chinese scientists are very successful in labs in North America, Europe, etc, and (b) that China, while on average still a very poor country, does have the resources to pour into high-end research and could afford to equip labs as fancy as anyone's -- much as it has created the sports-training establishment on display at last year's Olympics.

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  • A Chinese view on Chinese education

    From Jiang Qian, an overseas Chinese physicist trained at Harvard, about the "is Chinese education any good?" theme introduced here and here. The LA Times article, by Randy Pollock, that started this discussion talked consistently about "critical and creative" thinking as being the weak spots of the Chinese system; Jiang Qian's criticism is mostly about the "critical" part. Still an interesting complement. More on the way.

    I do not doubt  that some reform in the educational system de-emphasizing rote learning would be helpful, nor do I deny that there are anxieties among Chinese educators in promoting "creativity" or "critical thinking."

    But just to point to the other side of the story, I would like  to suggest that it is not clear whether "liberal art", or anything  being taught in school, can improve "critical thinking". In fact, as  [an attached article] points  out, "critical thinking" is not a skill like reading or carpentry that  can be taught, but rather something attached to a specific set of  knowledge.  And the American schools' efforts to actively promote "critical thinking" have at best a mixed track record.
    Of course, the essay did not address whether one set of  educational environment is better at making students think critically  or creatively than another. But given the rather nebulous nature of the  concept itself, I have my doubt whether any specific effort to retool the education system for the express purpose of promote "critical  thinking" or "creativity" will help in China's long term growth.
    Given the amount of entrepreneurial spirits and activities  evident in private enterprises in China, it is not clear the bottleneck of Chinese business growth is "creativity". I would suggest maybe in  fact the real shortage lies in competent middle managers who understand modern managerial practices and have concrete white collar skills like  accounting and finance. These are solid skills business schools can  provide. After all, many if not most successful and dare I say  "creative" new businesses in U.S. are not done by MBAs steeped in "original" two hour business plans.

    As anecdotal evidence, among my high school classmates, people  who did well and went to elite universities all end up working for big  multinational corporations or state own enterprises. The only guys who  start up their own companies, whom I admire, were not especially good  at schools. My specific high school class is a so called "experimental class" in a "key high school" which strenuously foster free style of  learning, the allegedly "advanced American" style, so it is harder to  argue that it is my high school who smothered the creative impulses of  its best and brightest.

    Two parts of this ring true to my observations in China: that there is a big gap in the "middle-management" skills, and that the entrepreneur class has little overlap with the "did great in fancy universities" class. But that's not a phenomenon confined to China.                       

    AND, just now, from another overseas Chinese reader:

    Education in the States are good for people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs (OK, wrong examples - but you got my idea).  Education in China are in general good for people who will work for Gates and Jobs.

    Education in the US is good for the top 10 or 5% of the students and bad, very bad, for the average students. So you have a bi-nodal distribution of high school graduates, the good ones become great contributors to the society and the bad ones cannot even fill out a job application form at a fast food joint. And they will not be able to even total the fast food purchase with a calculator. But they do not need to do it. The top 10% graduates will design a key board to punch 1 Menu A, 2 Menu B, etc for them to use.

    The Asian education is good for majority of the students (of course, it can be greatly improved further), but bad for the top 5 to 10% of the student body. No large number of great scientists, educators, journalists will come out of their education system, except those who go on to the US or Europe graduate schools, as you suggested.

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  • I hope they're not just taunting me

    Given the torments that await those who try to bring cheese into China (see here, here, here, and here), it is with mixed emotions that I see the banner ad now running on many parts of the Atlantic's site, including mine.


    Elements of the emotional mix: Honor, in being associated with such fine cheese! Tantalized despair, in knowing it's out of my own reach. Gratitude, in seeing such a precise advertiser/ medium matchup. And exhortation, that all of you who are able to do so go out and buy Comte Cheese. I'd be doing it if I could...

  • Nonfiction writing class: how it should be done

    Suppose you were writing about the financial-policy mistakes that helped bring on the Great Depression. And you wanted to dramatize the damage done by adherence to the gold standard, which meant that the central banks of Britain, France, Germany, etc could issue only as much money as they happened to have gold in their vaults.

    As the world financial crisis spread after the 1929 stock market crash, the flow of gold became highly unbalanced. The United States, with its undamaged industrial-export base (and its determination to collect on wartime loans to the Allies) was piling up gold. So were the French, for various reasons of their own. This meant big trouble most of all for England, which was losing gold and therefore had to imposes a domestic credit squeeze. You could put it that way -- or you could write this:

    "Unknown to most people, much of the gold that had supposedly flown into France was actually sitting in London. Bullion was so heavy -- a seventeen-inch cube weighs about a ton -- that instead of shipping crates of it across hundreds of miles from one country to another and paying high insurance costs, central banks had taken to 'earmarking' the metal, that is, keeping it in the same vault but simply re-registering its ownership. Thus the decline in Britain's gold reserves and their accumulation in France and the United States was accomplished by a group of men descending into the vaults of the Bank of England, loading some bars of bullion onto a low wooden truck with small rubber tires, trundling them thirty feet across the room to the other wall, and offloading them, though not before attaching some white name tags indicating that the gold now belonged to the Banque de France or the Federal Reserve Bank. That the world was being subjected to a progressively tightening squeeze on credit just because there happened to be too much gold on one side of the vault and not enough on the other provoked Lord d'Abernon, Britain's ambassador to Germany after the war [WW I] and now [1930s] an elder statesman-economist, to exclaim, 'This depression is the stupidest and most gratuitous in history.' "

    This paragraph is from Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, recommended here previously. There are many touches I love in this passage, from the "small rubber tires" detail and mot juste "trundling" term, to the vivid real-world description of how grand policies worked in practice, to the perfectly used quote at the end. No larger point here; just worth noticing admirable examples of explaining the world.


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

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The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



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