Thursday, September 16, 2004

Teaching Needham’s Puzzle - Fostering Historical Thinking

Teaching Needham’s Puzzle - Fostering Historical Thinking. In this article, the author shares his teaching experience with regard to Needham's Puzzle and introduces online resources and teaching materials. He points out two difficulties he encounters in teaching the topic; the availability of model answers to the students and their lack of understanding of academic issues relating to the question. In conclusion, the author discusses how to foster students' historical thinking through learning Needham's Puzzle.

From the site:

The author, a teacher at the Chinese Civilization Center of City University of Hong Kong, gives courses in Chinese culture at the Center. Statistics from 1998 to 2000 show that, among many of the history subjects, the History of Chinese Science is one of the most popular among students. In the Chinese Civilization Course, one of the teaching modes is an online program. Since 2001, an online component has been required for teaching a Chinese Culture course, through which students must conduct research and study. In keeping with the requirement, the author has designed an online course that focuses on the History of Chinese Science. In this course, Needham’s Puzzle, one of the most important topics, is discussed.

Joseph Needham began his career as a biochemist working in embryology. He obtained his doctor’s degree from Cambridge University in 1924 and, in 1937, when he met Lu Gwei-Djen, who came to Cambridge University to study, Needham learned about the extraordinary contributions made by ancient Chinese science. He became fascinated by ancient Chinese science and, when he was 38, studied scientific information in ancient Chinese books. After World War II, Needham returned to Cambridge University and began researching the history of Chinese science and technology (Cowling). He developed a project on “Science and Civilization in China” and invited many experts from around the world to cooperate in the project. Today, “Science and Civilization in China” is still an ongoing publication. The historical question that puzzled Needham for many years was “Why did modern science not develop in China?” In the present article, the author intends to share his teaching experience concerning this question, which is referred to as Needham’s Puzzle.


The course aims to address the two major difficulties encountered by students. The first is that students have the same “model answer” for Needham’s Puzzle, even though they have a keen interest in discussing the subject. This is surprising since Chinese Language and Culture, including one topic on the History of Chinese Science, is a requirement for secondary school students in Hong Kong. It seems, however, that in order to help students to get a high score in the examination, a series of model answers has been worked out by high school teachers, and has been included in textbooks for students to learn from for the Advanced Level Examination. The second difficulty is that students do not fully understand the academic discussions of Needham’s Puzzle (see IrfanHabib and Raina, 1999; Lui and Wang, 2002) and they even distort Joseph Needham’s ideas. Many preconceived concepts are held by the students, which undoubtedly adds difficulty to teaching.

The objectives of the author in designing his course on Needham’s Puzzle are: (1) to rectify the misconceptions of students; (2) to train the students to think about history – historical thinking develops skills needed to formulate questions, collect evidence, critique historical interpretations, and construct a historical analysis among different viewpoints (Advance on Thinking Historically; Standards in Historical Thinking; Historical Thinking Concepts; Holt 1990); and (3) to use internet sites as teaching materials so students will realize that an abundance of historical teaching resources is available online, which may be helpful not only for their present but for their future studies of history.

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