Essay on Confusion: Confucianism and Education

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Teaching & Learning Position Paper
May 2012

Don Starr

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ISBN 978‐0‐9570066‐1‐4

China and the Confucian Education
Model

A position paper commissioned and published by
Universitas 21, the leading global network of research universities for the 21st century.
May 2012

Don Starr
Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies
Durham University
Former President of the British Association of Chinese Studies
d.f.starr@durham.ac.uk

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Contents page

Executive Summary

4

Introduction

6

Confucius and education

8

The traditional Chinese education system

10

Contemporary education

12

The paradox of the Chinese learner

15

Chinese perceptions of the role of the teacher and student

19

International comparisons

20

Conclusions

24

References

26

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China and the Confucian Education Model
Don Starr
Executive Summary
Confucian is here defined as traditional attitudes and practices existing in East Asian societies which ultimately are derived from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher
Confucius (551-479 BCE) and his later followers. These teachings are characterised by their emphasis on ethics and statecraft, and resulted, in the case of China, in a society dominated by a secular elite recruited through a merit-based examination system.
Education was the route to social status and material success, and promoted harmony based on morality and hierarchy. The status of education remains high in Confucian heritage cultures; this is reflected in the degree of parental in terest in education, in pressure on children to succeed at school and in the priority it receives in family expenditure. Following Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reform and opening up’ policy from 1978 onwards, China re-entered the world economic system after the period of seclusion of the Cultural
Revolution (1966-76). Western teachers of English sta rted to go to China taking communicative language teaching meth ods and Chinese students began to travel abroad to study.

Western educators who came into contact with Chinese learners

found approaches to teaching

and learning that contrasted markedly with curr ent

Western practice, though not necessarily with much earlier Western practice. These included teacher-centred whole class teaching, very large classes, apparent passivity on the part of learners with low levels of active learner participation, and much use of teacher-led chanting, rote-learning and mimetic methods.
Western educators however noted a paradox. According to Western pedagogic theory, such methods are typical features of a surface learning approach, and will result in a failure to achieve a deep level of und erstanding and in poor learning outco mes.
However, this was n ot reflected in the actual learning outcomes of Chinese learners, many of whom showed higher achievement levels than Western learners. During the
1990s and early 2000s this led to the publication of a significant amount of research based on observation, interview and questionnaire data, much of it collaborative between Western and Chinese sch olars. The conclusion was that We stern educators were mistaken in th eir perceptions of the process of learning occurring in Chine se

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classrooms. What appeared to

be mindless rote-learning was in fact a process of

memorisation and re flection; the absen ce of le arner initiated verbalisation, such as spontaneous questions, masked a pr ocess of silent but effective mental engagement with the topic. We present recent data which confirm the continued high achievement levels of Chinese and other Confucian heritage learners in international comparisons.
Rising levels of Chinese go vernment and Chinese family in vestment in education, coupled with China’s huge size, are likely to result in the economic drift eastwards being accompanied by an e ducational one. The Chinese

government is a…