China Power

Gathering Storm

Letting students think for themselves is good (but upsets teachers and parents).

On Monday, I introduced Principal Wang Zheng, who took over at Shenzhen Middle School in April 2002. Underlying all of Principal Wang’s reforms were several assumptions that would seem correct to Westerners but too visionary to Chinese. First and foremost, Principal Wang believed that the national examination was a test that students could cram for in one year instead of three years. In other words, preparation for the national examination was a distinct and separate project from education. That’s why he instituted a system whereby students would for the first two years learn to understand choice and responsibility in order to become productive citizens; for their final year they would be isolated in the school’s western campus so that they could cram for the national examination.

This was in itself controversial, but what truly outraged parents, teachers, and government officials was that Principal Wang recognized his limitations as an educator. Having been an educator all his life he understood that there were going to be intelligent students who wouldn’t need to study that much,much less intelligent students who were going to flunk the national examination no matter how hard they studied, students obsessed with testing for Peking,students who wanted to work for Goldman Sachs and students who were happy being bartenders. His greatest achievement, his legacy, and ultimately his undoing was that he accepted the individuality and diversity of the student pool, and permitted students to decide their own destiny.

That was simply blasphemy, sacrilege, and heresy in Chinese education. Parents handed their only child to Shenzhen Middle School with the expectation and demand that the school would do what’s right and responsible, and beat and whip any individuality and spontaneity, any free thinking and pubescent behavior out of their only child so that he or she couldfocus solely on getting into a key university. Teachers and government officials agree: if a student doesn’t get into a top university it’s because the school didn’t make him do enough multiple choice questions, wasn’t strict and stern enough, and permitted him to play, think, and sleep too much.

And the stakes had become far too high for parents. They now only had one child in a country of 1.3 billion, and Chinese society, because of free market reforms, had become much more competitive and intense. That made parents risk-averse, and they favoured the safest, least dangerous path to success for their child. And that invariably meant having their child test into a strict demanding high school, then a key university, and then onto graduate school in the United States or becominga bureaucrat. This game called life was too dangerous and uncertain for Chinese parents to permit their child to have any say. The grandfathers controlled their child when he was small, the schools controlled him when he was a teenager, and when their child becomes of working and marrying age, then parents will assert control once and for all.

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So imagine how Chinese parents must have felt when they heard from their child during dinnertime conversations that Principal Wang was encouraging his students to think for themselves and make their own decisions, was permitting them to organize basketball tournaments and to volunteer at retirement homes, and turning a blind eye as they dated and played video games. If China were ancient Greece, then the parents would have surely made Principal Wang drink hemlock. Instead, they could only shout at their child to not participate in any extra-curricular activities and just focus on studying, and to their colleagues and friends they would whisper these terrifying words: Shenzhen Middle School was risky.  

Shenzhen Middle School’s tenured teachers were even more angry and frustrated with Principal Wang’s reforms. Before they were Gods, and students their flock of sheep. These teachers succeeded under China’s traditional education system, and were comfortable and confident teaching multiple choice tests. Now Principal Wang told them they had to make class interactive and interesting, had to write examinations that tested students’ understanding of the material, and to encourage self-inquiry and self-discovery. In other words, Principal Wang was making his teachers teach, and they certainly had not come to Shenzhen Middle School todo that. They came for the pension, the job security, and Shenzhen Middle School’s fame and reputation that permitted them to pay for a new Audi with weekend cram courses. Moreover, what was the point of all this ‘teaching and learning’ when the national examination only tested memorization and regurgitation?

Before,when teachers could hide behind the podium and just lecture, they didn’t notice that most of their 50 students were asleep and texting each other on their mobiles about how boring class was. Now because Principal Wang made the teachers face the students and they could see all too clearly that students were bored and disinterested. But instead of thinking about how to interest and engage the students they decided to spend the class criticizing Principal Wang’s reforms. They called Principal Wang reckless and irresponsible, and they told the students that they were nothing more than lab rats in Principal Wang’s experiments.

Parents and teachers wrote letters and complained to local education officials, who were not happy with him either. In their eyes, Principal Wang was not playing by the rules of the game. He was not kowtowing to local officials, refused to let in the stupid and lazy children of the rich and powerful, and refused to boast the school’s national examination scores. What Principal Wang was doing was trying to reduce the number of Shenzhen Middle School’s entering class from 800 to 600 so that he could improve the quality of education, trying to obtain the right to select a quarter of the school’s entering class so that the students would fit the school’s free and open culture. In the eyes of local officials, Principal Wang Zheng was simply not doing his job.

What really annoyed and angered Shenzhen parents, teachers, and officials the most was that Principal Wang was permitting teenagers to be teenagers. Parents expected their children to serve as vessels for their hopes and aspirations, but now they could see that, under Principal Wang’s tutelage, they were developing a mind and a personality of their own.

Chinese society and culture always had an inexplicable, suffocating fear of teenagers. They were responsible for the May Fourth movement, the Cultural Revolution, and most recently the 1989 Tiananmen movement. This fear has manifested itself in the oppressive nature of China’s education system.      

If there’s one inviolable fact about human society it’s diversity and difference. China is a nation that built a great wall to keep people and ideas out, and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that China would construct an education system dedicated to making its 1.3 billion people think and behave the same. And what’s truly astonishing is the system’s effectiveness: Chinese do, more or less, think the same, which is to say they don’t think at all. To suggest that Chinese students are stereotypes isn’t really accurate: they’re more like carbon copies.

There aren’t that many adjectives to describe Chinese students: they’re polite and respectful, hardworking and obedient. On the other hand, Shenzhen Middle School students are open and curious, stubborn and opinionated. They can be funny and generous, but also dark and cynical. They are sometimes sweet and caring, and other times they’re rude and contemptuous. They’re bold and creative, but they can also be narcissists and megalomaniacs.   

In other words, Shenzhen Middle School kids are teenagers, and whatwascourageous and visionary about Principal Wang is that instead of trying to mould his students in his image,he permittedthem to grow as human beings, discover their individuality, and pursue their own destiny. He permittedthem to succeed and to fail, to love and to hate, to be passionate and to be frustrated. Ultimately, he permitted students to win or to lose.

Next week I’d like to explain why, in my opinion, Principal Wang’s top students are poised for extraordinary success in Chinese society.