Chinese school defies rigid exam-focused education

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    At Peking University High School, administrators have set aside a classroom for students to play rock n' roll. It's a way for the reform-minded school to allow students to express themselves in a way that China's traditional education system doesn't. Administrators haven't told the students' parents about this secret room.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Playing the electric guitar during school hours isn't the only thing the high school is allowing its students to do. The school also allows students to choose their classes; a freedom unheard of in most Chinese schools. Another radical departure from the norm: Peking University High School only devotes a student's senior year to studying for the gao kao, China's national higher education entrance exam.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Peking University High School Principal Wang Zheng arrived last year to the school. He spent the last decade at Shenzhen High School, where his reforms led students there to improve their scores on the gao kao, despite studying less for it. Guangdong, a province with thousands of high schools, sends just 200 students to China's two top universities every year -- usually those with the highest scores. Last year, around 30 of those students came from Shenzhen High School. Wang hopes to work the same magic in Beijing, but not everyone's on board. Some parents and teachers disagree with the reforms.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Teacher Qin Lei helps a group of students figure out how to solve a chemistry problem. 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.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Another radical departure from the norm is how Peking University High School arranges its classrooms. The first thing principal Wang did when he arrived to the school last year was to rip out the lecterns at the head of each classroom. Now, many classrooms like this one have a U-shaped desk arrangement which facilitates discussion among classmates.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    The lunchroom at the International Division of Peking University High School. Parents of students in this division have removed their children from the gao kao system entirely. Instead of preparing for the gao kao, these students are getting ready for the SAT and college applications in the United States. An increasing number of Chinese students are opting to leave China upon graduation to attend college in America. U.S. colleges now have five times the number of students than they did five years ago.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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    Peking University Deputy Principal Jiang Xueqin heads the school's international division. One of Jiang's goals is to teach something he feels is lacking among Chinese students: empathy. The lesson plans his teachers try to get students to understand include the viewpoints of others. Another goal: teaching responsibility. He requires all his students to make an honest hour-by-hour log of what they did each day so that if students are falling behind, they can take a serious look at how they structure their days to try and figure out what they can change. These are all skills, says Jiang, that his students will need for life in the United States.

    - Rob Schmitz / Marketplace

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.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent, based in Shanghai.


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