Interesting international perpsective on the education of children that we can learn from. -Angela
October 2006 | Volume 48 | Number 10
Harmonious Learning for the Whole Child: Education Perspectives from China
Message from the President
As educators in the United States struggle to expand their view of learning to embrace the whole child and not just achievement test scores, it is encouraging to know that other nations are engaged in similar processes. China, a country I have been fortunate enough to visit twice in the last two years, is also challenging itself to build a system that addresses the whole child.
This summer I traveled to China to participate in the first China-U.S. Education Leadership Conference. What I learned and experienced expanded and clarified the impressions I formed during the ASCD Board of Directors trip to China in November 2005.
The Language of Learning
I didn't hear the word “achievement” once on either trip. Instead, the Chinese educators I met spoke constantly of “learning,” with an emphasis on lifelong learning, a phrase that seems somewhat passé in the United States these days.
I asked myself some questions in the face of that realization. When we put so much emphasis on achievement, do we cause more problems than we solve? When we allow the rhetoric of achievement and testing to control the dialogue, do we take attention away from the whole child—from the creation of thinking, democratic citizens who are learners? Is schoolwork truly more important than the work of real-world thinking and problem solving?
Granted, some of the dialogue in the United States now addresses improvement of the whole child. But that kind of language actually moves the conversation away from the whole child and learning and back to measuring the whole child. There's a big difference.
At the China-U.S. Conference, Yang Jin, a deputy director-general from the Chinese Ministry of Education, described the educational challenges China confronts as it tries to change the face of education. These challenges reflect many of the paradoxes that China as whole must address: economic disparities between cities and rural areas, a massive population, a sprawling geography, and the growing pains of an emergent international powerhouse. He also offered the strategies China will use to meet those challenges. I believe educators around the world can learn from the experience of the Chinese.
Although China mandates that all children will go to school for nine years, 176 counties—about 10 percent of the total—have yet to implement systems to make it happen.
Strategy: Spend 10 billion renminbi (about US$1.1 billion) to build 7,000 additional rural schools by the end of 2007. In addition, build more dormitory facilities for junior secondary schools.
The dropout rate in China is high; children from poor families can't attend school.
Strategy: Provide a comprehensive system of financial aid so that 30 million poor students, especially those in rural areas, can get free textbooks. Those students won't have to pay miscellaneous fees, and subsidies will be provided for their accommodations.
Almost 23 million children are unlikely to receive a good education because their parents are among the 6.5 million adults who have moved from poor, rural areas to booming cities, leaving their children behind.
Strategy: Craft policies so that the governments of cities where workers are moving assume the main responsibility for funding rural education for migrants' children.
Enrollment in China's preschools is low. Current preschools cannot meet the demands for early childhood development.
Strategy: Expand opportunities for preschool education, and provide parental guidance to improve early childhood family-based education.
Only half of 15-year-olds can currently progress to upper secondary schools, which are very selective.
Strategy: Expand total secondary enrollment. Develop vocational education opportunities so that vocational and regular secondary opportunities stay about even.
Insufficient funding is available for education. In 2004, it was just 2.79 percent of China's gross domestic product, among the lowest levels in the world.
Strategy: Establish a guarantee to finance compulsory education, and clarify the responsibility of all levels of government for providing such funding.
Significant educational disparities exist between urban and rural areas and eastern and western China. Between 70 and 80 percent of students reside in the much poorer rural areas.
Strategy: Promote balanced basic education by focusing on equity as the key and compulsory education as the priority.
There is a shortage of qualified teachers in rural areas. In 2004, 500,000 temporary teachers—often less qualified than permanent teachers—were teaching in rural schools.
Strategy: Implement on-the-job teacher training to enhance competencies. University graduates are being encouraged through various incentives to work in rural and western areas of China.
The Internet is available in just 5.6 percent of primary schools and 20.4 percent of junior secondary schools. Classroom technology is generally in short supply.
Strategy: Network 37,000 secondary schools by 2007. By then, 370,000 primary schools will have satellite transmission capabilities, and 110,000 primary schools will have DVD and CD players.
Concepts and ideas of education need to be more innovative. Instructional methods need to be upgraded and curricula improved.
Strategy: Implement far-reaching reforms around curriculum and teacher quality. Emphasize learning and teaching. Focus on student health because Chinese children spend a great deal of their time in school.
Balanced Education, Harmonious Society
To support those strategies, Chinese educators and policymakers focus on balanced education that leads to the development of a “harmonious society.” That implies equality of educational rights and comparable education processes with relatively equal facilities and levels of teacher quality throughout the country. In a nation as large and diverse as China, the goal of balanced education is intended to be relative rather then absolute, dynamic rather than static.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that China is reducing its reliance on rigid testing, while increasing its emphasis on formative and value-added assessment.
Ultimately, China wants every child to become fully developed—morally, ethically, physically, intellectually, and aesthetically. Expected changes described by Yang include changing from teacher-centered to student-centered approaches and from delivering knowledge to fostering students' creative competence.
Of course, China is unique. Size alone sets it apart—it is five times larger than the United States. China's solutions to its educational challenges won't necessarily be appropriate elsewhere. But kids everywhere have very similar needs. (China itself is quite open to adopting practices that work in other countries. Yang lamented that Chinese children spend about twice the amount of time in school as U.S. students, yet they are not twice as educated. It was interesting for me to hear him praise what he saw as outstanding features of the U.S. education system, including greater flexibility and more choices and opportunities for American students.)
Reflect on the Goal
What can educators in other nations learn from China? Regardless of international differences, we should all take heed of China's concern for the development of a whole child who is capable of being part of a harmonious society. Can we make the same commitment? Can we make it possible for our children to become adults who continue to learn as they live their lives?
Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from China is the need for continuous reflection on the goal of schooling. The more time I spend learning how educators worldwide approach their important work, the more I believe we all need to question anything that interferes with this straightforward goal: Schools should encourage and nurture children now so that they will develop into complete human beings who can participate meaningfully in society in the future.
ASCD President Richard Hanzelka is director of the Eastern Iowa Writing Project at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.
Copyright © 2006 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development