In China (home of the original “Tiger Moms”) getting students prepared for college is big business. Parents shell out serious bucks for extra test prep courses, order amino-acid drips for study marathons, and, when all else fails, produce hefty bribes in the form of cars and lavish vacations — all for a shot to send their sons and daughters to prestigious American schools like Stanford, MIT, or one of the Ivies.

Numbers of Chinese students at North American universities are increasing, up 23% as of last year. Moreover, a report released in 2012 identified Shanghai as outperforming the rest of the industrialized world in tests measuring mathematics, science and reading. A BBC report calling China “the world’s cleverest country” explains their exemplary test results as a difference of culture.

"North Americans tell you typically it's all luck,” said Andreas Schleicher of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “‘I'm born talented in mathematics, or I'm born less talented so I'll study something else.' In Europe, it's all about social heritage: 'My father was a plumber so I'm going to be a plumber.' In China, more than nine out of 10 children tell you: 'It depends on the effort I invest and I can succeed if I study hard.' They take on responsibility. They can overcome obstacles and say 'I'm the owner of my own success,' rather than blaming it on the system."

For a long time, Western parents could comfort themselves with the knowledge that if their kids weren’t placing first in Math Olympiads, at least they were learning critical thinking. “While Americans are more often taught to think and speak independently from kindergarten, Chinese students do well in math and science at the expense of independent thinking,” a National Journal article on Chinese students explains.

But all this is about to change. “Most Chinese parents now understand that American schools are looking for “well-rounded” students who combine strong test scores, transcripts, and extracurricular achievement, Zinch China, an educational consultancy, reports.   

A new crop of Chinese education startups are sprouting up to teach Chinese students to think critically —and they’re finding western partners with impressive credentials. James Prescott, teacher and co-founder of Leimuxi Educational Consultancy in Shenzhen, China, is launching a program to teach analytical thinking skills to students, with one of the focuses being high school students preparing to travel abroad. He’s chosen to partner with HIPPO Reads — the brainchild of two Harvard grads who curate mini “courses” around interesting and controversial topics.  Devotees call the website “TED Talks for the literary set” and it’s making a splash in academic and literary circles.

Say founders Anna Redmond and Kaitlin Solimine: “We’re very passionate about our content and thrilled James has found this use for it. Everything we write comes from a very genuine place — this isn’t textbook filler. We founded HIPPO Reads because we missed the intellectual curiosity of our favorite classes at Harvard.”

A standard HIPPO Reads curation is multi-faceted and controversial. Citing professors, academics, and pundits, Redmond, Solimine, and their cadre of guest curators weave complex stories that naturally encourage questioning and critical thinking.

“Writers, professors, CEOs — our work really resonates with them and we’re happy to count them among our readership,” Solimine explains. “But we love the idea of working with students.  They’re young and just beginning to develop a view about the world and their place in it. It’s an honor to be a lens for it.”

Would U.S. students benefit from reading HIPPO? “Absolutely!” Redmond says emphatically.  “We really see this as a product parents and children can read and discuss together.”

Prescott agrees. In the fall, Leimuxi Educational Consultancy will launch its first HIPPO Reads partnered program for Chinese students eager to expand their intellectual horizons.


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