Many scholars analyzing the differences between Chinese and American education unanimously acknowledge that Chinese university students, on average, excel in STEM fields and can even rival students from some developed countries. This achievement can largely be attributed to the effectiveness of China’s exam-oriented education system.
However, there is a significant lack of top-tier students who possess critical thinking skills and an innovative spirit. This phenomenon is often referred to as the “high mean, low variance” characteristic of Chinese education.
Qian Xuesen, a renowned Chinese scientist, once lamented, “After so many years of education, none of the students we have nurtured can compare academically to the masters trained during the Republican era. Why is it that our schools consistently fail to cultivate exceptional talent?” Qian Xuesen’s question has provoked extensive reflection in various aspects of education. In this regard, I would like to offer my perspective as a response to Qian Xuesen’s query.
My Understanding of Exam-Oriented Education
Exam-oriented education has a long-standing history and widespread social foundation in China, with the imperial examination system being a classic example of this approach. In this article, I will first discuss my understanding of exam-oriented education before delving into personal perspectives.
In contemporary China, the pursuit of desirable scores in the national college entrance examination, known as the “gaokao,” dominates the educational landscape. Starting from junior high school, students are required to focus on exam preparation, particularly in subjects like mathematics, physics, and chemistry. They are often taught to categorize and summarize question types, and some students resort to intensive memorization of standardized answers, lacking a deeper understanding of the underlying principles. This phenomenon epitomizes the characteristics of exam-oriented education. Moreover, certain undergraduate programs and graduate admissions in universities still adhere to the exam-oriented education model.
Exam-oriented education is not unique to China; it exists in various countries such as Japan, South Korea, the United States, and others. However, East Asian countries, including China, place a greater emphasis on exam-driven education. In this article, we will explore the comparison between China’s college entrance examination (gaokao) and the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) in the United States, highlighting the differences in their respective roles in university admissions.
In 1977, China reintroduced the gaokao, a significant milestone in the country’s modern educational history. The gaokao admissions system focuses solely on exam scores and disregards students’ family backgrounds. It has become a symbol of equal opportunity, as millions of students across rural and urban areas compete in the examination halls each year, striving to showcase their abilities and secure future opportunities that can potentially transform their lives and families. As the fairest and most impartial selection mechanism, the gaokao is well-suited to China’s national conditions and has made significant contributions to the country’s development and progress.
In this article, I will share my personal experience as both a product and beneficiary of exam-oriented education. Beginning in the ninth grade, I dedicated myself to rigorous studying, spending almost every day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. immersed in lectures and problem-solving, leaving only meal times for a break. This intensive effort allowed me to grasp various question formats and integrate my understanding of different subjects.
Despite my inherent interest in mathematics and sciences, the pressure of the college entrance examination, known as the “gaokao,” compelled me to avoid specializing in a single subject. Throughout my high school years at Henan Experimental High School, I faced a total of 11 mid-term, final, and graduation exams, of which I achieved the top score in my grade nine times. Even in subjects like Chinese language and politics, where rote memorization was key, I achieved near-perfect scores. Exam-oriented education continued to shape my academic path during my four years of undergraduate studies.
During my time at Princeton University, I leveraged the problem-solving skills honed through exam-oriented education to navigate the research landscape. I consciously opted for research projects that promised stability and abundant returns, aligning with my subconscious inclination to steer clear of high-risk, frontier topics. This strategic approach yielded remarkable results, propelling my scientific journey to new heights.From 1998 to 2002, I made significant strides in my research field. As a corresponding author, I contributed to over ten publications that appeared in the scientific community’s top three esteemed journals. These accomplishments not only solidified my position as a respected academic but also swiftly established my reputation within the specific realm of research I had chosen.
On numerous occasions, I have expressed to visiting education leaders from China and colleagues in the molecular biology department that exam-oriented education in China ensures students possess a solid knowledge base. This training lays a robust foundation for their future development, ultimately benefiting them throughout their lives.
Exam-Oriented Education and the Impact on Creative Thinking
In this article, I will share my personal reflection on the influence of exam-oriented education and its impact on my creative spirit. As a renowned professor who achieved tenure at Princeton University in 2002, I reached a milestone in my career. However, this achievement also led to introspection, prompting me to evaluate the mindset and approach I had adopted throughout the past five years, including my doctoral studies.
Over the subsequent five years, I delved deeper into contemplating the nature of exam-oriented education and arrived at a realization that had been subtly avoided in my subconscious. The long-term exposure to exam-oriented education had ingrained in me an inherent inclination to seek standardized answers. This habitual way of thinking permeated my being, even during my independent research career post-Ph.D. As a result, I found myself lacking the necessary adventurous spirit, unconsciously shying away from uncertain and cutting-edge research directions. Instead, I often opted for relatively conservative research topics that offered greater returns.
Ironically, it is precisely within these uncertain and high-risk frontiers where scientific research thrives. Candidly speaking, the ideology fostered by exam-oriented education, to a certain extent, restricted my engagement with the most precious aspect of scientific research—the spirit of originality.
I will recount my experience as a researcher and educator after returning full-time to my alma mater, Tsinghua University, in 2008. During this period, I made a bold decision to allocate a small portion of my laboratory’s resources to continue research projects inherited from Princeton University while dedicating the majority of our efforts to novel, high-risk, and exhilarating research directions. These included the study of the human gamma-secretase complex, closely associated with Alzheimer’s disease, whose structural analysis could potentially offer crucial insights into understanding and eventually conquering this debilitating condition.
Furthermore, we delved into the structural exploration of the spliceosome, a pivotal component in eukaryotic organisms, as well as the nuclear pore complex, both representing significant challenges in the field of structural biology.
Lastly, our most ambitious undertaking involved a key branch of quantum biology—the interaction between the human body and electromagnetic waves.
Initially, when selecting these research directions, not a single one carried even a 5% chance of success. I was uncertain about the potential outcomes and had no idea how many years it would take to achieve tangible results. In fact, for some directions, I was entirely clueless about the path and the critical questions that needed to be addressed. It was a battle fought against all odds, a last-ditch effort that required unwavering determination and a willingness to accept failure.
Breaking free from the confines of exam-oriented thinking and venturing into uncharted research territories proved to be even more challenging than anticipated. From 2008 to 2011, for four consecutive years, all four major directions faced significant setbacks, yielding no substantial progress. In stark contrast, the more conservative and continuation-based research projects flourished, producing numerous high-impact journal articles. This disheartened the courageous students who had embarked on the ambitious quest, and I found myself repeatedly injecting them with motivation, encouraging everyone to persevere with courage and confidence.
However, even I, at times, had doubts, making it nearly impossible to dispel the students’ concerns entirely. I contemplated retreating, but the consequences would have meant abandoning our dreams and reverting to the path of selecting research directions through exam-oriented thinking, conforming to the norms of conventional research. I asked myself earnestly: What meaning is there in such repetition?
The Pros and Cons of Exam-Oriented Education
Amidst countless moments of anxiety and internal struggle, I remained steadfast in my conviction that innovation lies in charting unexplored paths. With determination, I embarked on a forward trajectory of exploration, recognizing the need for a strategic approach. Concentrating our strengths, we prioritized breaking new ground in our first research direction.
Eight doctoral students formed three teams to tackle the study of human γ-secretase. Simultaneously, I introduced significant innovations in protein expression methods. In addition to utilizing the well-established Escherichia coli expression system I had been familiar with for twenty years and the insect cell expression system with fifteen years of experience, we invited Professor Florian Wurm, a renowned authority on protein expression from Switzerland, to deliver a three-day lecture series at Tsinghua University, focusing on transient expression methods in mammalian cells.
This novel approach bore fruit, and in early 2013, our first research direction achieved a breakthrough. We successfully obtained a substantial amount of active recombinant human γ-secretase through our innovative methods. Leveraging advancements in cryo-electron microscopy and analytical techniques, we became the first in the world to elucidate and publish the high-resolution spatial three-dimensional structure of human γ-secretase in 2014 and 2015. The perseverance brought unexpected rewards, as our second research direction flourished, defying the notion that obtaining the complete structure of a yeast spliceosome was impossible, with the emergence of a 3.6Å spatial three-dimensional fine structure.
As I pen these reflections, several doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers are wholeheartedly engaged in tackling our third research direction. They voluntarily forego family reunions during the Spring Festival, utilizing the idle periods of laboratory equipment to collect experimental data tirelessly, making significant progress. Even the seemingly “fantastical” fourth direction, under the relentless pursuit of successive waves of doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, has yielded preliminary original findings.
Now, having reached an age of self-awareness, I keenly sense a decline in memory and diminished cognitive abilities. Reflecting upon my thirty-year scientific research career since graduating from university, I deeply appreciate the pros and cons of exam-oriented education. If I were to retrace the past thirty years armed with my present insights, it is highly likely that during my postdoctoral period, I would have chosen interdisciplinary laboratories and embraced training and challenges in entirely new research fields. Similarly, as an assistant professor, I would have pursued more pioneering and challenging frontiers of research, rather than placing excessive focus on projects with strong feasibility and certainty.
What needs to be explained is that my unforgettable experience is not a complete negation of examination-oriented education, let alone negate the distinct advantages of examination-oriented education, that is, to strengthen students’ mastery of basic knowledge and skills in a short period of time.However, exam-oriented education gives students the inertial thinking and solidified thinking of finding standard answers, which is likely to have a lasting negative impact on their future engagement in the most original scientific research and challenging cutting-edge problems.
Just imagine, if 100 well-trained Chinese scientists choose more adventurous and innovative research directions, I believe that some of them will stand out and become the founders and leaders in some fields.Unfortunately, most people, like me when I was young, tend to choose safe, reliable research.
Jewish scientists, by contrast, are more willing to challenge and choose risky, innovative research directions. While Chinese scientists in America are probably no less productive than their Jewish counterparts, the Chinese make far fewer scientific contributions than their Jewish counterparts.In my opinion, the conservative way of thinking that emphasizes standard answers and pursues established goals is the direct cause, and examination-oriented education is the root cause of this way of thinking to a certain extent.
Many scholars who analyze the educational differences between China and the United States agree that the average level of Chinese college students in science and engineering is quite good, even comparable to students in some developed countries, which is largely due to the effectiveness of exam-oriented education. However,there is a shortage of top-notch students with critical thinking and innovative spirit, which is the phenomenon of “high average and small variance” in Chinese education.
In fact, this phenomenon is not only reflected in the quality of talent training, but also reflected in the scientific and technological innovation and core technology research! This is very detrimental to China’s future innovation-driven development and seriously affects China’s core competitiveness in the high-tech field. Because the scientific and technological strength of a country does not depend on the average level of all researchers, but on the level of top scientists.
From another perspective, exam-oriented education focuses on ensuring fairness. Materialist dialectics tells us:everything has two sides. Overemphasis on fairness will suppress excellence.Each person is unique. Individualized education means education according to the characteristics of each person, so it will produce better results, just as a hundred flowers will flourish.
From this perspective, the college entrance examination should give more autonomy to schools and students on the premise of ensuring fairness. We will establish diversified methods for selecting talents, so that students who are talented and creative in a single subject but do not adapt to the traditional college entrance examination system can stand out and enjoy the educational opportunities they deserve.Thus making a special and important contribution to society. It is gratifying that the reform of the new college entrance examination is slowly beginning to focus on teaching students according to their aptitude, which will greatly benefit the all-round development of students.
This is my first article on the question of Qian Xuesen, in the future if there is a chance, I will further elaborate their own thinking on basic education. I sincerely hope that for the sake of the future of the entire Chinese nation, we can give up inertial thinking, seriously face up to and think about this problem.