Examples from China in modernising education

Chinese classroom

More often than not, we laud the advanced nations of the West for the traditionally long-standing quality of their education and often ignore huge strides and equally important advances made by the Oriental nations of China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea. They, too, boast of developed and diverse economies, with the quality of their education praised around the world. Successful economies not based on energy exports have one thing in common: they have excellent primary, secondary, and tertiary education systems. With this in mind, let us examine China’s route to modernising their education systems, which has translated to huge economic success.

Alongside the overarching reforms of the late-1970s, Chinese reform of the education system saw a deep introspection on quality- against examination-oriented education. This has followed the philosophy of “Orientation towards Modernisation, Orientation towards the Future, and Orientation towards the World”, implemented because of their self-imposed isolation after the Second World War. The debate over the faults and merits of the optimal education system finally resulted in a 2001 Action Plan for Invigorating Education for the 21st Century, which subsequently resulted in the pioneering Basic Education Curriculum Reform; this completely overhauled education pedagogy, philosophy, and content for the primary and secondary levels. Although implemented to various degrees of success, the results are astounding: the city of Shanghai became the top performer in both the PISA 2009 and 2012 assessments. Dr. Catherine Yan Wang of the National Institute of Education Sciences in China outlines some of the strategies that have proven very effective.

1. Evidence- and participation-based policy-making

The plan of the Basic Education Curriculum involved six key steps: survey conduction, outlining, consultation, experimentation, implementation, and expansion. Communities, local authorities, parents, researchers, and teachers – the main stakeholders – were surveyed first; second, document drafting and outlining was undertaken by top researchers, pedagogues, and school administrators; third, schools, teachers, and municipal governments were consulted in an attempt to relate the feasibility of the proposed project. Once satisfied, the policy was trialled in four Chinese provinces and revised according to the response. Finally, the outline was implemented in those four provinces and later expanded nationwide.

2. Backing for teaching

Supplementing this reform was the foundation of a Teaching Research System that supports innovation in classroom teaching methods; moreover, Teaching Research Institutes have been established at every level, whether it is provincial, municipal, or county. Those working in these institutes are among the very best within their profession and their work primarily revolves around the assisting of other teachers’ work by organising school-based research projects aimed at developing pedagogy; visiting schools regularly to review teaching methods; helping to arrange lessons; developing innovative materials for teaching; and demonstrating the most efficient practices. These institutes are integrated with teacher training colleges, which have bolstered the continuous professional development of teachers.

3. Global Learning

The aforementioned philosophy of the Chinese 2001 Action Plan has resulted in an outward-looking policy: the nation, the government agencies, research institutions, as well as schools, seek the experiences of other nations for inspiration in improving their own teaching. It started in the 1980s, when government officials visited institutions overseas to understand different teaching processes; subsequently, this has affected their thinking as well as their approach to work: major government reports now constitute a section on a comparative worldwide study to set a benchmark for China to attain and include suggestions that stem from the best available methods. For their part, schools have set up student and teacher exchange programmes with their overseas counterparts to facilitate their learning of the best practices.

4. Experimentation

The traditional and perhaps foreign view of Chinese education, perpetuated by numerous kung-fu movies, is that of a strict master with an Oriental moustache in charge of his wards, rigid in his approach and intolerant of ill discipline. However, modern Chinese education is very inclusive of new approaches and ideas, with many successful experiments being translated into national policies. Foremost among the experimental schools, the Shiyi School discarded the old rigid learning style in fixed classrooms on a few dozen subjects and instead developed over a thousand courses relating to prevalent 21st Century issues.

5. Equalising unity and diversity, the Chinese way

Since the 2001 Action Plan, Chinese education has centred on the three-level curriculum structure, with the ethos “Common basics, diversified opinions” that includes national-, local-, and school-based curricula. Here, the composition allows the national curriculum to work out at 80%, with the local and school curricula accounting for the rest, which allows students to master essential knowledge and skills successfully and allows room for schools to experiment and research innovative methods.


Equipping individuals for change in the 21st Century starts with an education that enables them to absorb and adapt to these changes. Dr. Wang believes that a country as large and diverse as China needs flexibility in its approach towards education. By having an overall goal of where the country needs to be and the skills fundamental to its central economic aims, Chinese schools are encouraged to innovate and develop the best teaching methods, on par with more developed nations. The following idiom best describes this approach: “Bearing a global perspective (the big picture) in mind, and start from a (small) concrete action”.

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