Monday, 18 January 2016

Critical Thinking: Is the problem Chinese students? Or is it us? It is probably us.

Update 23rd March 2016: This blog entry was originally posted back in January 2016, in response to an article by  Tao Zhang.  Dr Zhang's article made some excellent points on the challenges of integrating Chinese students and helping them adapt to a student-centred HE system and become independent learners. My main issue with Dr. Zhang's article centred around what I believed was an erroneous association between critical thinking and normative values.  

However, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal on the influx of Chinese student to US universities and the challenges this presents has been met with exasperation by myself and every other foreign academic currently engaged in teaching in China with whom I have spoken. Several dismissed the depiction of Chinese students as thinly-veiled prejudice or a contemporary form of orientalism. Others were stronger in their criticism of what they view as racism, but all were in agreement that the problematisation of Chinese students is a lamentable response to the educational challenge of integrating Chinese students into the campus environment and ensuring their HE experience reaches the world-class standards for which they have ventured overseas.

Additionally, while I and many others have found the WSJ article ("Heavy Recruitment of Chinese Students Sows Discord on US Campuses") to be, at best, fundamentally flawed and, at worst, an example of acceptable prejudice (replace the "Chinese" in "Chinese students" with any other race, ethnicity, religious group and there would be outrage), neither I nor those I have spoken to deny the challenge faced. The growth in international students, and particularly Chinese students, in the US over the last few years presents a major issue. Compounding the issue of sheer numbers are several other factors. Firstly, there is a belief amongst int'l officers and university administrators that limiting recruitment international student recruitment (i.e. to 20% of total numbers) somehow shields the university from the transformative impact of large international cohorts, especially where significant proportion are from a single country. Yet distribution throughout Majors/degrees is anything but even. Chinese students are often concentrated in a narrow range of disciplines (finance, accounting, engineering being the three most prominent). 

A related issue is the on-boarding and integration process for international students, incorporating several aspects but most notably housing arrangements. The tendency of Chinese students to live together is not a Chinese problem: it is a completely understandable response to the pressures of moving to a new country and having to adapt not only to a new academic culture, but to cultural and social conventions which affect every aspect of life. Americans, Brits (foreigners in general) are just as guilty of this when coming to China. Ask any foreigner who has studied at PKU, Tsinghua, BFSU, Beijing Normal, BCLU or any other university in Beijing during the last 10 - 12 years and they will likely tell you they lived in or around Wudaokou district just north of the 4th ring road. A foreign ghetto catering to all the whims of the foreign student with its bars, nightclubs, restaurants and foreign mini-markets. For working foreigners in China, the Former French Concession in Shanghai and larges swathes of Chaoyang district in and around Sanlitun are where you'll find the expat bubbles (often much to the annoyance of local residents - on Yongkang Road in Shanghai, for example).  We are just as guilty of staying within our comfort zone, if not far worse.  Greater attention needs to be paid to assisting international students generally, and Chinese students specifically given the ease with which they can choose to stay within their expat bubble, in creating the conditions under which they are more likely to learn both the on and off-campus cultural terrains they need to negotiate in order to reap the greatest rewards from their educational investment. 

It is in this direction that this discourse must develop: not through a problematisation of Chinese students, but through a dialogue amongst educators, involving all students, as to how the university can provide the conditions most conducive for the flourishing of their students' creativity, criticality and intellectual ability. It is about helping the students realise their investment in themselves.  Housing arrangements, extra and co-curriuclar activities, cultural experiences and induction programs must be developed alongside pedagogy, curriculum and content. 

The WSJ article served to reinforce stereotypes of Chinese students as spoiled, wealthy and intellectually incapable. With that in mind, I'm retweeting and reposting this blog entry with the hope that it both provides both a criticism of the views expressed in the WSJ article and a contribution to a debate on the problematisation of Chinese students.  


Critical Thinking: Is the problem Chinese students? Or is it us? Its probably us.  
In a recent article for Times HigherEducation, Tao Zhang, Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University* makes an argument reinforcing the centrality of critical thinking to the British university experience and, more specifically, the need for Chinese students studying in the UK to develop critical thinking skills.  It is a sentiment that is shared by many, including myself.  Zhang writes:

We must surely believe that attempting to engage all our students fully in the practices that define our own enquiry – however unnaturally it may come to some of them – is the first duty of any teacher.” 

However, Zhang’s article is revolves around a discussion which frames the process of critical thinking in terms of Chinese students liberating themselves from “a systematic attempt to inculcate a culture in which criticism of authority is an alien idea” which Zhang claims is at the heart of the Chinese educational tradition under the CCP.

Such a view is unlikely to attract much criticism in western universities. But it plays into a stereotype which I think is hugely problematic. Chinese students in the western classroom are viewed, unfairly, as utilitarian and motivated by extrinsic factors.  The stereotypical view of Chinese students is that of a grade-focused pragmatist with a consumerist mentality towards education and capable of little more than mindless regurgitation.  This is a major problem for academics, and a problem of academics – not the Chinese students themselves.  This problem is compounded by the reduction of overseas students from China by university administrations to that of a revenue channel.  The result is, as Zhang correctly points out, large numbers of Chinese students who bring with them healthy revenue streams in the form of international tuition fees.  In essence, we have a situation where we are complicit in the problematization of Chinese students: our university recruitment teams court them shamelessly, but when they arrive we tar them all with the same brush.  They are often concentrated in programmes in Business, Engineering and Science; housed together with other Chinese students, and largely left to their own devices to adapt. To paraphrase Geoffrey Howe, we’re asking them to step up to bat; knock sixes/homeruns around, but we’re giving them broken cricket/baseball bats to do so. And none of them have ever played cricket/baseball before. If we are so convinced by arguments which apportion blame for their lack of critical thinking skills to the cultural conventions of a Confucianism, can we not devise strategies which overcome this issue? Can we develop better systems to help our Chinese students adapt more quickly to the UK learning environment and educational ethos which underpins it? Is the problem really with the Chinese students, or might I suggest that our own entrenched position is also to blame for the impasse? 

During my Masters research (some time ago), I conducted qualitative research into the experiences of postgraduate students from China at UK universities. An issue identified was the almost complete lack of any attempt to integrate the students, a situation which is arguably worse today given growth in numbers. Several students arriving for Masters study straight from leading Chinese universities were overwhelmed by reading lists, tormenting themselves in trying to absorb everything on both the Core and Recommended reading provided by lecturers: an impossible task in some cases.  Students described being overwhelmed and the catastrophic effect this had on their first few weeks in the UK and on their self confidence. No one had explained to them the basics or what was expected of them in class. There was a fatal assumption that even things like Reading lists are the same in all educational systems.  Often Chinese students are asked to attend English language classes in the summer prior to beginning their course. Students lamented the tedium of these courses, which many of them had spent the previous year attending in China, in preparation for IELTS exams.  In discussions, students enthused at the idea of extra-curriuclar/co-curricular programmes aimed at language immersion in UK culture: guest lectures on aspects of life in Britain (pub etiquette, football culture, British food) and the opportunity to socialise and mix with real British people in real situations.  But please, no more English for Academic Purposes! No more torture by grammar classes!

Another issue I have encountered is the much maligned lack of engagement in the classroom, often conflated with an assumption that the student is not engaged in the class. Teaching at NYU Shanghai for two years, I took the attitude that this lack of willingness to contribute in class was not the students’ fault, but my own. I had expected this to be an issue, given previous experiences teaching Chinese cohorts.  At NYU Shanghai, these were culturally diverse classrooms, with around half the students from China; a third or so from the US, and the remainder from other countries. Intervening to compel quiet students seemed inappropriate as it would adversely affect the opportunity for other students who were willing to contribute enthusiastically to discussion and debate.  I responded by encouraging students who were not so forthcoming(the majority of whom were Chinese, though not exclusively so) that classroom contribution also meant emails, asking questions one-on-one after class, seeing me during office hours, or making an appointment to discuss problems or issues with the course.  Encounters with students via this method were extremely successful, allowing me to respond encouragingly and helping students build their confidence. I also met with every student after the first mid-term to explain the written feedback.  I could have just given them written feedback, but this was a strategy which allowed me to get to know all of my students a little better and build some rapport, know the students by name and have some kind of student-teacher relationship.  After all, if we are quick to blame Confucian conventions for the students’ reticence in contributing to class discussions, then we should also recognize that the route to overcoming this likely also lies in better understanding their expectations. Confucian thought, after all, places social, moral and ethical duties and obligations on both parties in a superior-subordinate relationship. It is not, as many seem to think, a simple relationship between the dominant and the dominated.

Of course, my approaches at NYU Shanghai might not be possible (or necessary) in some circumstances, especially high enrolment programmes in the UK.  The smaller class sizes of the liberal arts approach made it possible. But it revealed and reinforced something to me which I think is lost in almost every account I have read of how to deal with Chinese students. They are young people with ambitions, aspirations, motivations and dreams. They are young people under phenomenal social pressures, largely arising from the expectations placed on them by family.  Most importantly, they are individuals and, like people anywhere in the world, individuals who will respond positively to positive messages of encouragement from their teachers.  But if we exhibit frustration, that is what we will get in return. 

A second aspect of Zhang’s article is the implicit argument that critical thinking must follow some kind of political awakening. I personally disagree with the politicization of critical thinking. A student can be sympathetic to the narratives and values propagated by the CCP and still flourish as a critical thinker, just as students from the US, UK or elsewhere in the western world can be critical thinkers while faithfully advocating the values of individualism, civil liberties and electoral democracy. Specific values are not a precondition for critical thinking, nor are political allegiances. In fact, in discussions with many former students in China, conversation often turns to value of the Chinese modernization project as a valid alternative to what many view as the hypocrisy of western governments and the perceived hiatus between claimed values and actual conduct. Chinese students returning from overseas often demonstrate this insight, while international students returning home from China often find themselves defending China against mindless criticisms back home. Liberal arts and the resultant critical thinking is seemingly universally thought to be the route to a political epiphany and realization of the superiority of western political values.  I would argue strongly that a far more likely result is that, armed with a critical mind and free from the inculcation of western values that we experience through our own education system, young Chinese people will home in on the irreconcilable contradictions between philosophy and reality in their adopted countries. Critical thinking is not a one way street, and that goes some way to explaining the proliferation of liberal arts approaches in and across Chinese universities and Sino-Foreign collaborations, and their encouragement by the Chinese education authorities.

We can all agree with Tao Zhang that we cannot change our core values to accommodate students. This is, after all, what many Chinese students want from their international educational experience. But the conviction that “there can be no compromise” with regards to the “universal” value of critical enquiry smacks of a lack of criticality itself. If we want to do better, we need to better understand the obstacles faced by Chinese students and do more to help them overcome this.  We should not problematize the students.


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