Coinciding with the China Development Forum in Beijing, the Insights Blog is focusing on China for the next week. In this first posting, Chinese educators Wang Zheng and Jiang Xueqin discuss the challenge of bringing education into the 21st century.
Earlier this month, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao unveiled a draft 10-year education reform blueprint, and welcomed public comments. Tens of thousands of e-mails flooded in, recognition of the importance of education to China’s technological advancement, economic progress and global engagement.
When China’s Communist Party came to power in 1949, it transformed education from the privilege of the elite to the right of the people. Basic schooling and universal literacy became proud traditions. To Western eyes, the relentless use of examinations to determine who wins a coveted slot in higher education may seen harsh. But, in a time of widening inequality, the Chinese believe this merit-based system guarantees fairness. It is this belief that encourages poor boys in remote hills to study by candlelight and dream of testing into Peking University, China’s best university.
But a system designed 60 years ago to train technocrats for a command economy will invariably need to change as China learns to engage with modernity, technology, and the world.
Since Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world in the late 1970s, the free market, the Internet, and globalization have all come to China, each with its own particular set of promises and perils. Employers, both domestic and foreign, complain they cannot staff their companies, even though over half of China’s university graduates cannot find employment. It has become clear that a system where 50 students in a class together memorize textbooks from dawn until midnight for multiple-choice examinations cannot produce the management and creative talent needed by a global knowledge economy.
Those who are at the forefront of China’s economic reform and progress – senior managers, government officials, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals – know this, and are the first to send their children for schooling in the West. Most young Chinese studying abroad plan to return home; educated to welcome difference and diversity and to confront the challenges of globalization, they can help China engage with the world.
In response to this trend, in 2009, we started a unique experimental programme called the Special Curriculum at Shenzhen Middle School in southern China. With ever more of our students choosing to study abroad, we as educators believed we needed to do more to prepare them for life on campus overseas. Rather than rote learning, our students learn to read critically and write clearly in English. They contribute to seminar discussions, engage in dinner-table conversation with their classmates, and participate in a wide variety of activities – a daily newspaper, a school coffeehouse, an English magazine – that teach valuable co-operation and communication skills.
The Special Curriculum has changed how other Chinese public schools conceive of their study-abroad programmes: They are no longer so focused on test scores but rather seek to change the mindsets of their students.
Our new programme is not without controversy. Many wonder why a Chinese school is spending public resources on helping Chinese students study in the United States.
But our intention is to use the Special Curriculum as a laboratory to experiment with a curriculum that will help all Chinese students, not just those who study abroad. Special Curriculum students may be encouraged to exercise and play, watch movies and read novels, engage in chit-chat and extracurricular activities. But in tests they do just as well as – or even better than – students who are given no choice but to study all day. This fact has profound implications for curriculum design and implementation in China.
Scientific research and the experience of Finland’s highly praised education system show that a varied and flexible schedule that incorporates play and pleasure with study and work produces the best learners. Fitness and nutrition, music and arts, sports and games are not unnecessary distractions to learning but healthy supplements.
As China embarks on designing its ten-year education plan we hope everyone can dream of the possibilities, not just remember the limitations, of education reform in China.
Mr. Wang, a Peking University physics graduate, was principal of Shenzhen Middle School from 2002-2010 and now heads Peking University High School, where his first initiative will be to start an international programme. Mr. Jiang, a Yale College graduate, is Director of the Special Curriculum at Shenzhen Middle School and consultant for the Peking University High School international programme.
The OECD’s Chinese-language site – 网站(中文)