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Young group puts education in sharp focus

By CHEN XUE China Daily Updated: 2023-02-07

Editor's note: On Jan 24, International Day of Education, a group of young people from different countries took part in the latest episode of the China Daily series Youth Power, titled Education and The Future, to voice their opinions on schooling and learning. The episode was broadcast online on Jan 30. 

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Young people from different countries take part in the China Daily series Youth Power on Jan 24, International Education Day. [Photo/China Daily]

Online classes, different teaching systems, technology addressed

Enoch Wong, who comes from Hong Kong and graduated from Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University, has noticed a public misconception about education — that it is all about producing elites, more academic degrees and more millionaires.

But to him, promoting equal access to knowledge is more important, which is why Wong has always believed that online education is the key to the future.

"For example, when you look at China with its 1.4 billion population, it's very difficult to put every single child, every single teenager into a bricks-and-mortar school. Therefore, the only way to increase such access is to use technology," Wong said.

But Asilbek Khonkhujaev, a student from Uzbekistan at Hangzhou Normal University, said that despite many of its advantages such as mobility and easy accessibility, online education lacks one of the most crucial elements in people-to-people communication — eye contact.

"This is like human nature. We have some knowledge that is directly person-to-person," said Asilbek, who suggested that offline and online education should be combined if possible.

There is also a common belief that every step of a child's education is aimed at paving the way for his or her ultimate goal of landing a good job, which is why picking the "right" major is a critical decision for many young people — and their parents — when they go to college.

Jood Sharaf, a student from Bulgaria studying at Tsinghua University, said her parents were disappointed when she chose to study international relations, because it meant she was not going to be a doctor, as they had hoped.

"In the United Kingdom, it's become a joke that if you do social science you'll end up being unemployed, unlike your friends who do business management," said Sharaf, who went to high school in the UK.

The discussion then turned to what higher education is really about and what college is for.

Victoria Gomes Pereira de Almeida, a Portuguese-language teacher from Brazil at Shanghai International Studies University, said college is not just where young people acquire knowledge, but also where they can open their eyes to a bigger and more diverse world.

"When we're in high school, we have a very limited view that people who look like us most likely come from the same background. University helps you add different lenses to the way in which you see the world, while as you're growing up you learn to accept diverse ideas and diverse people, and that is quite important," she said.

For Wong, college is also where students learn to live independently and responsibly.

"At Tsinghua, our motto is Self-Improvement and Social Commitment. In college, you also understand your responsibility and your commitment to society," he said.

New environments

Sharaf thinks that education enables you to learn from practically anything — and for that to happen, you have to keep a "blank-slate" mindset.

"Blank. Nothing. You know nothing, you assume nothing. This is extremely difficult to do, especially if your place of education is very different from your home, because you have the constant tendency to draw comparisons," Sharaf said in her speech for Youth Power.

Attending school in three countries and university in another three, Sharaf has constantly been exposed to new environments and cultures, so every time she moved countries, she erased preconceptions and prejudice from her mind.

For example, last year, when Sharaf arrived in China for the first time, she visited art galleries to get a glimpse of the country's culture. She used to believe that impressionism was the height of art due to its complexity and vivid colors, but visiting a calligraphy exhibition in China, she saw the beauty of blank spaces and balance, which is very different from Western art.

"Can you compare the two? Is one more beautiful than the other? No, because the philosophy, the styles, the tools, the cultures and the artists' minds are all different. This experience helped me broaden my view and realize that not every culture and society places the same value on the same things," Sharaf said.

Although she spoke little Chinese at the time, she also made every effort to approach local people. For example, she talked to members of the housekeeping staff in her university dormitory building, to those serving food in the campus canteen, and even to a random student buying the same bubble tea flavor as herself.

"It's through these people, not a textbook or news article, that you learn about China," she said.

Sharaf educates herself through everything she sees and everyone she interacts with. "I literally considered myself a child rather than a grown adult — a child that needs to learn the way of life in the place it is born into. Education is about observing life around you, taking note of it and applying it to yourself so that you may grow," she said.

Yang Yicheng, former editor-in-chief at the All China Youth Federation's Center for Cultural Studies and Global Communications. [Photo/China Daily]

Different spheres

Yang Yicheng, former editor-in-chief at the All China Youth Federation's Center for Cultural Studies and Global Communications, used to work in two completely different areas in China.

She taught in developed cities such as Shanghai, where primary school children have the assistance of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and 3D printing in class. Yang also taught in remote places, including mountainous areas of Hainan province, where students only have English-language classes once every three weeks, as the teacher faces a four-hour bumpy bus drive to school.

Yang used to think that these two different worlds would never cross paths or share anything in common, but lately, she has seen that online platforms allow students, regardless of which part of the country they are in, equal access to educational resources.

She cited the example of Kai, an underprivileged student from a minority group who was given the chance to attend an online summer school program in which Yang taught a class. This program used to be offline only and students such as Kai, who were financially and geographically restricted, did not have the opportunity to enroll.

In his final presentation, Kai spoke to a virtual classroom of students from across China of his concern for the disappearance of minority cultures and languages.

In her speech for Youth Power, Yang said, "Although Kai has a heavy accent, he spoke slowly but firmly of why he thought his dying hometown language is important to the world."

Yang has also noticed the limitations of technology. When she was a volunteer teacher in different areas of the country, she saw schools had an insufficient number of technological devices, and teachers struggling with educational technologies. Students also told Yang they are less motivated and lack concentration when taking online classes, as some topics simply cannot be delivered via the screen.

"This is where technology falls short, but also where the human touch comes in," Yang said.

She has also taken note of efforts being made by the government. The report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China promised to accelerate urban-rural integration in compulsory education, and a better allocation of teaching resources. For example, last year, internet access in schools nationwide reached 100 percent, with multimedia classrooms established in more than 98 percent of primary and secondary schools.

"Technology combined with caring and the relentless efforts of humanity — this is the hope I see for educational equality in the future," Yang said.

Mixed culture

Dylan Austin Walker, who was born and raised in the United States, experienced the differences between Chinese-style and US-style education from a very young age.

At primary school, he became friends with a Chinese American boy whose mother introduced Walker to Mandarin. Later, the two boys went to a Chinese school where they had classes in the language on Sunday mornings.

In this way, Walker grew up in a mixed-culture environment — US culture and education at home, and Chinese culture and education in school and after classes. As a result, he saw just how different the style of Chinese education is to that in the US.

Walker, now a graduate student at Beijing Language and Culture University, said in his speech for Youth Power, "Known for its academic rigor and focus on challenges, Chinese education places a little more emphasis on examinations and grades, and learners in the system act with discipline."

But after finishing university in China, Walker realized that the two educational styles have more in common than their differences, as both systems are aimed at cultivating talent, broadening students' horizons, and helping them become more open-minded.

In recent years, China has attached greater importance to education.

Walker cited the report to the 20th National Congress of the CPC, which said China would continue to take a people-centered approach to developing education, and move faster to build a high-quality educational system.

For Walker, this is also why China has been open to foreign students and how he got the chance to study in the nation.

"I don't think the main goal that universities in China have in attracting foreign students like myself is simply to learn the language. Rather, it is more about bringing people of different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs together to create discussion, to innovate and to bridge gaps between China and different countries," he said.