The PISA Test: Rote learning vs 心肝皮肺肾/heart-mind-body

Apparently the results of the latest PISA tests on fifteen year old schoolchildren worldwide have generated some reactions and headlines.

Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators

A part of me is a little saddened that the Sporean students have been overhauled from their top rankings, but these things come and go anyway. As usual, the NYT article is an amusing read, peppered with just the right amounts of politically-incorrect ethnic eye-poking balanced with self-righteous nationalistic opprobrium. Well, at least no one’s talking about Exceptionalism here.

As usual, certain lines from the article caught my idle eye and fancy, and lead me to my response:

A 259-page Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report on the latest Pisa results notes that throughout its history, China has been organized around competitive examinations. “Schools work their students long hours every day, and the work weeks extend into the weekends,” it said.

Chinese students spend less time than American students on athletics, music and other activities not geared toward success on exams in core subjects. Also, in recent years, teaching has rapidly climbed up the ladder of preferred occupations in China, and salaries have risen. In Shanghai, the authorities have undertaken important curricular reforms, and educators have been given more freedom to experiment.

Ever since his organization received the Shanghai test scores last year, Mr. Schleicher said, international testing experts have investigated them to vouch for their accuracy, expecting that they would produce astonishment in many Western countries.

“This is the first time that we have internationally comparable data on learning outcomes in China,” Mr. Schleicher said. “While that’s important, for me the real significance of these results is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning.”

“Large fractions of these students demonstrate their ability to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very creatively in novel situations,” he said.

I certainly agree with the first highlighted point of the centrality of the Chinese imperial examination system to political, bureaucratic and social life in China for two thousand years. Notwithstanding the many inadequacies of the system in practice, the Chinese imperial examination system was probably the ancient world’s first true meritocracy, with the annual county-level examinations (as a first round test through which worthy scholars must pass before progressing to further examinations) holding out at least a hope and dream for the talented but disenfranchised to advance in society.

The second point “Chinese students spend less time … on athletics, music and other activities”, doesn’t quite cut ice with me. Since my quote of this line is already taken out of context, my response will of course be as equally frivolous.

I have always been a little crossed that the typical response to any discussion of the stereotype of Asian/Chinese students’ scholastic outperformance is with the dismissive pejorative, “Oh they’re just rote-learning anyway”.
In fact, the set curriculum for the Chinese imperial examination system has long followed Confucius’s teaching that the true gentleman/君子 practices the six arts: ritual, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and arithmetic.

So, for a little insight and colour into rote learning versus learning with your 心肝皮肺肾 (heart-liver-skin-lungs-kidney) or basically, to learn with your whole heart-mind-body in totality; here’s a dramatized rendition of how a typical college training aspirants to take the all-important 科举/imperial exams, may look like during the Jin Dynasty (circa 300 AD).

Video taken from the 1994 movie version of one of the most well-known and beloved stories in Chinese folklore, 梁祝/Butterfly Lovers.
This is probably my favourite film of all time.

梁祝/Butterfly Lovers:
[am linking the video at time 1.30, entry into the scene of the school gate and plaque]

First scene of a classroom with rows of students diligently reciting lines from Confucius’s Analects with sightly exaggerated head-rolls. [Head-rolling is used to reinforce the memorization of lines and lines of text, as an example of the application of kinesthetic-memory-mnemonic aids and is still used today. Am only half-kidding.] This is an example of rote learning.
[BTW, the lines being recited: 知止而后有定,定而后能静 / After knowing your limits you may be focused/centered, after centering you may quieten;
are probably meant as an ironic counterpoint to the scene]

Next, we have the beautiful scene of a music class being held out in the open, under falling autumnal blossoms. The old teacher, listening and shaking his head at his pupil’s playing of the 琴/qin/zither, bemoans that the young acolyte has only managed to express the sounds but not the soul of the music. He goes on to say that the 五音/five tones (of Chinese music) issues forth from the 心肝皮肺肾 (heart-liver-skin-lungs-kidney), which encompasses the the 五形/five elements, missing any of which, the 五音/five tones would fail to be complete.

When the pupil asks, in his expression of his music and of all the elements and ingredients, what is he lacking, the teacher replies: “情啊!Feelings ah!”.




Sigh, 梁祝/Butterfly Lovers
Many have described 梁祝/Butterfly Lovers as the Romeo & Juliet of Chinese literature. With all due respect to the dramatic genius of Shakespeare, that description sadly, would be a gross understatement of the true depth and richness of the 梁祝/Butterfly Lovers tale.

Over the centuries, through countless retellings of this beloved folk-tale, it has been an inspiration for generations of artists: from dramatizations into local operatic arts, and in the past century, film adaptations and not in the least, the composition of an entire orchestra score that is less a musical accompaniment than a beautifully symbolic retelling of the story:

Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto 1st Part:

Simply beautiful.
I believe the first two minutes of this first part, from the light ethereal flute opening, to the wistful oboe transition, into the much anticipated and achingly sad and beautiful violin solo, is probably the most recognizable of all Chinese music for all Chinese people anywhere for some generations now. Many a stoic Chinaman who may not know the story, will get teary-eyed upon hearing the familiar tune.
[But I still prefer the versions with an erhu or guzheng solo]

And of the many dramatized versions of the 梁祝/Butterfly Lovers story in recent decades, the above 1994 film version by the mercurial-Mercutio maverick genius director, Tsui Hark, is my favourite.
Tsui Hark’s film version, while ostensibly a romantic-comedy, does full justice to the tragedy that is at the heart of the story. And with his breath-taking scenery and cinematography, beautiful sets and costumes, and a wonderfully arranged adaptation of the musical score, he hits all the right notes; especially with a few precious scenes and moments which for me, are amongst the most tragic and heart-breaking evocations in cinematic art.

This 1994 film and faithful retelling of an age-old tale defined the themes of love, tyranny, loss and commitment, for an entire generation.

[Just decided to add what I consider to be the second most heart-breaking scene from the film:]

梁祝/Butterfly Lovers Ending:

The ending part of the film. What’s not to like.
The rich scenery palette, movement, symbolic overly-painted faces to be washed away by a loving touch and cleansing rain, vermilion wedding ceremonial dress stripped down to coarse funereal sack-cloth then back again, timing, timing…, the sad lamentation of a song written on a blank but not empty blood-stained last will and letter, a plain wooden slate for the tombstone of a too poor and too powerless scholar-official, writing and adding name in blood on tombstone – an eternal and final union stronger than any marriage ritual…, and paper butterflies…


One thought on “The PISA Test: Rote learning vs 心肝皮肺肾/heart-mind-body

  1. Clarification:

    3 Reasons Why Singapore Math Curriculum is Recommended by the NCTM For U.S. Schools


    By contrast, these same math tests consistently show Asian nations scoring at the top. In the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Singapore ranked number 1 followed by South Korea and Hong Kong. In the 2006 PISA tests, Asian countries took 4 of the top 10 spots.

    In the U.S., math standards are set at the state level and curriculum choices are made by local school districts. States and local districts rely on guidelines provided by the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Based on the research and theories of education “experts”, the NCTM published 1989 guidelines which embraced new ‘reform math’ curriculums. Rather than helping achieve higher test scores, these programs caused many districts to achieve lower test scores. The following programs are examples:

    o ‘Everyday Mathematics’ (Bell, 1988-1996)
    o ‘Connected Mathematics’ (Lappan et al, 1991-1997).
    o ‘Investigations in Numbers, Data, and Space’ (Dale Seymour Publications- TERC)
    o ‘Interactive Mathematics Program’ (National Science Foundation)

    After 17 years of poor results on standardized tests plus more recent failures on International tests, the NCTM saw changes were needed. In 2006, they published new guidelines which tossed out much of the research and theories that shaped the 1989 guidelines. Instead, they relied heavily on methods used by Asian countries getting the top test scores.

    Francis Fennell, the NCTM’s president, says the 2006 guidelines move closer to the curriculum of Singapore. Several key factors were identified to explain why the NCTM followed the Singapore math model:

    1. Top Test Scores: Singapore math students outperform the rest of the world.

    2. Greater Focus: Singapore math students focus intensely on a handful of topics. This is in contrast to the U.S., where many state standards in set forth dozens of topics to be covered in each grade. With too many objectives, the NCTM report refers to U.S. math curriculums as “a mile wide and an inch deep”. The lack of focus with U.S. curriculums makes it difficult for students to master the most important math skills. The 2006 NCTM guidelines set forth no more than three basic skills for each grade level. Fortunately, some states are already following the new NCTM guidelines and are revising their standards to narrow the basic skills that students should master for each grade level.

    3. Emphasis on Math Concepts: Singapore Math emphasizes mastery of math concepts and training students to connect different mathematical ideas using words and word problems. Rather than just teaching kids to memorize math facts, Singapore Math focuses on math concepts to give students something to hang those math facts on. Singapore Math uses traditional math problem solving while also encouraging participation in mental math exercises, solving math problems in their heads without pencil and paper.

    Singapore Math is a curriculum modeled on that country’s official program. Thanks to the new NCTM guidelines, about 300 U.S. school districts now use Singapore Math. Many school districts and parents regard Singapore Math as the solution to reverse the damage done by “reform math” programs that arose from the math council’s earlier recommendations.


    See also:

    Cultural differences.
    Cultural differences between the US and Singapore, and among diverse cultures within the US, may be relevant. Cultural differences do have large impacts on student learning; however, that does not imply that students from different cultures respond differently to the distinctive features of Singapore Math – e.g., the focus on essential math skills, exceptionally simple explanations, and the bar model method of solving multi-step word problems.

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