China Jan 23rd 2003 | BE Roll over, Confucius
JING From The Economist print edition
Education in China
is being overhauled in the name of creativity. But will the changes also breed
THROUGHOUT the millennia, students of all ages in China have had to endure the miseries of learning by rote. Teachers have stifled creativity in the pursuit of the accumulation of facts, and parents have forced children to spend mind-numbing hours cramming for exams. But for the past year, the government has been experimenting with what could amount to revolutionary changes in China's classrooms. The aim is to make education more pleasant, more useful and, above all, to challenge students to think for themselves.
What has prompted the reforms is a belated recognition that China's education system is failing to produce enough innovative thinkers. In addition, students are deeply unhappy. A survey conducted by the Education Ministry five years ago found more than 80% of students disliked school. Dropout rates have been rising in rural areas—partly for economic reasons but also because of the stultifying atmosphere of their classrooms. Exam pressures frequently lead to suicides. According to a survey last year among senior secondary-school students and university freshmen in one area, more than 50% had considered killing themselves.
Several other countries in East Asia, including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, are grappling with similar problems. But the implications of China's reform efforts are particularly profound. China's traditional education methods are ideally suited to a political culture that requires citizens to submit blindly to authority. By encouraging students to question their teachers and regard them as equals (even official literature now talks of fostering a “democratic” atmosphere in classrooms), China could be ushering in a new kind of relationship between the rulers and the ruled.
The problem is making it work. The government has set ambitious targets with few resources to ensure that the country's more than 10m primary- and secondary-school teachers acquire the skills and determination to change the habits of a lifetime. The reforms started in September 2001 with about 420,000 primary- and junior secondary-school students (out of a national total of more than 215m) taking part in 38 experimental zones around the country. In September this year, participation increased to 9.1m pupils in 572 zones. These figures will double next year. The Education Ministry's original idea had been to implement the reforms nationwide by 2010. But according to Liu Jian of the ministry's National Centre for School Curriculum and Textbook Development, employers from a variety of enterprises said they wanted a quicker timetable. So now the target is 2005. In 2004, similar experiments will start in secondary schools.
Some of the reforms involve introducing livelier textbooks. In elementary mathematics, for example, these try to relate formulae to practical situations. New English textbooks encourage pupils to experiment with dialogue instead of simply memorising words and phrases. (In China, students who perform well in English exams are often barely able to speak it.) According to Education Ministry materials, teachers are expected to use these textbooks simply as “platforms” for imaginative classroom exercises instead of treating them as “sacred texts”. All this, however, costs money.
Mr Liu of the Education Ministry estimates that providing on-the-job training for teachers could cost $1.5 billion. This will not come from the ministry but from local education departments. But these are already facing acute budgetary problems, particularly in the countryside where some teachers go unpaid for months on end because the township-level governments responsible for rural schools have run out of money. “We very much want to send teachers elsewhere for training,” a secondary-school headmaster from Inner Mongolia, Kong Xiangwei, complained to colleagues at a recent conference in Beijing. “But we don't have the money. It costs us a lot just to attend this conference, and when we go back it could be impossible to reclaim our expenses.”
On top of this is the problem of convincing parents that new-fangled education methods are going to benefit their children. As long as the entrance requirements for universities and senior secondary schools remain based on the results of national exams which primarily test students' ability to memorise, parents will pile on the same pressures. At the Guangming Primary School in Beijing, an early pioneer of the reforms, pupils are asked to submit comments on their teachers twice a term. “They say they want us to be stricter, but that's because their parents tell them to say that,” says Lu Jie, an administrator at the school. Other parents are less restrained. According to Mr Kong, from Inner Mongolia, some have been withdrawing their children from schools where reforms are being carried out.
Although most schools in China are still state-run, many now in effect operate as private institutions—charging fees (often euphemistically described as “donations”) as high as the market will allow. Schools that have a good record of getting pupils into top universities are obviously in the greatest demand. There is therefore a considerable risk that schools will pay lip service to the new reforms while continuing to cram students in the time-honoured fashion. Officials also worry that provincial education authorities, in order to protect local publishing industries, will deny schools any choice in their selection of textbooks (freer choice of teaching materials being one of the aims of the reforms). “It is possible that by 2005 everyone will be using new teaching materials, but the actual impact will fall far short of what's required,” says Mr Liu.
Mr Liu says the long-term plan is to change the university entrance procedures to place more emphasis on students' performance at school rather than simply on the national entrance exam. He suggests this will be necessary by 2007, when the first students educated by the new methods will reach university. But the problem is how to assess such performance fairly, given the likelihood of corruption. In a country awash with fake diplomas and graduation certificates, the nationally administered university entrance exam, for all its faults, is one institution that is at least respected. “We will face a lot of pressure, but we have to keep going,” says Mr Liu. “Changes in the curriculum are creating a new culture in the classroom that is open, scientific and democratic.”
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