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China's research trumps teaching

In education, the road to disaster usually is paved with good intentions. In the mid-1990s, China's Ministry of Education decided to use the American research university criteria for faculty promotion. While teaching universities such as Pittsburg State, Fort Hays and Emporia State universities judge faculty on three criteria -- teaching, research and service -- Carnegie research universities such as the University of Kansas and Kansas State University judge and tenure faculty on research, research and research. And this is the reward system China imposed on all of its universities.

China's professors are paid poorly, so they use additional bonus pay to "motivate" professors to work extra. And the bonus to a Chinese professor for publishing in a high-ranked Western journal is handsome indeed. An author of such papers can bring in the rough equivalent of $10,000.

This strategy has been successful in propelling the People's Republic to the lead in main research journals in many fields. There are two supreme international science journals -- Science and Nature -- that publish breakthrough science. This later publication counts authors by nationality. According to their Nature Publishing Index, "the fastest growth in high-quality research now is coming from other countries -- in particular China and Singapore." In 2012, the number of Chinese authors in the journal Nature had soared 35 percent above the previous year and just was short of bypassing the number of U.S. science authors.

But if turning Chinese universities into intensive research factories has succeeded in driving China's presence in science to the No. 1 spot by numbers, it has been a disaster when it comes to teaching.

Across China, university professors run to class, plug in their PowerPoint, and read the slides with minimal elaboration. At the end of class, they ask their students, "Any questions?"

No Asian student ever will admit to having a question. Throughout K-12, they have sat passively in classes where the complete burden for learning is on them. To ask a question about some concept the teacher presented but you did not understand is to confess you did not read the book beforehand or prepare yourself for class. And in classes that have a minimum of 60 students, why should one student waste all of the other students' time by having the teacher back up and explain something again?

No, there will be no questions asked at the end of class. So the professor races back to his office and lab to work-work-work on getting out that publication that will perhaps bring in more income than his annual salary. No time is wasted on daily quizzes or mid-term tests either. Time taken to write and grade tests is time not available to conduct research and publish.

Placing all of the students' eggs in one final test basket is common practice in China. That is what students have become accustomed to in their frantic studies to pass the middle-school zhong kao test to enter senior high school, and then to pass the life-determining gao kao test to enter college. Since there is only one final test in most classes, many students learn to be lazy for the first three-fourths of the course, sometimes skipping class and not reading daily assignments. Then comes the last month of classes, and they cram like no Western student ever has crammed. It is a terrible way to "teach" and learn.

I gained no friends when I taught a semester in China and told my students they would have a quiz at the end of class every day (just as I do here in Kansas). My students hardly believed me until they began taking them. Some faculty were not happy either, lest they be pressured to copy me. When I pointed out I could detect when most students failed to grasp a concept, and I could teach it again at the beginning of my next class, their response was, "Why? It is the students' responsibility to learn it. Why waste time repeating?"

But new, young professors returning from training in the West are not all happy with China's failure to value good teaching. The problem China's Ministry faces is how to objectively evaluate and reward good teaching? Western education school rubrics are a farce; teaching is an art, and they try to assign numbers to Picasso or Rembrandt. But the extensive Chinese network of mutual obligations, called "guanxi," makes it difficult to ensure objective teaching evaluation.

China's emphasis on university research is shortchanging Chinese students. It is a uniquely Chinese educational problem, and they eventually will have to find a Chinese solution.

John Richard Schrock is a professor

in the Department of Biological Sciences

at Emporia State University.