Rote learning harms students’ courage

By Cecily Huang Source:Global Times Published: 2015-8-26 19:43:19

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

"It must be something wrong with the system! It was not only me; more than 300 Chinese students failed this exam," a Chinese girl screamed on the phone behind me on the train back from Epping to Central in Sydney.

It was the day before the news broke out that about 37 percent of more than 1,200 students were given a failed grade in a postgraduate business course at the University of Sydney. Most of them were Chinese students.

This event has been escalated since some Chinese students sought appeals against their results.

Although the University of Sydney attributes the problem to students' English level, language is certainly not the main reason. Every Chinese student had to get a relatively high English score to be accepted to the master's program.

The subject is called Critical Thinking in Business, one of the core units required to complete a Master of Commerce. In this exam, all the questions were open-ended.

I am not surprised Chinese students lack critical thinking, because under the Chinese education system, most Chinese students learned chiefly how to respect authority, and how to seek for one standard answer. Once Chinese students are given different options, they get confused and frustrated. They are not used to a more exploratory learning style.

In real life, there is no standard answer but more options and solutions. Unfortunately, we do not know it until we begin real work.

In Australia, most university students in second or third year would look for internship opportunity in relevant industries before graduation. There are also plenty of volunteer opportunities in Australia.

Most of Chinese students who came to this business program had just finished their bachelor degree in China. Without any working experience, how could they analyze business cases with critical thinking? It reminded me of the student from my journalism program, who wanted to report on the Gaza war without even basic knowledge of the background.

A former Chinese postgraduate from the University of Sydney told me, through the analysis, the professor aimed to see the depth, and the angle of student's insight in each business case. It is not just simply about the understanding on the theory.

The business students I have interviewed told me they worked very hard, but the results were completely unexpected.

In Western education, taking a postgraduate program is a big step from a bachelor degree. "Hard work" does not necessarily lead to a good mark in a master's program. It requires effort, as well as interest and creativity.

In China, we study to pass the gaokao, or to find a job with decent salary, not for love of the subject. I am so tired of being questioned by my very "concerned" relatives, "How much money do you make?" or "how much can you get for your published article?" They do not care whether I enjoy my job, or even what my article is about.

We see study as only as having practical reason, as everyone wants to achieve the success in an efficient way. You could argue that "making a living" was more important than developing a hobby during the time while China was still struggling at the bottom line of poverty. However, is it still an argument when China is the second largest economy in the world?

I do not have to explain here why it is popular for Chinese students to choose accounting or business courses as "immigration majors" in Australia, even if many of them dislike this subject. Through my recent research on "daixie" (ghostwriters) and "daikao" (exam substitutes) , I discovered that most of those illegal agents offer service targets for business students.

Given that the professor of the University of Sydney suspected more than 1,000 students gained improper "help" last year, I understand why the university raised the pass mark.

In contrast, I am impressed how confident and persistent Australian students are in their own opinion, although they sometimes are ridiculously wrong. I admire their efforts to make people take their opinion seriously. I always wonder how they get the courage.

I teach Chinese in Australian public schools. Each kid aged 6-7 in my class already starts to do presentations in Chinese. In university, the presentation is an important part of students' assignments. It builds up their ability in public speech and more importantly, the confidence.

Some Western university friends told me, "I find my Chinese classmates are great, but it is so hard to do group work with them. You guys are just too shy to talk."

Chinese students tend to avoid the confrontation of disagreements or conflicts. Western people regard it as shyness, but I know it is rooted in how we were taught to survive.

The author worked for the Guardian Beijing office as a researcher and news assistant and is currently studying for a Master of Arts in Journalism in University of Technology, Sydney.

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