Learning in rural China: The challenges for teachers

by Andreas Schleicher
Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary General

Mr. Huang became principal of Qiao Tou Lian He school at the age of 25, not because he was specifically trained for the post, but because he had been the only educated person in his village. He’s a dynamic leader who is squarely focused on supporting, developing and evaluating his teachers, of whom only a handful have a high school degree and more than basic teacher training.

The teaching conditions in the rural Qiao Tou Lian He school, 3,000 kilometres southwest of Shanghai, are tough and teachers are struggling. In Shanghai, teachers not only have smaller classes, but they can also rely on much better initial preparation and more extensive training opportunities at the school, district and municipal levels. They spend 70% of their time teaching and 30% of their time learning, often in collaboration with teachers from other schools. In many countries, we see learning outcomes severely impeded if a quarter or more of the students come from disadvantaged educational backgrounds. Here every child does. The Qiao Tou Lian He school is mainly on its own; but the teachers I met there showed an amazing commitment, and I was struck by the positive learning atmosphere – rigorous, highly disciplined, yet joyful – in every classroom I visited.

Over lunch in his office, Mr. Huang explained how he works with individual teachers to become aware of any weaknesses in their practices – and that often means not just creating awareness of what they do but also changing their underlying mindset. He helps them understand best practices by seeing how they are applied by other teachers in other classrooms. And he motivates his teachers with his high expectations, a shared sense of purpose, and with the belief that they can all make a difference to every child. He keeps close track of teacher performance, looking at both student achievement and classroom management in order to help teachers strengthen their practice. Over time, he also hopes to bring parents along, offering workshops for them not just on how to support their children’s education, but also simply on how to be good parents.

This is a country where everyone is willing to learn: students are learning for a better life; teachers are learning to improve their teaching; schools compare themselves eagerly with other schools; and, perhaps most important, the system as a whole is willing and able to learn. Whether China is interested in designing a better sewer system, retirement system or school system, it sends key people from the relevant sector to visit the world’s best performers in those areas with instructions to find out how it’s done and to put together a design for China that is superior to anything seen anywhere else.

Seven years ago, Andrea Pasinetti came to the area as a college student to brush up his Chinese. He saw both the enormous challenges facing the country’s schools, and also the opportunities afforded by China’s openness to learning. He dropped his studies and founded Teach for China. His organisation is now supporting over 80 schools; it doesn’t provide a high volume of resources, but it offers what is most critically missing in this area: teaching capacity to build teaching capacity. He is enlisting promising future leaders from across academic disciplines and careers to teach at least two years in those rural schools and become lifelong promoters of educational quality and equity.

I met two of these teachers, Xianming Xu and Madeline Christensen and was inspired by their enthusiasm, commitment and professionalism. Critics of organisations like Teach for China maintain that there is no alternative to the traditional route of undergraduate studies, teacher training and then a career in the classroom. But they underestimate the potential that this combination of talent, passion and entrepreneurship represents. In fact, the administration in China understands this better than many other countries and is embracing their work. Zhenhua Mi, another enthusiastic leader of this organisation explains to me that Teach for China is now so attractive that it can recruit the most promising candidates, even where the general status of the teaching profession is in decline. The programme also provides intensive initial training, ongoing support, and a work environment in which teachers work together to create good practice. What impressed me most is the vision of social transformation behind all this work – extending from teacher leadership through school leadership, policy and political leadership, up to community organisation.

By strengthening teaching capacity, these people are making a difference towards helping rural China build an education system that shifts from reproducing educational content for school towards strengthening competencies for life; from education to serve the state towards education for citizenship in the local and global community; from education for competition in exam hell towards strengthening relevant skills; and from education for situational values (I will do anything the situation allows me to do) to sustainable values. That will help the next generation to better reconcile resilience – managing in an imbalanced world – with greater sustainability – putting the world back into balance – that China needs so badly too.

Video series: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education – Shanghai, China
Related blog posts by Andreas Schleicher
Learning in rural China: The challenges for students
China – what will remain when the dust around economic expansion has settled?
Implementing educational reform in China
Chinese lessons

Photo credit: @ Schleicher OECD

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