China holds a mystique for many people in the western world. A country where the abundance of superlatives is simply breath-taking. The cityscapes of China’s vast metropolises shift and grow upwards and outwards on a daily basis, backed by economic growth which is almost tangible on the streets.
The popular perception of Chinese education in the west is of silent classrooms of kids in rows listening to the teacher and copying out notes in a textbook. While this has been true in the past, as it was in the UK, China has been making reforms to its education system in earnest since 1987, with major changes happening in just the last 3 years. In 2017 China is making huge changes to its curriculum and in the way in which exams and university places are assigned, in a move which will brings it much closer to the system we recognise in the UK.
The culture of revering knowledge and education is ancient and deep rooted in China. The ethos of Confucius is still felt by most Chinese people and completely disaffected students are rare. In contrast to many western countries, students in China think it is cool to be clever and are often very self motivated in their learning. The price for failing to gain a good education in China, with competition from 1.4 billion other people and a limited warfare state as a safely net is simply too high.
Shanghai scored very well in the latest PISA international educational tests in native language studies, maths and science. So impressive that England has inviting hundreds of Chinese maths teachers into English schools to share their expertise.
As in the UK, China’s policy makers have been studying and importing elements of other international education systems into their own and have been rolling out the latest educational research, such as the meta-study of John Hattie, into classrooms across the nation. Chinese leaders have recognised that the academic rigour, which has been the hallmark of Chinese schools for decades, by itself is not sufficient, but needs to be developed in tandem with creatively, independent thinking and the development of rounded individuals who can function well in society. They are at the beginning of this journey and China has many hurdles to overcome. There are currently government posters all over China promoting the ‘Chinese dream’. A huge, aging population, environmental degradation and a huge gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ could derail that dream.
In January 2015, UKED Magazine was given unfettered access to five schools in three cities along China’s eastern coast to see the changes for ourselves. We travelled to the city of Wuxi in Jiangsu Province, and then to Fuzhou and Xiamen in Fujian province and visited one primary school and four high schools.