Why do people think that Chinese students lack Critical Thinking (CT) skills?
The impression that Chinese is foreign to CT seems to come primarily from the observations of the behaviour of Chinese students studying abroad. They are generally quiet and even rote learners, who are hesitant to challenge authorities comparing to their peers from Western cultures. Their performance in classroom discussion and essay writing also reinforced the assertion of their unwillingness to engage in critical thinking.
Many researchers attributed Chinese students' lack of CT to the influences of Confucian cultural heritage on their learning styles and attitudes, which can clash with the Western teaching approach rooted in the Socratic method.
So, what is Confucius’s view on education or learning? What are the effects of it on how Chinese learn?
Let me start with a quote from the Analects of Confucius (551-479 BCE):
“Learning without thought is labour lost; thought without learning is perilous.” (Confucius, 2000, 2: 15)
Contrary to the common misunderstanding that Confucian educational philosophy fails to put enough emphasis on thinking as part of learning (Graham, 1989), Confucius explicitly conceptualised the importance of striking the balance of learning and thinking. Not only did he view thinking as an indispensable part of learning, but also he is concerned about the excessive thinking without learning from external resources could lead to unfavourable circumstances.
Confucius was a learner who's continuously self-reflecting. He advocated reflective thinking which can be conducted at two levels:(a) reflection on the materials of knowledge in order to integrate them into oneself as wisdom; (b) reflection on oneself in an open-minded, fair and autonomous way and then incorporate understanding with the self, thus internalizing it until it becomes oneself (Kim, 2003, p. 82).
His understanding of self-reflection also involves critically examine other people’s behaviour and learning from peers.
“On seeing a man of virtue, try to become his equal; on seeing a man without virtue, examine yourself not to have the same defects.” (Confucius, 2000, 4: 17)
As the most important and long-lasting traditional ideology in China, Confucianism beliefs on learning influenced how Chinese learn to the most significant level. Even today, Confucius quotas on education and learning are still popular among people from all walks of life and are embedded in the modern education as the hidden pedagogy.
The effects of Confucian education heritage, both positive and negative, are listed below:
Active Quiet Learners
‘Listening to the teacher’ is the most frequently observed activity for Chinese learners. This mindset and behaviour hinder Chinese learners’ participation in critical thinking discussions in the classrooms. However, this practice does not equal to rote learning without thinking. The reluctance of not voicing their views or asking questions is connected to the idea of inner reflection. Chinese children are taught from early years to ‘digest’ knowledge by engaging in thinking and reflection before speaking up. Even when there are cognitive explosions or fireworks going on in their head, they will keep calm on the outside and won’t talk.
You can have an active or intensive inner dialogue, but it takes, even more, to engage in actual conversation with others. Chinese traditionally believe that a good learner should read extensively and think thoroughly before he discusses it with others, as Confucius would do himself.
‘Think three times before you act (speak)’. Chinese idiom
Humble and respectful
Chinese learners are less critical about the authorities and are highly cautious to challenge the people who are supposed to be the wisdom holder. Chinese learners show respect for their teacher and follow textbooks closely.
However, this does not mean that children are not encouraged to challenge. Instead, they are encouraged to challenge only in a responsible manner and only after careful reflection.
Harmony Issue: Face and relationship
The ‘Confucian’ core of Chinese culture is to maintain the harmony of the group and foster collective thinking. To share their personal opinion might not be useful for their peers or teachers and it will the disharmonise their relationships. Chinese students have concerns about ‘face and relationships’, and they believe they can save both their and their teachers’ ‘face’ by not challenging.
The Chinese paradox
Many Western scholars showed concerns about ‘Confucian-heritage learning culture’, as it is not supposed to be effective in achieving objectives of higher-order thinking according to the currently dominant social constructivist tradition of Western education theory.
However, the students educated with the so-called ‘Confucian’ teaching method can compete with, and even outperform the rest of the world in PISA (especially in mathematical and scientific subjects). This competence of Chinese students does not result from rote memorisation but also requires deep conceptual understanding.
Awareness of this paradox has motivated some researchers to reconceptualise the Confucian education as a combination of memorisation with inner reflection, which also leads to an interesting question, should we use Confucian learning method to teach the higher order thinking skill?
Please leave your comment and let me know your thoughts!
Graham, A. C. (1989). Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. (La Salle, Open Court)
Kim, H. (2003). Critical thinking, learning and Confucius: A positive assessment. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 37(1), 71–87.
Confucius. (2000). The Analects translated by Dawson R. Oxford: Oxford University Press.