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Encouraging the inventor (part 1)

By lexalee ( Updated: 2015-01-07 17:27

Most kids in China are raised under the strict supervision of their families and teachers. Someone is always telling them what to do and when to do it. They' re not allowed much freedom to do much except study hard for the gaokao. But if they've never known anything different, they can't miss it. So if they learn how to do something by memorizing “The 10 Rules of _______”, they don't sit around imagining it can be done some other way, and they're actually discouraged from doing so.

That explains the deer-in-the-headlights look my writing students gave me when I asked them to reasearch and write a paper about a topic they chose themselves. The class acted as if they couldn't believe the assignment, which wasn't about the gaokao. "Why can't you tell us what to write about? Why do we have to pick our own subjects?"

American kids get this kind of assignment pretty early. My first time was when I was nine years old. We were learning how to research information using an encyclopedia, since there weren't computers and the Internet at the time. We had to write a paper and present it orally to the class. Older students go on to learn more sophisticated formats for their papers, but we all start learning how research information by looking up reliable sources. For those who become professionals in science, technology, and journalism, this is the foundation of what they do. Otherwise they'd waste valuable time reinventing old things and making unnecessary mistakes. Once upon a time, you had to physically go to a place and look up a book or document, or have it sent to you by snail mail. I remember dealing with that aggravation. Once in a while, it's still necessary to do that if the information is not online. The Internet makes information so much more accessible and faster to find now, but there's also much more garbage to sift through. Just because it's online doesn't mean it's good data.

I am sorry to say that 60% of the Chinese students in that writing class, most of them at least 22 years old, failed my assignment, even when I allowed them to work in groups, gave them extra time, reduced the number of sources they had to look up, and showed them how to cite them. The students still couldn't produce proper research papers. Many of them just used anonymous microblogs as sources and their bibliographies were horrible. They didn't comprehend what they read enough to think independently, draw their own conclusions, and formulate new ideas - also foundations of research and innovation. Many of them just plagiarized content, despite me warning them I'd fail them for fraud. I was furious with them because they did it with full knowledge it was not ok. The other Western teachers who had taught the class before me had had the same experience. We agreed the students couldn't be expected to pass the course because their academic level was inadequate and they had never learned the basics of research. But the administration did nothing, and insisted on keeping the course as is. What's more, the department staff adjusted the grades each time to pass the students who failed. So not only did the students act unethically, so did the school. How is that the road to credibility or respect? There's something fundamentally wrong about that whole attitude that needs to be fixed, whatever country it happens in.

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