Education in the 21st Century: Five lessons from China

by Dr. Catherine Yan Wang
National Institute of Education Sciences

China has redesigned its education system since embarking on opening up the country and implementing reforms in the latter half of the 70s. The journey of change started from an ethos of “Orientation Towards Modernisation, Orientation Towards the Future, and Orientation Towards the World”, created during the late 70s, which went through a three-decade long reflection and debate on quality-oriented education (versus examination-oriented education). It  gained momentum in 2001 with an Action Plan for Invigorating Education for the 21st Century, and resulted in the ground-breaking Basic Education Curriculum Reform that profoundly changed education philosophy, content and pedagogy for education from Grade 1-12. After three decades, not only has China achieved universal access to basic education, Shanghai also became a top-performer in the PISA 2009 round of tests. And the changes continue. Although there are still many challenges and barriers facing the education system in China, several strategies and approaches proved to be workable and effective, including the following five lessons:

1) Evidence-based, participatory policy-making. Like many policies in China, the formulation of the Basic Education Curriculum Outline involved five steps: conducting surveys, drafting, consulting, experimenting and implementation and expansion. It began with a stakeholder survey including teachers, parents, researchers, local authorities and communities, followed by the drafting of the document by a team consisting of researchers, practitioners and administrators. It then went through consultations with schools, teachers and local governments, to solicit their opinions on the relevance and feasibility of the policy. The policy for trial was piloted in four provinces and amended on the basis of piloting. The finalised Outline was then implemented nationwide.

2) Provision of professional support to teaching. China created a Teaching Research System, to provide ongoing support to teachers’ classroom methods, which consisted of teaching research institutes at provincial, prefecture (municipality) and county levels. The researchers, mostly selected from the best in the profession, support other teachers’ work by coordinating school-based research projects, regular visits to schools, interpreting curriculum standards, analysing classroom teaching, preparing teaching lessons, developing teaching materials and distilling best practices for extension (e.g. through demonstrations). Some of the institutes have been integrated with teaching training college and this has made teaching research a booster of teachers’ professional development.   

3) Learning from the world. China, its government agencies, research institutions and even schools all look to other countries’ experiences for inspiration in the process of making changes for improvement.  Since the 1980s, government officials have made many overseas study tours to learn different practices.  These brief glimpses of the outside world have impacted their way of thinking and how they do their work. Major studies almost always contain a component of international comparative study to benchmark against developed countries, and draw upon best practices in order to generate policy recommendations. The schools, in their pursuit of internationalisation, developed exchange partnership with overseas counterparts, and also kept on learning from the outside world to update their teaching content and methods.

4) Experimentation. Partly originating from a principle borrowed from the economic reform, “cross the river by touching stones,” various new thoughts and ideas have continually been tried as experiments in the education system, with successful experiments often being translated into policies. A typical example is the “Shiyi Experimental School”: it abandoned the  traditional way of organising students’ learning in fixed classes on dozens of subjects, and instead, developed over
1 000 courses from which 4 600 students could choose, many of them relating to emerging issues of the 21st century. This has recently sparked a nationwide debate on how to deliver education in China.

5) Balancing between unity and diversity. In 2001, China adopted a three-level curriculum structure aligned with the principle of “common basics, diversified options” that encompasses national, local, and school-based curricula, of which the national curriculum accounts for 80%, and local and school-based curriculum 20%. Such a structure ensures that all the students master fundamental knowledge and skills, while leaving schools ample room for experimentation and innovation.

It is hard to generalise about education development, given its inherent complexity which is only compounded by the size and diversity of such a large country as China. The Chinese idiom “Bearing a global perspective (the big picture) in mind, and start from a (small) concrete action” might best summarise and illustrate lessons for China in setting educational policy for the 21st century . Education can, and will, make a difference on students’ learning and social well-being, especially when taking into consideration the tremendous changes happening in the 21st century and the actions that will be taken in the future to meet these challenges and opportunities step by step.

Global Education Innovation Initiative (GEII)
PISA 2012 results
Video series: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education – Shanghai, China 
Related blog posts:
A new direction for education reform in China, by Dr. Catherine Yan Wang 
Implementing educational reform in China, by Andreas Schleicher
Image Credit: Students and teacher looking at globe / @Shutterstock

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