THNK taught me to think of education as a form of socio-emotional engineering in group context. The purpose is for each participant to transform. In other words, the goal of education is to change people. That change is more likely to come about through well-designed interaction among peers than through new knowledge, even weighing in the possible charism of an inspirational speaker, and the desire to emulate them.
There’s a common cliché going around. That Chinese education does not encourage creativity: Instead, it proposes antiquated models based on rote learning. ‘Western’ Universities, on the contrary, train critical thinking, creativity and collaborative problem solving – all the treasures of a balanced life.
I had direct experience of learning in a Chinese university, during a term at Nanjing Daxue, and was deeply dissatisfied with it. Yet I would like to consider Chinese models of education under a different light.
In preparatory class, in the debrief of an oral presentation where I did averagely, my philosophy teacher pointed out I should find ways of better structuring my thoughts. ‘How can I do that?’ I asked. He winked: ‘There is a secret, but don’t tell anyone I’ve told you’ – I guess enough time has pass that I can get away with sharing this now – ‘You must copy. Take a book, a well-written book, like Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des Lois, take a notebook, and simply copy. And I can guarantee that you will improve.’ With all this talk of originality, we tend to forget the value of copying. Not just to memorise and interiorise knowledge, but develop the capacity to reproduce a movement of thought. And then, if after proper understanding, we continue to disagree, then we might consider rejecting. And how much stronger, how much sharper, how much more valuable, this informed originality.
One person I used to work with was often talking about how ‘some people are just wasting his time’ and you should ‘not waste people’s time’. On Grindr, ‘time-wasters’ are certainly not liked. Social media may be just ‘a waste of time’.
Well, now we’re spending a lot of time at home, and on social media. I’m retreating away from ‘productive work’ to thinking and writing. Are we all wasting our time?
I never understood that expression. If I try to follow the underlying logic, time is wasted when the outcome doesn’t match expectations. But then, isn’t the outcome of any social interaction, in part at least, that interaction itself? And if that is so, how can time ever be wasted? Maybe I simply don’t believe in the capitalist motto that time is money? Or maybe, there is presumption in the expression ‘wasting time’ – pride, in the mistaken belief that we know what our goals are and should be, and that we can therefore assess, in the moment, what was and wasn’t valuable.
To try and understand wasting time better, we could look for its opposite, ‘saving time’. Here again, I don’t understand. ‘Saving time’ is about finding techniques and processes that allow you to do the same task, to the same level of quality, in less time. Years ago, I used to tutor high school students. One of the mothers always asked me to do things ‘quickly’. I never quite believed it was possible. You might get an essay ready more quickly – in fact, there have been times when I half wrote that student’s essays. But some was lost in the process: including, how much did that student actually learn?
When I worked on developing educational models, my goal was never to ‘save people time’. What I did focus on, though, was how to try and make learning somewhat easier to access. Save, not time, but effort. And more open-ended: instead of saving time towards a pre-defined goal, increase the potential goals, or benefits, or the time spent learning. Because goals may change, particularly when one learns, and what seemed like wasted time then, may end up highly profitable . Happy times are a sure gain. And maybe, so is learning to deal with a measure of frustration.
I am reading a French book on Zhu Xi, compiler of Confucian knowledge and Chinese philosopher from the 12th century – a remarkable introduction to Chinese metaphysics. The fourth chapter, labelled ‘perfectionnement de soi’, focuses on education.
Speaking about meditation techniques borrowed from Buddhism and adapted to Confucianism, Zhu Xi writes: ‘To sit in calm is not about interrupting one’s reflection, unlike what happens in Zen sitting meditation. It is just about calmly collecting one’s heart and not letting it fly off to otiose ideas. The heart is then spontaneously in a state of serenity without any [disturbing] event, concentrated on its sole object.’ [This is my own second hand translation from the original Chinese via French]
I put down the book for a moment and pondered. I have been through years of schooling in France – and here in Australia. Not only did I receive solid knowledge, but I was also trained – rather well, I believe – in structuring and communicating ideas through language. Yet I cannot recall any specific training in the art of concentration. Looking back – how surprising! For I had to spend considerable amounts of time reading, memorising, analysing, and writing during those years of study. Yet the core competence to support this effort – the capacity to concentrate – was never part of the curriculum.
Here, I believe, lies the radical optimism of Confucianism: not only can people memorise facts and dates and not only can they derive knowledge from this information; more fundamental competences – attention, listening, concentration – can also be taught, irrespective of bloodlines or family background. If only western educators and institutions today could show the same level of optimism, and instead saw the systematic training of cognitive and emotional core strength as a full part of their mission!
Today, a friend shared an article about international students in Australia. The piece lamented the lack of integration between Chinese and Australian students, and called for change.
This is common rhetoric: international students have limited interactions with locals, what a missed opportunity for both sides! Yet if we dig a little, where exactly does the problem lie? In a city like Melbourne, where one person in four was born overseas, who are these mysterious ‘Australian students’? I’ve been here for seven years, and hold two passports. When I go to Monash University for my PhD, am I a local?
More surprising is the way we seem to consider interactions between Chinese students. They spend most of their time among themselves, I read – well, maybe. But with over a Billion people in China, I doubt they’re spending their time with cousins or village neighbours. More likely, they’re developing entirely new networks across their country, and discovering its culture and diversity from the safe neutral ground of Australia. Not to mention their encounters with Korean, Japanese, Indian, or Latin American students.
When Gertrude Stein invited Hemingway for dinner in Paris, did they yearn after the presence of ‘a real French person’ to make their experience worthwhile? To what extent does it matter that international students in Melbourne integrate with elusive locals? Not if they have a deep experience of learning about the world and themselves, and leave with rich networks and countless insights. But focusing on that may put too much pressure on universities to think hard about their current methods and mission. Beside, who said foreigners could have a good time in our country without us?
One of the most important lessons I learnt was during a French lesson in preparatory class. Our teacher, a wise and erudite man, proposed that we should never listen to the statement that opposes ‘literature’ and ‘reality’. ‘Literature is real’, he said, ‘there’s forty five of us in this room together on its account, libraries are full of heavy books, taking up space, in valuable locations, people spend considerable amounts of time engaging with literature, there is a whole economy based on literature, and teachers are getting paid and recognised for helping understand it.’
Since then, every time anybody simplistically opposed ** insert context here ** and ‘the real world’, I remember the wise words of this teacher, and smile to myself.
Recently, at an Asialink function, I stumbled on one of these conversations. Three ‘project manager’ type leader-women were talking about academics, and how their teaching would not last students long in ‘the real world’.
One of them was working within a university, and heavily critical of academics around her. ‘They have no concept of reality. They just say, ‘we’ll do this project, funding won’t be a problem’, and they do, and they find the funding. But I’m here to help them clarify all this.’ In other words, a system that works perfectly – according to a logic different from hers – was about to be wrecked by her conception of how reality should operate. Surprising from a person who just completed a course on cross-cultural intelligence.
The world is a diverse place, and includes both corporate institutions, and universities; project managers and academics. Reality is polyphonic, and includes a broad range of attitudes and sets of values. Let’s not be deluded by this fake talk of ‘reality’. Culture, the arts, universities, are ‘real’. Real transactions, real emotions, real weight. If anything should be thought of as unreal, it is the strange dealings corporations recognised as persons by a legal fiction. But who will say that this is unreal?
In October last year, I was living in Nanjing, and I organised a translation night at a local cafe, with the Nanjing University graduate student English club. The local branch of an Australia-China Youth Association partnered with us. Their role was to bring in Westerners – their people told me they would have no problem bringing in 10 or 15 people. But on the night, only one Polish girl turned up. Furious organisers from the Nanjing University graduate student English club requested apologies – which I managed to deliver. They had brought 25 people, expecting interactions with foreigners, why did I promise ten, and only one came? There was not too much harm in the end, but some disappointment.
I later debriefed with the president of the partner Australian Youth association, and another Australian friend. ‘What time was your event?’ one of them asked. ‘6h30 to 10pm’, I replied. Both Australians had a smirk: ‘Now that makes sense. People just won’t come at that time. It’s a Saturday evening, at 6h30 they’re preparing dinner, then they’re having dinner, and then they’re going out for a drink.’ The tone was condescending, but I stood my ground. ‘People won’t come at that time? Well,’ I replied, ‘twenty five Chinese people came. We might have to deal with a cultural issue here.’ Yet I wasn’t really surprised – neither by the touch of unconscious racism, nor by the poor rate of showing up among Westerners. When I organise events in Melbourne, Aussies rarely come – while Chinese people do turn up.
On the night, in Nanjing, I ended up chatting with three people who’d come as observers. As I found out, one was the head of the Nanjing University Business club, one was the head of the international club, and the third was a friend of theirs, managing editor of a Shanghai-based online magazine specialising in digital media. They’d heard of our event, and were interested.
I went out for dinner with them – a local street restaurant, serving the best barbecue fish in town. Another friend was with us, highly educated Chinese woman writing a Master’s thesis about the reception of European modernism in China. Our conversation was warm, smart and friendly – the Chinese internet, the Chinese video games industry. Then we spent a long time comparing the power structures of the communist party with those of the Catholic Church, alternating between English and Mandarin. I became good friends with these three guys – and as it turned out, through one of them, I found myself one handshake away from Mohammed Yunus, and connected with a group of Guangzhou based innovators and IT entrepreneurs. I think these people will do stuff – and I built the foundations for ongoing relationships with them. How did I achieve that? I rocked up at an event, and I demonstrated a respect for culture.
The Victorian government organised a trade mission through China, which culminated in a Shanghai event at the Pudong Shangri-La. Hamer scholars were invited alongside alumni of Australian Universities to meet the delegates and a few Victorian ministers.
The formal part of the ceremony started with a moving speech by a very wealthy Chinese investor who told us about his time of studies in Melbourne, where he discovered the full value of education and curiosity – which he called ‘the Australia spirit’. In his reply, our Premier expressed his own version of ‘the Australian spirit’, by quoting at length how much income Victoria derived from education exports, in full dollar value. Was I the only one to wince and experience a tinge of shame?
The overall event organisation was chaotic, unsurprisingly, given the large attendance. There was a table plan for the dinner, and coloured laniards for each profession. I tried explaining I worked in the cultural sector, and was there a colour for that? But the Chinese hostess replied, pointing to a pile of laniards: ‘purple is for education, no culture’. I later wandered across the tables, and bumped into one of the organisers. ‘I’m trying to find a table with people working in the cultural sector’, I said. ‘Good luck’, she replied, and left.
I ended up sitting alongside a very nice young Chinese woman, who worked in a bank, but considered a career shift to language teaching ‘I’m a Christian, I like to help other people’. Other people were boozing up on Yarra Valley bottles, while an ad about ‘Dairy Victoria’ rotated on the centre screen. I left early to get back to Nanjing, slightly bitter – with a sense of lost opportunity and misalignment.
In December, I went on a ‘great trip down south’, to Guangzhou via Wuhan and Changsha. I had never heard of Changsha before, and Wuhan was just a name on the map. I learnt it used to be the centre of ‘Chu’ culture, one of the three great cultures of Ancient China; the Dao De Jing manuscript had been found nearby; it is called ‘the Chinese Chicago’; ten million people live there.
I visited the Hubei Museum, and was confronted headfirst to thousands of years of history – and a tradition I was entirely ignorant about. I would normally count myself as well-educated. Yet in this museum, for the first time in many many years, I felt a very deep and almost shameful sense of ignorance.
There’s a quote I really like by Sergio Pitol, a Mexican diplomat and writer, back-slapping Americans: “in my country, it’s not respectable to be ignorant”.
Has everyone heard of ‘the flipped classroom’? I bumped into the concept a number of times when following an education course on Coursera, and more recently, saw allusions to it in my partner’s reading notes for his Master of Teaching. The ‘flipped classroom’ model proposes that, instead of students listening to a lecturing teacher in class, and collaborating outside on homework, they should listen to recorded video lectures at home – and at their pace – while facilitated classroom time is reserved for collaborative exercises.
When I taught at the Sorbonne, I was not encouraged to develop group activities. However, my basic assumption was consistent with the flipped classroom model. Students have a motivation to learn, and previous skills to build on. My role is not to feed them new knowledge as if it fell into a void, but to rectify their imperfect understanding of some point of grammar, or how language works – as well as continuously sustain their motivation. In other words, my role as educator is not to pour knowledge into student-vessels, but guide spontaneous movements and correct harmful postures. And in order to rectify, I need to understand what’s wrong.
This is by no means an original idea of education. It does entail, however, that the main skills teachers need is not speaking or reading – but observing and listening. This New York Times editorial, expresses it with great eloquence: “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.”
Listening requires a different type of preparation from speech delivery. I couldn’t entirely script a class – and definitely not read my notes as some of my colleagues did – but needed the capacity to rephrase and identify errors. Partly, this comes through experience. Partly, this comes through general intelligence and emotional intelligence. Partly, this comes through relaxation. I would come with three basic points I wanted students to learn, and a general idea for potential conversational pathways. Then I would improvise, systematically taking my cues from students’ interventions.
Teachers certainly should be good speakers, but more importantly, they must be good listeners. Do you agree with this statement? And if so – how can we train as teachers to become better at listening?
On the Hub Melbourne yammer network, a friend recently posted the following note: “Am currently at a collaboratory meeting to recreate management and leadership education. These are the 3 questions today ; 1. How does the future leader look like ? 2. What is a globally responsible leader ? 3. Can we teach how to become a globally responsible leader.”
I found it inspiring, and suggested the following: “A good education base for future global leaders will be found in classics, history, philosophy and humanities, rather than ‘business and economics’. Management and leadership theories – or economics and ‘social sciences’ more broadly – tend to come in flashy new clothes. They decay more quickly than solid Aristotle, Plutarch and Montesquieu. In a fast-changing world, you don’t want fast-aging leadership education. Close-reading texts of ancient wisdom will teach future global leaders how to find meaning in complex, ambiguous settings; and reflecting on the distance between past and contemporary value systems will prepare them for accepting diverse, sometimes conflicting, world-views – and negotiate their way forward.”
I wanted to share this reply here, and reflect further on the topic. Everyone likes pushing their own agenda. I was trained in the Humanities – and find myself now more and more among people with a background in business, management and economics. Diversity benefits groups: people solidly trained in arts and classics are rare both in corporate and small business worlds, and their presence is likely to make for better decisions. I also do believe that the practice of translation and close-reading, which I learnt in France, is precious when working as an innovator. Translation is a good bullshit detector, and finding good ideas and people requires a solid capacity to filter out the dross. Innovation is also typically nothing but an old idea adapted to a new settings – who knows whether Medieval monastery rules, immigration models in old Athens, or Teutonic lending systems don’t hold the key to some future and precious model for social innovation in Australia.
I’ve been to class once in the last month, and I may not return. I don’t think I’m a lazybones, my Mandarin has been growing steadily, and I have made significant progress on all projects I came here with. But classes have been a great disappointment. I’d like to reflect more on the reasons why I decided to no longer attend the course I enrolled in.
Superficially, my decision was based on a simple premise: attending classes required considerable amounts of energy, but only yielded limited results in areas of low priority for me (specialised vocabulary and advanced character recognition). On a personal level, my teachers were enthusiastic, smart, and encouraging. But the shape of the course and evaluation, rather than serving as a learning accelerator, was a cause of stress and made me passive – impairing the goals I had set myself, whether for cultural understanding, network development, or actual language learning. The contradiction became very manifest after I returned from a trip up North to meet a number of partners in a literary project I’m putting together. And again, after a trip to Shanghai attending a conference on Social Enterprise models. My teachers already knew I was doing a lot outside of class, and I told them I wouldn’t sit exams. Then I stopped attending, and shifted my focus outside.
I have written elsewhere about the lack of personalised goal-setting, how classes lacked proper differentiated learning, and how I ended up in a class too difficult for me, but with a more suited learning speed. These factors played a role in my decision to stop attending university. But the core reason is more fundamental: I developed a radical lack of trust in the system. That lack of trust started through rumours and hearsay, voices warning me that the Chinese education system was teacher-centric, inefficient, dull. I arrived doubtful, and was not proven wrong. After a month, I entirely stopped believing that Nanjing University and I shared a similar goal – increase my ability to speak, read, write and understand Chinese based on my current level and future needs – but started to believe instead that the system has a goal of its own, and would not hesitate to trample over me for the sake of its internal logic.
From the start, and at a very material level, the university didn’t seem to care much about my well-being, or that of my fellow students. Registration was one of the most painful administrative processes I ever experienced. I queued for a total of 7 hours over two days, not knowing at any point whether I had all the required paperwork, or would need to come back again, and encountering nothing but seemingly rigid bureaucracy. Later, I shifted levels upwards from ‘Gao Xia’ to ‘Wenhua Ban’ because the speed of progress was too slow, but also because one of the classes had no working air-con. Daytime temperatures in Nanjing vary from 35 degrees in early September to 4 degrees or less in December. After two days of heavy sweating in class, temperature control didn’t seem a trivial matter anymore, and I chose the class in a room with air-con. These negative experiences had nothing to do with the curriculum – they shaped my experience nonetheless, and from the onset, made me doubtful about the level of care that students could expect from this institution.
Evaluation, however, was the root of the problem. In both ‘Gao Shang’ and ‘Gao Xia’ classes, teachers announced weekly ‘dictation’ tests on new vocabulary. I didn’t sign in to be failed for lacking skills I never intended to build. Hand-writing disconnected lists of new words is far from my top priority. In our ‘Oral Chinese’ class, a core part of our final exam will require us to write a short essay (by hand), and a vocabulary test. Isn’t the class about spontaneously telling a story, or taking part in a conversation? That’s my goal at least, and a legitimate one I think. If a test is not adequately measuring against learning goals, then how can I trust that it will reveal anything about my success or failure? More importantly, how is it going to tell my teachers – or myself – anything about my future learning needs? And if it doesn’t – should I still attend the classes that prepare for it? Maybe I should have asked for special treatment – but the culture was far from inviting to that option.
Universities are complex institutions, with their own performance management systems and internal feedback loops. Student evaluation occurs within this framework, and is not exclusively based on pedagogy. Beside, students from different backgrounds carry their own expectations, and vocabulary quizz may be what they wish to be tested on. I’m an atypical Mandarin learner: whether the system is radically flawed, or whether it simply doesn’t suit me, I’m not sure. Trust is a personal matter.
Maybe these early weeks I did attend class had a positive effect on me, maybe they simply taught me what I needed to study. In the end, my Mandarin did improve significantly over the five months I spent in China, I learnt a lot about the country, and I’m now collaborating with local student clubs to run translation workshops – not to mention the networks I built and projects I progressed. It has been a superbly valuable stay. Still, I feel that something was wasted. My own time and early enthusiasm; the time and skills of my teachers; and the learning bond I could have made with my fellow students.
I wonder how often learning institutions fail in their mission because students stop trusting them, and whether it’s a problem with no solution – that some individuals will just always be dissatisfied by the system – or whether there are simple (or complex) ways to make the situation better, and develop stronger trust between teachers, students and curriculum designers – and people attending learn better.