One of the major changes in the education world is the rise of the Western Pacific in international studies of student achievement. This includes New Zealand and China, and in my last blog I considered the ambitious plans of New Zealand. In this one, I consider education change in China.
China has been rapidly modernizing its cities and industries. Many big Chinese cities such as Shijiazhuang have streets and buildings that might be seen in almost any part of the world.
In other areas, the more traditional building of China remains in evidence, often less than
100 metres from the high-rise offices, businesses and banks (there seem to be an enormous number of banks in Shijiazhuang and Baoding- more so per kilometer than in Beijing even). More traditional building can be seen in large areas of Shijiazhuang, though even in those areas there are significant changes.
Within even the most modern areas, the side streets contain shops on the ground floor that offer a chance for small business to exist and grow. Indeed, it seems to me that these small and medium sized businesses are a realization of the dreams of many Chinese citizens. Their hours are long, with this shop open from before 8 in the morning until after 10 at night (I never saw it shut), with the whole extended family playing a role.
In this process educational buildings- and education in general- has been, to some extent, left behind. Now it seems that education is becoming a major area of investment and change. On one level, the changes are subtle. Consider these two examples from the same school.
The fundamental difference in the classrooms is the number of people in them. Chinese schools are, in the main, built for classes of 64- though this varies. The first image presents a more typical classroom and the second, a new classroom specifically designed for small groups (in this case, for robot construction- a current object of interest for Chinese educators).
The differences between Chinese education and US education are not restricted to class size and buildings of course. Teachers in China have a very different experience- large classes, yet lots of time. For example, teachers routinely teach less than 2 lessons a day (there are 8 lessons in most schools). They have their own part of the school building, with offices and work areas. They react with horror and disbelief to the teaching loads in New Zealand / UK / US education.
The examination system in China is as brutal as in many other systems, with exams at 15 and 18 determining educational futures with, no doubt, the same weaknesses of most examination systems. The stress on parents, students and families seems intense with the one child policy making the pressure greater. An aspiration for many Chinese parents is that their children go to UK and US universities, and that makes the challenges even greater.
The result? Chinese education is, in some areas, embracing radical
change. They are taking a distinctive approach, with educational change being based on evidence from other countries and, crucially, large-scale field trials of potential systemic changes. Consider this gated community of apartments in Shijiazhuang: it looks very much like any other apartment complex in most large cities in China. Yet within the complex is a radical change in educational buildings- a school embedded within an apartment tower block.
The name of the school is interesting- ‘experimental primary school’, and it is that. Inside the classrooms vary from traditional schools- they are larger, have specialist rooms for most subjects such as science and technologies, and include many cultural subjects (such as music, calligraphy and pottery). The model is more like that for a secondary school. Other aspects are clearly primary school strengths: every wall throughout the school only displays children’s work. There is natural light in every room. It is exceptionally clean and well maintained.
The teachers are dedicated, or so I gathered from speaking
to the English teachers. They love the school and its classes of 40 (though, in due course, the numbers will rise). They are interested in educational developments, research and change that will improve learning. They are proud of the school, and eager to improve. ‘Kathy’, the teacher in the black dress, spent a year in Salt Lake City and her English is exceptionally good.
The Chinese approach to educational change is interesting: high cost, high quality field trials like this one show an ambition to become world leaders in learning. The Chinese vision is one that seeks to achieve an exceptional step change in their education system. This, to me, seems very like the pattern of economic changes in China 30 years ago that have had such impact. Already the performance of some school areas in China has changed radically (such as in Hong Kong and Shanghai).
There will be further change. We can expect more educational field trials, more evidence-based change, and – I believe – systemic change in Chinese education.