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.
By Mitchell Landsberg, Times Staff Writer
April 8, 2007

WAYAO, 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 touch.

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.

"In my 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 said.

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" learning.

Still, in recent years, the Chinese and American systems have been taking baby steps toward each other, learning and adapting what the other does best.

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.

"The two 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 them."

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.

Last 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.

That 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 classrooms.

"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 said.

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 Sun Li.

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 life.

"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 other concepts.

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 B.

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 entrance exams.

"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.

"I 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.

The Gaoyakou school sits at the bottom of an imposing hill in the modest farming village of Wayao.

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.

"I think it's better than before," Zhang said. "It's more adaptable to students' development."

The new way, he said, "encourages students' open thinking…. Before, we just made kids memorize things. Now, they memorize less and think more."