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During our first literature class in high school back in China, the teacher asked us to interpret the following lines:”There was quite a bit of luggage and he (father) had to bargain with the porter over the fee. I was then such a smart aleck that I frowned upon the way father was haggling and was on the verge of chipping in a few words when the bargain was finally clinched.”We started calling our thoughts immediately. One said the son was still too young to appreciate the importance of saving money, another thought the father was trying to spend more time with his son before his departure, and I offered how the word “smart aleck” caught my attention because it sounded sarcastic.But the teacher became impatient with our responses and interrupted: “I have not heard the right answer yet. It should be the son did not understand his father at that time.” “But were our answers wrong?” I asked. The teacher then explained that we could only get point if you “hit the right answer” when we take gaokao, the finishing exam, so we should just write it down and not be distracted by your own opinions. It was such a discouraging message to me that since then I rarely raised my hand to answer questions for the fear of being “not right”. But I believe that I would be more interested in this class if that day the teacher could just let us all share our opinions instead of telling us to memorize the one “right” answer.According to Janelle Cox, an educational writer, classroom discussion is helpful in promoting student’s thinking skills because students will be more involved with the topic and “take ownership of the knowledge” (Cox). For example, if we as students are expected to express our thoughts in literature class, we would carefully read and analyze the textbook in advance, do more research on certain topics, and even ask our parents to share their stories in order to be more prepared to draw connections with the text. However, the lack of organized discussion in public schools in China shifts the responsibility of learning to the teachers because students expect teachers to feed them with the right answers instead of actively thinking other possibilities. But I do not entirely blame the teacher. It is common that the traditional Chinese classroom experience at high school level do not encourage discussions. With roughly 50 students in one classroom and only 40 minutes for each class, teachers find it difficult to organize discussions to express everyone’s opinions within such a limited time period. And given the huge amount of materials to be covered for the tests, they need to give “structured” lectures which would ideally utilize the whole class period if no one interrupts their talking. Even when teachers do ask about our thoughts, students tend to follow other people’s answers instead of actively thinking of their own. As long as one person said the answer, no matter right or wrong, immediately there are students repeat it without hesitation. However, if the teacher deliberately prodded “is it correct?”, some students just suddenly change their minds and say “no”, without taking another look the question. Are those students not able to solve the problem? I don’t think so. What they are lack of are the independent thinking skills when facing specific problems, because they rarely have the opportunities to share their ideas in the classroom. All they need to do is just memorize what the teachers said and that’s what will be on the exams.Given that Chinese education is test-oriented, schools are not so motivated to provide students discussion opportunities in class. The majority of students’ homework is about “practice more and get familiar the pattern of the test”, not something they need to think and talk about. Even when teachers say “we’re gonna have a discussion tomorrow”, students often fail to prepare for it because they have other priorities that take their time and attention. Students can have up to nine classes of different subjects during one typical school day, and the classes meet every day. So when students get home, they are facing homework from nine subjects every night. With so many mandatory works on the list they need to actually hand in, the one that says “prepare for discussion” seems optional. The best they could do is just skim the reading, which is definitely not sufficient preparation for a meaningful discussion. Also, a 40-minute class period is a limited for either lecture or discussion, not to mention including both. Even if the teacher tries to start the discussion as soon as class begins, the students will have difficulty in delving into the discussion right away without enough warm-up through lecture. However, teachers can not feed them forever. Students need to develop independent thinking and learning skills through discussion before the stake is too high. When students graduate from college, one of the major qualities the employers are looking for is “Understand their own path” (Ryan), which requires the candidates to reflect upon what they have chosen and what they are passionate about their future. In this case, most Chinese students would fail to qualify this standard. Research shows that the top three college paths chosen by students in China are civic engineering, business administration, and computer science, which take up to roughly 87 percent of the student population (Souhu). However, when students are interviewed why they chose those majors, the top three answers were “my parents said it’s easy to find a job”, “I do not know what to study” and “my friends said this will be fun”. Without independent thinking skills, students only strive to find the “right” path that might benefit them in the future, but never give a chance to explore and share where their real interest lies. But how can we develop independent thinking skills if we do not get enough practice through class discussions?In order to hone students’ independent thinking skills and find their passions, public schools need to incorporate discussion into classrooms. For example, schools could make each class period longer (let’s say 90 minutes instead of 40) and alternate less (4 or 5) classes every other day instead of having nine short classes in one day.With fewer classes and less time during the school day devoted to changing classes, students are able to focus and accomplish more (Natasha). This way, students have less homework every day and can devote more time and energy to discussion preparations. It also provides both for teachers and students sufficient time to go through the topic. Teachers lecture first while the students absorb and reflect upon the materials, then more students have the chance to participate and delve into the topic deeper than before. Schools should also give students right to choose courses within certain categories to encourage them to actively explore their passions. Instead of “everyone takes physics, chemistry, biology, history, government, geography”, we could “choose two from sciences and two from humanities”. When students choose the courses they are interested in, they become more actively involved with the subject, therefore more passionate in discussing the topics. They can also meet students from different classes and with various interests to gain cross-disciplinary perspectives through discussion, which would be hard to obtain if they just sit in the traditional classroom where they sit with the same people every day. This way, students benefit from a multitude of instructional strategies used to address the variety of ways in which they learn. Unfortunately, the education system could not be so easily changed. The alternate schedule has its own problem. First, research shows that the average length of time a student could concentrate for in lectures is only 10 to 20 minutes (Richardson), which means they could barely get through half of a 40-minute lecture, not to mention 90 minutes. Although the discussion or other activities might keep the students engaged, that would condense the lecture time, which is equally important in students’ education. What’s more, English classes – the most prevalent foreign language class in public schools in China – requires daily exposure and practice to the language in order to excel. If it is only offered twice or three times a week, chances are students will need longer time to “warm up” at the beginning of each class.Even when school successfully incorporate discussion into classes, not all students participate equally. Professor Xiaodong Lin once wrote in the People’s Daily about the reasons some students are “quiet” in her class, including statements like “my parents told me that I should not speak unless I have correct answers” and “I am afraid of speaking when my ideas are different from the class” (Anderson). After all, we still need the “one right answer” to get through gaokao. I realized that would create great trouble if all  9.5 million candidates take different subject tests and express their own opinions in the test. In order to be fair to so many students, it would be impossible to evaluate individual differences through college admission process. However, life continues after graduation. Therefore, teachers need to “elevate their students’ mental workflow beyond just memorization” (Cox). Students need to obtain, understand, and analyze information on a much more efficient scale not only to find jobs but also selectively absorb the useful information instead of floating around with the junk and biased messages bombarded by the media. When this valuable skill is introduced to students early on in the education process, students will be capable of having complex thoughts and become better problem solvers when presented with difficulty. It’s important for students to possess a variety of skills, but it’s just as important for them to understand the skills and how, and when to use them.

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