Critical Thinking and Chinese International Students:
An East-West Dialogue
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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?
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:
Bell, D. (2008, August). Chinese students’ constructive nationalism. The Chronicle
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).
Retrieved April 4, 2007 from www.jamestown.org/publications.
Nisbitt, R. (2003). The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think
differently … and why. New York, NY: The Free Press
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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
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University of Chicago Press.
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 www.jamestown.org/publications.
Yan, L. (2007). The socialist state and global capital: Educational retrenchment and
crisis in China. Chinese education and society, 40(1), 9-21.