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China’s education system is undergoing a radical overhaul almost overnight. What can we learn from their methods?


It has long been assumed in the west that Chinese schools encourage a collectivist mentality, are obsessed by exams, spoon-feed their students and are closed to links abroad.

In elite schools, major shifts in government education policies are being implemented almost overnight and sustained by vast investment, producing experiments in education that would be considered radical by western standards.

Education Guardian accompa­nied five UK secondary headteachers on a British Council trip to Beijing and Xi ’an with the aim to partner up with a Chinese school and see the rapid changes being made to the Chi­nese education system.

Avant-garde teaching is in ac­tion at Shaanxi middle school. After an art lesson pupils are asked to evaluate the lesson with an А, В, С or D grade.

It’s all part of China’s New Goals reforms. The plan is to overturn teaching methods in the Asian powerhouse, province by province. The education ministry wants to do away with decades of rote-learning in favour of groupwork, class discus­sions and role-play. The emphasis is on communication skills rather than fact-absorption.

Zhang Fan, a teacher at Shaanxi middle school explains a change in education system in the terms of an ancient Chinese proverb: “It is better to teach someone how to fish, than to give them the fish.”

The New Goals reforms are be­ing introduced with alarming speed, at least in the elite schools. Teachers at Fan’s school had just five days to learn the new teaching methods of groupwork and role-play exercises, and to get used to new textbooks. Both Chinese teachers and their stu­dents admit they haven’t found it easy. It has been hard and tiring for everyone to make the jump. Li Hong, the vice-principal, can see its benefits. “Before the reforms, teachers told the children how to think. In five or 10 years’ time, the pupils will have the spirit to learn by them­selves.” Xiqi Hou, a grade one Eng­lish teacher, says: “Last year, I would have just been doing language exer­cises with the pupils and then ex­plaining the answers. Now it is lis­tening, writing and comprehension. We see the shortcomings of the pre­vious system.”

The Chinese government pledged last year, in its 11th five-year plan, to pour 14 bn yuan (£920m) into vocational training between 2006 and 2010, and to skill an extra 36 million workers. The government anticipates that the number of stu­dents in vocational schools will soon be equal to those in the more aca­demic equivalent, senior high schools for 15- to 17-year-olds.

Chinese teachers have already sealed partnerships with schools in Japan, Italy, Korea, Australia and Singapore — and are looking for more. Ge Wang, a 17-year-old stu­dent at Shaanxi middle school, is just one of the pupils who has spent a year abroad and hopes to go to uni­versity in the US.

At Xi’an Bodi middle school you can see some phrases on the walls: “A tolerant person will have many friends”, “Contentment is the least I expect today”. Both are evi­dence of China’s recent drive to em­phasize traditional notions of proper conduct, familial duty, respect for others and social responsibility.

China’s children are getting clear messages about mental and social well-being.

"The Chinese education system has its faults, says Dr Ed Vickers, an expert on East Asian education at the Institute of Education, University of London. “The elitist bent of Chinese government education policy over most of the past quarter-century has tended to favour “key” or “model” schools. There is a growing socio­economic inequality between urban and rural areas, the east and the poorer west.” Vickers also criticizes the Chinese government for promot­ing technological and scientific ex­pertise, seen as directly contributing to economic growth, at the expense of more “humanistic” studies.

So, aside from the fact that the Chinese system has some serious flaws and that we have seen the best of the best, what do British teachers think our system could learn from China’s top schools?

In China, it seems that if there is a weakness in the system, they de­liver an agenda to change it very quickly. So they trained their teach­ers in the New Goals reforms in just five days. The British wheels are slower to turn.

The variety of courses the Chi­nese vocational school was offering shows that the country is to some ex­tent ahead of the UK in terms of vo­cational training.

The British teachers admit that the Chinese students think globally unlike their students. So on coming home they are going to teach their students to compete for jobs in a global market; to make them realize just how many keen students their age there are.

“China is opening its doors wide and wants to learn,” says the principal of Xi’an Railway Number One middle school. This is true in more ways than one. And we can learn from it, too.

Adapted from Jessica Shepherd, The Guardian

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