In China, Some Schools Are Playing With More Creativity, Less Cramming : Parallels Local governments are allowing schools to experiment with new teaching methods. Educators hope to develop self-motivated, critical thinkers.

In China, Some Schools Are Playing With More Creativity, Less Cramming

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The United States is not the only country trying to improve its public schools. China is also seeking reform. And educators think they have a way to change the way that Chinese citizens think. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story of a teacher and entrepreneur, and he begins in school.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At first glance, this looks like an ordinary gym class - until you notice the signs on the students, identifying each of them as a chemical. They play a game of tag in which they tag the classmates they need to start a chemical reaction. We're at the Cold Water Well Middle School. It's in Yibin, a city of about a million people in Sichuan province. And this is how they combine gym and chemistry classes. Vice Principal Wu Ge says experiments like this have turned his public school around.

WU GE: (Through interpreter) When these kids entered the school, we ranked near the bottom of our district in terms of test scores. Three years later, they're graduating, and we now ranked first.

KUHN: Upstairs, there's a combined history and math class. Students use statistics to find patterns in the rise and fall of nations.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: These experiments are the brainchild of a former journalist named Zhang Liang. Zhang says the problem with China's current educational system is that the way academic subjects are divided up severs the logical links between them. He says the whole system is too focused on accumulating knowledge, passing tests and following orders.

ZHANG LIANG: (Through interpreter) This makes students feel that studying is meaningless and boring. They have to have some strong external pressure to move them forward.

KUHN: Zhang says he wants to light a fire of curiosity in each student's mind and help every one of them to grapple with the question, what am I doing here in school?

ZHANG LIANG: (Through interpreter) What we're trying to tell them is that the real motivation behind all your studies is to help you realize how fascinating this world is. Once they get this, their own initiative will gradually emerge.

KUHN: Ideally, Zhang says, they can then design their own courses of study, assign their own tasks and make their own rules. Cold Water Well student Zeng Liang remembers how she was so afraid of giving a wrong answer in class that her hands used to shake. But here, she doesn't have to worry about that. Instead of listening to a teacher's lecture, the kids divide up into groups, do their own research and discuss and debate their findings.

ZENG LIANG: (Through interpreter) When we were little, we all studied on our own. There was no enthusiasm, and we didn't dare to speak our minds. Here, we discuss and share our opinions. Now I stand up and speak whether I'm right or wrong.



KUHN: Not everything here is experimental. Students learn English the old-fashioned way by just repeating phrases.

RECORDED VOICE: Be interested in.


KUHN: Only a few decades ago, China had a Soviet-style education system. The state assigned college majors and jobs based on what the state, not the student, needed. But in recent years, Zhang says, an alternative education movement has sprouted and local governments have given schools some leeway to try new things. Zhang predicts that educational reforms will produce a generation of Chinese who can think for themselves.

ZHANG LIANG: (Through interpreter) Look how active these kids are, how they discuss things as equals. Once that becomes habit, it'll produce big changes in their values. They'll lose their blind faith in the supreme authority of teachers or of anyone else.

KUHN: Zhang is aware that the independent thinkers he trains could have a rough time in China's authoritarian system. So Zhang teaches them how to deal with politically sensitive topics.

ZHANG LIANG: (Through interpreter) In the private sphere, you are the highest authority, and you decide everything. But in the public sphere, it's not all about you, and you have to regulate your behavior according to a set of public rules.

KUHN: Zhang says Chinese authorities haven't completely realized the impact these reforms could have on their authoritarian system. They're too busy trying to cope with sweeping shifts in both social attitudes and demographics. And this is what is driving the changes. China's population is aging. Schools have to compete for a shrinking number of students. Secondary education has become a buyer's market, Zhang says, and parents are increasingly aware of their rights as consumers.

ZHANG LIANG: (Through interpreter) School principals tell us that they're getting more and more pressure from parents. Parents are starting to intervene when they feel that the school is treating their kids like cramming and testing machines.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Foreign language spoken).


ZHANG LIANG: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: After class, Zhang and his students talk about how to train newcomers to the school to be brave and speak out. Zhang has been in the education business for four years, and he's had his ups and downs. But now it appears that Zhang's bold experiments are about to really take off. By next semester, he expects to sign deals for 30 schools to adopt his educational model. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yibin city, Sichuan province.

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