Critical Thinking: A Graduate Student’s Dilemma

Critical Thinking: A Graduate Student’s Dilemma

On Wikipedia, “critical thinking” is defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” It seems quite long and hard to understand, however, to my understanding, the most direct and vivid example I’ve seen of the existence of “critical thinking” is in the class I attend every week in the United States. “The ability to be skeptical and ask why” is the way that I perceive the notion of “critical thinking” so far.

This is my third semester as a master’s student and seventh month in Syracuse. I gradually became adapted to the life here and can balance taking care of myself and studying – that’s the good part. Everything seems to be on the right track. But there is one problem continuously haunting me so far – asking questions in class. The problem felt only natural at the beginning since I don’t speak in Chinese university classes either. Even if I had a question, I chose to deal with it in office hours. In China, we are told interrupting your instructor in class is a posture of impoliteness. Even if the professors will tell us from day one that it is okay to express your opinion in class and that your viewpoint will not be judged, I still feel quite “awkward” by asking questions publicly.

Whereas, as the days goes by, I found my problem is far more serious than just “not asking questions”. I couldn’t think of a proper question to ask. I am more comfortable with my old learning method, believing faithfully in the viewpoints I learn from professors and textbooks. Since I believe the content I receive in class is “true”, in heart, it doesn’t make sense for me to question the knowledge I believe in. Maybe this situation resonates with many Chinese students and could explain partly why Chinese students often appear quiet in class. For me, the language barrier seems to be less of a problem.

I still remember how surprised I was on my first day sitting in an American-style classroom. Heated discussion was underway; my American peer could spot the weakness in a viewpoint quickly and explain their view clearly and logically. Even today, I still don’t think it is the language barrier that differs us from them – it is the conflict of two different learning styles. When I did research with an article, I found that someone else shares the similar feelings as I do, Judy Zhu, the author of one of China Daily’s article Critical thinking, an ability Chinese students need.

In July 2016, New York Times published an article titled Study Finds Chinese Students Excel in Critical Thinking. Until College. The article illustrates that the Chinese student has high critical thinking competence around the world before they are admitted to college. It is actually the Chinese college education that kills the students’ critical thinking.

Fortunately, when I search the word “critical thinking” on Baidu (one of the most popular search engines in China), I found many scholars are actually paying attention to the critical thinking problem in Chinese students. There is also discussion on how to improve the critical thinking ability on Zhihu, the Chinese version of Quora. From the most answers, it is most efficient to read entry level books on critical thinking and there are many available on the Chinese market now.

I still struggle with speaking or remaining silent in my everyday classes, but the good sign is that I am willing to raise my hand more and more often than before. When I see a new theory on slide, I will stop my pen to think for a second or so about whether there is an exceptional situation when the theory doesn’t stand. I am still adapting and learning by a way I seldom used before by asking why more and more often. I believe someday, I could join the discussion as freely and fluently as I would using my mother tongue.

Kailin Hu
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