Fred's Blog

Inquiry Science Teaching in China

I see it all the time in kindergartens through graduate school. You enter a room and settle automatically and unconsciously into your pre-assigned seat in order to be taught by a single voice coming from the front of the room.

It is quite another thing to enter that same lecture hall (seats bolted down in tiered rows),  but where the podium and the area around it is replaced by desks pushed together in pods of four, covered in newspaper.  Resting curiously in the center of each pod of tables sits a small cube. Two multiple choice questions:

1.  What is going on here?
a)  You have walked into the wrong room
b)  You have walked into the right room but something has changed
c)  You have a substitute teacher
d)  We’re all having a party
e)  All of the above

ANSWER:  (e) All of the above

(a)  Many rooms do not match the subject, but rather the efficiency of delivery
(b)  Any space can be transformed, provided creativity is valued
(c)  Same teacher, but students have also become substitute teachers
(d)  It is, indeed, a party with a  purpose, for joy is central to learning
(e)  All of these answers work together

2.  Where are we?
a)  United States
b)  Finland
c)  Singapore
d)  China

ANSWER:  (d)  China

(a)   U.S. has great science inquiry programs, but they’re not the only ones
(b)   Finland is a great education model, but is it a fair comparison?
(c)   Great resources and test performance, but at what price?
(d)   Yes, you heard that right:  China

China’s education system has been universally stereotyped and dismissed as regimented and relentlessly focused on rote-learning for the ultimate test, theGaokao (college entrance exam).

Yet anyone who attended these four days of workshops in science inquiry would be surprised at what they witnessed.  In partnership with the Qing Yang Institute of Education Science and the Biological Science Curriculum Service, Teachers Without Borders engaged 38 teachers, 20 influential advisers, and colleagues from Shanghai to Seattle.  Newspapers on desks, team-created posters on walls, the room was transformed.

And so were the people — older teachers playing games, teams arguing and laughing, individuals sketching new approaches to traditional lessons, groups holding brainstorm sessions. I imagined a sign on the front door:  “Enter at your own risk of discovery: learning taking place here!”

So what was that cube all about? Teams were instructed to gather evidence, create a and test theories, and explain their reasoning behind what they believed was at the bottom of the cube, yet they were not allowed to lift or touch it.  How frustrating!  How wonderful!  In short, they had to arrive at, and construct, the answer, rather than mimic it. The lesson?  Scientific method transformed into science-inquiry teaching methodology.

So goes the simplified label of Chinese education as designed to mimic answers, rather than ask good questions.  So, China is all about drill and kill?  A cookie-cutter education?  Chalk talk?  A nation of robots?  Stifled curiosity?  On the contrary, this room was alive and noisy.  One could also not help but notice that when teachers and advisers gathered as one assembled audience, they did so as active thinkers. The quiet was…quieter because they were rapt.

The issues Chinese teachers face are daunting: (1) large classrooms (2) limited resources (3) little or no professional support (4) almost no time for experimentation, (4) the Gaokao exam (5) international measurements and comparative rankings.

Though these issues were discussed at length, nothing damped their enthusiasm or reduced their resolve to take big steps forward.  Besides, teachers and advisers identified research by Chinese business leaders claiming that up to 44% of Chinese graduates are not fit to function successfully in a competitive global environment.  Some teachers alluded to brain research and drew conclusions about how science inquiry methodologies are consistent with optimal conditions for learning.  One teacher stated, “The key distinction here is that, if you know the subject well enough, you can truly teach each student, not just teach each subject to students.”  Well aware that they cannot use science inquiry all the time or even use all the elements of science inquiry for each lesson, these teachers forged ahead anyway.

Does science inquiry take more time?  Absolutely.  Might the students falter along the way?  Initially, they might.  What about all those other obstacles to change? They’re all valid.  There is no excuse for not paying teachers more, lowering class size, providing time to plan, or ensuring that classrooms are well stocked with the resources teachers need.  These are burning issues worth fighting for.

This was not a “down with the old, in with the new” workshop.  No one dismissed the concerns or the role of lecture and the assessment system of tests which are going to go away anytime soon, nor should they.  Teachers also addressed the criticism of science inquiry that (a) it values process over product and questions over answers (b) students and teachers spend too much timediscovering or constructing the answer, rather than simply knowing it (c) experimenting with this methodology can result in the loss of a generation of students.

Local materials became props creating musical instruments that can be played and can demonstrate principles of physics.  Ideas sprouted everywhere, shaped lovingly by colleagues.  Teachers demonstrated that science inquiry is neither unsubstantial or process-centric alone, but rather a sound teaching method that matches the nature of science scholarship itself.

For the teachers gathered here, results do matter; no one would agree to undergoing surgery by an amateur who just feels good about playing with knives, nor would one buy a plane ticket knowing that the pilot has discovered the joy of learning how to pilot a Boeing 767.  These teachers want to educate generations of surgeons who know how the medicine so well that they can focus on addressing problems that may arise in surgery and pilots so well-versed in their craft that, during a sudden storm or mechanical issue can guide the aircraft to safety.

They know they cannot change that which is out of their control.  But rather than whine, they took control of curriculum and collaborated in order to achieve more. They have large classes to teach the next day, but they’ll do so in a waythat reaches more students.  They may not have time, but they’re making time.  On occasion, some will fall off the bicycle along the way, but they’ll get right back on because they know that they will enable their students to travel that much farther.

These teachers proved the fundamental distinction between training (“I do this, now you do it, now I’ll find out if you do what I told you to do”) and professional development (“Here’s an idea we can explore and develop together”).  It was the difference between receiving yet another top-down lecture about teaching and expanding a toolset inside of teachers. 38 teachers, 20 advisers, 35 schools.  That’s enough to change the lives of thousands of children.

It could not help but notice that, as we conducted the workshops, a Chinese citizen arrived in Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.  He was not being recognized for his ability to have memorized the components of the classic five-paragraph essay, but hailed as one for whom the rules of writing were the scaffold around which he was able to create transcendent, insightful works of literature with universal appeal.

The conditions in China are ripe for change. Both brains and creativity are a powerful chemistry to produce a future Chinese Nobel Prize winner in the sciences who could very well be inspired by a teacher in these workshops.  It seems fitting.  After all,  contemporary science inquiry teaching methods merely taps into a deeply rooted theme throughout Chinese cultural history:  “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”  Most educators around the world have heard this popular phrase, yet many may not know that it came from China.

Confucius would, indeed, be pleased to hear that his beautiful statement is alive and well – in the very country where he wrote it.