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China: The Test

Chinese school defies rigid exam-focused education

Rob Schmitz Jun 9, 2011
China: The Test

Chinese school defies rigid exam-focused education

Rob Schmitz Jun 9, 2011

Tess Vigeland: This week, we’ve been looking at China’s higher education system — what it takes to get into college and what happens once students get there.
China’s emphasis on taking tests to get ahead in society raises questions about whether those students will be creative enough to thrive in an economy based on innovation. One school in Beijing is trying to get away from the testing culture.

Our China correspondent Rob Schmitz has the final of three reports.

Rob Schmitz: Peking University High School’s answer to China’s outdated, rote-learning based education system is here, in an empty classroom on the second floor. Instead of neatly arranged desks and red propaganda banners hanging above the chalkboard, there’s a drum set, an electric guitar, and a mic stand.

Here, says deputy principal Jiang Xueqin, is where students come to rock.

Jiang Xueqin: They just started the rock band. To be perfectly honest with you, I’ve heard them. They’re not very good, but it’s something they love doing and it’s fun for them.

This wasn’t really what Chairman Mao Zedong had in mind when he and party cadres set up China’s modern education system in the 1950s, but that’s the point. Peking University High School, one of China’s premier schools, is under new management.

Xueqin: We’d encourage the students to express themselves as much as possible through artwork, music, writing. It’ just that because the students have been through this traditional system, they have problems doing that.

Consider it therapy for students who spend most of their high school years preparing for one single test: The national college entrance exam, known in Chinese as the gao kao.

Principal Wang Zheng says the system is flawed.

Wang Zheng: Schools in China spend so much time preparing students for the gao kao that they ignore every other aspect of education in the process. This means that by the time students get to university, they’re not able to develop themselves.

So Wang’s been chosen to shake up Peking University High School. The school’s connected to Peking University — considered the “Harvard of China.” That’s made it all the more controversial that it hired a principal bent on radical reform.

The first thing Principal Wang did when he arrived at the school was to have all the lecterns ripped out of the classrooms. Chinese teachers typically stand behind them to deliver the day’s lesson.

At Peking University High School, many classrooms like this one have a U-shaped desk arrangement which facilitates discussion among classmates.

Wang asked his teachers to start moving among their students, engaging them, not talking at them. And that’s what chemistry teacher Qin Lei is doing today. Instead of asking students for the correct answers, Qin focuses on the process, asking students their opinions: asking why, how, challenging what they know. That teaching method is routine in the West, but in China it’s a radical departure.

Principal Wang made a name for himself at Shenzhen High School in the southern province of Guangdong when he gutted the school’s curriculum and let students choose their own classes.

Zheng: A lot of educators from all over the country visited our school. They all agreed the system was good, but risky.

Risky paid off. Wang removed the focus on the gao kao, yet students improved their scores. Now, nearly a fifth of the students Guandong province sends to China’s top two universities come from Wang’s old school. He hopes to work the same magic in Beijing, but not everyone’s on board.

Gou Qingli: As a parent, I have a difficult time with some of the changes; I don’t think they’re suitable.

Gou Qingli’s son attends the school.

Qingli: My son is spending less time studying for the gao kao than students at other schools. I just don’t think it’s enough, and I’m scared it’ll impact his score.

“I only have one child,” Gou says. Principal Wang says he understands the pressure.

Zheng: This new system tends to polarize the students. Those with a lot of potential do better than before, but those without it tend to fail. But I think it’s good preparation for the real world.

For 16-year-old Li Keying, who sings in the school’s rock band in her spare time, the changes have meant more work, not less. And more responsibility.

Li Keying: We may have more free time than students at other schools, but that means we have to carefully manage it. Nobody’s holding our hands, telling us where to go next.

But Li is lucky. Her parents are professionals and she attends an elite school. Principal Wang says it’ll be hard to carry out the same reforms in the hundreds of thousands of schools across China — many in poor, rural areas. Fourteen hundred years of tradition, he says, is difficult to change in just one lifetime.

In Beijing, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

You can find out more about China’s education system on Rob’s “Chinopoly” blog. Kai’s in China, too — dodging traffic — find out more on his blog.

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