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.