Ni Yinong, 50, looks more like a tour guide than your typical Beijing middle-school teacher, and his destination is the fantastic world of nature. Having dreamed as a child of becoming a scientist, he has walked a far different path to that of many of his peers. His natural history class is one of the most popular programmes at the Affiliated High School of Peking University, where his students call him "Da Ni" ("Big Ni"), a name usually reserved for a beloved elder brother or close friend. In his eyes, the greatest reward has not been the biology medals won by his students, or their high test scores. Rather, his greatest satisfaction comes from reading the journals kept by his students that detail their excitement at discovering nature, whether in a detailed report on insects' organs of hearing or narratives of first encounters with a white-headed langur, one of the world's rarest primates, found only on a Vietnamese island and a small pocket of Guangxi . Students never hesitate to express admiration for Ni's rich knowledge of forests and mountains. Ni recently shared his views about education, science teaching and career development.
What does your natural history course teach?
There are five major components: observation of plants, insects, astronomy, birds, and minerals. Students examine all kinds of samples, learn scientific drawing and make field trips to unspoiled nature reserves such as in Guangxi and Inner Mongolia . They choose subjects based on their own interests, plan their excursions and discuss each person's role in their team. We believe science is more about the process of discovery rather than just passively accepting existing conclusions. Scientific theories that are commonly held today may well be revised or even overturned in the future as new research and evidence come to hand. Our goal is to help students broaden their views, develop interests, and build up their own value systems. Unlike most Chinese middle-school education that focuses on classroom lessons, examinations, and simple assessments of students' performance, we prefer to encourage students to conduct experiments, experience nature in the wild, and learn on their own. Our evaluation of students is also far more diversified, to reflect each contribution they make, large or small. Students must co-operate with one another to complete their work, from which they develop social networks and make friends.
Are there many students keen to apply for your course?
It is a two-year course organised by myself and a few other teachers. Students are interviewed before they are admitted. They must explain why they want to do the course and convince us that they are genuinely interested and are willing to devote time to it. One of my top students, Zhang Minhao , is a keen photographer and has made use of that skill to observe birds, insects and their habitat. His work has even been published in well-known magazines. Having greatly enjoyed his exposure to nature, Zhang spends much of his own time exploring wild areas with his father. About a third of the 200 students or so selecting this course each year are like Zhang - they want to do it and aren't pushed by others. Another third seem to have had guidance from teachers, while the remainder seem to lack clear goals, so they benefit relatively less from the course.
Do you think some of your students will become scientists?
We didn't establish the course with that in mind. We're happy if we can spark a genuine interest in the natural world. Whether this influences career choices is not our main concern.
What is better, having a strong interest or becoming an expert?
Of course a student's personal interest matters more, because it's something students can take with them for a lifetime. We don't position the course as vocational training. We are also very careful to prevent misconceptions - we want out students to come away from the course with a respect and understanding of nature, not some idea that they can conquer it.
Did you choose the job because you loved teaching?
Not initially. I studied biology at the Capital Normal University and came to work at this middle school in 1987. Since my childhood, I dreamed of becoming a scientist researching animals, plants and insects. I feel my life would be empty had I not studied biology. But it took me quite some time settle on teaching as a career. Now I feel that I was destined for this job.
What sparked your love for the natural world?
I moved with my parents from Beijing to the countryside in Henan province during the Cultural Revolution when I was in primary school. We didn't have much contact with other people in that very poor and unproductive region, which was often flooded by the Yellow River. My initial exploration for wild fruit, fish and birds was driven by hunger, but the natural world eventually became my sanctuary.
Have you been in the school since graduation?
No. I left this secure job from 1993 to 1997 - to start my own flower business, among other jobs I tried. I was looking for something with a bit more risk and, I hoped, a higher business return, after I received many honours at school and my students won various medals at local and international science competitions. But the life of a businessman turned out to be much less fun than teaching. I returned to the school after several years. That said, the time I spent in the business world allowed me to meet many different people outside of the school and to try things a teacher never needs to worry about. Being a teacher sometimes makes people feel superior, while striving to maintain a business puts you on a more equal footing with others.
Do you ever think about another career change?
Not any more, especially at this age. It will be good enough for me to be able to do just one thing well in my life.