I was unhappy. The new state-of-the-art molecular biology lab building had just opened last year at one of China’s premier universities. I attended one of the first presentations in that immaculate room. There was just one new high definition projector beaming the speaker’s programmed slides on a huge white screen—and nothing more. No black board with chalk. No white board with markers. Not even an “elmo” platform that projects your handwriting on the screen. And that was the problem.
“So you don’t want Nobel Prizes?” I asked the chair, after the students were gone and we were walking down the hall. That was definitely impolite, even if my Chinese hosts are very courteous toward guests.
“The PowerPoint is fine for reviewing past science, but how are you going to engage students in questioning and pursuing future avenues of research? No one gets Nobels for knowing what is already in textbooks. You get Nobels for asking new questions and finding new techniques, and that takes brainstorming—on the board,” I continued.
That graduate research building had just opened and it only had one lecture room. The rest of the facility was laboratories arranged in suites of 2-4 labs around each researcher’s office, and there were four wings and four stories—over 30 empty lab facilities waiting to be filled.
So this year, when I had the opportunity to visit that molecular biology research lab, my first question was: did they add boards? Three-fourths of the labs are now occupied. And although it was a Sunday, most labs had students and professors hard at work. Thanks to the labs having glass windows to the hallway, I could easily walk the building, all 4 wings, top to bottom, and view it all. Every lab had a large white board with a holder full of markers to the side. It was obvious from the smears left by markers (I still prefer chalk), that these boards were heavily used. And indeed, as I passed by one laboratory, the professor and students were gathered around the board arguing over some lab dilemma. I could not hear if it was a technical problem or change in procedure or a new direction when results are unexpected. But it was science and it was not in the textbook or cookbook lab manual.
There are two sides to the science coin. Part of science is what is already known. Students can memorize that from the textbook, although it does not guarantee they know what it means. The other half of science is the questioning skills to search beyond what is known. Chinese students are great at memorizing the textbook science—what is known. They memorize in order to score high on that single critical end-of-high school gao kao test.
But it has been the unique strength of the American classroom that our science teachers ask students to read, and then think, compare, and question. Is there another way to interpret that graph? How could we discover the cause. How can we measure it? We attempt to train our students in questioning and analysis—an experience that until recently, Chinese students never had.
But Chinese students have come to the United States by the hundreds of thousands and have experienced that questioning in their masters and doctoral research here. Large numbers have now gone back to become the science professors in their new universities. And many are now standing with their students at those boards, markers in hand, figuring out the questions and methods to answer new problems. Because their students have three times the science content knowledge under their belts as American students, this bodes well for future science breakthroughs here. And to be really effective, introducing this second aspect of science—this questioning—needs to begin across China in their K-12 classrooms. And that has barely begun. But China is on the right track.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, no less than 10 states are now basing teacher evaluation on students’ test scores. That is continuing the NCLB tyranny that forces teachers to replace open questioning, labs and field work with teach-to-the-test drill work. Along with our continued anemic coverage of science under the Next Generation non-standards, we are decimating our science education.
China is going the right direction. A direction many schools in America are abandoning.