The United States isn’t the only place reworking its approach to education. China’s leaders are also experimenting with ways to enrich national exams and move teachers away from rote memorization and toward more socially aware students.
China’s national exams, or gaokao, have determined how people get ahead in Chinese society since the 10th century. Even today, a student from a small village can improve their standing by testing into a coveted Beijing university. You’ve probably heard that Chinese students consistently rank well in national exams on math and science, particularly as compared to other countries.
The downside of such a test-oriented educational structure is that Chinese students struggle with less analytical areas like literature and the humanities in general. They also, interestingly, don’t quite manage those engineering breakthroughs that change the face of technology and design.
Chinese leaders are working to change all that. The national exams have been refocused to include a broader range of topics, and classrooms are being encouraged to move away from solely focusing on lectures. Students’ performance in and choice of high school courses will now count toward their college admissions (it won’t be just math, Mandarin, and English assessments anymore). And, taking a cue from more progressive Western schools, Chinese schools will now support and take into account their students’ participation in their wider community.
“We must, by no means, allow into our classroom material that propagates Western values,” said Chinese Minister of Education Yuan Guiren earlier this year, according to The New Yorker. Yet up and coming teachers in China are looking for jobs in progressive “key schools” (a bit like charter schools in the US), and some schools already have in place programs that encourage students to take on community issues as part of their schoolwork.
Whether it’s welcomed or not, a shift is definitely taking place in Chinese schools. Because the competition for getting into elite universities is so challenging, the number of students bothering to sit for national exams at all is declining—from 10.5 million to 9.3 million between 2008 and 2010 alone. Change in Chinese education is making itself known…and how it will affect testing and other educational outcomes for the country remains to be seen.