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Curriculum Reform of Elementary Education in China

by Wang Jing, China Features

A reform on the curriculums of elementary education is gathering momentum across China, the world's most popular country whose primary and high school students naturally outnumber those of any other country. According to the Ministry of Education (MOE), in 2004 the country had 112 million primary school pupils, and students of junior and senior high schools numbered 65 million and 36 million, respectively.

In the words of Zhu Muju, an official in charge of elementary education at the MOE, the reform is designed to "bring forth a new generation of high-caliber citizens, people who are competent enough to serveChina's modernization drive."

"To achieve the purpose," she says, "competence-oriented education is being stressed, to eventually do away the kind of education irrelevant to practical needs of society and meant for nothing but to prepare students for examinations.

For well over 2,000 years in feudalChina, a man may spend years – in not a few cases even decades – learning Confucian classics by rote, for the sole purpose of entering into officialdom as successful candidates in imperial examinations.

Time has changed, but traditions die out slow. More often than not, learning at primary and secondary schools is limited to book knowledge, and a student has to take part in countless examinations to get prepared for eventual entry into a university, also through highly competitive examinations. "In many ways,China's education is divorced from the reality and therefore needs to be improved," the official says.

Precisely because of this, Deng Xiaoping, the late chief architect of China's reforms, called for building an education system that is truly modern, open to the world, and good enough to prepare the students for the building of China's future. "Deng's concept of education is the guideline for the reform," Zhu Muju notes.

The reform was launched, on a trial basis, in 2001, when the MOE issued a circular entitled the Guidelines for Curriculum Reform of Basic Education. The circular calls for an end to overemphasis on imparting of book knowledge, and it so happens that book knowledge taught at schools, as admitted by both officials and educators, is often too difficult or elaborate for students to learn, and sometimes simply out of date.

The circular stresses the importance of bridging schools and society, of enabling the student to acquire an ability of doing practical work while learning book knowledge useful to society. "In study, students are encouraged to take the initiative in their own hands and, through learning in both schools and society, develop a set of values to the benefit of society and students themselves," Zhu explains.

A typical case in point isLingwu County in northwestern China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which pioneered the reform under a local education official named Ma Yanping.

Ma was made director of the county's education commission in 1998 and before long, he was astonished to find that every year, an average of 16 percent of the students in local primary and secondary schools had dropped out before graduation. And he decided to find out why.

The official lost no time to organize a survey, which was to cover several thousand people --students, parents and teachers. He was astonished again, this time upon discovery that poverty was not the chief culprit as previously assumed acrossChina. "Some 83 percent of the school dropouts covered by the survey say that they quitted the schools because the lessons taught there were boring and useless," Ma says.

In 1999, two years before the MEO officially launched the reform,Lingwu County, acting on Ma's proposal, began changing the school curriculums on its own. By 2004, the dropout rate had plummeted to 2.1 percent.

"Thanks to the reform," Ma Yanping says, "teachers are giving up the habitual practice of just concentrating on imparting book knowledge. Students are encouraged to make the best use of the resources available for learning both in and outside their schools."

While getting book knowledge through classroom teaching, says the MOE official, students are learning by surfing the Internet, visiting libraries and museums and taking part in various extra-curriculum activities. "It is really remarkable that many of them are developing the habit of thinking independently and are more daring to speak out what is in their minds."

The system of enrollment for high schools students has been changed, in such a way as to give a correct assessment of the overall quality of each candidate. Gone is the old hundred percentage system with 60 percent being the passing grade. Entrance exams are still held, but the results are graded into A, B, C and D, depending on how a student has developed – not only intellectually, but also physically and morally.

Professor Liu Jian, assistant director of theNational Center for School Curriculum and Textbook Development under the MOE, fully supports what Ma and his colleagues in Ningxia have been doing. "It helps the learner develop the ability of critical analysis, problem solving, communication and cooperation," he says.

"The core of the curriculum reform," says the professor, "is to enable, through education, new, advanced cultures and concepts to spread in schools and society at large, to build among the Chinese people a cooperative and constructive partnership of democracy, equality, dialogue, consultation and mutual understanding."

He is referring toChina's overall objective of building a "harmonious society under socialism," a society that enjoys economic prosperity while democratic and open.

According to the MOE, by 2004, the number of primary and secondary school students using the new curriculums had grown to 35 million acrossChina, and in 2005, 95 percent of the students in grade one of primary and junior secondary schools are using the new curriculums.

Meanwhile, there are people who take the reform with a grain of salt. Jiang Boju, a mathematician and academician ofChinese Academy of Sciences, is worried, thinking that some of the new textbooks are too easy to learn, in particular the math textbooks. "That," he says, "may adversely affect the overall quality of primary and secondary education."

Liu Jian, Ma Yanping and other exponents of the reform disagree with the mathematician. They insist that textbooks should be meant for the majority of the learners, not a few "smart" students. "The old curriculums seemed to be meant to 'screen' the students – to differentiate the 'smart' from the 'inferior' – through assessments," Ma says. "In the new curriculums, assessments are used for information feedback to help both the teacher and the student improve their performances."

To promote the pilot reform, the MOE has provided policy incentives to regions and schools involved in the experiment. InLingwu County, for example, teachers are receiving extra training in competence-oriented education, with the expenses covered by the government.

Seventeen areas have been chosen to experiment, directly under the guidance of the MOE, with the new, competence-oriented entrance exam system for senior high schools. According to Professor Liu Jian, the number is increasing to several hundred in 2005.