ED. Magazine

Learning in China

By Rebecca Pollard Pierik

Spurred by rapid globalization and a shift toward an increasingly information-driven economy, nations throughout the world are reforming their schools in an effort to educate greater numbers of students to a higher skill level. , too, has joined the reformers. The Communist nation is enjoying rising stature in the world marketplace, marked by its entrance into the World Trade Organization in 2001. To cultivate a labor force with the creative intelligence that can compete in global business, the country is now redesigning its traditionally “drill-and-kill” schooling system to foster innovation and ingenuity.

China’s reforms, however, contrast starkly with those occurring in the United States under the No Child Left Behind Act, according to Hua Zhang, a professor of curriculum studies at East China Normal University, who was recently a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at HGSE. Whereas the United States has moved toward national standards with an emphasis on reading, writing, and arithmetic, China is retooling its education system to foster creative thinking. “America seems thirsty for a culture at the same time that China is trying to step out of it,” said Zhang in a recent talk hosted by Harvard’s Chinese Students Association and HGSE’s Office of International Education.

Zhang described how for centuries, education in China centered around the strict, highly mechanized memorization of classic Confucian texts. Confucius believed ardently in the power of education to combat inequality and promulgate ethical values. Today, Chinese culture continues to value education above all else. The tendency toward rote memorization persists in the country’s classrooms, which has created a nation of high achievers, particularly in the areas of math and science, Zhang said. But like a growing number of Chinese educators, he believes the successes have exacted a high toll. “The push for mastery of basic skills has led teachers to neglect critical thinking and creativity,” he said.

“The push for mastery of basic skills has led teachers to neglect critical thinking and creativity.”

Transforming the ‘Culture of Testing’

A two-year study of 16,000 students and 2,000 teachers and principals that was started in 1996 by the Chinese Ministry of Education confirmed Zhang’s misgivings. Almost 80 percent of elementary-school students and 90 percent of junior-high-school students engaged in what their teachers described as a “passive style”: they quietly absorbed new information without any questions or interaction with the instructor. Only 20 percent of the teachers in the study reported that they devoted class time to creative projects that exercised their students’ ability to question and apply new knowledge. The vast majority of students, even those in elementary school, claimed that rigorous study habits and test preparation impinged on their ability to get more than seven hours of sleep each night.

“The ‘culture of testing’ has harmed our students physically and intellectually,” said Zhang, adding that suicides have become common among students worn down by fears of academic failure. Zhang then related a story about one of his former students, a capable learner with excellent grades who took her own life because she thought she would fail the national entrance examination for college. “Our hope is to radically transform the Chinese education culture,” he said.

Zhang helped to craft the initiative to reform Chinese education, which will cost 35 billion yuan (roughly $4.2 billion). Under the reforms, communities gain unprecedented power over local schools’ curricula, significant portions of the school day go to arts instruction and community service, and teachers are required to incorporate hands-on, exploratory teaching techniques pioneered by researchers such as HGSE professors Eleanor Duckworth and Howard Gardner.

In September 2002, China’s Ministry of Education began piloting the reforms in 500 counties, or 25 percent of the Chinese student population. The ministry has also started contracting with a variety of publishing houses for textbooks that are sensitive to the large country’s regional differences—in the past, only one publisher provided books for all of China’s 220 million students. “The new curriculums encourage students to collect and apply knowledge,” said Zhang. “We hope to bring out student voices by esteeming their experiences. Even abstract courses like math must relate to their daily lives.”

About the Article
A version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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