China, U.S. taking notes on education
Experts are trying to adapt the strengths of two
differing systems -- the yin and yang of teaching styles.
The classroom at the Gaoyakou Central Primary School, about an
hour outside Beijing and not far from the Great Wall, was as austere as it was
cold. Little more than a Chinese flag and a blackboard served for ornamentation.
Yet the students, bundled in colorful parkas and scarves, were bubbling
excitedly as they sat in knots of twos and threes, trying to come up with
answers to a series of grammar exercises.
An American teacher walking
into this room might be put off by the lack of creature comforts, but surely
would recognize the teaching methods being deployed by Cai, an enthusiastic
27-year-old in a puffy, shin-length blue coat.
And with good reason.
Although she teaches at a school that outwardly appears little changed from the
days of Maoist indoctrination, Cai is on the cutting edge of Chinese educational
reform, using methods based on those used in the United States.
time as a student," she said, "we accepted only what we were taught." Now, as a
teacher, she tries to encourage "more active thinking," letting students figure
out answers for themselves.
"It's better now," she
The best of both worlds
In many ways, China
and the United States represent the yin and yang of international education.
Whereas China's top-down system places supreme emphasis on tightly structured,
disciplined learning, the United States has a highly decentralized system that
places greater importance on critical thinking and "student-centered"
Still, in recent years, the Chinese and American systems have
been taking baby steps toward each other, learning and adapting what the other
American educators have been exploring why Chinese and other
Asian students do so well in math and science, and trying to apply some of their
findings to U.S. classrooms.
The Chinese, in turn, are trying to distill
the American genius for innovation, recognizing that, for all its faults, the
U.S. educational system is unrivaled at turning out creative minds inventors,
filmmakers, rock 'n' roll stars and Nobel laureates among them.
systems cannot totally merge," said Zhou Mansheng, who studies the American
educational system in his role as deputy director of China's National Center for
Educational Development Research. "What they can do is have a very deep
understanding of each other's educational systems and try to learn from
Math, the Chinese way
Thousands of American
educators have visited China in recent years, meeting with education officials
and shuttling to showcase schools selected by the government. These trips have
led to changes in some American schools and a general consensus among education
leaders that more change is needed, especially in the teaching of math.
At the root of the difference is the idea, in Chinese and other East
Asian math curricula, "that there is a very small body of factual mathematics
that students need to learn, but they need to learn it really, really well,"
said R. James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University
and one of the authors of California's public school math standards.
fall, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics adopted a policy that
urges American schools to focus math studies on just three basic topics in each
grade from pre-kindergarten through eighth. That idea, Milgram said, comes from
Asian curricula. However, he said, American schools will have a difficult time
emulating their Asian counterparts unless they sharply improve the math
abilities of primary school teachers.
China has a powerful,
millenniums-old tradition of education that is woven deep into its societal DNA.
But just as that can't be bottled and shipped, neither is it easy for a society
such China's to mine the best of the American educational tradition.
hasn't stopping it from trying.
Under the leadership of Zhou and his
colleagues, China's educational system has been undergoing a major overhaul
since 1999, when the government recognized that the country's explosive economic
growth could not be sustained without a better-educated workforce. It set out to
improve the educational system from bottom to top upgrading rural schools,
quintupling the size of its university system and, perhaps most radically,
bringing more critical thinking and creativity into its
"China wants to become a big nation of innovation in the 21st
century," Zhou said in an interview in Beijing. "To meet this objective, China
wants to cultivate more creative talent."
To do this, the Education
Ministry has revamped the national curriculum and begun training teachers in a
more interactive style. There will be less rote learning, more give-and-take
with teachers, and more exercises such as the one at the Gaoyakou Central
Primary School, where the students learn in groups.
"This is very
difficult for them to do," said Vivian Stewart, vice president for education at
the Asia Society, a New York-based organization that promotes U.S. relations
with Asia. "Given the class sizes that they have" Chinese schools often have
50 or 60 students per class "it's very difficult to think about doing a lot of
projects and discussion-oriented pedagogy."
That said, "it's a very
organized society, and when they set their mind to go in a particular direction,
they are able to drive things in that direction," Stewart
New textbooks for old
The change is coming
slowly to the Changping No. 2 Middle School. This high school is considered one
of the best in the nation. The school, on an attractive, well-equipped campus in
a modern, if heavily polluted, suburb of Beijing, it has 450 students, more than
95% of whom are expected to go to college.
Administrators and teachers
say they are committed to reforming their curriculum, but they are clearly in no
hurry. New textbooks are scheduled to arrive next year; in the meantime, "we are
in the middle of changing from the old way to the new way," said Vice Principal
The difference is not immediately noticeable in classes, where
students tend to sit in traditional-style rows of desks and listen to lectures.
Math teacher Yang Guihong, a tall, willowy woman, said she had changed her
teaching to make it "more practical," more connected to everyday
"The point is, we make the students curious first," she explained
through an interpreter, "then we tell them what to do."
By most measures,
her students are well ahead of their U.S. counterparts. Her first-year students
the equivalent of American 10th-graders are studying trigonometry and set
theory; her second-year students have moved on to linear programming, among
Down the hall, students in Wang Yu's English class are
listening to the teacher read from a textbook, and reciting translations about,
among other things, American high school dropouts.
"Most high school
students," Wang reads, "drop out of school because a) they have failing grades
b) they take no interest in classes c) they are discriminated against d) they
are lazy and not intelligent."
The correct answer, he says, is
Outside class, several students say that despite having taken English
classes since third grade, they can't speak the language the result, they say,
of an educational system that is aimed primarily at preparing them for college
"There's too much focus on the grammar and very little on
actual communication," said Yang Huan, 17, speaking through an interpreter.
The students agree that they have seen scant signs of reform.
feel like a lot of what we learn is not practical, and not usable after we
graduate," said Pei Pei, 16, a tall, thin girl with glasses.
school sits at the bottom of an imposing hill in the modest farming village of
The slightly ramshackle school buildings and plain classrooms are
a far cry from those at Changping. They bear little evidence that the calendar
has flipped much past the 1970s. Whereas nearly all the students at Changping
are expected to go to college, roughly a third of the students in Wayao are
expected to drop out before high school.
But perhaps because they have
less to lose, the mostly young staff at the Gaoyakou school has embraced the new
curriculum with enthusiasm. Zhang Shuhong, a 31-year-old who is the equivalent
of a vice principal, said the school adopted new textbooks and a new curriculum
in 2004. Many of the teachers are fresh out of college, where they learned the
new teaching methods, and needed no prodding to employ them.
it's better than before," Zhang said. "It's more adaptable to students'
The new way, he said, "encourages students' open thinking
Before, we just made kids memorize things. Now, they memorize less and think
CHINA Light snow speckled the bare dirt courtyard outside teacher Cai Limei's
fifth-grade classroom. Inside, an ancient radiator was barely warm to the