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Class struggle

It's a schoolroom revolution: Rote learning is out and creative discussion is in, as a nation feels the need for fewer technocrats and more visionaries. ROD MICKLEBURGH meets the future

Globe and Mail Update

BEIJING — At Erligou Central Primary School, a big, multi-storey institution founded 40 years ago in the heady, early days of liberation, portraits of Marx, Lenin and Mao still have pride of place in the main entranceway.

The school's 1,200 students continue to wear the red revolutionary kerchiefs of the Young Pioneers, and down a dim hallway hangs a picture of Mao's favourite poster boy, Lei Feng, the Communist hero with the flap-eared hat who darned the socks of army colleagues and performed other selfless duties before, alas, being killed by a falling telephone pole.

But those are the only vestiges of the past that remain. In classrooms across the country, a new revolution is going on. The stultifying rote learning that has dominated Chinese education for decades is out. Student-centred learning is in. For the first time, students are being encouraged to think for themselves, to participate in class discussions, to embrace values and not just facts.

Memorizing and regurgitating information for pressure-laden exams is no longer producing the mix of skills China needs, people here have realized. There are too many technocrats, scientists and engineers. Where are the innovators, visionary entrepreneurs and socially aware planners many believe are key to continued economic progress?

"We win math Olympiads, but our students have no creative abilities," Zhao Xinlang, vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, worried recently.

"They attend class, do their homework, but that's not a good way to educate kids for the future. We have no Nobel Prize winners." (Mr. Zhao didn't mention Gao Xingjian, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for literature, whose writings are banned in China.)

The change is in full swing at Erligou. A Grade 3 reading class is focusing on a chapter about China's five-starred national emblem -- the well-known gate of Tiananmen Square encircled by a sheaf of grain and a wheel of machinery. The lesson begins with old-style reading out loud in unison, and kids at the back slump in their seats, bored. Then discussion starts and the room comes alive.

The teacher, Zang Yangping, asks the students how they think that they can live up to the glory of the national logo. "I want to make the country green, with grass and trees," one eight-year-old says. "I want to run fast, to be an Olympic runner," offers another. Responds a third: "I want to put rubbish in the rubbish bins."

(However, teachers still like to have the last word. Just before class ends, Ms. Zang reminds her charges, "The national emblem stands for the national unity of farmers and workers and the revolutionary spirit of China.")

Principal Zhao Yuan, who began teaching in 1971 just as China emerged from the educational horror of the Cultural Revolution, says the school also now puts less emphasis on textbooks, homework and tests.

"Students need to open up," says Mr. Zhao, a relaxed, caring administrator. "Parents think students just need to read and study, but sometimes that is too much. . . . We want to put less emphasis on exams and more on individual evaluation."

What began as a series of pilot projects across the country has accelerated into a goal to have the new learning methods implemented nationwide well before the original target of 2010.

Yang Dongping, a savvy professor of education at the Beijing Institute of Technology, notes that Chinese universities have a higher ratio of science majors to the humanities than any other country. "Yet the humanities give us our value system. Too many engineers is not good for society."

Travel China and see the result. Towering buildings, enormous dams and modern highways have pushed through some of the most remote and scenic corners of the world. Little thought is given to social problems on the ground. It is surely no coincidence that all nine members of China's powerful standing committee of the Politburo are engineers.

"Sure, China can put a guy in space," Prof. Yang says. "That is comparatively easy. It's far more difficult to get people to brush their teeth every day and teach rural peasants to preserve water."

Veteran Beijing principal Shi Yanlun agrees. Quality, rather than churning out graduates, has become the goal at his high school. "It's nothing less than a course revolution. We are getting rid of the Soviet model in order to emphasize the all-round individual. Things like health, morals and art are just as important as results on an exam."

Grade 11 student Li Lingcong, smart as a whip with almost frightening self-assurance, couldn't be happier. "Before, we were like robots. Teachers just asked us to follow their words, read and memorize. The next day, we had to recite it back," she says. "Now, we talk about why someone wrote something. We experience the whole story. It gives everything a deeper meaning."

Ms. Li says schools have cared too much about science and math. "They don't care about culture. I don't want to be part of that. The only time my parents get angry at me is when I get zero in math. I study hard for it, but I hate it."

For all the improvement, however, China spends less of its gross domestic product on education than most developing countries. Parents must pay to send their children to school. The result is a wide gap between the education available to urban kids and schools in the country, where two-thirds of China's massive population lives and incomes are low.

The muddy, midsized village of Jiuzhou is just 30 minutes by car from the broad streets and bulging, futuristic buildings of Langfang, a prosperous port city 60 kilometres south of Beijing. But in terms of development, the village is decades away.

Stacks of dried corn husks and old brick walls line the rutted road, nearly impassable in parts from recent rain. There is not much talk of radical education changes here.

Between cigarettes, middle school principal Chen Jianmin admits that he is envious of facilities in Langfang. "This is a rural area. There is a lack of resources for education."

But conditions are improving slowly, he says. The school recently took delivery of its first computers, and yes, there is classroom change here too. "Students are working more by themselves. They are more motivated," Mr. Chen says as a staff member brings him a clean pair of rubber boots.

There is a different kind of hope at the local primary school, where an unexpected visitor finds beginning teacher Fang Zhenjiang sitting under a tree in the school's leafy compound, slowly repeating out loud to herself the words from her next English lesson.

"I'm not a professional," she explains with a blush. "I've only studied English for three years. I want to be better."

Ms. Fang's dedication to her young students is inspiring. She puts up with unheated, barebones classrooms, and still strives to improve herself, for a meagre salary of the equivalent of $125 a month.

Prof. Yang says giving Ms. Fang more control would help. "Schools should be allowed to develop their own curriculum, adopted to local conditions. That's why a lot of rural students leave. They can't relate to courses dictated by Beijing."

Meanwhile, education leaders say they are determined to tackle the biggest challenge of all -- examinations. China has always relied exclusively on exams to determine a student's future, putting enormous pressure on school children. Because of the country's one-child system, the stress has become even more intense, as parents centre all their attention on little Ling or Ming.

Educators are trying to rely more on classroom work to evaluate students. Yet exams continue to be important, right down to primary school.

At Erligou primary school, parents fork out thousands of dollars to give their children extra tutoring. "We know we shouldn't do this," parent Li Shuqin says, "but we feel we must, if we want our child to do well on exams and be able to go to a better middle school."

Prof. Yang says the nationwide, university-entrance exams at the end of high school are the worst, too often leading to widespread cheating, nervous breakdowns and even suicides by distraught students. "It is going to be complicated, but the situation is so serious, it must be changed."

Still, the aspirations of many Chinese students have already been fired by the big change in their classrooms.

Qian Ruitong, 11, has just started Grade 6. Both her parents are engineers. But that is not for her. Speaking virtually flawless English, her long ponytail tied carefully with a pretty white ribbon, Ruitong talks with confidence about a career that could hardly be more different. "I love music. I want to be a singer," she says. "I think I sing very well."

Li Lingcong, the Grade 11 student who scorns robotic thinking, also sees a career for herself far removed from the sciences. "I think I will be a film director. I think a film can change people's lives. This way, I can try to change the things in society that I don't like."

Back in the village of Jiuzhou, Tian Guangrui has none of the economic advantages of her counterparts in Beijing. The shy 15-year-old lives in a small farmhouse, a 30-minute daily bus ride from her rudimentary middle school. Yet none of this dampens her ambition. "I want to be a doctor," she says quietly. "Because of SARS, I want to save people's lives. I don't expect to make a lot of money. I just want to save lives."

Dreams die hard, even in Jiuzhou. And in China in 2004, anything seems possible.

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