Issue: 2006: Vol. 5, No. 1, Articles

Education for Innovation: A Look at China & the U.S.

Article Author(s)

Robert L DeHann

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Robert L. DeHaan is C.H. Candler Professor of Cell Biology and Senior Science Advisor, Division of Educational Studies, Emory University and Director of Education Research, India, China, America Institute. Dr. DeHaan can be reached at [email protected]
2006: Vol. 5, No. 1, Articles
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Education for Innovation: A Look at China & the U.S.It seems axiomatic that vibrant economies are driven by innovation and that innovation can be taught and nurtured in schools and colleges. Certainly, world leaders have embraced these notions. Early in 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao outlined a plan for building an “innovation-oriented society” based on improved education. In the same month, U. S. President George W. Bush called for expanded mathematics and science education to nurture corporate innovation. But will funneling resources into education necessarily bring the desired result? History offers reasons to wonder.

China’s storied inventiveness during its imperial past produced bronze-smelting, iron tools, silk production, printing, and many other world-changing innovations at times when their education system was based largely on rote memorization and group conformity. These are teaching strategies that are now considered stifling to independent thinking and inventiveness.

Upcoming Conference

Register now for the “Education for Innovation in India, China and America” conference, to be held at The Emory Conference Center, March 2-3, 2007.

Abstracts for posters will be accepted until 4 January 2007; all are welcome to attend.

This Emory conference is co-sponsored by the ICA Institute and the Sino-American Education Consortium. Full details available at

This tendency toward rote memorization persists in many ways in Chinese classrooms today, at both secondary and university levels. The education system, according to many observers, is characterized at all levels by didactic instruction, individual work, pressure for high achievement scores on exams, obedience, and de-emphasis of independent thinking.

The idea that students from Asian cultures are rote memorizers taught by strict and repressive teachers has led to a concept deemed the “paradox of the Chinese learner.”1 If Asian students suffer such oppressive classroom conditions, why do they outperform Western students in mathematics and science in comparative multi-national assessments such as TIMSS ( and PISA ( Why is it that they not only demonstrate deeper content knowledge but also better conceptual development than American students of similar age and grade levels?

There is no accepted explanation among education experts for this apparent paradox. But one suggestion is that Chinese students learn at early ages how to be “active memorizers.” Maybe they have learned how to use memorization as a tool for concept development rather than a block to it. It has even been suggested that this may be related to their earliest experiences of language learning as children. Researchers have shown that when Chinese (also Korean and Japanese) mothers talk to their babies, they use mainly verbs and other relational words, while English-speaking mothers use many more nouns and focus more on object naming. Some authorities suggest that these early language learning experiences may influence a child’s problem-solving and theory formation capacities later in life.

When comparing Chinese and American students, there is another apparent paradox. If students in American high schools compare poorly to Asian students in mathematics and science knowledge, and in reasoning skills, why are U.S. colleges and universities admired worldwide for their ability to produce innovative contributors to science and technology? Why have Chinese graduate students traditionally come in large numbers to U.S. institutions for doctoral training, many to return home to take up positions as university faculty or administrators?

The explanation here seems to lie in the legacy of the very different historical roots of the two nations’ educational systems. Unlike the early Chinese academies 2500 years ago, in which students memorized long passages of Confucius’ texts. American universities can be traced to the Greeks, especially Plato’s Academy (428-347 BCE) on the outskirts of Athens. As John Thelin has shown in his recent work, A History of American Higher Education, when universities first arose in Europe during the Middle Ages and then in America during colonial times, students lived together in residential colleges, in close contact with their instructors, creating a very special kind of learning community.2 Professors lectured to students from prepared notes, but they also held classes in which students engaged in “formal disputation”. Disputation was a form of oral debate where students, individually or in groups, opposed one another in intellectual argument.

Just as in Plato’s Academy, debaters cited major authorities to bolster and justify their arguments. Students were encouraged to think freely and critically, to follow an argument wherever it might lead. Of great significance, this method of encouraging critical thinking is now widely used in modern graduate and senior seminars in American universities in virtually every science discipline. So although students in “lower division” science courses (those in the first two years of university life) often complain about having to sit through classes that promote passive learning with a heavy dependence on rote memorization and too many exams, those who go on to more advanced work in their third and fourth years of college, and in post-graduate courses, are treated differently. Classes are smaller and are often designed as seminars or discussion groups, where students may read research literature, engage in group problem-solving exercises, and prepare talks in which they must defend arguments with evidence.

While researchers work on theories to explain these apparent paradoxes, policy makers in both China and the U.S. are looking for ways to make improvements in higher education. Exploring the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s educational systems (see sidebar) can inform the development of experimental programs designed to produce better results. Both China and the U.S. have much to gain from such explorations.

  1. David A. Watkins and John B. Biggs, ED., Teaching the Chinese Learner: Psychological and Pedagogical Perspectives, (Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong, 2001).
  2. John Thelin, A History of American Higher Education (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).