Critical Thinking and Chinese International Students:

Critical Thinking and Chinese International Students:

An East-West Dialogue

Michael O’Sullivan

Brock University

Linyuan Guo

University of Prince Edward Island


In the West, the teaching of critical thinking, albeit differentially defined, is seen

as the core of work at a graduate level. Despite the fact that developing such critical

skills is increasing as an expectation of schools in the West, the literature reflects

concerns that Canadian educated students arrive at university unprepared to engage at the

expected level of criticality. If this is true of domestic students, what is the situation

facing those international students who were educated in intellectual traditions, such as

China’s, where critical thinking, at least as understood in the West, is rarely encouraged,

and often actually discouraged? Do such students arrive prepared to work at a post-

secondary level that involves critical thinking? Do such students embrace or resist critical

thinking when these skills are taught to them? Is teaching critical thinking to these

students a legitimate scholarly pursuit or is it, in effect, a neocolonial conceit? Can the

Asian notion of harmony be reconciled with the Western notion of often-times sharp

engagement with ideas and debate with their classmates and instructors? The authors,

one a Canadian born and raised professor of comparative and international education to

Chinese students studying in Canada, the other, a Chinese scholar who recently

completed her doctorate in Canada where she now teaches, engage in a dialogue on

Western concepts of critical thinking and the reaction of one class of Chinese

international students to this pedagogy.


From virtually the first day of their intensive 14-month Master of Education

program at Brock University, the Chinese students of the Faculty of Education’s

International Student Program (ISP) are introduced to, and encouraged to apply, the

concept of critical thinking. This paper constitutes a reflection upon O’Sullivan’s

experience of teaching critical thinking to the Chinese students in the ISP. The journey

that I have taken in this process of reflection has increased my conviction that those of us

who teach critical thinking to any group of students, domestic or international, need to be

constantly aware of, and attentive to, our assumptions about what we mean by critical

thinking and how we engage pedagogically when we teach critical thinking.

54 O’Sullivan & Guo

Your teaching reflection reminds me of the confusion I experienced during the

first couple years of my learning experience when I started my graduate study at the

University of Alberta several years ago. Critical thinking was never formally introduced

during classes; however, my professor’s comments on my writing assignments frequently

made reference to my lack of criticality. It was not uncommon for me to receive

comments like “you should discuss more critically …”. There is an assumption by

professors who teach graduate courses that the concept and practice of critical thinking

has been mastered by their students, including international students, and all graduate

students should have developed good critical thinking skills as a result of their previous

education. This phenomenon was particularly challenging for me as an international

student from China because the concept of critical thinking, developed in the Euro-

western world, is absent from Chinese education discourse at both secondary and post-

secondary levels. I am very pleased that you recognized, and did not ignore, this issue. In

the Canadian education context in which critical thinking is valued philosophically and

pedagogically, your reflection on teaching critical thinking to international students from

different learning environments and educational systems is very meaningful. I believe all

students, and instructors who teach international students with diverse cultural and

educational backgrounds, should give special consideration to this topic as it provides

opportunities for all of us to critique our educational views and underlying philosophies

from new perspectives.

What Critical Thinking Do We Teach?

The emergence of the dominant form of critical thinking (dominant in the sense of

being widely practiced and formally authorized) can be linked to the publication in the

United States in 1983 of A Nation at Risk. This report was written in response to

government fears that the American educational system was not producing the quality of

mind required to maintain US superiority in the face of foreign competition. It favoured

improving student “reasoning skills” across the curriculum (Walters, 1994, p. 3). The

enthusiasm with which this initiative was undertaken was described as a critical thinking

explosion on US campuses with the emergence of a first wave of positivist critical

thinkers (Walters, p. 4).

The net result of this undoubtedly well-intentioned effort to enhance students’

thinking skills resulted in a pedagogy that Giroux (1994) calls the “internal consistency

position” (p. 200). For the advocates of this approach

… critical thinking refers primarily to teaching students how to analyze and

develop reading and writing assignments from the perspective of formal, logical

patterns of consistency. In this case, the student is taught to examine the logical

development of a theme, “advance organizers,” systematic argument, the validity

of evidence, and how to determine whether a conclusion flows from the data

under study. While all of the latter learning skills are important, their limitations

as a whole [in this approach] lie in what is excluded, and it is with respect to what

is missing that the ideology of such an approach is revealed. (pp. 200-201)

Teaching about logic analysis and consistency in reading and writing is actually an

important part of pre-university education in China, particularly in mathematics,

Critical thinking and Chinese international students 55

language arts, science, and politics. This type of teaching is not explicitly called critical

thinking as it is in the Western context. However, I believe if you ask your students if and

how they learned these specific skills, they might well give you classroom examples, but

they wouldn’t refer to it as critical thinking. The Chinese terms used to describe these

understandings of critical thinking are luo ji (logic), tu li (deduction), yan yi (induction),

and lian guan (consistency). In my experience, Chinese and Canadians have different

understandings and practices of consistency in writing, because of the unique linguistic

features of the two languages. Good writing in Chinese is not the same as good writing

in English, and this constitutes a challenge for your students who just started academic

writing in English.

In the face of this mainstreaming (Ibrahim, 2005) of critical thinking, Walters

(1994) identified the emergence of a second wave of critical thinking. For second wave

advocates, critical thinking constitutes a way of creating an intellectual framework which

frees the student “from dominance by … the frames of reference [and] the worldviews in

which one becomes critically literate” (Paul, 1994, p. 182).

In order to critique and become free from the dominant worldview in which they become

critically literate, do students need to understand the other worldviews first? If yes, have

your students had opportunities to learn about other worldviews or frames of references

before critiquing their own worldviews?

The first wave approach to critical thinking does not question the hegemonic

intellectual “frames of reference and worldviews” in which the student becomes literate.

It has the more restrictive purpose of developing rigorous rational thought regarding

problem solving within the logical framework of the dominant social structure and the

worldview which gives it its legitimacy. The second wave of critical thinking seeks to

explore more fundamental questions about the characteristics of the dominant social

structure and the hegemonic ideology which provides it with intellectual coherence.

For Canadian students, the dominant social structure is economically capitalist

(and, at least until the recent global financial meltdown, increasingly neoliberal) and

politically liberal-democratic. For Chinese students, their reality is economically

capitalist (or “market socialist”) and neoliberal, while politically it is authoritarian. These

are the “systems” within which Canadians and Chinese, respectively, learn to think, and

which they have to critically examine in order to develop their own autonomous thinking

about these systems and their received truths. Paul (1994) refers to this as achieving

“critical empowerment” (p. 182).

I agree with your description of the economic and political contexts in Canada and

China. Social and educational contexts/systems are also worthy of note in this case.

Canadian society favors the individual perspective and independent thinking, while

Chinese culture favors a holistic perspective and the collective good which places a great

emphasis on harmony and “not losing face” (bu diu mian zi). Disagreeing with

someone’s opinion in public is consciously or unconsciously avoided. Canadian

education is learner-centered and students take active roles and responsibilities in the

56 O’Sullivan & Guo

learning process. Education in China is still very much teacher-centered and exam-

oriented and students are expected to follow teachers’ instruction and thinking in order

to achieve good marks in exams. Although this is gradually changing because of

dramatic nation-wide curriculum reform, the traditional education paradigm will not

change quickly. The authoritarian political and learning contexts in China themselves

resist the development of student autonomous thinking.

Paul (1994) notes that what he calls “critical empowerment” will not “be achieved

overnight in one course” (p. 182). Students come to class more or less fully formed in

one of the several variants of the positivist tradition and “if students are to learn to think

critically in a strong sense, they must be exposed to [such a critical approach to

pedagogy] over an extended period of time, over years, not months” (p. 182). Clearly,

this has implications for teaching any students; however, it is particularly troublesome

when teaching Chinese students in the ISP.

First of all, they are with us only 14 months after spending at least 16 years in

Chinese educational institutions where the primary orientation for the first 12 of those

years is to score among the top 10% in the National College Entrance Exams (NCEE) in

order to insure a place in the more prestigious post secondary institutions in China.

Preparation for these exams, which begins at the earliest stage of the formal academic

experience, deeply entrenches the skill of rote memorization, while actively discouraging

the development of the habits of mind required to call into question fundamental

assumptions, be they social, political, or cultural.

Secondly, we must take into consideration the resistance of Chinese students to

having China referred to in terms that they perceive as negative. This is especially true

when comments are made that challenge values, institutions, customs, and practices

which they have come to accept or revere. In contrast, while their Canadian-born peers

will undoubtedly be intellectually challenged by critical thinking, the arguments

presented will have an air of familiarity, and it is unlikely that they will feel what is being

said is coming from a possibly hostile national perspective that is not their own.

Whereas, in the case of the Chinese students, when the object of critical inquiry is China,

especially when the instructor, as invariably will be the case, is not Chinese, this element

is introduced and leads to the noted sensitivity to criticisms of China from foreigners.

Being challenged about one’s own system, opinion, and values in public is viewed as

“losing face” (diu mian zi) and is considered disgraceful in the Confucian tradition.

Critical thinking is often translated as “pi pan shi si wei”, which literally means looking

for faults in others. It is easy to understand how students who have not been taught this

[critical] pedagogy and who, furthermore, come from a very different philosophical

tradition, could easily conclude that critical thinking is negative thinking. I think this is

reflected in your interviews: student responses indicated their perception that the course

objective was to guide them to look for the negative aspects of the Chinese system, which

is very different from your actual objective of teaching critical thinking.

In addition to the misleading Chinese translation and ambiguous meaning of critical

thinking, I believe the international political context at the time of your teaching should

not be ignored as it may be one reason for students’ resistance to learning critical

Critical thinking and Chinese international students 57

thinking through topics about China. As the largest developing country, China occupies,

and will increasingly occupy, a position of major global economic and political power.

During the time of your teaching the course analyzed in this article (January to March,

2008), there were reports of resentment and resistance from Chinese International

students overseas to Western media reports on Chinese human right issues, especially

with respect to Tibet. The topics you covered in class in fact reflected the many issues

referred to in North American media. This would help explain why Chinese students were

sensitive about the topics covered in the class.

Finally, both waves of critical thinking are, for international Chinese students,

mediated through a cultural lens that undoubtedly shifts its meaning in ways that non-

Chinese educators may have trouble anticipating.

What you refer to as first wave critical thinking is, in fact, being taught in China, but not

the so-called second wave, or critical pedagogy approach to critical thinking. The

Chinese curriculum does not include an approach that, as you put it, “challenges [the]

values, institutions, customs, and practices” of the dominant society, in this case, China.

The International Student Program (ISP): Context

The (xxxx university of the first author) actively recruits students from China for its

International Student Program (ISP), and typically accepts from 15 to 20 recent graduates

of Chinese undergraduate institutions. The program allows them to complete an M. Ed.

over a short, but intense, period. The ISP is a cohort program which means, except in

occasional individual cases, the members of the group take all their classes together and

no student who is not part of the cohort can join the group for a given class. It is very

much a self-contained program, a practice which arose primarily from the students’

difficulties with following lectures in English and the need to adjust the pace of

instruction accordingly.

The ISP students begin their program in July each year with two courses that

introduce them to the expectations associated with graduate study at a Canadian

university, including an introduction to research methodology, essay writing skills, and

the APA style manual. The importance of critical thinking is infused throughout all the

courses. Upon completion of their courses the following April, the students write an exit

project which must be completed by late August in order for them to graduate in the Fall.

You might consider giving this cohort of students the opportunity to participate in

discussions with non-Chinese students in a regular class. This would enable them to

observe how students from Canada, and/or other countries, demonstrate critical thinking

skills and perspectives in class. In my opinion, having all the Chinese students in one

class isolates them from the benefit of exchanging ideas with non Chinese students and

expanding their perspectives .

Teaching the ISP: Getting Off to a Bad Start


y first experience teaching comparative education to the ISP was far from being a

success. I chose the text Comparative education: Exploring issues in international

58 O’Sullivan & Guo

context (Kubow & Fossum, 2007) which presumed a much greater knowledge of recent

global history than the students had. Overall, the course proved to be a frustrating

experience for all concerned. Determined to do better the following year, I asked myself

“what strength can I build on that these students bring to the course?” The obvious

answer was that they bring a lifelong experience in the Chinese educational system, an

experience I suspected they had not reflected upon.

As you have noted, Chinese education is very much exam-oriented due to its

overemphasis on selecting students for advanced education. Teaching and learning have

mainly focused on in-depth subject knowledge. Curriculum in post-secondary institutions

carries on this tradition and focuses on courses in the students’ major. There are few

courses on global events, international education contexts, etc. offered to students. This

accounts for the difficulties experienced by your students when faced with the particular

international examples in the text you selected. It also reinforces my earlier point that

freeing themselves from the constraints of their own worldview, requires, among other

things, learning about the worldviews of others.

Since this was a comparative education course, I took comfort in the fact that

another course that the ISP students take involves a study of Canadian schooling and

includes visits to a wide range of educational institutions in the region. I, therefore,

decided to examine the Chinese educational system with the comparative aspect being

education in Ontario as examined in this other course.

Good point. Although I still question the decision to treat the ISP students as a self-

contained cohort, this arrangement does provide the students with opportunities to

expand their worldview which partially overcomes the disadvantage of studying in a

culturally homogeneous class. These opportunities include the fact that (a) they are in a

Canadian university and hearing a Western perspective from their professors; (b) they

are living in Canada and interacting, to some degree, with Canadians and other

international students; (c) they are visiting Canadian schools and studying Canadian

educational theory in other classes. As reported below, one of the students expressed her

appreciation of learning critical thinking through topics on China in your class and

topics on North America in other classes.

Claiming no expertise in Chinese education but with the assistance of a Chinese

graduate student who was not part of the ISP cohort, I identified a series of readings that

dealt with the challenges facing the Chinese educational system, most of which were

written by Chinese scholars or Chinese educational officials. The intention here, in

addition to finding course-appropriate literature, was to deflect possible criticisms that I

was engaging in a foreign critique of China and Chinese education.

I think your deliberate choice of readings from Chinese scholars and officials definitely

reduces students’ sensitivity toward foreign criticism. I am curious if you also chose some

articles written by Western scholars and compared students’ comments on these

readings? Recognizing from what perspective critiques are made, I think, is important in

critical thinking.

Critical thinking and Chinese international students 59

If teaching critical thinking skills to the ISP students was a challenge, doing so

with China as the focus of inquiry added to the complexity of this task. This approach

flew in the face of the advice of some of my colleagues to critically examine education in

Canada, not China. It was my opinion that critiquing the Other (in this case, the

Canadian education system) is hardly a test of one’s critical thinking abilities because

such a critique does not hit close to home. The students’ ownership of critical thinking

becomes pertinent when the critical lens is focused on ideas, values, institutions, and

practices that are near and dear to them and which have been previously unexamined by

them. While I was aware of the Chinese students’ sensitivity and tried to mitigate it with

my choice of readings, my strategy proved to be only partially successful.

The reflections that follow are based on seeking answers to four questions:

1. Are Chinese students in the ISP adequately prepared to undertake graduate studies in which “working at a graduate level” is generally defined as

achieving the analytical competence associated with developing critical

thinking skills and applying them ever more competently as they progress

through their program?

2. Are Chinese students in the ISP disposed to actively embrace, as opposed to passively resist, learning critical thinking skills, particularly when the

instructor takes China as the object of inquiry?

3. Did I teach transformative second wave critical thinking skills or, in effect, did my efforts constitute a mainstream, first wave interpretation of

critical thinking?

4. Is teaching critical thinking using China as the object of study a legitimate scholarly pursuit designed to expand the students’ academic skill set or is

it, in effect, a neocolonial conceit?

The questions you raise here are highly relevant to the objective of your teaching. The

last question is very thoughtful because it reminds us of the potential neocolonialism and

educational hegemony resulting from globalization and students’ international mobility.

As I have experienced the confusion and ambiguity caused by the concept of critical

thinking, I think a fundamental question for this group of Chinese students is: What does

critical thinking mean to you? This question will clarify students’ learning needs and

direct what and how critical thinking can be taught through the course/program.

The Methodology Employed and Its Limitations

Of the 15 students in the second iteration of this comparative education course, I

was only able to interview seven. Several, corresponding to those who were least happy

with the course’s orientation, declined to be interviewed and others dispersed before I

was able to speak to them. Despite the fact that I did not have the opportunity to

interview a larger, more representative sample, I was present for some very lively, and

occasionally very heated, classroom discussions as students took up the issues that were

raised in class. Nonetheless, had I been able to interview even one or two of the dissident

voices 1 , my data would have been richer.

60 O’Sullivan & Guo

I sensed ethical concerns from those students who refused to participate in this study. As

you say, some students were not happy with the course orientation. If they had

participated in the interviews, they would have felt obliged to express their disagreements

or negative feelings about the experience directly to you, the instructor. My guess is that

they would have felt very uncomfortable with this for reasons I have already mentioned.

If you repeat this study, it may ease students’ concerns if you use a third-party

interviewer, rather than conducting the interviews yourself.

Critical Thinking and Graduate Students Educated in China

If Canadian students arrive at university with limited critical thinking skills the

Chinese students in the ISP cohort typically arrive, with rare exceptions, with no history

of learning critical thinking. Furthermore, they come from an academic culture which

employs a discourse and practice that actively discourages such inquiry.

I don’t agree with point you make in this statement. As I said, critical thinking has not

been an official discourse in Chinese curriculum until very recently. Students have

learned some critical thinking skills, such as reasoning, logic, and inductive and

deductive arguing, but they don’t necessarily know that this is what is called critical

thinking. Chinese students who go overseas for graduate studies are normally strong in

these aspects, according to my personal encounters with students in similar situations. As

for the second point, this is true in general sense, but not absolutely. Studying in schools

in big cities gives students more opportunity to develop first wave critical thinking than

those in rural areas.

The shortcomings of this system, based as it is on the passive transmission of

knowledge, is beginning to be recognized at the highest level of the Chinese academic

and political elite (Lam, 2006). But the combination of centuries-old traditions and the

entrenchment of the NCEE heavily pressures Chinese teachers not to stray off paths that

lead to student success in those life-altering examinations. By the time students reach

university, the habits of mind that provided the academic ability to achieve acceptance

into postsecondary institutions are well established, and, if the accounts of the ISP

students reported below are accurate, little happens during their undergraduate years to

challenge these habits.

I recognize that not everyone will agree with this assessment. Bell (2008), for

example, argues that his Chinese graduate students at Beijing’s Tsinghua University

exhibit a well-developed capacity to critique existing practices in China although his

short article does not allow him to suggest where his students learned the skills that he

ascribes to them or to what extent this situation is typical. My colleague, (xxxx name of

colleague), who has taught both graduate and undergraduate students in China, argues

that there was a wave of critical pedagogy in China beginning in the 1980s (XXXX name

of colleague, personal communication, 2008). (XXXX name of colleague) appreciation

of the situation and the critical pedagogy that he used in his classes in China, stands in

contrast to my experience with the Chinese students I have taught recently who

repeatedly told me, as the interviews reported below indicate, that their educational

experiences were characterized by receiving instruction which involved a great deal of

memorizing in class and the regurgitation of information for exams. None of them

Critical thinking and Chinese international students 61

reported engaging in processes which encouraged them to develop their own ideas,

particularly when that involved challenging conventional wisdom.

There seems an apparent contradiction between these students’ response and my earlier

statement regarding the evidence of first wave critical thinking being taught in China,

something which both Bell and (XXXX name of colleague) agree with. Is it possible that

this apparent contradiction arises because first wave critical thinking distracts from

second wave critical thinking? I would interpret your students’ responses as an

indication of the absence of the second wave of critical thinking in their prior

educational experience. You have indicated that the objective of this course is to develop

the second wave critical thinking, which is legitimate because this is what Chinese

students have not been formally taught before coming to Canada.

Added to this academic experience, we must consider the linguistic complication

inherent in the very term critical thinking which carries a connotation of negativity both

in English and Chinese. Little wonder, then, that the Chinese students, when asked to

consider “critical perspectives on Chinese education” interpret this as requiring them to

find fault with their country and its educational system.

I agree as I have already noted above.

Attitudes of ISP Students towards Critical Thinking and the Perceived Criticisms of


Leaving aside the issue of whether I was, in effect, teaching first wave or second wave

critical thinking – I return to this in my findings – what was the reaction of the ISP

students when faced with the requirement to apply critical thinking to China and to

Chinese educational practices in my comparative education course?

I asked each student who I interviewed if he or she felt comfortable with the

course expectation that they apply critical thinking to the Chinese educational system.

Jasmine 2 said “I appreciated the course expectations [with respect to] critical thinking. I

think what Chinese students lack is critical thinking so when I saw the expectations I

thought it was very useful and meaningful to Chinese students.” She also said that the

critical thinking skills in other classes focused on North American examples, whereas the

comparative education class presented “the negative part of our Chinese educational

system and society so it was more relevant for us.” My interview with Jasmine was the

first of the seven and I took particular note of her use of the word “negative.” It would

not be the only time I heard this choice of words to describe how they saw China being


Jasmine’s use of the word of negative implies her understanding of critical thinking as

negative thinking, which, as I have already noted, is based on the Chinese connotation of

the concept critical. Even if the topics in your course were not about China, this

conceptual confusion would nonetheless exist. This use of terms like “negative” and

“problem” confirms the need for conceptual clarification about critical thinking.

62 O’Sullivan & Guo

Critical thinking need not be negative or destructive thinking; often it is a very positive

activity, producing genuine knowledge and a satisfying feeling of justified confidence in

that knowledge. It is also not contrary to creative or lateral thinking. From your students’

comments, I don’t think they have understood critical thinking in a deep sense. This is

hardly surprising since, as Paul (1994) suggests, such an understanding will not be

achieved overnight.

Dawn, too, equated critical thinking with negative thinking when she said “I think

your class was very useful because we learned to use critical thinking and we found some

problems with our Chinese education system.” She remarked that during her educational

experience in China

our teachers told us the way to think about our country, that it was great, and had

no problems, but now I think this course helped in that aspect. We must realize

the negative (my emphasis – XXXX first author’s initials) aspects so we can

make changes and improve conditions to make our country better.

Her reference to the course presenting, in effect, the negative parts of “our Chinese

educational system” reinforced my fears that I had failed to effectively communicate the

fact that critical thinking does not simply equate with negative thinking.

Dawn’s critical comment about the Chinese educational system reflects widespread

criticism of educational practice within China. Regarding your fear of failing to

communicate what you had hoped for with respect to critical thinking, she says she

realizes now, as a result of your class, that “we can make changes and improve

conditions to make our country better.” To me, that represents successful critical


Louise brought a very personal perspective to the discussion. She is older than

her classmates, and, as a young child, she participated in the Tiananmen demonstrations.

She said that the Tiananmen events were life altering for her and that she appreciated the

orientation of the course. She said

In this course we learned more about our own system. In China maybe we

ignored a lot of things about our own educational system, but here we have

developed very clear ideas about our Chinese system, both the advantages and

disadvantages. In China, as students, we just comply and never have deep

thoughts about the system and, as a result, we ignore both the good and the bad.

Joanne found the class to be “helpful” and she identified “lack of equity” with

respect to access to education to be the most interesting theme. When she was in China,

she did not think this was a problem but “from some of the articles, I find that lack of

education equity in China is a very large problem.” A number of the students researched

the lack of equity in Chinese education for their exit projects.

Julie was the only student interviewed who commented on the fact that I had built

the course around the framework of globalization and the neoliberalization of China. She

suggested that she learned more about China from the course than about Chinese


Critical thinking and Chinese international students 63

Julie’s response indicates that she is able to see issues about China as part of a bigger

picture and I believe this is part of what you planned to achieve from this course.

However, other students’ comments indicate their worldviews are still dominated by the

socialization and life experience with which they are most familiar. They are not

empowered yet to think critically in a strong and broad sense, considering their short

stay in Canada at the time of taking this course.

Eliza said the most memorable aspects of her experience in the program were the

class presentations and writing essays. These activities “pushed our thinking to write

things we never thought about before.” Doing the class presentations, “put us in the

position of teaching ourselves and teaching our classmates, not just us sitting there to

receive the knowledge from the teachers like in typical Chinese classrooms.”

All of the students interviewed said that the course, in the words of Jasmine, gave

the students the opportunity “to see what’s happening in China.” Jasmine added that it

was important “that the Chinese students … see the things that they view as negative

because the Chinese system exposes us too much to the good parts and omits the so-

called bad parts.”

Your findings here resonate with the findings of my research. Due to the narrowness of

the undergraduate curriculum, Chinese students are not oriented in their studies to see

the bigger picture. There is an urgent need to update or reform the undergraduate

curriculum in Chinese post-secondary institutions.

Dawn noted that “in China we didn’t get such access to know the problems that

exist in the Chinese educational system and you offered us a balanced attitude and [an

opportunity to] develop some thoughts on what changes might improve the Chinese

educational system.”

Lance, in his response to my question about the extracts from the two

documentaries we saw, said “I am patriotic. I love my country, so you can tell me the

truth [about it].” Referring to some segments of a Public Broadcasting System (2006)

documentary on China, Lance said

Young people in China would like to see such films but they don’t have the

opportunity. If you visit the PBS home site in China they will block it. If you

post anything that criticizes the Communist Party … your entry will be deleted.

So, I really enjoy the freedom here. It’s very important.

Ironically, despite the fact that many of the students mentioned that Chinese young

people do not have access to the type of information or analysis that we dealt with in

class, when asked why they felt comfortable engaging in what was perceived as a critique

of China when some of their peers did not, a number of the students (e.g., Jasmine, Julie,

and Dawn) defined themselves, in effect, as “inside dopesters” replying essentially that

unlike their fellow students, they already knew that the situation was different than the

official version. They attribute this to having parents who work as relatively senior

officials within the state apparatus.

64 O’Sullivan & Guo

Interesting. Media in China are perceived as the “tongue” of government by both

government and citizens. Many people read media reports and articles, but form their

opinions based on internal news sources (the unpublicized reality). It is ironic that the

distrust of public media is evident and pervasive in China and citizens have learned to

cope with the displacements of living in two worlds.

The Documentary Film:

I showed an extract of one film, Manufactured Landscapes, documenting

Burtynsky’s photographic expedition to China (Baichwal, 2007). Manufactured

Landscapes depicts diverse aspects of Chinese economic life including scenes of the

working conditions in factories and environmental issues related to the impact of the

Three Gorges Dam and the degradation caused in one community, particularly to its

water supply, resulting from disassembling old TVs and computers sent from the West to

be recycled.

The scenes in Manufactured Landscapes that depicted the environmental impact

of China’s growth elicited a strong response. Some were moved by the extent of

environmental degradation depicted in the film (Dawn, Julie, Eliza, and Lance) while

others (and this was expressed in class discussion principally by those who declined to be

interviewed) were upset that foreign film-makers were documenting such scenes and

embarrassing China. While most of the students debated the appropriateness of showing

such scenes, only one student picked up on the message that China and the West share

responsibility for the impact of China’s role in the international division of labour. The

products depicted in the film, both those that were being assembled and those that were

being disassembled, were made under contract to supply Western markets.

Louise, perhaps, best captured the ambivalence that the students felt towards

Manufactured Landscape. She confessed to being “a little bit ashamed about the

Chinese current situation,” stating that “these things” happen but when she talks to

Westerners, she says, “I don’t want to know how bad things are from others.” Louise

suggested that some of the younger students took criticisms of China personally as they

would if someone criticized their parents. She said their attitude was “I can make these

criticisms but you can’t.”

You were teaching this class in the January-March period preceding the August, 2008

Olympic Games. It is important to remember that during this pre-Olympic period, the

Western media were full of frequently negative stories about China. This could easily

have contributed to a particular sensitivity on the part of your students but Louise is right

to point out that, at the best of times, we Chinese don’t like hearing criticisms of China

from Westerners, even if we might make those same criticisms ourselves.

In response to a question about whether the experiences that she and her

classmates had in this course had created a positive energy or divided the class, Eliza,

echoing Paul’s (1994) observation that criticality takes years to achieve, said that the

negative reaction by some was “natural” because “this is our first year in the country and

most of our classmates never went abroad before.” She continued

Critical thinking and Chinese international students 65

When we suddenly faced all that information that criticized the phenomena of

China, the first reaction will be to resist. Although inside our hearts yeah, that’s

true, but the first reaction will be to resist. If we … stayed in Canada, for

example, for more than one year [and became] familiar with the international

environment, we [would get] more absorbed and [learn] to face those issues,

[whereas] back in China all the media surrounding us always praises things in


Eliza’s comment reflects my previous observation about the Chinese media. Her

response is quite critical, isn’t it? She can relate her experience with the reality and her

situation and is able to vision the future changes. Her comments provide evidence of the

achievement of learning objectives.


(i) Do the Chinese students arrive prepared for work at a graduate level that

involves critical thinking?

I have argued that the Chinese educational system is characterized by its reliance

on the passive transmission of knowledge and that this is reflected in the years of

preparation for the NCEE. The habits of mind developed as a result of this approach to

teaching and learning do not prepare the students for critical thinking.

I acknowledge the objection to this characterization of Chinese education but I

maintain, in the face of my classroom experience teaching in the ISP and the repeated

assertions to this effect by our visiting Chinese students who, after all, recently graduated

from a large number of Chinese universities, that this characterization is accurate

whatever exceptions to the rule may exist. Given this observation, the next question

becomes key.

You will anticipate my response to this based on my earlier comments. I think it would be

more accurate to say that Chinese students are not prepared for critical thinking as

defined in terms of the critical pedagogy tradition developed from Freire (1970), Shor

(1992), and Giroux (1994), who address issues of power and social justice.

Increasingly, Chinese students are learning the critical thinking skills associated with

what you refer to as first wave critical thinking associated with Ennis (1996) and Siegel

(1997), whose approach stresses rational and logical reasoning above all. In practice,

the impact of this approach is uneven as classroom teachers struggle with implementing

what are, for them, new and difficult concepts.

66 O’Sullivan & Guo

(ii) Are the Chinese students in the ISP disposed to embrace, as opposed to resist,

learning critical thinking skills particularly when the instructor takes China as the

object of inquiry?

The group seemed evenly divided between those who, for the most part, approved

of and those who were, to one degree or another, unhappy with my efforts. It is difficult

to accurately document dissenting sentiments because the very students who were most

uncomfortable with my approach declined to be interviewed. Given the number of

students who, in the interviews, referred to how I had them look at the “negative” aspects

of China, it is perhaps not surprising that some of their classmates believed that China

was being subjected to something that was not balanced or fair. Nonetheless, a lot of the

students, even if they chose the word negative to describe the readings on Chinese

educational issues, appreciated the opportunity to reflect on the problem areas identified

in the literature. In short, a group of students, who were more or less homogeneous, split

with respect to their reaction to the class materials and discussion.

The greatest resistance occurred the day I showed excerpts from Manufactured

Landscapes. This film clearly touched a nerve with most of the students. The greatest

consensus occurred the day we discussed the article National college entrance

examinations: The dynamics of political centralism in China’s elite education (Feng,


The classroom discussion on the NCEE examined the phenomenon of these

nation-wide standardized tests and was, at times, quite emotional. While none of the

students could propose an alternative as to how to apportion China’s limited post-

secondary spots to the millions of students who vie for them each year, they all agreed

that the NCEE and the preparations for it constituted a deeply stressful experience for


I can only conclude that, when teaching about China from a critical perspective to

Chinese students, to avoid a reaction that shuts down communication and critical

reflection, the instructor is well advised, at least initially, to find a topic that the students

themselves understand to be problematic. The NCEE is certainly one such topic;,

environmental degradation is not, at least as depicted in Manufactured Landscapes.

I agree with you here. However, you must remember that the importance attached to

critical social issues differs from country to country. Environmental degradation has not

been prioritized or recognized by Chinese government as being as serious as other social

issues (e.g., poverty in rural areas, high rates of unemployment, social instability, and so

forth). In fact, the environmental degradation depicted in the film can be seen as

resulting from the economic strategies aimed at alleviating these serious socio-economic

issues. The film Manufactured Landscapes, for example, ignores the background reality

that the workers shown doing the work that is so environmentally destructive are drawn

from conditions of extreme poverty and the work they are doing constitutes their escape

from that impoverishment. Through globalization, these jobs have been shifted to low-

wage China so that the Western world can have access to low-cost merchandise.

Environmental degradation is a very serious problem considered globally, but not

locally. I am glad that one of the students pointed out the connection between Chinese

environmental issues and Western consumerism. If this connection is not made, no

Critical thinking and Chinese international students 67

critical learning can occur on this topic. Frankly, the concern about environmental

degradation in China has been an ache in my heart for many years.

(iii) Did I teach transformative second wave critical thinking skills or, in effect, did

my efforts constitute a first wave interpretation of critical thinking? Despite my advocacy of critical pedagogy as developed by Freire and his

successors in my writings (XXXX first author’s refernces), I can produce no evidence

that, as a result of this course, any of the students began to construct a worldview that

significantly broke with the one they had been socialized in. It is true that

• Lance critiqued the lack of freedom in China as manifested in the inability of young people to access certain websites (he cited PBS) or to post criticism of the

Communist Party without it being promptly removed;

• Julie (alone among the students) commented on the fact that I had built the course around the framework of globalization and the neoliberalization of China;

• Eliza said that the program “pushed our thinking to write things we never thought about before;” and

• Dawn said “we must realize the negative aspects [of China] so we can make changes and improve conditions to make our country better.”

All of these statements constitute student critical thinking within the first wave tradition.

This said, however, I cannot ignore the comments of Louise who underwent a significant

change during the course, the depth of which I failed to appreciate until the last class. As

we went around the table in a summative exercise, she told us that, until this course, she

had given up on China. She said:

When I came to Canada, I was determined to try to stay here because I had given

up on my country but Michael taught me that changes are possible in my country

and I want to go back there and contribute to that.

While I was moved by the excessive credit she gave me for her change of heart, it made

me realize the potential inherent in the opportunity that a foreign educational experience

offers her and her peers to stand back from their lived experience and reflect on options

they had not previously considered.

Her comment, and those of her classmates who welcomed my efforts, helped

answer my doubts about whether my apparent inability to move these students beyond

the first wave paradigm constituted a pedagogical failure on my part or constituted a step

towards developing their thinking autonomy? Despite the arguments of Walters (1994)

and others, that first and second wave critical thinking constitute two distinct, and

mutually exclusive, paradigms, I came to the conclusion that the Chinese students in the

ISP who began to question certain important aspects of the worldview in which they had

been socialized are opening themselves to the possibility of increasingly profound critical

thinking. During a short program, such as the one that Brock offers, we can, of course,

only begin to teach critical thinking skills and, I would argue, we need to make every

effort to ensure that the critical thinking skills we teach correspond to those associated

with second wave thinking. However, as Paul (1994) suggests, 14 months is not enough

time to achieve critical thinking “in the deep sense” (p. 182). Eliza recognized this. She

argued that if she and her fellow students stayed in Canada for another year and became

more comfortable with the environment, they would be more likely to face the question

68 O’Sullivan & Guo

of China more critically. Indeed, some of these students will be in Canada for another

year or more as some move on to PhD programs, professional diploma courses, or seek

employment to gain Canadian work experience before going back to China. To what

extent these students will continue to develop their critical thinking skills will be very

much an individual journey that is difficult to document.

I really appreciate your recognition of the importance of teaching critical thinking to

Chinese students. In this era of globally connected world, all citizens need to take a

critical view of how we are influencing, and being influenced by, each other. China is

going through a dramatic transition and as global citizens we all have the social

responsibility to promote social justice and reduce inequity and poverty locally and

globally. Without critical perspectives and capacities, it is not possible to achieve this

goal. Furthermore, I see myself in your students, and maybe some of them will have very

similar experiences to mine in Canada: completing M.Ed and Ph.D programs, working in

different cultural and educational contexts, being situated in a “third space” between

cultures and systems. If my response to your reflections can be said to include critical

thinking then that represents a hope that you will see a growth of such critical thinking

skills among these students in the future.

(iv) Is teaching critical thinking using China as the object of study a legitimate

scholarly pursuit designed to expand the students’ academic skill set or is it, in

effect, a neocolonial conceit?

I am convinced that it is both legitimate and essential to teach critical thinking to

the Chinese international students because not to teach from a critical perspective means,

in effect, teaching from the perspective of the dominant ideology of our society. Such an

approach implicitly suggests that this is the model that China should be following. That,

rather than the teaching of critical thinking, smacks of colonialism. Of course, how this

critical thinking is taught is key. If a particular school of critical thinking is imposed on

the students or if finding fault with China becomes the central exercise (or finding fault

with Canada, for that matter), then critical thinking can be seen as colonizing the

students’ minds through the imposition of an “alternative package of ideas.”

In my opinion, learning about first wave or second wave critical thinking is not so

important as understanding the philosophical roots and pedagogic orientations of critical

thinking. For me, and maybe for your Chinese students as well, learning about critical

thinking constitutes learning about one aspect of Euro-western philosophical and

educational traditions. This is a part of the goal and benefits of studying overseas. It also

gives me the opportunity to share Chinese education, traditions, cultures, and values with

you. It is a mutual learning journey, isn’t it?

Final Reflections

My (O’Sullivan’s) initial intention in writing this piece was simply to clarify my

own thinking about the experience I had just had with the ISP students and to spark a

discussion within my own faculty about the challenges facing us as instructors in this

Critical thinking and Chinese international students 69

particular program. It never occurred to me when I sent a copy of my reflections to

Linyuan, that it would result in such an informative dialogue and cause me to embarque

upon such a serious, and ongoing, learning curve.

Linyuan gets to the heart of the issue in her comment about Canadian society

favouring the “individual perspective and independent thinking” while, in contrast, the

Chinese favour a “holistic perspective” and what she calls “the collective good” which

places a great emphasis on harmony, ‘not losing face’, and avoiding open disagreements

with others. Her initial reaction to reading my paper was to tell me that I had ignored the

concept of harmony and that I couldn’t possibly understand the reaction of the Chinese

students to my efforts to teach from a critical perspective without coming to terms with

that concept. In a subsequent communication, she wrote the following comment about

critical thinking and the Chinese mode of thinking:

This dialogue on teaching critical thinking to Chinese students stimulates my thoughts on

the fundamental cultural difference underlying teaching and learning in the specific field

of comparative education and, more generally, in international education, both of, which

must deal with issues in various cultural, educational, and philosophical contexts. I

would argue that as educators we not only need pedagogic tact in developing curriculum

and teaching methods, but we also need pedagogic sensitivity to the diverse cultural and

philosophical contexts from which students are drawn. Only by being able to understand

students’ cultural belief systems and the cognitive orientations developed in their prior

learning, can we meet their diverse needs.

Critical thinking is not only a skill set; it also reflects the belief system and cognitive

orientation of the thinker. Critical thinking is rooted in ancient Greek philosophy and

underlies the process and theory Euro-western philosophers rely on to reason, and judge

the soundness of, an argument or theory (Thayer-Bacon, 2000). However, Greek

philosophy, which is the foundation of Western tradition and culture, is very different

from Chinese philosophical tradition, which is the origin of East Asian tradition (Nisbett,


Westerners value independent thought and the ability to debate and argue as social

organizers. This belief system is not found in Chinese culture and philosophy where

harmony is valued as the central concept of Confucian tradition. Harmony implies that

the individual is primarily a component of a collective and the unity of this collective is

the most important concern. Consequently, argument and debate are viewed as less

acceptable social behaviors as they reduce the unity and harmony of the collective. This

cultural difference explains why Chinese students are sensitive to critiques of China and

why deep, or second wave, critical thinking has not been considered an important

learning objective in Chinese education.

The complexity and difficulty of teaching critical thinking to Chinese students is

heightened by the fact that it requires students to engage in nothing less than identity and

cultural transformation. Chinese students who are suddenly faced with the requirement

70 O’Sullivan & Guo

to “think critically” must come to terms with their ambivalence towards this concept.

This constitutes both an intellectual and a cultural challenge requiring time, practice and

disposition. The most important of these is disposition. They are being challenged by

their professors to operate within the framework of a totally foreign philosophical

orientation – a requirement that most of their professors have never had to face


The statement that learning critical pedagogy requires Chinese students to engage

in cultural transformation needs to be explored deeply. If this is the case, it is hard to

escape the conclusion that instruction is, indeed, neocolonial. Linyuan, however, doesn’t

come to that conclusion. Students in China, she notes, are being taught first wave critical

thinking, that is, the development of reasoning skills. What they are not taught, she

contends, is second wave critical thinking skills of the sort associated with the critical

pedagogy movement. Despite her observations about transformation inherent in such

instruction, she suggests that it is a legitimate educational goal to engage in such

instruction “because this is what Chinese students have not been formally taught but

hopefully, through the critical lens, Chinese students become more aware of and sensitive

to neocolonialism in education.”

The challenge then is how to teach critical thinking to the Chinese students that

goes beyond first wave critical thinking, and promotes the ability to reflect on the

ideological forces that shape our worldview, and develop that “autonomous thinking” and

“critical empowerment” to which Paul refers, while respecting the fact that Chinese

students have been educated in an intellectual tradition that prizes harmony and deplores

conflict, including the conflict inherent in intellectual contention. How to best achieve

this requires ongoing research and reflection by those of us engaged in teaching critical

thinking to Chinese students or, for that matter, to any student who comes to us from an

intellectual tradition different than our own.

My engagement with Linyuan on these issues has led me to explore Western and

Asian modes of thought (Nisbitt, 2003) including the issue of harmony and conflict in

those two traditions, and how these modes of thought manifest themselves in the

classroom, particularly our internationalized classrooms where so many of our students

were raised in cultures different than that of the instructor. It has led me to consider how

to approach critical thinking in the framework of the ISP and, while I remain convinced

that teaching critical thinking, including second wave critical thinking (or critical

pedagogy) remains a valid exercise to engage in with these students, I do so with less

certainty and more open mindedness than I did during the class discussed in this paper.

Ironically, this process has caused me to appreciate more fully the challenges involved in

teaching critical thinking to Canadian-born students. Our popular culture is decidedly

non-critical and anti-intellectual and to promote criticality in our students requires

pedagogical strategies that go far beyond merely asserting the importance of being

critical and insisting, as Linyuan’s professors did, that she approach the topic under

consideration “more critically”. The dialogue with Linyuan has resulted in my revisiting

the literature on critical thinking and critical pedagogy and reconsidering my practice

both in the ISP classroom and in my “regular” classrooms as well.

Critical thinking and Chinese international students 71


1 My choice of the word dissident to describe these students who expressed discontent with some or many

aspects of what I was attempting to achieve during the course is not meant to be disparaging. They were,

after all, dissenting and doing so consistently but in a way that provoked dialogue in the class. Their

dissidence constituted an important element of the class dynamic and led to this reflective piece. 2 I have substituted “English pseudonyms” for the students’ “English names.”

72 O’Sullivan & Guo


Baichwal, J. (Director). (2007). Manufactured landscapes [Motion picture]. Canada:

Foundry Films.

Bell, D. (2008, August). Chinese students’ constructive nationalism. The Chronicle

Review, B20.

Feng, Y. (1999). National college entrance examinations: The dynamics of political

centralism in China’s elite education. Journal of Education, 181(1), 39-57.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury.

Giroux, H. (1994). Toward a pedagogy of critical thinking. In K. Walters (Ed.) Re-

thinking reason: New perspectives in critical thinking (pp. 199-204). Albany, NY:

State University of New York Press.

Ibrahim, T. (2005). Global citizenship education: Mainstreaming the curriculum?

Cambridge Journal of Education, 35(2), 177-194.

Kubow, P., & Fossum, P. (2007). Comparative education: Exploring issues in

International Context. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Lam, W. (2006). Perpetual challenges to Chinas’ education reform. China Brief, 6(24).

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Nisbitt, R. (2003). The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think

differently … and why. New York, NY: The Free Press

XXXX two references by the first author ….

Paul, R. (1994). Teaching critical thinking in the strong sense: A focus on self-deception,

world views, and a dialectical mode of analysis. In K. Walters (Ed.). Re-thinking

reason: New perspectives in critical thinking (pp 181 – 198). Albany, NY: State

University of New York Press.

Public Broadcasting System. (2006). China from the inside [Motion picture]. United

States: PBS.

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Thayer-Bacon, B. (2000). Transforming critical thinking: Thinking constructively. New York: Teachers College Press.

Walters, K. (1994). Introduction: Beyond logicism in critical thinking. In K. Walters

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Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Assigned Readings in EDUC 5P70 Comparative Education

Chan, D. (2007). Global agenda, local responses: changing education governance in

Hong Kong’s higher education. Globalization, societies and education, 5(1), 109-


Dongping, Y. (2007). Pursuing harmony and fairness in education. Chinese education

and society, 39(6), 33-44.

Feng, Y. (1999). National college entrance examinations: The dynamics of political

centralism in China’s elite education. Journal of education, 181(1), 39-57.

Guan, X. (2000). China’s social policy: Reform and development in the context of

marketization and globalization. Social policy and administration, 34(1), 115-


Critical thinking and Chinese international students 73

Jacob, W. (2006). Social justice in Chinese higher education: Regional issues of equity

and access. Review of education, 52, 149-169.

Jinming, X., Jin, Y., & Yan, Y. (2005). The future reform and development of higher

education teacher training in China. Chinese education and society, 38(6), 17-38.

Lam, W. (2006). Perpetual challenges to China’s education reform. China Brief, 6(24).

Retrieved April 4, 2007 from

Yan, L. (2007). The socialist state and global capital: Educational retrenchment and

crisis in China. Chinese education and society, 40(1), 9-21.