Last week the New York Times Magazine ran a nice in-depth article on the changes afoot in China's education system--the shift away from the ages-old pedagogical tradition with its emphasis on rote memorization. It's very much worth a read.
One of the questions I'm asked again and again concerns where and how I want my children educated. Do I send them to a local Chinese school? To international schools? Will I want to send them back to the States for study at some point, and if so, at what stage? At least with secondary and post-secondary education, I see the situation as still very fluid (and, thankfully, still a ways off in the case of Guenevere, who's about to turn 3, and Johnny, just 13 months old). Who knows? 14 years from now, Tsinghua and Beida may be better schools than Harvard or Stanford or Cal.
I'm optimistic about the future of Chinese education--at least S&T education--for a number of reasons. First, there's the Internet: with Google putting libraries on line, and with dissertations and other research from leading university labs in the U.S. just a download away now, there's bound to be a leveling effect--and diffusion across this osmotic gradient will be (hell, already is) really fucking fast. Then there's the obvious factor--the sheer will and increasing economic clout of those hordes of hyper-competitive parents who are involving themselves very seriously in the educational lives of their precious only children. And then there's the top-down push: the recognition of the need for fundamental changes in pedagogy on the part of the technocrats up top, obsessed as they are with turning China into a genuinely innovative society. It's now enshrined in the 11th Five Year Plan, and I think it's much more than lip service: it's budgets for R&D, it's more funding for experimental schools, it's a deliberate effort to learn how higher education in the U.S. became what it is.
The problem in science education in China was best summed up at a conference I attended a few years back by a CASS economist whose name I've now forgotten. He said that in the developed West, the scientific method is based on hypothesize, observe, and revise your hypothesis; in China, conversely, it's about observation, hypothesis based on empirical observation, then more observation to test that hypothesis. The problem with the Chinese version he illustrated beautifully: No one ever observed a nuclear fission reaction in nature.