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Science Education, East vs West

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I have an unexamined belief that I am a good product from the best educational system in the world. I was educated in the West, specifically in England, and I confess to being a UK education snob seeing the Western system as the best way to prepare a person to solve problems at work, and to be creative. My view is largely supported by personal experience and anecdotal stories (see American Creativity vs. Chinese Skills in Education Week – boy those educationalists can really discuss an issue!)

It was refreshing, therefore, to get cold water poured over my preconceptions in a paper by Lei Bao in the Jan 2009 issue of Science (Learning and Scientific Reasoning). The study tested nearly 6000 freshmen about to commence a physics degree in China or USA to see whose education system was better at preparing them up to this point.

The Chinese system is rigourous and knowledge focussed, while the US system is broader and less focussed on the acquisition of knowledge. Which students would perform better on tests of physics knowledge and problem solving skills?

The results, in graphs below, we striking. The Chinese students trounced the Americans in terms of knowledge (eg 66% vs 27% on the Brief Electricity and Magnetism Assessment, as Bao noted the Americans scored little better than expected by chance). However, the problem solving results were almost identical (the graphs are almost superimposed below).

results graphs

results graphs

The paper alone is fascinating enough, but the most remarkable thing is the way in which so many commentators are so quickly using the results to support wildly different opinions:

“Our study shows that, contrary to what many people would expect, even when students are rigorously taught the facts, they don’t necessarily develop the reasoning skills they need to succeed” – author, Lei Bao, in Ohio State U Research Communications

“… modern science education (at least in the UK) focuses too much on the knowledge and too little on the method” – Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science

“… this finding might actually apply to evolutionary studies. Maybe just teaching fact, Fact, FACT! isn’t necessarily the best thing for science students” – Thinking Christian

People will always use scientific evidence to support a variety of positions. But the more selfish perspectives should be kept on the fringe. In this case, the centre is being drowned out by the egos of the ones reviewing the data. It has gone almost unnoticed that deep within his commentry, Bao states that, “We need to think of a new strategy, perhaps one that blends the best of both worlds”.

If one removes oneself from the systems under review here, and our assumptions already built around these systems, what conclusion would one draw from the results? The results show that the American and Chinese systems both similarly prepare students with problem solving skills, but that the Chinese students also get a truck-load of knowledge at the same time, which the American students do not. On the basis of this paper, the Chinese system is superior.

So, why is this not discussed at all, by anyone? 

I believe the answer is not savoury. I believe that it goes to our prejudices in favour of what we feel comfortable with because it is what we grew up with. It is not scientific, and goes against the scientific method that we hold dear.

The reason we do not champion the Chinese system comes from outside the paper itself. It is captured in a comment made by one of the co-authors, Jing Han, who says, “To do my own research, I need to be able to plan what I’m going to investigate and how to do it. I can’t just ask my professor or look up the answer in a book”. This is the sort of thing that the net is full of in discussion threads on the subject of Chinese vs American students. It is not pretty.

I think that if we get off our hobbyhorses then perhaps we will be able to move this discussion along a little. We should begin by defining more carefully what it is that we are looking for. If it is graduate students who can come up with their own topics for research then say so. But, I do not think that this is an important criteria for anything of any real importance, however annoying it is.

Perhaps we should leave the last word to Peng Guohui, principal of Jindao Middle School in Guangzhou, China, who was quoted in the Education Week article. He suggests that, “Knowledge acquisition is the basis for creativity …”


Written by Pillhead

February 8, 2009 at 4:48 am