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Education Reform in China: What the educators think

19 March 2010
by Guest author

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.

A sound mind in a sound body at Shenzhen Middle School

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.

Useful links

OECD work on China

The OECD’s Chinese-language site – 网站(中文)

OECD work on education

The China Development Forum

OECD Insights: Human Capital

9 Responses
  1. May 26, 2010

    Launch of The Galen Education Project – China Help
    There are some great teachers, and even some great Teacher Preparation programs, but these are random occurrences where consistency is essential. The reason is simple: Professional Education is missing fundamental standards found in all other professions. There is no standard curriculum, no sincere effort to identify Best Instructional Practices, and truckloads of weak consultants and players with diluted degrees serving up their own brands of Faculty Development. Courses with the very same title and syllabus can be as different in principles and practices as is Lightening is from a Lightening Bug. To be called a profession it is imperative that a profession, one way or another, needs to convene an ongoing forum to collect and prioritize the core content of principles and practices that every member ought to know. Ironically, Teachers worldwide are being held to standards for annual yearly progress of their students. Meanwhile, Professors, Learned Societies & commercial schools, and some painfully self-serving non-profit foundations and Universities never even address the need for solid pedagogic content. Worse, those that do publish material under titles referencing Best Practices are quite simply hype, if not fraudulent. With few exceptions the current crop of in-charge “Leaders” – who once were mere administrators – dangerously resembles the Investment Bankers who remain in charge of the economic systems that they nearly bankrupted. It will take unprecedented courage & action to take command of our own narrative and reduce Education’s vulnerability. Perhaps the only way to expose and reform this systemic disaster would be a class action by teachers &/or parents & students against all of we academic and school-based decision makers who have been complicit in these myriad layers of self-interest actions bordering on malpractice.
    Since the likelihood of legal action is a remote it would be wonderfully unprecedented for a leveraged agency, such as the US Department of Education or a sate department of Education to hold a virtual convention of the nation’s leading educators to consider and ideally endorse a covenant of principles and more importantly prescriptive practices. Ideally this would occur on an open-access website that transparently allows these to be challenged, tweaked, further specified for different age-grade-linguistic & situational conditions, &/or replaced by more specialized instructional methods- of which there are many – that are diagnostically matched to students’ special needs. Additionally, such a rolling convention also could address differentiated staffing based on what schools are expected to do, and with a differentiated set of Best Practices for each function as exist between doctors and nurses, attorneys and paralegals, etc. It is important to underscore the fact that the ongoing nature of this transparent system virtually guarantees that while the new instructional curriculum may be dominated by some mythologies; it also would be enriched by an extensive list of specialized methods identified for special needs and circumstances. There are some very unusual, even exotic methods that may have been over-sold and/or have not faired well in comparative studies of mean outcomes but that “work” almost magically when used in targeted situations. In other words, for the first time, there would for be a sensible and somewhat hierarchical difference between the methods taught in undergraduate and graduate courses. This is no small matter since currently any teaching method can be randomly selected or deselected anywhere hence leaving some very sound teaching methods un-presented, irrespective of degree status and level of “Staff Development.” The hundreds of millions of dollars spent and to be spent on Faculty Development for the most part has been an un-orderly, non-sequential, trend dictated, hit & miss disaster, and with near zero specifications as to the different levels in the preparation of the faculty and varied obligations of schools.
    Schools are expected to carry-on three essential although overlapping functions: 1. Teach new concepts, content and a positive disposition toward self-directed on-going learning; 2. Provide assessment and targeted supervised practice in these objectives; and, 3. Operate a massive custodial role that keeps students in school for at least seven-nine hours a day for about 200 days a year for about 13 years, and now through at least 2 more years of college. Our labor market and economic system depend on schools to meet these criteria. The problem is not the expectations, but that staffing, resources and organization do not reflect these societal expectations. And, sadly there is no coordinating free market in which to gain access to the best pedagogical ideas and practices. But, this is another complex issue requiring several additional paragraphs that have now become all wrapped up, if not convoluted by vouchers and charter schools.
    Meanwhile, please consider joining the websites below offering a potential startup means of getting the current system moving in the right direction. As an aside, taxpayers would be grateful since increasing classroom effectiveness and adding differentiated staffing could bring about efficiencies that could save billions of dollars with even the smallest degree of adoption. With your support we hope to formally organize ourselves around the title: The Galen Project in honor of Claudius Galen (131-201) a great teacher-practitioner, compiler and systematizer of Greco-Roman medicine, physiology, pharmacy and anatomy. Please join the narrative at: And…
    Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus,
    University of Missouri-KC, (ret.) CSU-Fullerton

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