Opinion: Education's Pendelum: Thinkers or Test Takers?

Judy Hartnett's picture
Monday, July 16, 2012

Rote learning can take a toll on building creativity in schools. The nations that can strike the right balance will gain a competitive edge.

The people of a large and mighty nation wonder why their schools can't do more to imitate those of another large, powerful nation across the Pacific Ocean. But this time it's not the United States seeking to emulate the schools of an Asian country — it's China seeking to emulate ours, at least to some extent.

China is pushing for more emphasis on building creative skills and less on high-stress, high-stakes testing, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Under the existing system, a single entrance exam determines whether students attend college, and which one. Talk about teaching to the test: The last year of high school is often given over to cramming for the exam. In at least one classroom, students were placed on intravenous drips of amino acids in preparation for the test, in the belief that it would help their memories and provide an energy boost; in another sad case, a girl was not told about her father's death for two months to avoid disrupting her studies.

The recent backlash against the tests includes complaints that students are being fed facts by rote rather than being taught to think critically and create. Two years ago, Premier Wen Jiabao lamented the failure of Chinese schools to turn out innovative thinkers with strong analytical skills. "We must encourage students to think independently, freely express themselves, get them to believe in themselves, protect and stimulate their imagination and creativity," he said. He even quoted Albert Einstein's famous line about imagination being more important than knowledge.

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