A not-so-simple question

NSTA Executive Director Francis Eberle

NSTA Executive Director Francis Eberle

With the NSTA delegation to the Sino–US Science and Education Forum back in the U.S., I am sure each member will be asked what I have been asked several times since returning home. “How was China?” This may seem to be a simple question. China is a place of contrasts: the new and the old China; rural and urban China; educated and non-educated China. During the trip I finished a book called Country Driving; A Journey Through China From Farm To Factory, and I may have blurred my thoughts with those of the book’s author, Peter Hessler. But in this final reflection I want to tell you in advance that I will use some of his thoughts to illustrate my overall impressions. I welcome your thoughts too.
From a science education perspective China’s goals and efforts to secure a quality science education for students are similar to ours. They want more inquiry used in classrooms, more high quality materials, and more qualified instructors. These are critical to improving science education, but the scale in China is enormous. The impression you get is they are not close to achieving these goals right now.
The advantage they do have is something that at times seems lacking in the U.S. The Chinese have aspirations for a systematic approach to improve what they are doing. I believe this is one of the purposes for inviting NSTA to their country to build relationships and to improve their science education process. Education is the route to success. After he slept in a fourth grade classroom in the rural town of Xiakou, Peter Hessler found the following quotes on the walls: Study hard so China can rise up;  A man with knowledge turns into three heads and six arms; and men and machines are the same if they keep moving, they don’t rust.
They have a long way to go to improve their science education system, but they do seem determined. The tour guide told us that twenty years ago the city of Shanghai had only one building that was higher than 30 floors, and now there are 128 buildings over 30 floors in just one neighborhood of Shanghai. There are many neighborhoods in Shanghai. They are growing whether they want to or not.
Part of my lesson from this trip is to find ways to use the influence of NSTA to improve the focus on the U.S. government on science education here. And you can help by contacting your state representative(s). This process is very different from the Chinese approach, and I still think it is better even though slower.  We need to speak up. After what our delegation saw and learned, we cannot stand still, because China is certainly not standing still.
Addendum—17 December 2010: NSTA Press author Steve Rich was part of the U.S. delegation in Shanghai and has shared his reflections about his experience in China.

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2 Responses to A not-so-simple question

  1. Tom says:

    So if I read your post correct, there are huge differences between US and China when it comes to science education? And the contrast your tour guide told you, that there was on building in Shanghai 20 years ago and now you will have problems counting them I guess. But how fast can China really grow without the majority of the poor people turning against their own government?
    Just a thought/question

  2. Good question, and one I am not really qualified to answer. I can provide some thoughts, however, and then you can consider the source when reading it.
    The differences in science education exist not in what they want for science education in China, but in the implementation of those ideas and strategies. They have similar ideas as the U.S. about where they want science education to be in China, but their implementation is more problematic than we have in the U.S. Remember, they have 17 million teachers. This difference between countries may not last, as the U.S. does not operate in a coordinated fashion. This is a real weakness as compared to what China can accomplish by everyone working toward the same end.
    The limit to growth question is the hardest to reconcile when thinking about China. They are a natural resource rich country, with many people who want to work and who will work. They are using these to their advantage.
    A demographic situation may cause them problems. A result of the one-child policy is a new generation of single family children who have had all the efforts and attention of parents and family. What happens to that generation when they are older? Will they turn out to be considerate or greedy? Will they be wiling to share resources internally or externally with others? In an article by Duan Yan in the Monday Nov. 29 Washington Post supplement on China sited another result of the one-child policy. He points out that China will have a big gap in support for their elderly population. They have a 4-2-1 family structure (4 grandparents, 2 parents and one child). The younger generations will not be able to provide enough financial support for the elderly, nor will they be able provide the care the elderly will need. The number of people aged 60 or above is at 167 million—almost 13 percent of the population. They are struggling with who and how will they care for these people.
    China, with all its growth, has limitations. As science educators we should not wait a see what happens, but rather work toward a more coherent and systematic system for science education. While this focus is more like what is possible in China, I don’t think we will ever get close to what they can do, and that is the concern.

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