More Chinese education! Or, is it really "Chinese"?

Previously in our series, the complaint has been that the Chinese school system pushes students too hard and in too rote-memorization a way, leaving the victors undeniably tough but maybe drained of their spark and inventiveness. Along the way, many contrary views and debates about the role of the Chinese nationwide university-admission exam, the gaokao.

Now, two bits of testimony more or less on China's behalf. First, from a Westerner now teaching in Japan, who says that these problems are hardly confined to China. Then from an American (of Chinese ancestry) about an American counterpart to gaokao-style training.

First, the Westerner teaching at a university in Japan.

China, Eastern Europe, Japan, it's all the same story. No, it's not a legacy of Communism. The saying here in Japan is similar to the one mentioned by the teacher in Eastern Europe: "The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down."

I cannot get my students to voice an opinion for love nor money. They do not want to call attention to themselves; stand out from the crowd, or be different in any way. This is the Japanese way. If, by chance, they do have an opinion, they keep it to themselves.

As a result, they are totally incapable of creative/critical thinking or problem solving abilities.
At my university, English is required for all freshmen. Most of these students greatly resent having to take English. They are not interested in learning or speaking English. They do not plan to travel or live overseas, and see no practical reason for being forced to study it.

Now, these students have been sitting in English class for the past six years (soon, 2011 Japan will start English instruction from the fifth grade); however, their English speaking ability is still quite limited. Maybe it is because they were taught in middle-school and high-school by Japanese natives in Japanese, not English. I have no idea how English can be taught by non-English speakers, but there you have it. The Ministry of Education will require English to be taught in English from 2010. This has caused great concern/protest and near-revolt amongst Japanese English teachers.

In reading articles from various educators in different countries, educators all reference the decline of problem solving/critical thinking skills. This is not exclusively an experience of the ex-pat English teacher abroad. It seems to be indicative of, and causally related to, our information culture; whereby, we can instantly access what we need to know at the touch of a button, or click of a mouse. The notion of knowledge for the sake of knowledge (the liberal arts ideal) is anachronistic at worst and quaintly outdated at best.

This presents me and all of my educational colleagues world-wide with a new challenge. How can we meet the changing needs/interests of our students? What must I do to reach, engage and energize my apathetic students? It is obvious to me, that traditional or "Old School" pedagogy is not the answer. Educators are teaching in the midst of a revolutionary paradigm shift. Whether this is good or bad for education is ultimately unimportant; it exists and we must accept/adapt and change our philosophy and approach or risk loosing our students, and missing out on a unique opportunity.

I do not have the answers; so, in a sense, I bring nothing new to the discussion. I share the same concerns, frustrations and pain as the teachers who have written to you. I simply want them to know that it is not something that is limited to their country or region.

Now, from Richard Ho, in the United States.

I was struck by the recent letters defending the fairness of the gaokao, and the earlier descriptions of its difficulty yet sometimes dubious relevance to real life work. It  brought to mind the American experience of pre-med and medical education.
College students in the US typically need to take English, math, biology, inorganic and organic chemistry, and physics in order achieve a good score on the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) which is part of admission requirements for most US medical schools. Some of those courses are necessary prerequisites for courses in medical school like anatomy, histology, biochemistry, or pharmacology, however I would say that those particular medical school courses and college pre-med courses are for the most part, not very relevant to clinical practice for the vast majority of doctors. I've seen many comments in various forums that the extensive memorization needed in many of these courses is mainly a barrier put up to test the drive and persistence of potential doctors...
In medical school, the first two years of basic science courses (mostly memorization) at some schools run 8am-5pm M-F with nights and weekends spent studying. In the 3rd and 4th years of traditional medical schools, students are exposed to clinical work in smaller groups, and this is where training gets more practical. Faculty recommendations are part of the evaluation in applying to residencies after medical school, but almost all prospective residents enter "The Match" where a computer program compares student preferences with residency program preferences and assigns each student to a residency program in their chosen specialty. Where one matches can determine the path of the rest of your life - whom you meet and marry, where you settle down and practice, etc. This sounds much like the gaokao experience.
One of my college colleagues Pauline Chen has written about some aspects of these experiences at the NY Times: 
Medical Student Burnout and the Challenge to Patient Care

 A Medical Student's Rite of Passage
So I would say Asia is not unique in instituting mind-numbing and endurance-testing educational processes; they've simply increased the scale!