Before I discuss my impressions about the last day of the science educational meetings, I wanted to note an observation about Shanghai. The sense of being disoriented is not nearly as strong as one might guess, and because many signs have English translation, there are many companies, stores and food outlets that I recognize. There is no doubt that Shanghai is a very open and international city.
The conference today focused on specific topics within science education and then afternoon visits to elementary and secondary schools. The concurrent session I attended was on science curriculum. There was remarkable familiarity in the ways the presenters discussed curriculum issues such as grades spans, goals of achieving science literacy, topics in science, portfolios, and embedded assessments. When they said they had used the U.S. and Canadian standards as a model, I knew why. They way they talked about inquiry was similar, and I knew why. The Chinese are not developing their own materials out of the blue, but rather drawing on what they perceive as the best materials available.
During one presentation the speaker repeatedly discussed implementation concerns—-i.e., not having enough science teachers and not having qualified science teachers. The issue is more acute in the rural areas (does this sound familiar?).
Some of the reasons they raised about why students don’t always learn in experimental or investigative contexts included instruction that is focused on one model and not differentiating (my word here); students who are distracted by their partners or other students in the class; students who are not trying; students who may not want to do the activity because it is boring; and students who are worrying about failing so they do not do the activity. (Do these sound familiar?)
In designing the curricular materials, an attempt was made to address these issues. The fact that China and the U.S. share these common issues made the connections between us much stronger and resulted in greater communication among the participants.
In the afternoon we had the pleasure of visiting an elementary and secondary school. We had to remember that these schools were considered “exemplary” so the students were very talented.
The elementary students showed off some of their science knowledge and demonstrated their reuse of materials—the school’s theme was being “Green.” Competitions seemed to be very popular in this school.
The secondary school was not a new facility and had two rooms full of awards and trophies from city, province, country, and international competitions. (They made sure we saw the two rooms.) One major indicator of success for them appeared to be these academic awards and trophies. The teachers seemed very much like their U.S. counterparts, but they taught only about 2–3 classes a day and used the rest of the time to prepare. They also coached a club or after school class such as robotics, chemistry or a completion type activity. When asked about sports they said they had a basketball club.
Keep in mind that the school we visited had only 800 students in a city with 20 million people. This gives you an idea of the type of students who attended the school. These students were singularly focused and athletics is not a big part of their school culture. Of course we have similar schools in the U.S.— Thomas Jefferson High School, Bronx Science, and the Illinois Math and Science Academy come to mind. The teachers and administrators were very proud of what they accomplished and repeatedly mentioned their desire to continue to improve. There were not struggling with funds or with focus.
It is interesting to note that the number of Chinese students at the highest-level schools in China is similar to the total number of students in the United States. In my opinion this is where innovation comes in. The sheer number of Chinese students in higher level courses will make it very hard to compete with China in the future unless the United States can really commit to a multiyear effort in science and technology. I have no doubt we can and will compete, but we can not let this issue become a political battle down the road.
Any thoughts on China’s place in science education and how that relates to our future world?