I can’t really count how many times that phrase was uttered. The kids at the summer camp loved this phrase. So many kids, but one common, telling answer.
“Why do you want to be an accountant?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why do you say music relaxes you? What pressure do you face in the real world?”
“I don’t know.”
As a college application intern, I’ve realised a lot of things about the Chinese education system. I’ve realised that it doesn’t teach critical thinking. I’ve realised that it doesn’t encourage reflection. Students don’t know why or how. Too often, things just are to them.
If I ask someone to tell me a story about their mother, it shouldn’t take them more than a minute or two to find one worth telling. If someone can’t even critically tie together stories about one's own life, how can someone critically identify and assess the availability of culturally-appropriate care in the United States? Reflecting on one’s life only scratches the surface of the critical thinking required in college.
For a while, I was at a loss. Reflection was built into me. It’s subconscious; I couldn’t stop it if I tried. How could I possibly teach students how to think? They just have to think? It defied logic. There were only ten days for the camp, and only five of them were dedicated to personal statements. How could I find a good story, and help them through the process of writing it in just five days? I agonised constantly. I could see how the pieces fit together—why couldn’t they? Possible messages and meanings flitted about, lighting me up with inspiration I dared not share.
After all, I didn’t want to teach them what to think. It was their story, and it wasn’t my right to force my meaning upon them.
Somewhere along the way, though, I realised I have to at least hint at the possibility. I shouldn’t have expected epiphanies. Unlike me, English was not their first language. Unlike for me, reflection wasn’t encouraged and engrained into the very humdrum of the day for them. They needed examples; they needed to understand what I was looking for. I kept asking them questions, and they answered in the only way they knew to. They only knew ‘surface' meanings, because I never explained what ‘deeper meaning’ meant. I was afraid of their imitation, but I forgot that I regularly seek outside ‘inspiration.’ In high school, when teachers assigned essays, I would scour the web, examining and extrapolating from the wealth of information. When I was in distress, I turned to my friends for refuge and direction. I ultimately made my own choices, but I benefited from their opinions.
I may not be able to revolutionize how students think, but I could at least give them a nudge along the path.
And so I did. When I asked Student A why they loved art, I told them why I loved art. I explained, “I was a child who thought ‘I can’t’ because I wasn’t good at this or that and this or that.” I explained, "Art was the one thing that told me: I can.”
Student A nodded, smiled, and told me, “Art was my first friend, and through art, I became.”
When Student B couldn’t reflect, I showed them how I reflect. I asked them to remove the story, and leave only the meaning. I showed them my personal reflection—the one I wrote when I was their age—and asked them to read it. “I’m afraid of death because I’m afraid of nothing,” I had written.
“If I had to choose between being nothing and being someone else, I’d rather be nothing,” he had replied.
When a story is shared, it’s often also reciprocated. When a story resonates, it’s often also reinterpreted. And when the process of reflection begins, it never really ends.