The traditional Chinese approach to education is outdated. Domineering teachers discourage open questioning. An emphasis on standardized testing keeps children studying rather than exploring. Collectivism promotes conformity. External rewards are prioritized over a love of learning. Academic pressure creates undue psychological burdens.
But the Chinese leadership is intent on improving the system. “There is nothing that should remain unchanged when it comes to reform of our educational institutions,” Wang Feng, a director in the Ministry of Education’s National Research Center, told me in 2015. Government policy, along with willing administrators and teachers, is beginning to produce positive results.
The typical Chinese classroom is generally centered around the teacher, with children sitting in rows, the higher performers at the front of the classroom. The curriculums in the early years focus on math and the Chinese language, with full literacy — defined as the memorization of 3,500 distinct characters — expected in middle school.
In later years, students spend eight hours a day in school, and hours on homework or after-school test prep. (American students generally spend 90 minutes fewer in school each day and tackle eight fewer hours of homework a week than students in Shanghai, for example.)
The system is highly competitive. Of the nine million students who take the national college entrance exam, about two to three million will fail to advance into college. A focus on passing tests can kill a student’s natural interests and prevent opportunities to explore and be creative.
But the 10-year education reform plan released in 2010 declared that schools must foster a “fine environment for independent thinking.” The government is beginning to allow some schools to dictate up to 20 percent of their curriculum, according to Yang Xiaowei, a professor at East China Normal University. Some principals have chosen to introduce science- and math-based creativity classes or experiential learning projects, while one Shanghai administrator simply lets out school early a day a week to encourage kids to “explore.”
“Students must develop a personality,” Dai Chong, a Beijing schoolteacher, said, uttering a priority unthinkable two decades ago for a nation of rote-learning math fanatics.
As Mr. Dai ushered me through the hallways of Beijing National Day School, I noted practices that seemed more American than Chinese: Rankings were not be posted. Textbooks were left at school instead of toted home for study. Class sizes had been whittled down to a maximum of 25. A mental health club was advertised as a release valve for academic pressure. Choice was also on the menu — students could pick electives such as swimming, rock climbing and Frisbee.
“We have found traditional authoritarian Chinese teaching has many ill effects and deviates from the essence of education, which is to serve individuals,” Mr. Dai said. “Our teachers are like friends.”
An abrupt reversal, indeed, for a school that at one time didn’t provide hot water for showers because cold water would enhance “willpower and endurance.”
Reformers are also loosening the shackles of entrance-exam testing. Some students in Shanghai will have two chances at the college entrance exam, while universities are beginning to consider volunteering, interviews and regular high school tests as part of the admissions process.
For all its faults, the Chinese system provides some benefits that critics tend to dismiss. It imparts an early foundation of knowledge that can prepare a child for lifelong success. Cognitive scientists say that real learning doesn’t happen unless knowledge is imprinted on long-term memory. Once children lock away key information, they can free up the active memory for thinking deeply — and for being creative.
And the system produces success stories. On the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2012 problem-solving test, students in Shanghai — a pilot district where reforms are tested — finished sixth, well above the O.E.C.D. average. And highly skilled Chinese can thrive in environments that encourage originality and entrepreneurship.
When such skilled Chinese emigrate, the results are impressive: Ethnic Chinese immigrants are founding Silicon Valley start-ups and are securing American patents at a disproportionate rate. China is a global leader in industries like artificial intelligence, drone manufacturing and mobile payments. China’s start-up sector has produced nearly as many tech unicorns as the United States (and surpassed Europe) so far this year.
Significant obstacles stand in the way of reform. Deeply rooted authoritarianism and exam pressure dampen individual will, as does the Communist Party’s increasingly heavy political agenda in the classroom. How can China’s leadership cultivate critical-thinking skills while also pushing political indoctrination?
Further, change is largely confined to urban Chinese schools with the will, special designation or clout to experiment, while rural students are more likely to founder in a system that perpetuates inequality. Meanwhile, families with the financial means continue to prefer secondary and university education abroad.
Yet in education, the Chinese are hopscotching with intent, and in the right direction. In a tightening global marketplace for college spots and jobs, the Chinese are growing more competitive.
Lenora Chu is the author of Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School and the Global Race to Achieve.