EdSurge Independent

Coming of Age: Rethinking Education through Personal Stories

Motivation plays an important role in a person's life. It is those incentives, techniques that cause a person to take certain actions.

I was born and raised in the Chinese countryside. My childhood was monotonous, yet carefree. Besides attending school, I would help with my grandparents’ farm work, hangout with my many relatives…

I was born and raised in the Chinese countryside. My childhood was monotonous, yet carefree. Besides attending school, I would help with my grandparents’ farm work, hangout with my many relatives living at the “Liu Compound”, or simply watch TV shows.

Growing up, I was content with countryside life and had never thought too much about my future. All I knew was that I would strive to excel at academics and go to some kind of college, so that my family would be proud of having its very first college student.

Now at Duke University, when I reflect back on my educational experience, I feel thankful for the amazing journey I travelled. From that, there are three stories I would like to share. They opened up my mind to gain a broader perspective on education.

Something Else Matters Besides Grades

On the way back from downtown Chengdu, tears rolled down from my eyes. After receiving the exam scores from three middle schools in the downtown area, I knew I was far from being qualified. The questions on the exams were extremely hard, including advanced Mathematics and Chinese. English was optional, and knowing only the alphabet and a few phrases, I did not choose to take it.

It was the first time I realized the difference between the education in the countryside and in the city. I was always at the top of the class in my town and so dedicated to academics that I even gave up training for table tennis, my favorite hobby back then, in fifth grade. Unlike most parents, my parents did not sign me up for any additional classes outside of school or force me to learn any instruments. However, it seems like failing the exams was the cost I paid for having a carefree childhood. Thus, I started doubting myself and was a bit angry about my perceived inability.

My parents sensed something was wrong and wrote a letter to comfort me. As two business people who only attended middle school, they told me that “something else matters besides grades”, such as emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and other soft skills that could not be reflected by grades. They also cited a famous phrase: “Would rather be the head of chicken than the tail of phoenix”, saying that I could still shine despite being in a lesser school. This phrase has stuck in my mind since then. Later on, when I was randomly placed into the most notorious class in middle school or when I failed to enter the “experimental” class in high school by a small margin, this phrase gave me encouragement to accept my circumstances and do the best I can.

In a deeper sense, what my “failure” reflected was the immense gap between the education resources in the countryside and the city. It taught me how far I could reach depends on how broad my horizon is, and it stimulated my curiosity to see the outside world.

From a Chinese Countryside to an American Countryside

In 2014, I waved goodbye to my parents with teary eyes at the airport, embarking on my first flight to the United States. Because I started going to boarding school in fifth grade, my parents believed I would be able to take care of myself. My new school and my host family are located in small city with approximately 80,000 people, on which my parents jokingly commented: “You went from a Chinese countryside to an American countryside”.

In Chinese high school, I dare not to sacrifice my time to do extracurriculars, since I would consider them too extra. But here, I got out of class at 3:20PM every day thus gained much more free time. Besides this, I became more open-minded when thinking about what makes a good student and a person. I started exploring that “something else” my parents had told me.

I first stepped outside my comfort zone by joining the varsity track & field team, an entirely new experience for me. From it, I learned to overcome my mental and physical constraints and appreciate the honor after the pain. I picked up table tennis and started a club for it. I started practicing the guitar, which I wanted to do since seventh grade, and later performed Chinese songs on stage. In my senior year, I took my first systematic art class and writing class, and thanks to my encouraging teachers who helped me discover my potential, I was fortunate to receive medals in photography and writing at Carnegie Hall.

I also started reading and writing. When I grew up, I never formed the habit of reading. I was also an average test-taker in crafting Chinese essays, and I never had the impetus to write spontaneously besides coping with the test. But after I read and wrote more, I discovered an important fact: the ability to write well depends largely on deliberate practice of writing and on extensive reading experience. Thus, I started reading books whenever I could, mainly non-fiction, and started writing journals so that I could improve my writing ability and reflect consciously.

One of the books I came across was In Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria, where for the first time I learned about the history, value, and development of liberal arts education. I was intrigued by it, because in China most people would think acquiring skills through STEM education is more promising than studying humanities, which would likely not secure you with a job.

After learning more about liberal arts education, I realized its similarity to my high school education in America. In those three years, I was determined to evolve from the Vincent who gave up his hobbies for academics to become an interesting person. I learned to understand my identity as a Chinese international student, to connect with Chinese tradition such as Tea Art, to appreciate various forms of arts and knowledge through books and films, and to realize the smallness of individuals and the enormous power of communities. After all, education is a self-responsible thing. Individuals should try their best to educate themselves rather than being forced by others to do so.

A Mindshift on University Education

My second semester at Duke’s engineering school was filled with internal rebellion and interrogation. Overloading with five classes, four of which were quantitative studies, I felt overwhelmed by the mechanical pedagogy and problem sets. Thus, I started questioning the current education system. Did my mastery of knowledge increase when I prepare for a midterm by going through all the fifteen previous midterms? Do I really care about what I am learning right now and how do they contribute to my personal growth?

Amid abstract notations and equations, I called out for humanities classes. I entered the course directory and recorded many interesting courses in international comparative studies, cultural anthropology, and philosophy. If I stayed in the engineering school, I would not have any chance to take many courses like these. Thus, I transferred to Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

However, in the context of the increasingly specialized and competitive world, here is the contradiction. Although liberal arts education teaches you how to write and think, it does not necessarily prepare you for a job in the short-term. On the other hand, acquiring specialized skills certainly gives an individual more competitiveness in the job market but does not necessarily guarantee the long-term benefits. This is because in this ever-changing world, many skills are under the threat of automation. Attempting to find balance between the two, I cut down my double-major plan to major in Computer Science, my favorite subject, while leaving plenty of spaces to take classes that I consider interesting.

During my Algorithms and Data Structure class in the second semester, I found a course taught on Coursera by chance. The concise and clear explanations offered by the instructor captured my attention, and the divided video modules ensured I understood one concept before moving on to the next. This raised a question in my mind: why do I have to be confined by the courses offered by my school?

Since then, I started taking online courses seriously and exploring the sea of knowledge. I finished my first online class in June, and within two months, I received seven online course certificates. Instead of blindly fulfilling degree requirements, I chose to be conscious about my education. I would rather learn about what I care about. Later on, I found out the open source project Learn Anything, a platform for knowledge discovery that suggests the most efficient paths to learn anything, and I was extremely excited about it. From my perspective, individualized learning is the future of education, as everyone has their own interests and ways to learn.

The Road Forward

Through reflecting on my past experience, I was able to connect dots backwards. It turns out, that my understanding of education has slowly shifted as I transitioned among different institutions. The experience of failing the middle school entrance exam awakened me from my ignorant bubble and pushed me to expand my horizons. And when such opportunity came — that is, attending American high school — I started exploring new interests, from which I furthered my understanding of education and found my inner self. After I entered college, the contradiction between the rigidity of institutional structures and the flexible nature of learning made me ponder the essence of education and its future.

Now, my primary interest in education lies in education technology, and I also care about social and emotional learning (SEL) and the unequal distribution of education resources, because these parts are intertwined with my personal experiences. Education technology is evolving under the impact of the Internet. Massive resources have become available, such as MOOC, but such types of courses are not interactive enough and can be difficult for people to complete. In the future, I wish to see technology make learning more effective and transform passive learning to active learning and lifelong learning.

Our education system is evolving, but its speed is still not fast enough to keep up with the modern world. I am grateful to join EdSurge Independent, which allows me to be part of the change in education. To fight for a brighter future for education, all we need is action and patience.