My foreign exchange

21st November 2014 at 00:00

In February, the UK government sent a delegation to Shanghai to try to find out why the city's schoolchildren do so well in international performance surveys. It would suit my world view if the answer were "these tests aren't good at measuring anything other than rote learning", but the truth appears to be more complex. I suspect that some of it doesn't suit the government's views either.

At about the same time, a smaller delegation, consisting of myself and the chief executive of the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre (SSERC), was also in China. We had been invited by the Ministry of Education, whose Educational Equipment Research and Development Centre (EERDC) shares many similarities with our own organisation. Admittedly it is a good deal larger, occupying an entire block in central Beijing rather than two industrial units in Dunfermline. Some months before our visit, a group from China had toured the UK on a fact-finding mission. At that time we occupied only one industrial unit in Dunfermline, but what we were doing was of sufficient interest for a second delegation to visit and to ask us over to their place.

What is happening in present-day China took place in the Western world 50 years ago. When the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, the willies were well and truly put up Britain and the US. Taken aback by the Russian lead in the space race, those in charge began a push to create a new generation of scientists and engineers. The first stage was to make science in schools more hands-on and less listen-and-copy. This spawned textbooks such as Physics is Fun! - if you were one of the people who scribbled "No it bloody isn't" inside, you obviously hadn't seen what went before. As we physicists say, it's all relative.

We visited Beijing and Shanghai. The capital was suffering from a headline-making photochemical fog and we made our way to the EERDC under a bitter-lemon sky. Warmth and hospitality was a common theme throughout the trip. So was technology. The EERDC was full of the stuff - 3D virtual dissecting screen, anybody? The journey to Shanghai was by bullet train, smooth and quiet at 300kmh. There we toured an equipment factory - and, again, there was no shortage of tech.

What, then, could SSERC bring to China? There is no sense that the country is struggling when it comes to modern science kit. Rolling it out only requires money and the will to do so, and China has that too. What is perhaps less well-developed is a strategy to engage teachers and use the equipment effectively with pupils - which the SSERC and its partners have been doing for years.

The next stage, all being well, is to welcome EERDC colleagues to Scotland on placement. "Sugelan huanying nimen" ("a warm welcome to Scotland"), as I'll be too self-conscious to say.

Gregor Steele is head of physics and technology at the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre

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