I am studying at a public high school’s international department right now. We were having Honors Chemistry last week. In addition to the typical Chinese textbook chemistry, the school is also incorporating parts of the textbook Pearson Chemistry into our curriculum.

As we are learning somewhat advanced (not really) high school topics covered in Chinese textbooks, such as chemical equilibrium, our teacher informed us that we will now be delving into the topics covered in Pearson Chemistry, which are rather rudimentary when compared to what we were used to learning. We actually went to the first chapters of the book, including a chapter on scientific measurement and, more specifically, unit conversion.

For some background information, in the typical Chinese way of teaching, unit conversion is done by simply multiplying a constant value, and students are taught that constant value and told to remember it. For example, in the first few lessons in middle school physics, teachers will lead students to derive the fact that 1 m/s = 3.6 km/h. Afterwards, students are told to simply remember the constant 3.6, and whenever it comes to converting velocity from meters per second to kilometers per hour, students would simply multiply the value with this constant. Quick and simple, right?

Most of the students at our school came from a Chinese education background (some students just transferred from the Chinese department here last month), and in the Honors Chemistry class, it was the first time that many students were introduced to the idea of dimensional analysis for converting units. The idea was that you would multiply the value that you wanted to convert by another factor that was equivalent to one. So, for instance, if you wanted to convert 6 inches to centimeters (1 inch = 2.54 centimeters), you would do:

6 \space \cancel{\mathrm{in}} \times \underset{\text{equal to one!}}{\frac{2.54 \space \mathrm{cm}}{1 \space \cancel{\mathrm{in}}}} = 15.2 \space \mathrm{cm}

Though pretty simple, this way of converting units is very different from what most people learned in a Chinese textbook.

Why am I blabbering on about all of these, and what does this have to do with the title? When you think a little bit deeper about this, you can see that the small difference in the method for converting units actually reflects the different mindsets behind the two education systems. The Chinese mindset is more catered to efficiency and speed in exams, because that’s what the ultimate goal of Chinese education is: to make students succeed in the Gaokao (universal higher education admissions test). The international mindset, however, allows students to dive more into the depths of the problem and how unit conversion really works. Though it may be argued that unit conversion is such a trivial task that nobody will have any trouble understanding its inner workings in either education system, this difference becomes a lot more evident in more complicated scenarios.

On my way out of the classroom, I overheard fellow classmates discussing how “ridiculous” and “unrelated” this lesson was. Food for thought. (April 13, 2024)