China’s education system has been heavily criticized for emphasizing memorization of hard facts over creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking. The long hours of tedious studying put students under so much pressure that some have even committed suicide.
Slowly, however, reform is rippling through. In major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, some schools have taken major steps to overhaul the education system. More rural areas are trying to catch up, but the example of a forward-thinking official who was eventually forced to resign after pushing for reform in Zhuolu County in China’s northern Hebei province shows just how difficult it is to implement changes.
“Indoctrinating students with textbook content, asking them to mechanically repeat exercises, and ranking them against each other based on test scores — this produces misguided graduates in my opinion,” Hao Jinlun, the 43-year-old education director of Zhuolu County, said in a speech last month to school and government officials.
Hao Jinlun (right) interacts with a student during an education workshop in Zhuolu County, Hebei province, Oct. 16, 2014. From the official website of the county’s education bureau.
It was Hao’s last public attempt to defend the reform of the county’s education system. He has concentrated his efforts on implementing a new teaching method that would allow students to learn primarily from discussions with their peers, with dialogue facilitated by teachers, as opposed to listening stoically to lectures.
As the county’s top education official, Hao wanted to do what was right for the children, but his intentions were not enough to stave off defeat. When Hao resigned, his passionate farewell speech was widely shared online, stoking heated debate over the future of the country’s school system. The fear of the gaokao, China’s daunting university entrance exam, and a widespread belief that success can only be measured by high scores, had won.
Because of the fierce competition, many Chinese students who take the gaokao are under huge pressure as they prepare for the exam. Some students spend six days out of their week in public school and the last day at a cram school — a term for private training schools in East Asia offering extra practice in specific subjects. In Chinese schools, the authority of teachers is rarely challenged, and both students and teachers are used to a teacher-centered lecture format.
Test prep materials are piled high on a desk at Guangzhou No. 3 High School, May 9, 2012. Guangzhou Daily/VCG
In 2014, Hao set out to change the schools of Zhuolu County by bringing them in line with the National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development for 2010-2020, which outlines how to nurture well-rounded students and relieve some of their burden. But being at the county level, Hao’s resources were limited. He considered reforms that had been implemented in similar school administration regions and was inspired by the success of san yi san tan, which roughly translates to “question three times, explore three times.”
Hao had heard of the success san yi san tan had had in Xixia County in central Henan province, where it was first implemented. For counties with a large number of rural students and limited resources, the method seemed to offer a way forward. “The new method aims to encourage students to ask questions, cooperate with classmates, and find answers themselves,” Hao told Sixth Tone. “It also changes the teacher-student relationship. Teachers now have to learn with students, because it’s not realistic to expect that they will be able to answer every question their students raise.”
Before the reform, Xixia ranked last in the Nanyang City education department’s evaluation of all its 13 counties, said Yang Wenpu, the former director of Xixia’s education research office and the inventor of san yi san tan. “But after we implemented the new method, we moved up to first in Nanyang,” he said.
In Zhuolu, the reform showed some promise, too. Some students said that the classes were more engaging. “The class is more active than before,” Li Ruixiao, a sophomore at Zhuolu High School, told Sixth Tone. “All the students participate in discussions, and my classmates inspire me to think more.”
A screenshot from a ‘san yi san tan’ demo class video shows a student giving a presentation to her peers at Fanshan Primary School in Zhuolu County, Hebei province, 2015. From the official website of the county’s education bureau.
But not all students were happy with the reforms. “I feel less pressure now, but my scores have dropped since we applied the new method,” said Hu Yang, a sophomore at the same school. She added that she believes some of her teachers only followed the new method to meet the education department’s requirements, and not because they believed in it or thought it would help students.
Soon parents were protesting. At a meeting at Zhuolu Experimental Primary School last year, parents questioned Hao’s reform and protested that their children were being used as guinea pigs. Teachers weren’t lecturing enough anymore, the parents lamented. There weren’t enough exams, and they had no way of knowing where their children ranked in the class. They were convinced that their kids’ overall scores and performance would be negatively affected by the reform. In the end, about 300 parents rejected the reform, according to the county’s education department.
Officials from the Zhuolu government and education department declined to comment when contacted by Sixth Tone.
A week after the protest, Hao resigned. “Parents expect teachers to talk a lot in class — the more the better,” he said after the announcement. The exam-oriented way of thinking about education is still ingrained in Zhuolu’s parents and teachers, and changing this mentality, he said, would have been more important than altering the style of teaching. “I felt like I was fighting alone,” Hao said during his speech.
In Xixia, where the reform was more successful, change didn’t come without a struggle either, said Pang Baili, a teacher who has followed the method for six years at Xixia No. 1 High School. She recalled that initially, adopting a new method was difficult for all parties involved. “It was definitely frustrating at first,” Pang said.
Eventually, however, students started scoring higher on the gaokao, and the reform was celebrated as a success. In 2009, 400 students from Xixia No. 1 High School were accepted by first-tier universities. In 2010, the school implemented san yi san tan. This year, more than 800 students — twice as many as before — left their homes to study at first-tier universities.
Pang believes higher acceptance rates have come because the reform improved students’ creativity, teamwork, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking. Wang Dan, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s education department, said these “soft skills” are increasingly important for the gaokao.
Wang has dedicated herself to researching China’s education reforms and comparing gaokao results. “Committing information to memory and writing exercise after exercise is no longer the best way to achieve a high score on the gaokao,” she told Sixth Tone. Gaokao exams differ from province to province, but even in places like Henan, where education has lagged behind, strong analytical skills and interdisciplinary knowledge are necessary to ace the test.
Wang found that only those on the periphery of society don’t worry about the gaokao. For example, there’s the rich who can afford to opt out of China’s higher education system altogether and send their children abroad instead. Then on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who want their children to forgo a high school graduation and instead find a job to support the family.
“Those who care the most are middle-class parents, because getting a good score is their kids’ only path to a bright future,” Wang said. “Most county-level students come from families with high hopes for the gaokao.” While Hao called for implementation of san yi san tan across the board, from elementary to high schools, Wang believes that it should be a slow process.
“This is a long-term project, and we cannot hastily apply it to all grades, especially high school students who are facing the pressure of exams,” Wang said. “Both teachers and students are already used to the exam-oriented system, and it takes time for them to learn and adapt to something new. It would be better to start the method with first-year primary school students.”
In Xixia, several years passed before improvements were measurable. In Zhuolu, the reform was canceled after two years.
Standardized test scores will remain critical in evaluating the success of reforms, said san yi san tan mastermind Yang. “If an education reform does not enhance students’ test scores, then convincing society that it is a successful experiment is next to impossible.”
(Header image: Students take their monthly practice test in the auditorium of Huizhou No. 8 High School, Guangdong province, May 24, 2012. Zhou Nan/VCG)