Japanese Science: Anything but Foreigners

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“Revamp Math and Science Education, Kazuo Nishimura, AJISS-Commentary

The Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies, a conservative think-tank in Tokyo, has published this op-ed by Kazuo Nishimura, a Professor of Mathematical Economics at Kyoto University.

In the op-ed, Nishimura calls for starting science education earlier, changing the structure of elementary courses, and keeping high-school kids in compulsory science courses longer in High school. More controversially, he also calls for a complete overhaul of the nation’s grading system.

All of these are good proposals, especially the latter, but the one policy Nishimura shies form is the one most likely to make a difference in the near term: allowing greater numbers of foreign scientists to come into Japan to work and offer their efforts to Japanese companies. Indeed, he believes this is the problem.

A fascinating article.

Water on Hot Politics: The Plan to Evaluate Washington’s School Reforms

Over the past decade, the battle over the future of public elementary and secondary education in the United States has been fought in the microcosm of the nation’s capital. In the face of union resistance and vocal parental opposition, the city engaged Chancellor Michelle Rhee in a crash program to redesign the way the entire school system was operated, making it more focused on students and outcomes than on the institution itself. Rhee has moved on, the results are a matter of ongoing controversy, and it will probably be decades before we truly understand whether the kids have really benefitted.

The schools are such a political football that the district and the US Government have appointed an independent committee just to come up with a plan on how the schools should be evaluated. The most important conclusion: take politics out of the evaluation process, a difficult job in one of the most politicized cities on the planet. Nonetheless, the plan offers a way to de-politicize evaluation and, hopefully, take a step that will also de-politicize the reform process itself.

The D.C. schools controversy is worth watching. To some extent, whither goes Washington, so goeth the nation, and if the schools of the District can enjoy high-profile success in rejuvenating its education system, other cities will follow suit. The pity is that, in the meantime, the students in the District become some of the highest-profile guinea pigs in education. One can only hope that the reforms Rhee made serve them well, and that something can ensure that they are relieved of the burden of political pawnship and returned to their rightful place as well-served, curious, and capable kids.

The book itself is a model of how to insert objective process into a politically charged situation. Anyone who has ever fought such battles will appreciate both the tone and the approach the authors take.

Rethinking America’s Science Education

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There is wide agreement that the future competitiveness of the United States, and more specifically of American children, rests on raising the quality of science and mathematics education in primary and secondary schools. Making that happen, in turn, requires that those students actually take to learning those subjects. There is considerable debate as to whether the right approach to getting the kids to do well in maths and sciences is to instill more discipline and focus in the students, add greater structure to education, or somehow craft the subject matter into more palatable forms.

In A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, the authors dodge the philosophical arguments that frame the debate above. Instead, they begin with the levels of subject knowledge that high school graduates should possess, and from that build backwards, creating a framework of concepts, ideas, and best practices from which a unified primary and secondary curriculum can be developed.

Not satisfied with making recommendations in the basic theoretical sciences, the authors devote extensive coverage into introducing applied science fields like engineering and space science into the curriculum. From the point of view of this former student, who eschewed sciences after his first year in university, this approach looks like a winner – if followed. At a time when school systems in the US are struggling just to pay the bills, one wonders how many administrators will opt for a major revamp of their science curricula.

For the sake of the nation, I hope the answers is “a lot.”

Training YOUR Way

As a measure to improve and speed the training process, the US Air Force is looking at ways to customize training for each individual. After all, there is no sense teaching someone something he or she already knows, or training them in a subject before they have mastered the prerequisite material. The folks at RAND look at customized training, its implications, and ways the USAF could implement it in this fascinating study.

What makes Customized Learning: Potential Air Force Applications worth reading is that as with so many other innovations, the military frequently plays the role in developing the technology or methods to make them possible. What happens with the Air Force in this project could have far-reaching implications for education around the world, so it is worth watching.

Preparing and Training for the Full Spectrum of Military Challenges

Subtitled “Insights from the experiences of China, France, the United Kingdom, India, and Israel,” this book from RAND probes whether the U.S. military has something to learn from the military training establishments of what are arguably the five leading armed forces in the world, at least perceptually.

These are interesting examples, and Peking Review regulars will be as fascinated as I was with the analysis of the PLA’s training program. A military is only as good as its training establishment, doctrine, and practices, and the astute observer will learn much about the PLA from some of the hints dropped in this analysis.

My only quibble is that I would have liked to see the book a bit fuller, with examples including Singapore, Australia, South Korea, Turkey, and Germany’s Bundeswehr. This is not a shortcoming, but a wish: I really enjoyed the analysis of the covered countries, and seeing the scope expanded.

On Being a Scientist

Cover of "On Being a Scientist"

Cover of On Being a Scientist

There has been much discussion here in Beijing of late around the ethical challenges that plague the Chinese academy and, as a consequence, that hamper China’s own progress in science, technology, and innovation. What is unfortunate, however, is that this discussion has occurred without reference to a tangible standard of ethics, perhaps for fear of introducing however backhandedly the taboo topic of faith-based moralities.

Ethical challenges in research are not limited to China, and the book On Being a Scientist from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is an attempt to build a rational case and framework for ethics in the academic professions. This should be required reading across the entire academic spectrum, and the Ministry of Education would do well to consider the wide usage of this text, translated appropriately, in every pre-doctoral program in the PRC.

Also available from Amazon here.

The Teacher Development Continuum in the United States and China

A teacher writing on a blackboard.

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This short book is the proceedings of a workshop at U.C. Irvine where 40 Chinese and American education experts compared and contrasted the ways in which mathematics teachers are developed in the two countries. The issue the experts focus on is the matter “master teachers,” instructors who not only teach but who help other teachers develop.

As with Japan in the 1980s, there will invariably be a lot of hand-wringing about what the Chinese may or may not be doing “better” than Americans with their elementary and secondary education systems. Much of the focus will be on math, science, and engineering, and it does not take much foresight to anticipate debates about adopting wholesale Chinese approaches to education. This would be a mistake.

Nonetheless, it would demand willful hubris to assert that nothing is wrong with basic education in the U.S., and to try to deflect a search for creative solutions. This is what motivated the U.S. National Commission on Mathematics Instruction to ask whether the Chinese may have a better system than we do to find and keep good teachers teaching mathematics.