George Orwell, as he was writing about the totalitarian future of the world in 1984, creates a rather bold and peculiar analogy between language and thought: that our thoughts can only be as complicated as the language that we use to express them. Without mastery over our language, there is no sophistication in our thoughts.
How is this relationship significant in the world we live in today? More specifically, how does the existence of intellectual thought, or lack thereof, affect countries such as China?
To answer such a broad-scoped question, we must start small. We must start with an experience that all of us go through: learning.
Why do some students learn more than others?
In all honesty, that’s an imposing question. There are several speculations, ranging from ideas such as health and nutrition to teacher adequacy and student capabilities. Stanford’s Rural Education Action Program approaches this question through the lens of cognition, which they argue confidently is one of the most substantial factors influencing student performance.
Google broadly defines cognition as “a mental activity that involves thinking, remembering, learning, and using language.” More specifically, a cognitive approach to education is one that seeks to further students’ understanding and fundamental grasp of the concepts presented before them.
In a study conducted across almost all of rural China, these researchers have concluded that more than 50% of elementary school students are not “cognitively prepared” for the next level. That is, more than half of the students averaged across rural China are on the lowest levels of Bloom’s Pyramid.
Such high levels of cognitive inadequacies have shown to build up as those students progress into higher education. Opposingly, the lack of proper cognition development at early stages in rural China’s education system snowballs into nearly irreversible academic, emotional, and economic consequences.
Cognitive Development and its Limitations
Primarily, empirical research has established a strong correlation between IQ, a customary measure of a student’s cognitive capabilities, and test scores. Consequently, with the proportion of low IQ students in rural China more than doubling that in cities, their motivation and tangible accomplishments throughout their education journey further widens the substantial gap between the two groups.
Such premises simultaneously affect a students’ social-emotional state and development. While it is undeniable that local authorities’ current emphasis on health and nutrition is a quintessential response to ensuring the right conditions for effective education, the given importance of cognitive development calls for an equal level of attention.
To aid authorities in better identifying the groups most in need of such additional attention, researchers have found through a variety of experiments that students with more siblings, less educated parents, and no pre-school experiences are much more susceptible to underdevelopment cognitive abilities. In other words, beneficial cognitive developments are much better ensured when students are given proper individual attention at an early age.
The Middle Income Trap
While I may have given a perspective response to the sub-question of why some students tend to learn more than others, I still have yet to connect this back to the overarching question of why such limitations are consequential to countries such as China.
Aside from the obvious reasons that deficiencies need to be addressed, it is sadly the case that local authorities will hold little interest in related proposals that highlight only the necessity of education. Instead, a tangible, empirically supported monetary benefit must be presented.
To accomplish this goal, I must introduce one more idea: The Middle Income Trap. Generally accepted to be a term coined by The World Bank, the middle-income trap is this idea of “economic stagnation,” where human capital no longer increases to accompany the desired increase in GDP. In simple English terms, workers are not producing enough for the country to “leap” into a developed state.
As you might have guessed by now, one way to address this issue is by boosting education early in primary schools. The earlier that they can establish the habit of achieving a comprehensive understanding of the material as well as how to apply
it, the greater likelihood it is for them to continue with such aspirations through later education. Such eliminates a large portion of the previously mentioned snowball effect with cognitive deficiencies, and will largely increase human capital.
Currently, 90% of students in the urban regions of China are enrolled in high school, a proportion that is in line with that of developed countries such as the US. However, that percentage drops tremendously as we enter rural China, sitting at a mere 23%. That means that for every five kids in rural China, only one makes it to high school. High school!
If appropriate considerations and amendments are made to this issue, human capital is bound to increase. Subsequently, China's economy will be substantially propelled forward as the aforementioned percentage of students are now equipped with the proper emotional and intellectual development to progress into higher education.
Thinking, like all other skills taught to us in school, is something that has and needs to be practiced to be perfected. Yet contrary to the conventional subjects such as math, language, science, and social studies, cognitive development must be nurtured from early on.
Not only does this prevent students from falling significantly behind as early as the end of primary school with minimal potential to make up the missed opportunities, but it also greatly boosts their emotional qualities. With less than a quarter of students in rural China progressing into higher education, the country needs to invest in a largely untouched group of citizens to increase human capital and break out of the middle-income trap.
Ultimately, proper cognitive development is one of those factors that has been largely ignored yet critically influential in helping not only the students themselves but also the overall social-economic status of the entire country.
Hongyan Liu, Hao Xue, Yaojiang Shi, Scott Rozelle, (2018) "The academic performance of primary school students from rural China: Distribution and correlates", China Agricultural Economic Review, https://doi.org/10.1108/CAER-11-2016-0181