Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Reading List for January 5, 2011: I is Educated

One of the recurring themes for all of these articles is, of course, the massive cultural differences between Western and Chinese education systems. The shorthand description, seen over and over again, is that China's schools emphasize standardized test prep and the learning of facts via memorization, while the in the US we stress creativity, research and collaboration. These are fairly crude simplifications of what's happening, but they serve the purpose of providing an easy to understand shorthand in the context of a short blog post or news item.

I'm no education expert, but some of the advantages and disadvantages of each system are fairly obvious. In China they may teach to tests and there may not be a lot of emphasis on teaching kids how to form opinions and how to explore alternate ways of reaching conclusions, but just about ever kid will finish school, they will be literate and they will know how to work in an academic setting. Focusing on a task, no matter how mundane, and working it through to its completion, is not a problem for them. In the US we foster creativity and strive to help each individual reach his or her own potential and we shy away from standardized tests, but we leave massive numbers of kids behind as legions of students don’t complete high school and a sizeable share of those who go on to university fail to get a degree.

But more than just offering an interesting study in contrasts, I think that the strengths of these systems offset each others' weaknesses. Can we find a way to combine the best elements of both systems? Is the Holy Grail of education a model that somehow fuses necessary memorization of facts and dates with in-depth analysis and debate? And how, in the end, do you measure success? Is there a single test that can be developed? Or do you need a series of tests combined with other measurements? And how many tests is too many before you are only teaching to them?

Like I said, I'm no education expert, so I'll leave curriculum development to the eggheads (and take potshots at their ideas from the sidelines). But what I am is living proof is that education is the silver bullet to economic advancement. I could never have risen up from where I started out without a sold educational footing beneath me. The Chinese understand this all too well but we in America seem to have forgotten it… or we just don't care too much if people in the next town over have.

And THAT is what should scare us about Chinese advancements in education – Not that they're may be starting to score better or whether they graduate more engineers and mathematicians, but that collectively as a country they care more about education and are DOING soothing about it.

"Chinese Top in Tests, But Educators Call for Reform" from NPR – Some insight into how and why the students in Shanghai were able to dominate on the international standards test last fall. More focus on the Chinese style of leaning and it's emphasis on memorization. The highlight for me? When the Chinese high school student who is interviewed says that she thinks that the Chinese way of learning and the Western way of learning should be combined. Out of the mouths of babes.

"The China Boom" from The New York Times – An emerging middle class will obviously want to send their kids to great schools and will have the money to pay for it, but as China continues to grow and more and more kids graduate from universities in China (they are building new schools at a prodigious rate), the One Child Policy will also play a role: Families who can not depend on government social safety nets as they age, and who traditionally depend of their children to care for them as they age, must place all of their hopes in a single progeny. And with fierce competition for a limited number of non-manufacturing jobs, a US degree is a big plus… This increase in Chinese students is a boon to universities because Chinese kids almost always pay full price; they don’t qualify for any federal aid. What's really ironic is that as Chinese families that can now afford US schools are striving to send their kids across the Pacific, we may see more and more American kids head to China. With tuition skyrocketing and family incomes stagnant, and with many families' home equity being shredded over the past 2 years, cheaper Chinese education options can be very enticing. It's true that most of the schools in China can't hold a candle to our universities in the US, but there are places that are comparable to American schools, especially if you want to study economics or international relations. And the prices for some of these schools, including full room and board and two tickets back home each year during holidays, are less than half - around $12,000 per year - of most liberal arts schools. And to say that learning Chinese and having experience/connections in China will give you a leg up is a huge understatement.

"Life as an International Student: Cultures Colliding" by Yeran Zhou – a direct response piece to the New York Times article, this goes into much deeper details about the cultural problems that Chinese kids often face when they come to the US for school. According to the writer, the Times article glossed over the problems and the sometimes serious unease that the Chinese expats experience. My favorite part was when a student talked about how hard it is to get work done in a US college sometimes:

Nai blames his lack of discipline on the American culture. “There is too much freedom in American colleges,” he complains. “I think I need stricter supervision.”

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

It's The End of 2010 As We Know It

So what to say about our pal, the year 2010?

Strangely, New Year’s is one of my favorite holidays, and yet I almost never wax nostalgic about the year gone by. I usually tend to reflect on the absurdity of how we measure the passage of time and about just how arbitrary it is. I even had a long discussion with my girlfriend about why Christmas falls on December 25 and why the West decided to measure the passage of time using the complicated Gregorian calendar as opposed to the exceedingly simple and vastly more logical Lunar Calendar.

That got me thinking about our species’ seemingly-universal desire to celebrate the changing of the seasons. Then it got me thinking about how our chosen political systems just lay on top of these seasonal celebrations, constantly changing their names but keeping the timing and activities mostly in tact.

I get distracted easily, as you can tell.

These past few years I have come to measure my own “years” around August. That’s the time of year that I moved to China and woke up to life. So I’m already through the first five months of my own personal 2011. And I have to say that as wonderful and amazing as my life has been in the first two years, this third year is already the best yet, and I’ve got great hopes of it getting even better.

For the calendar-conscious folks I will note that in 2010 I made 2 trips to the US (to go along with another trip that I made in October of 2009). These trips solidified for me that I am D-O-N-E with the US for the foreseeable future. Right now I’m making plans for travel through the end of 2012 and the US is nowhere on my radar. And even though I’m not conceiving of any specific plans for 2013 (it’s hard to think beyond the London Olympics) there are at least a half dozen people and places higher on my “To Visit” list than Boston or any other American city.

In short, anybody from home who wants to see me in the foreseeable future will have to travel to my side of the globe.

The first of my two trips to the US was for my buddy Bryan’s wedding. I got to see almost all of my closest friends from back home and my baby brother. I also got to introduce them all to my girlfriend, Alya. I gave her a tour of my home town. We had an awesome, almost storybook week. But at the end of it all, I realized that I did not want to come back. After two trips in 10 months I had satisfied any feelings of nostalgia and there was a conspicuous absence of homesickness. I missed my friends, but I didn’t miss being back there.

I made a point to tell folks that this would be it for me for a while. I posted all over my Twitter and Facebook about it, too. But wouldn’t you know it, at a meeting with my boss at work a few weeks later he drops a bomb on me: I was being sent to Cleveland in 1 week for a 15-day stint in the home office.

Ugh.

As unenthusiastic as I was about making this journey just 1 month after having said my emphatic goodbyes to my homeland, it presented a pretty awesome professional opportunity and has opened up a lot of doors for me within the company. So I can’t say that it was a waste of a trip or that I am sorry that I went. I even had a bit of fun. (Thanks for coming to visit me, Kara!) But if I had any lingering feelings of longing for the US, Cleveland snuffed them out completely.

The next big milestone for me came in late September when I jetted off to Moscow to spend time with Alya and to meet her family. Not only was this a necessary trip personally (Alya had said that she would not move to Beijing unless I made a trip to Moscow first), but it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Ever since I was a little kid growing up during near hysteria of the Cold War I had always wanted to see Moscow. I used to fantasize of walking through Red Square. Well, I got to do it, and with a lovely Moskovite on my arm to boot!

Then, finally, November came and by the middle of the month Alya was in Beijing with me. A couple of weeks after that my visa was renewed for another year and then we hit Christmas… To say that the past 6 weeks have been a whirlwind end to the calendar year of 2010 would be putting it mildly.

So here we are. I’ve just wrapped up a 4-day long holiday break and our collective, arbitrary measuring tools say that we begin now anew. I’m happy with how things went during our recently-completed journey around our unremarkable star. Here’s hoping that the next one will be even better!