MARIA LUK MING-YEE was struck by what she heard on her first day of orientation at Cornell University. The dean of undergraduate students told the gathering of freshmen with multi-ethnic backgrounds 'the worst thing anyone can say about our students is that they are well-taught'.
Apart from boisterous political campaigning on campus during the US presidential election several years ago, this was the thing that made the most impression on Ms Luk.
'I remember so well what he said to us: 'You are not here to memorise books or get an A in every single class, you are here to learn to think for yourself, think critically, challenge everything and to have your own opinion.' That's really something that struck me,' she said.
This reflects a basic value of US education. Contrary to the Asian way of showing deference to authority, American students don't feel inhibited about challenging or interrupting their teacher. 'The interruptions happened a lot in my classes; you didn't have to wait until the end,' said Ms Luk, now working as an officer at the local arm of Institute of International Education (IIE), a Washington-based organisation promoting studies in the US.
A group of secondary teachers recently had a glimpse of the American approach at a workshop held by IIE, featuring Patricia Tolmie, a professor in professional, adult and continuing education at Winona State University, Minnesota.
She said it was common for US school and university students to engage in small group assignments and collaborative learning. Students worked in pairs, carried out presentations in class or collaborated on project work in groups outside class time.
'Our philosophy about learning is that it is not a spectator sport. In other words, you are not going to sit there, or stand watching other people learn, or sit back just with your book in your hand the whole semester. Instead, you are going to practise a lot of active learning,' said Dr Tolmie, a native of a small town in Winona, a four-hour-drive from Chicago.
Internships were encouraged as part of active learning. Dr Tolmie had written recommendations helping students at her university to get competitive internship places in various organisations. 'We think that learning is a real-world thing; it is not about something I learned as opposed to what I am going to use it for,' she added.
She echoed Ms Luk's views on the open, free atmosphere in the American classroom where, for example, students commonly call their professors by their first names. More importantly, she said: 'One of the hallmarks of the American system is that it's more student-centred. Students make presentations, report to the class. I am not up here. I just go sit there and listen to the students. They are socialised to ask questions in class.'
Dr Tolmie said she witnessed a culture gap in the case of a mainland student. One day as Dr Tolmie was driving her home, the student told her that something horrible had happened in class that day. When asked what it was, she replied that a student had stood up and disagreed with a professor. ''How could you disagree with a professor?' the student asked.' This contrasted with the ethos of the US approach. 'The purpose of education in the US is to create an informed citizenry who vote,' she said. Critical thinking was vital.
The concept of constructive learning - the view that learning is personal and internal - shapes the US system too. Asking questions and elaborating on things was itself a way to learn, Dr Tolmie said. But she thought there was still a place for drilling or memorisation. 'The place for it is at the foundational level,' she said. 'From then on it is the scaffolding of thinking and questioning, wrapping your mind around things and synthesising and analysing, evaluating, comparing and contrasting. When students have learned to reflect, they start to think back and say: 'Oh that's what it is about, or now I see the connection between what I learned and this part of my job,'' she said.
One possible drawback with the US system, however, was its preoccupation with its own affairs or, as pointed out by its critics, its prevailing 'Americanism' that discouraged many from learning about other countries. Compared with Hong Kong, Dr Tolmie conceded, American people paid much less attention to events around the world.
'Americans have everything, they are technologically sophisticated. They have too comfortable a life. Some of their ignorance is caused by the media. Where I live, if you see an article about Asia in a newspaper, the article will be very small,' she said.
One advantage of US study, however, is the diversity of nationalities on campus, especially in Ivy League universities such as Cornell, internationally known for its agricultural economics courses.
Smaller institutions, such as Winona, are also trying to attract foreign students. With 7,000 students, the university in southeastern Minnesota offers cross-cultural scholarships worth about US$4,200 for all foreign students upon admission, meaning they pay only residential rates for tuition. The students are entitled to the scholarship as long as they achieve a grade point average of 2.75 on a four-point scale.
Dr Tolmie teaches a class on cross-culture for foreign students who are required to make 25-minute presentations about their home country in front of fellow university students, community groups or a local school.
Currently, only 12 Hong Kong students study at Winona, majoring in subjects such as computer science, management information systems and finance.
There are 565,039 foreign students studying at colleges and schools across the US, of whom 7,180 are from Hong Kong, according to IIE. The bulk of the Hong Kong students, at 6,361, are in California.
Katherine Fung-Surya, director of IIE (Hong Kong), said foreign students would have a better chance of getting into an Ivy League institution by studying at a US secondary school with a good track record of students making it to the top universities. She warned that simply going on exchange to an American secondary school did not guarantee a place at a university.
There are various routes to studying in the US; enrolling in a community college after finishing Form Five, entering a state university after Form Six or, for those aspiring to places at Ivy League universities, after Form Seven (since the top universities often require A-levels).
'The beauty of the American system is its diversity of choice and pathways for studies. There are plenty of institutions and choices for postgraduate studies too,' Ms Fung-Surya said.
Ms Luk said she preferred the flexibility of the four-year American system, under which students could switch majors more easily.
'A friend who went to the University of London wanted to switch her major from computer sciences to fashion design after the first year but couldn't just change,' she said.
'She had to start year one again. Everything she did in the first year no longer counted. In the US you don't have to declare your major until the end of your second year. Many students go to university around the age of 18, so they don't know what they want to do.'
Form Five student Shawn Wong, who attended a seminar hosted by Dr Tolmie, explained why he was considering studying in the US: 'I want to be exposed to different teaching methods and have more interaction with teachers and other students. You can learn more about other cultures studying overseas.
'Besides, educational policies always change here and teachers go on protest marches. I have more confidence in the US teaching approaches.'
More information about studying in the US can be found at: www.iiehongkong.org