Novel program gives students freedom to find their strengths
Liu Peilin, a fresh high school graduate, did not have what many people would regard as a stereotypical, exam-focused education in his three years at Beijing National Day School.
There was no reciting textbooks by rote, no overly long lectures in stuffy classrooms, no staying up late to prepare for stressful tests.
Instead, Liu would start his school day by watching a TED (for Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk. He went to classes that suited his academic level and matched his interests. And if he did burn the midnight oil, it was for his job on the school TV station.
After scoring in the top 10 percent among the 68,000 Beijing students who took this year’s college entrance examination, he planned to enroll at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication in the fall to learn more about TV news and documentary filmmaking.
The education Liu and his classmates received at Beijing National Day School was part of a pilot program designed to encourage students to innovate and manage their own time, more like college life than the test-oriented methods used at most Chinese schools.
Since 2009, the school has offered its students a wide range of elective courses, classified to suit each young person’s ability and needs, a mentor program that sees teachers answer individual needs, and a large dose of freedom.
“If there are 1,000 students, then there are 1,000 different course timetables,” said Fan Dongjing, an English teacher at the school. “As long as a student has an interest in something, we help them to learn about it, whether or not we have a specific course. The idea is that they become independent people by exploring their interests and potential.”
Liu said his favorite video production class was actually taught by a former cameraman for China Central Television, the state broadcaster.
“We believe the real power of education lies in the incentive within,” according to principal Li Xigui, writing in an essay about the school’s reforms.
As a pilot program encouraged by the Ministry of Education, which has since been made a model for other schools, Beijing National Day School started to transform its curricula in 2009 in an attempt to cure faults in the system, which leans heavily on standardized testing.
While the traditional model may produce good exam scores, it overlooks each student’s unique interests and strengths, Li wrote in his essay. “Society doesn’t need streamlined graduates, it needs people with their own edge.”
At Li’s school, students choose their classes and are given unprecedented freedom in almost all areas of life, “so that they really learn self-discipline”, he added. The 4,000plus students enrolled there have access to more than 250 clubs and 370 classes.
According to a 2013 survey by Beijing Normal University, more than 93 percent of students participating in the program at the time said the new system suited their needs and that they were satisfied. Official statistics also show the school is one of the leaders in terms of its students’ college entrance exam scores.
The model, often referred to as quality-oriented education, is not new to China. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proposed the idea of quality-oriented education as early as 1985. However, during the 20 years that followed, the idea, though much discussed, remained largely on paper.
“Test-oriented education goes back a long time in China,” said Tao Hongkai, a professor and expert in quality-oriented education with Central China Normal University. The imperial examination, used to select state bureaucrats as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), “left society believing in firmly the need to compete in a standardized test, and it’s not easy to lift its lingering influence”.
That imperial examination was abolished in the early 20th century, and although a modern education system based on Western methods came into being afterward, by that time test-oriented education was deeply rooted in the culture.
“We started learning from the West after the fall of imperial China, first in weaponry and science,” Tao said. “Now, as society develops, we’re starting to really take in Western educational concepts.”
In the past 10 years, pilot programs that have championed different education models have been tested across the country.
“We’re starting to take in the true purpose of education,” Tao said. “The ultimate goal is to produce civilized people, who think critically, create, learn and can navigate his or her life using their own initiative. That determines the way we educate younger generations — not just infuse them with knowledge, but help them to develop the ability to think critically and find their own strengths.”
The professor said now is the time for a more universal acceptance of new educational models. “By combining the best of ancient Chinese wisdom and Western models that stress an individual’s strength, we might develop the best system for the country,” he said.
The potential outcome can be seen in Liu, the graduate from Beijing National Day School. Looking back at his high school years, he said: “I really liked this new way of learning because of all the freedom and resources I enjoyed.”
By combining the best of ancient Chinese wisdom and Western models that stress an individual’s strength, we might develop the best system for the country.” professor and expert in quality-oriented education with Central China Normal University
Tian Siqi contributed to this story.