China Moving To American Model of Practical Hands-On Science Learning

American educators and politicians have been warning for years that rising economies like China and India are poised to overtake the United States in math and science achievement — but facts may illustrate a different story. A recent study by researchers at Stanford University found that a quality gap exists between elite and mass universities in India, China, Russia, and Brazil, which are funneling more resources than ever to higher education institutions in an effort to create world-class university systems.

The study said that although there is growing concern in the U.S. that these four countries will develop their own centers of high-tech production and innovation, fears that they will draw research, development and scholarship away from American shores is still premature.

Overall, the researchers found that significant challenges remain as these countries march toward creating universities that can rank alongside those in the United States and Europe.

According to Dan Levin of The New York Times, Chinese educators are looking at American education and they like the teaching methods and standards used by American schools. These educators in China are dismayed by the country’s obsession with stellar test results and that the Chinese education system encourages students to memorize information with no or limited practical science training.

“When American high school students are discussing the latest models of airplanes, satellites and submarines, China’s smartest students are buried in homework and examination papers,” said Ni Minjing a physics teacher who is the director of the Shanghai Education Commission’s basic education department, according to Shanghai Daily, an English-language newspaper. “Students also have few chances to do scientific experiments and exercise independent thinking.”

Chinese education officials are responding by moving toward the American model of hands-on science learning. China’s Ministry of Education this summer launched the latest in a series of campaigns aimed at shifting the focus away from standardized testing.

The ministry said the systemic fixation with testing “severely hampers student development as a whole person, stunts their healthy growth, and limits opportunities to cultivate social responsibilities, creative spirit, and practical abilities in students.”

The Chinese education system transforms children into hardworking students with an impressive capacity for processing factual information. On a 2009 standardized test that drew worldwide attention, students in Shanghai finished first in the sciences among peers from more than 70 countries while the United States came in 23rd.

“Give [Chinese students] them a problem and they will find the answer,” Wei Jinbao, a science teacher in the northwestern region of Ningxia said. “However, they can’t ask a good question.”

Wei wants China to put more focus on research. Wei, like many Chinese science professionals, worries that his country has yet to produce a Nobel Prize winner in the sciences whose research is homegrown.

Over the years, he has tried to spark innovative thinking among his students, but he is missing a critical element: lab equipment, which most Chinese schools see as an unnecessary expense. Asked why, he sighed in exasperation. “The entrance exam doesn’t test experiments,” he said.