How China Tackles STEM: A visitor’s perspective

Rossier’s APRISE global study tours find our teaching and learning commonalities and distinctions

Nadia Hillman and students at Cannes experimental school in Shanghai.

Nadia Hillman and students at Cannes experimental school in Shanghai.

A strong STEM workforce is viewed as an indicator of a nation’s ability to sustain itself. The Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) is one assessment of STEM outcomes. Students in Shanghai recently surprised the world by coming out on top in both math and science, with U.S. students scoring well below that mark. While it can be argued that a single measure does not tell the whole story, is there something to be learned from these results in terms of STEM education?

The Asia Pacific Rim International Study Experience (APRISE) offered a glimpse of urban education in China and an opportunity to connect with like-minded professionals interested in curricular reform. In May 2011, I traveled with Rossier faculty and doctoral students to visit schools in Shanghai and Beijing. While we traveled across the Pacific to learn from their successes, our Chinese counterparts welcomed us with hopes of learning how the American education system fosters creativity and innovation.

Academic achievement is valued in China, yet education is compulsory only through ninth grade. In order to attend secondary school, students must pass rigorous exams. High expectations are explicit and public. Student grades are posted at the entrance of each school. The school day is full and long with little unstructured time. Curriculum is issued by the state, and texts have a simple format. Students sit in rows with the teacher at the front of the class delivering the lesson. Lessons are well organized and brisk. Not a moment of instructional time is wasted.

The efforts of Chinese curricular reform became obvious when we visited an experimental elementary school affiliated with Tsinghua University. In front of a large audience of university faculty and teachers from area schools, one brave teacher taught a demonstration math lesson to her third- grade students. The focus of this professional development session was to observe the use of exploratory learning. The student objective of the lesson was to discover the rule for the sum of the interior angles in all triangles. Students worked in groups, folding and cutting paper to solve the problem. They argued, discussed and defended their thinking. It was a lively lesson that contrasted from what I saw in the other schools. While debating their findings, the students demonstrated facile understanding of basic geometry and numeracy. At the conclusion of the lesson, the teacher told the children about the mathematician Pascal who had developed rules for solving geometry problems.

While debriefing the lesson, the teacher revealed her reluctance to try a lesson with such undetermined outcomes. She admitted that only after having taught all the lessons in the math textbook was she willing to risk trying a differentiated approach. The teacher demonstrated courage, allowing her students to flounder with solutions that did not work. In the United States, STEM education embraces the mistakes made during exploration. Chinese students seem more comfortable with direct instruction from teachers who are respected for the knowledge they impart. Taking risks is not typical of Chinese learning. So in terms of STEM, what is the best pathway to understanding? Did the third graders internalize the concept from the exploration or from the teacher’s revelation of Pascal’s work? In a country where the teacher’s voice is paramount, I wonder about the efficacy of such constructivist practice.

The APRISE trip to China opened my eyes to variables about excellence in STEM. While students in urban China are outperforming other industrialized nations, it is important to keep in mind that this level of academic achievement is only accessible to elite students. This homogeneity and systematic sorting of students are phenomena that U.S. schools strive to avoid. Both countries have cultural assets that contribute to student performance in STEM. Educational partnerships across the Pacific will be the key to supporting an international cohort of students in a rapidly changing, globalized world.

by NADIA HILLMAN, Rossier Ed.D. Candidate and Principal of Foothills Middle School in the Arcadia Unified School District

USC Rossier Futures Magazine - STEM issueThis article was featured in the Summer / Fall 2011 issue of Rossier’s Futures in Urban Ed magazine.

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