Editor’s Note: Yao Zhang is a Ph.D. candidate in Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, studying demographic mechanism in the formation of human capital, and education policies related to innovation, entrepreneurship and global competitiveness.
Chinese mothers living in America are often torn over whether to send their children to schools that drill them in hopes of producing good test-takers, or to embrace a less rigid education. It’s a conflict that pits the cultural values shaped by the two-millennia-old Chinese exam system against the view that ultimately creativity leads to success.
The debate is evident in online forums for Chinese mothers, as they discuss the pros and cons of the so-called “tiger mother” approach to raising children: snuffing out a child’s desire for a normal social life—no sleepovers, play dates, school plays or sports, and certainly no computer games or TV—and an expectation of straight A+s on all tests. Recently, one of the leading forums, spurred on by a New York Times article, featured a debate about whether the Waldorf approach to education can produce “real tigers in the future.”
Waldorf schools, according to the description in The Times, emphasize teaching students through activities like knitting socks and slicing food while minimizing the use of computer devices and technology-assisted learning in their classrooms. This unique pedagogy is “focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks. Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.” One parent, employed by a high-tech start-up, echoes this philosophy when explaining to The Times why he sent his three children to a Waldorf school: “Engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers.”
It is the key word “engagement” that interests me more than the debate over the plusses and minuses of educational technology. Because of an absence of engagement, China—the world’s largest educational system—faces great difficulties in fostering innovation. The United States will likely retain its strength as the world’s leader in innovation thanks to a system that builds upon this notion.
Last fall and spring, I gave an overview of China’s education system to a broad audience at the China Scope Conference at MIT and Columbia, focusing on China’s long history of using nothing but exam results to select bureaucrats and determine the size of cohorts—which resulted in tremendous competition for social mobility. Schooling became essentially a competition among families rather than individual students. All of this still holds true today. Chinese students—who are often treated like assembly-line products in schools that only teach to the test—graduate from college only to find themselves unemployed.
David Brooks of The New York Times wrote in 2007 that such problems were the result of a “dictatorship of talent.” Brooks made his observations during a trip to Shanghai, which last December attained the highest PISA scores in the world.
Brooks borrowed the concept of “meritocratic paternalism”—elites ruling a society can make the best decisions for their people, like fathers have traditionally done within families—from one of his Chinese friends who argued for and defended the advantages of the Chinese way, using examples of the country’s economic success over the last 30 years. Ironically, it is the same economic development that makes American education accessible and affordable for many Chinese families, who send their children to study in the United States to nurture the “merits” in them. Yet increasingly, the students returning to China take government jobs and become part of the Chinese elite rather than striking out as entrepreneurs. Their career paths might be a clear sign of how little U.S. education altered the deeply rooted Chinese philosophy in such students.
It is neither rare nor regrettable that many leading scholars who achieved great distinction in their fields have returned to China and become governmental officials. Internationally renowned mechanical engineer Dr. Wan Gang and economist Dr. Yi Gang—who now head China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and Bureau of Foreign Reserves, respectively—and many others have exhibited impressive leadership. However, more and more parents prefer to see their children earn $300 per month in bureaucratic government jobs (after they obtain degrees abroad) simply because of the stability—and likelihood of under-the-table benefits—that such positions afford.
We might all agree logically that it is next “to impossible for a top-down memorization-based elite to organize a flexible, innovative information economy, no matter how brilliant its members are.” Maybe a truly game-changing reform is to replace the “dictatorship of talent” with a “democracy of talent,” the center of which would emphasize engagement and peer interactions rather than obedience of fatherly know-it-all teachers. Efforts in this direction have been made by educators and policymakers in China since 1998, but students and parents have largely resisted the engagement, children-centered campaign. Instead, students and parents have doubled-down on the exam-centered approach. Chinese education companies such as the New Oriental Group, Ambow and Xue-Er have made huge revenues in the test-prep business driven students and parents desirous of higher scores.
The offspring of “tiger mothers” in China are not going to take over the world as some American parents have worried. American schools and parents have the upper hand. People in Silicon Valley have been truly driving innovation and the world’s economic growth. As long as we all pay attention to what they believe about education, the momentum—the continuous wave of creative ideas—will be sustained by the children who are in schools that foster their creativity. After all, the Valley’s success has grown out of a democracy of talent, so let us hope American schools—whether Waldorf or not—can keep students engaged in learning and critical thinking to maintain the seeds of success in tomorrow’s global competition.