In elementary and middle school, Liu Zhouyan’s school life was micromanaged. The teacher in charge of his class, especially, held outsize sway over his every day. Being in their good graces was determined by a student’s grades, or sometimes subjectively, Liu remembers.
In 2010, he enrolled at the Affiliated High School of Peking University, a prestigious secondary school that is administered by one of the country’s elite universities. There, he expected things would be much the same. He’d be working toward taking the gaokao, China’s all-important college entrance exams, at the end of his third year, a process commonly dominated by rigorous rote memorization and mock tests.
Instead, Liu entered an unfamiliar world of freedom. “We were totally unsupervised,” he says.
Liu was among the first cohort of students to be admitted after AHSPU extensively reformed its teaching methods, a project spearheaded by newly instated principal Wang Zheng, then 46. He wished to give students more autonomy to pursue their own interests rather than forcing them to single-mindedly focus on improving their test scores.
Under Wang’s leadership, students were no longer put into rigid “class groups” overseen by a class teacher, but would have different classmates for every subject. He allowed students to pick electives and didn’t forbid dating — both activities that, in China, are widely viewed as distractions that can only harm one’s gaokao score.
Wang fits into a loose, bottom-up movement of education reformers who, for decades, have audaciously tried to find alternatives to the gaokao. They aim for students to develop into more well-rounded individuals, instead of the test-taking experts that the gaokao is often criticized for producing. Such approaches could count on curiosity from parents disillusioned by how the gaokao’s influence can turn a child’s entire youth into a zero-sum competition with their peers.
But despite its faults, the gaokao endures. Impervious to favoritism or bribery, it is credited as being the ultimate equalizer. A good score remains practically the only gateway to enrolling at China’s best universities — and the job opportunities this will later bring. Any teacher whose methods harm a student’s score will inevitably receive pushback.
So too for Wang. In December of 2021, more than a decade into Wang’s grand experiment, Peking University terminated his employment half a year before his term was due to end. His reforms are now in limbo, but assumed moribund.
His dismissal received attention from the media and was widely interpreted to have broader significance. Wang was a prominent school principal. He didn’t just run one of the country’s most well-known high schools, but is also a current member of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress. If even he failed to change the gaokao-dominated education system, will anyone ever succeed?
Wang Zheng attends the first session of 12th National People’s Congress in Beijing, 2013. Gao Hongjie/VCG
How to organize
Many AHSPU teachers recall when, in 2010, Wang first convened a schoolwide faculty assembly and announced, “We’ve stifled our children with class groups. Whether or not children can have a happy three-year experience is completely contingent on who their one class director is. These groups also restrict their social networks to just a little more than 40 people.”
As a first measure, he abolished “class teachers” as well as the positions which oversaw the first and second year students. Then, he proceeded to dissolve the class groups altogether in favor of dividing students among six “units,” which was meant to expand their social circles and give them a sense of freedom. Units were run by students themselves. Adult authority took second place.
In the summer break before Liu enrolled, Wang set about breaking down the physical barriers of the traditional learning environment. He replaced the walls between classrooms and corridors with floor-to-ceiling glass panels, as well as merging some classrooms into “unit workshops.”
The school earmarked funds so that students could decorate these spaces themselves; teachers weren’t allowed access. Wang even removed lecterns; instead of having rows of chairs and desks facing a blackboard, there were round and diamond-shaped conference tables that would facilitate discussions.
In June 2011, the reform began a new phase whereby an “academy” system was put in place. Four academies were established — Xingzhi, Yuanpei, Boya, and Dalton — each of which offered electives with different flavors. Xingzhi primarily offers key subjects mandated in the gaokao; Yuanpei offers more advanced “honors classes” and caters to students intending to take part in academic competitions, which can be shortcuts to elite universities. Boya initially only catered to students who planned to go abroad; its curriculum primarily revolved around classic works of Western literature. Later, it opened to the entire student cohort with courses in the liberal arts. Dalton exclusively caters to international students and has an independent admissions system.
Initially, once students had chosen orientations — such as gaokao prep, the competition track, or overseas studies prep — they could only take the electives of a corresponding academy. In July 2013, units were renamed shuyuan, alluding to the ancient Chinese learning institutes, and subsequently, all courses were made available to all students. As a result, emphasis on gaokao significantly weakened.
As Liu recalls, there wasn’t actually all that much for students to self-govern. “The biggest thing was perhaps whether we could eat food deliveries in the activity rooms. When we decorated these rooms, one of the tables’ legs had been screwed on wrong, and it would collapse every now and then. In my second year, as the chairman of my shuyuan’s Self-Governance Association, my work mostly consisted of putting the table’s leg back on whenever it broke. That was about the extent of our ‘self-governance,’” he says.
In fact, the notion of shuyuan was inspired by British-style private schools, and can also be found in Europe and the U.S. Therefore, some criticized that Wang’s entire reform agenda wasn’t really that original to begin with.
On the other hand, many teachers believe that Wang always had his own ideas. He was once a student at AHSPU and, after graduating with a physics degree at Peking University in 1986, returned to his high school as a teacher. In 1994, he was promoted to vice-principal.
Six years later, he moved to Shenzhen, where he was tasked to set up a new branch of the school. Some of the more senior teachers recall that, even before he left for Shenzhen, he had already expressed that the biggest problem with education in China is class groups.
Liu found that when students were suddenly ushered into a looser, freer social structure like the shuyuan, they tended to lack a sense of belonging — whereas, in the traditional class group system, they at least had a certain degree of stability.
In September 2016, when choosing courses for the first time in her school life, new student Cai Jialin failed to find an available subject for her final period on Friday afternoons. “At the time I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m in school to learn and I haven’t even managed to fill my timetable. I’ll have to study by myself. This is terrible.’” In that two-week selection period, she was filled with dread and confusion.
The vast majority of students felt the same way, at least for a time. In an interview, Wang’s remarks were candid: “If you don’t take it upon yourself, life here is not for you. These systematic changes force students to do things ... So, their skills will be honed, no doubt.”
Students manage time almost entirely on their own. Liu liked to spend his time reading in the library, as the schools’ most academically competitive kids around him furiously went through problem sets. He agrees that, if you’re not self-motivated enough, “going into a free fall is easy.”
Stephon Marbury, who once coached AHSPU’s basketball team, huddles with his team, Beijing, 2018. IC
What to teach
Wang also tinkered with the curriculum. First, he developed several general humanities classes for Boya Academy, such as Critical Thinking, Foucault Studies, and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a class based on the eponymous book about Japanese culture.
The admissions system for special ability students, commonly pupils with special athletic or artistic talents, was abolished. AHSPU’s wind instrument and dance ensembles used to be a draw for pupils hoping to move into the arts professionally, and enjoy a measure of fame in Beijing. Now their usual source of talent is gone, which apparently ruffled more than a few feathers.
But Wang was convinced that it would be better “to treat every student as a special ability student” by giving everyone equal opportunities to experience the charm of sports and art. He insisted that an ample number of hours be reserved for these kinds of classes. Students are required to take at least one physical education class each term and, in total, complete a minimum of six credits in art.
Just two weeks before the beginning of the fall term in 2014, all of the Chinese Literature teachers were called back from summer break. Wang told them that, beginning next term, they would no longer be using textbooks — instead, they would be reading and discussing original works with students. They looked at each other in surprise. English teachers were told the same.
Excising textbooks from the curriculum signaled that the reform was venturing into deep waters. Many teachers called the move radical.
With too little time to prepare, the change was chaotic. The Chinese Language and Literature faculty had no way to systematically decide what to teach and how to evaluate the results. “We simply didn’t have enough teachers to begin offering that many subjects that weren’t based on textbooks. So, the school recruited a few postgrads from Peking University, but what classes they taught and how they taught them were always a mystery to us — we didn’t communicate,” a retired AHSPU teacher recalls.
The reform of English-language education also required teachers to abandon textbooks in favor of classic Western novels. One English teacher who participated in the reform says that, overall, students reaped considerable benefits from the change: “After graduation, they told me that their college English discussion groups were a piece of cake, compared to what they had here.” But it didn’t go down smoothly.
The teacher points out that, initially, faculty planned to go through one book every two months, but soon discovered that students just couldn’t handle it because there was far too much advanced vocabulary. They had no choice but to slow down to one book every four months — but even then, they struggled. Eventually, classes had to be divided according to the difficulty of the Chinese or English works to be studied.
Liu Linhan, a graduate from the class of 2018, remembers choosing an elective called “Selected Works of Lu Xun” — the famed 20th-century Chinese writer. Before every class, he would complete the intensive reading set by the teacher. Each week’s class consisted of discussions on different themes. Students were encouraged to approach Lu Xun’s work from a variety of perspectives, such as his relationship with his father, his hometown, and his childhood. Thanks to this class, Liu discovered that he had a gift for writing. Among the several dozen students interviewed, many felt that reading original works “unlocked” something in them.
The aforementioned retired Chinese Language and Literature teacher commented that the good thing about textbooks is that they are compatible with gaokao. Upon beginning their final year of high school, students schooled in original works generally felt more confident around long texts and had developed strong writing skills, but their mastery of the gaokao material was subpar.
Wang’s impulse to put the students first left a sour taste for some teachers. He believed the school should offer students diverse choices, and that classes should be packaged as standardized products. If the objectives, materials, and other details of a successful class are clearly broken down and shared, then even a physics teacher can teach a class in Chinese Language and Literature.
Some people have criticized this approach, as they believe it turns teachers into mere instruments. The parent of one student said that these curriculum reforms prioritize students so much that teachers were not being incentivized. However, as Wang saw it, getting teachers to change was a difficult feat, as they were too used to the conventional education system.
No one who knew Wang would deny that he held students’ interests as central. From outlining how teachers should begin classes, to fixing a loose knob on a classroom door, he was committed to every single aspect of the school environment.
Privately, he led an extremely simple life: for all of 12 years, he lived in a dorm room on campus, which was filled with education books and work documents. But some of the teachers felt that he cared about the students to the extent of neglecting faculty.
Around the time of Wang’s departure from Shenzhen Middle School, one retired teacher wrote: “Wang turned the sacred profession of teaching into just another job to pay the bills.”
The Affiliated High School of Peking University, Beijing, April 29, 2022. VCG
The gaokao conundrum
The fundamental challenge of the reforms was their incompatibility with the gaokao. In November 2014, due to rising opposition from parents, the school organized a parent-teacher conference. Several hundred parents swarmed around just seven Chinese Language teachers standing on stage. One irate mother said that kids were being used as lab rats: “Why set up a class called ‘Speaking in the Human World’? As if they don’t already know how to speak!” Another parent immediately stood up and retorted that the class was actually called “Remarks on the Human World,” after the title of a book by Wang Guowei, a prolific literary figure during the Republican era, and that she personally was in favor of the reform. Her child never liked to read before, and this class kindled their interest in reading.
In 2020, school statistics showed that, in recent years, the admission rates of AHSPU students for Peking and Tsinghua, the nation’s two top universities, had hovered around 10% on average but trended down. In 2021, 20 out of the school’s 419 gaokao examinees got in, making AHSPU just the 10th highest ranked high school in Beijing. Out of the six top-tier high schools in Haidian District — seen as home to the country’s best schools — it placed a disappointing last.
“In 2010, we got to pick students from the top 500 middle school students in Beijing. Now, we have to make do with the top 5,000. The top 1,000 students of Haidian District are mostly snatched up by other schools,” says an AHSPU teacher who wished to remain anonymous. Ultimately, what parents care about most is what university their child can get into.
Wang was well aware of this and offered the following solution: first and second year students were given a greater degree of freedom for the sake of their development, but in their final year, they would be made to hunker down and focus on gaokao. Wang was frank, saying that this was merely for the sake of the “rat race that is the gaokao” and “it’s a compromise we’ve made to conform to the rules.”
A graduate of the class of 2019, Lin Haichuan believes that Chinese Language and Literature presents the biggest challenge in this compromise arrangement. The final year was a complete departure from the first and second years, requiring them to learn everything from scratch and memorize texts from exam-designated textbooks. Everything about the gaokao was foreign to them.
Some teachers began covertly disobeying Wang’s plans. In 2017, a “Short Story English Reading” class was added to the second-year curriculum. Ostensibly still using original works, many of the texts had actually been adapted from textbooks by teachers. “It was like a tweaked version of the textbook,” the aforementioned English teacher explains. Many students embraced the scheme. “The teachers would give us mock exams so that we could memorize a lot of important gaokao stuff,” Cai says.
In 2019, the school began to dial back the reforms so that English and Chinese Language and Literature teachers could use textbooks, as well as splitting the subjects into two modules — one that catered to the gaokao, and another which carried on reading original works. When the fall term began, first year students were required to take classes tailored to the gaokao, while time allotted for the Boya Academy courses was cut back.
The school has also had no choice but to adapt to the changes in its pool of enrollees. In the past, the number of yearly admissions was maintained at around 370. In 2016, Beijing demanded that several of its leading public high schools expand admissions for students from ordinary middle schools who otherwise would not have gotten in. By 2020, students who gained admission in this way, together with those who were admitted to fulfill other quotas, accounted for approximately one-third of the first year students, with total annual admissions rising to around 600.
“These students generally come from the suburbs, and on average, score 10-20 points lower than our normal cut-off in the high school entrance exam. They have difficulty adapting. Some aren’t motivated like the rest of us, spend all their time playing video games, and lead others astray,” one student says.
Since 2021, the school started managing students hierarchically. Beginning in the first year, students were sorted according to their academic record into three levels — A, B, or C — for the five mandatory classes: Chinese Language and Literature, Math, English, Physics, and Chemistry. “A-level students are given free rein, B-level students have to abide by certain constraints, while C-level students are given the closest attention,” one teacher summarizes.
This is not the first time Wang’s reform seemingly went through a cycle: things are changed drastically, then grades fall, then they’re dialed back. On March 15, 2010, Wang Zhanbao — who took over from Wang Zheng as the new principal of Shenzhen Middle School — said upon his first faculty meeting that he would “strike a balance; that is, between too much and not enough.”
On March 15, 2022, close to a month after the new term had begun, AHSPU finally welcomed a new principal: 50-year-old professor and Party Secretary from Peking University’s Department of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering, Ma Yuguo. He had participated in admissions work at Peking University for many years and had close ties to many high schools across the country. Upon his appointment, Ma swore that “we will work for concrete results to reward children’s efforts, in keeping with the expectations of parents and society.”
Reporter: Huo Siyi.
This article was originally published by China Newsweek. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Wang Zheng attends the third session of 12th National People’s Congress in Beijing, 2015. Wang Yuyi/VCG)