Asian education must change to promote innovative thinking

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As Asian economies ramp up R&D, and high-tech companies relocate to China and India, Asian science looks unstoppable — apart from one last hurdle: a shortage of local talent. A radical change in Asia's education culture is needed to foster the human capital necessary for innovation-led economies.

The exam-centric Asian education system has created a workforce more adept at imitation than innovation (W. Lim Science 327, 15761577; 2010). Asia-based scientists without Western collaborators therefore seldom publish in highly cited, indexed journals. No Asian nation is represented among the top 20, ranked by the average number of citations per published paper.

A critical mass of creative researchers is required to sustain research and attract talent. For decades, Asian countries have sent their best to the West for training in science and technology. Those who return are valued for their initiative and creativity, and currently form the bulk of research leaders and productive scientists. But many émigrés opt to remain overseas, where creative potential is higher. Except for most Japanese laureates, virtually all science Nobel Prize-winners of Asian descent did their groundbreaking work in the West, and remained there. Countries that lure prominent foreign scientists find their impact on local researchers as unpredictable as the length of time they are willing to stay.

Asian governments recognize that the solution is to develop homegrown scientific talent. They have been adapting their national school curricula to fit new global realities. China and Japan, for example, have been moving away from a centralized curriculum.

Suitable science students should join a stream that feeds into the best universities. They should mainly be taught using problem-based and enquiry-based learning, which will develop their powers of investigation and critical thinking. Grades should depend on active contribution during group-based learning sessions, to change the focus from competitive examination to collaborative learning.

Only when these reforms are in place will Asian schools be able to progress beyond content knowledge to nurture the innovative thinking necessary to sustain the rise of Asian science.

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  1. Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, 93150 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia

    • William K. Lim

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  1. Report this comment #10589

    Zhongyu Hou said:

    Improvements on the posed issue are vital; however, the way in definition of the problem is plausible. The publication records are neither the only nor the best measure in creativity. Seeking identity with the western will not naturally end with creativity, in terms of education or research activities. Asian nations need to evaluate their plans on their concerned reform plans, much more independently.

  2. Report this comment #10686

    William Lim said:

    Yes, publication records is not the best measure of creativity, but citation rate shows whether the research output is of high impact or not. Did the research create new knowledge that moved the field forward significantly, or was it only copying what other people have done in other places? Asia now has the equipment and money, but most of the high impact research is still coming from the West. Asians are still going to the West to get advanced training in science and technology, not the other way round. The result is that a lot of Asian research is dependant on the West. Asia would like to be the leader in science rather than a follower, but the question is how? What plans can Asia implement so that it can stand on par with or better than the West? I would like to suggest we can start by not allowing our younger generation to spend 12 years in school memorizing information to reproduce on test papers, but to learn to think analytically, critically and creatively.

  3. Report this comment #10922

    Liangjun Hu said:

    China?s ?tag-culture? also must change to promote innovation.

    The innovative thinking education, instead of the exam-centric education system that more nurtures content knowledge but creativity in Asia, was regarded critical to foster local talents necessary for innovation-led economies and sustain the rise of Asian science (Correspondence, Nature 465, 157; 2010). However, Asia?s sci-tech innovative issues are a quite complex polyhedral matter more than only education. For instance, a ?tag-culture??commonly seen in routines in Chinese societies, e.g., R&D evaluation, education and policy-making in China?s universities, research institutions and levels of governments, goes thwarting creativity and thus need a radical change too!
    Due to running a long totalitarian regime in East Asia and quick commercialization nowadays, China?s society is undergoing a challenging bewilderment to exactly evaluate her progressive advance in all fields, by lacking a sound evaluation system with fine criteria. Therefore, a ?tag-culture?, to ease the quantity-, not quality-based evaluation needs, is burgeoning in China in recent decades (J. Liu and H. Yang, Science 325, 675-676; 2009). As a result, many ?tags?, with dazzling appeals, emerge to make sense and dramatically tosses the whole society. For instance, universities with a tag ?985? or ?211? or levels of ?Key Labs? will be fully respected in China, from state governments to usual people in appropriating funds or fresh enrollment, though some of them are not qualified either in research or in instructions even both. Researchers with a tag ?Academician? or ?973 / 863 Leading Scientist? or many suchlike can easily win plenty of extra grants or living allowance though many of them have been losing their gold toward creativity. Moreover, the number of above tagged persons and institutions has been becoming a key criterion for evaluating the competence of their located institutions even regions, and that is usually used again for resource allocations and officials? promotion. And so forth, and so on.
    This ?tag-culture? has caused severe harm to China?s R&D innovation and education strategies, even to China?s academic fames international. To survive in a competitive ?tag-culture? based on quantity evaluation methods, many Chinese researchers, particularly the younger have to publish as many low-quality papers as they could, some of them with scientific misconducts (H. Xin, Science 323, 1280-1281; 2009). Therefore, to promote China?s sci-tech self-managed innovative capabilities, this ?tag-culture? must change to a quality-based evaluation regime.

  4. Report this comment #11712

    William Lim said:

    Thank you for your strong argument that use of quantity-based evaluation system can lead to low impact research and publications even among creative scientists. The phenomenon of research grants, awards and promotions being decided by non-scientist bureaucrats based on commercialization and profits rather than scientific quality is common enough the world over. Still the fact remains that creative scientists are few in Asia, and Western-trained returnees help to fill this gap. You have made the point that to harness the strength of these scientists, the assessment and reward system should be based on the quality of work rather than quantity. Creative people in a quality-driven environment is the recipe for high impact science. The biggest change Asian policymakers must make is to think long term. You have alluded to officials making bad policies with the intent of benefiting themselves in the short term. Plans to develop a creative generation and retain creative talent will only yield results in the longer term. Countries that succeed in establishing a strong research culture are run by far-sighted governments.

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