While I do read a lot of articles and books on the history of Chinese education and once spent a month lecturing at Beijing universities in 1987, I am no expert on how children and youth are schooled in the People’s Republic of China. Nor is journalist Lenora Chu, who wrote about Chinese schooling from the perspective of a mother of a kindergartner, Rainey–see previous post— in grasping the complexities of the planet’s largest state system of schooling, an expert. But she surely collected more data than I ever had.
Chu’s family experienced seven years of Chinese primary school and she wrote engagingly of the intersection of state-driven curriculum, culture and classroom teaching. She reached for that elusive policy-to-practice continuum that marks every national system of schooling on the globe: from the PRC’s Ministry of Education policy mandates to Teachers Chen and Wang hovering over the 28 children in Rainey’s kindergarten. No easy task.
I had a glimpse of that policy-to-practice journey in my brief experience as a lecturer over three decades ago. I was there during Premier Deng Xiaoping years as leader of the nation (1978-1997) when he pressed forward in modernizing the country including education reform after Mao’s chaotic Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s (see here).
One of my graduate students, Min Weifang*, arranged an official government invitation to lecture for a month at Beijing Normal University. State-driven reform was in the air when I arrived in 1987. My hosts wanted me to talk about past and present U.S. school reform in both K-12 and higher education. I gave a half-dozen lectures, an equal number of seminars, and met with many professors and graduate students interested in U.S. schools. Beyond lecturing and seminar discussions, I traveled around the city on a bike that Min’s brother had lent to me. Luckily, I found some contacts in schools and had the chance to view primary and secondary classrooms accompanied by graduate students at Beijing Normal University who translated for me as we observed teachers teach.
In my journal I recorded descriptions of the Beijing secondary schools in which I watched English language, math, and Chinese history lessons. In every one of the lessons there were between 30-50 students sitting at desks arrayed in rows facing teachers and blackboards. They were taking notes and answering teacher questions often chorally and with gusto. While some variation in lessons occurred–more blackboard work in math than in history, for example– I guessed that both teachers and students, expecting a “foreign” visitor, were on their best behavior and wanted to show the guest stellar lessons. What I had seen meshed with my prior reading of Chinese teaching practices in the 1980s during the years Deng Xiaoping had engineered top-down reforms in both higher education and primary and secondary schools.
What struck me in reading Little Soldiers and Chu’s reports of classrooms she visited in urban and rural schools in the 2010s was the similarity in teaching practices, students’ obedience to teacher direction, and focus on individual conformity to group norms that I had seen three decades earlier. Keep in mind that the total number of classes observed were very small, mostly located in cities,and often housed in what the government called “model” schools.
The key word in the previous paragraph is “similarity.” I do not mean that there was no change in teaching practices. More informed observers of PRC classrooms could easily point out changes since the late-1980s in the state allotting resources, the growth of teacher expertise, introduction of new technologies, and expanded content in lessons. For example, the central government spent more per pupil in these years than in earlier decades, and there were major efforts to improve university teacher training (see here and here).
But those changes (e.g.,new textbooks, teaching aids, instructional materials, and technologies) are at the margins not at the core of teaching practice (e.g., whole group instruction, student adherence to group norms, much lecturing, lesson focus on better test performance).
While incremental changes had occurred over time, Chu’s experiences in a top-rated Shanghai kindergarten and later a primary school coupled to observations she made elsewhere in the country left me wondering about the impact of Ministry of Education reform-minded mandates in the 1990s to staunch criticism of traditional teaching practices within a system driven by high-stakes national tests. These directives sought to move teaching practices toward a child-centered schooling that prized creative work, critical thinking, student participation in lessons, and social-emotional skills.
Reforming Teaching Practices
The biggest problem for reform is that because so many teachers are so accustomed to their conventional thinking and models they have such strong gravitational pull toward habitual ways of behavior and thinking, therefore they have to negate themselves.…. Comment by a Shanghai municipal policymaker, 2000
Consider the student-centered directives from the Ministry of Education in 2011 for teaching the English Curriculum:
1) Orient teaching towards all students and pay attention to quality education
(2) Design the lesson’s goals integrally, with flexibility and openness
(3) Regard student learning as the main priority and respect individual differences
(4) Design activities that incorporate experiential and participatory learning
(5) Pay attention to the evaluation of the process, in order to boost students’ development
(6) Make full use of curricular resources and expand the channels for students to study and use the language.
To achieve such deep changes, the nation’s pool of teachers very uneven in acquiring education and credentials would have to be upgraded and trained in different approaches. Such efforts began under Deng Xiaoping and were carried forward in fits and starts under his successors. The location of such reforms in special teacher training institutions, universities, in provincial institutes or new organizations has led to fierce and continuing debates among state-led reformers and implementers of those desired changes. Those debates continue today.
Moreover, changing the curriculum, as American observers have noted time and again, is what top-down policymakers can do. But they cannot put directives into practice. Moving from policy directives altering state mandated curriculum to school principals urging teachers to put changes into practice and then for teachers to shift their habitual practices is a big leap that often falls flat in teachers’ lessons. For example to get students to participate more in classroom discussions (see 4 above), teachers received training to put these directives into practice. A follow-up survey of student responses in this province to these new practices led one student to write:
“…by the time we got to the fifth paragraph the teacher asked us about the scenery and objects that were described in the text. Because we said the wrong thing the teacher got very angry with us and we felt terrified. Ever since then when the teacher asks us questions none of us dare to answer. Even if we have thought of the right answer we will not dare to speak because we are afraid of saying something wrong and that we will once again be criticized…” Sixth grade student in Gansu, 2004
Admittedly, the data I and Chu present is fragmentary, unsystematic, and sharply limited. Few generalizations can be drawn with such tiny data sets. Yet–readers knew a “yet” was coming–such discrepancies between the official curriculum, what teachers teach, what students learn, and what is on tests is neither peculiar to Chinese or U.S. teachers. It is a global phenomenon. The policy-to-practice continuum, at the very least, is, like most other nation’s systems of schooling, a work-in-progress.
I am grateful to Lenora Chu’s book for raising this issue of the shortcomings of top-down reform in schools and the critical role that teachers play as policy gatekeepers in this constant, world-wide effort to alter how teachers teach.
*Min Weifang earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University and returned to China where he became a professor of higher education at Peking University (Beida), served as executive vice-president of the institution, and Communist Party Secretary. Known as a higher education reformer, He often served on state commissions seeking to reform Chinese schools. (see here and here)