China Power

Swallowing Reform Whole

If educators in China really want to change the system then they need to accept some shocks to the system.

Last month I reported on how the Beijing education committee was encouraging its schools to build international divisions to help students study abroad. A couple of weeks later there was a follow-up, higher level meeting where they provided a specific reason why: ‘technology’ transfer. During the more than three hour meeting, Beijing’s top principals and government officials remarked on how international divisions benefited curriculum development and reform in schools by bringing in Western teachers and expertise.

Hearing this, you’d think that this was a meeting of progressive educators with a global mindset. Sadly, I couldn’t help but detect a nationalistic and xenophobic undertone to all of it. The Beijing principals proudly noted, for example, how Westerners were relegated to minor administrative posts (‘academic director’), and how they’d been taught to respect Chinese culture. ‘We are in control,’ one principal noted proudly.

Leaders from the Beijing education committee nodded approvingly, saying that Beijing’s top high schools should ‘swallow, digest, and absorb’ what’s useful and desirable from the Western curriculum in order to produce ‘globally competitive Chinese citizens’ (as distinct from ‘global citizens’). The principals also noted proudly how they were using international divisions to train their Chinese teachers on how to implement and manage a Western-style curriculum. 

It seemed to me that Beijing’s top education officials saw public school international divisions as a conduit for technology transfer. It seemed these education ‘reformers’ had decided that building globally competitive high schools was as easy as creating ‘authentic’ Italian pizza parlours: You build the pizza parlours, invite Italians to make pizza as Chinese look on, adapt the pizza for Chinese tastes, and finally, as the coup de grace, kick all the Italians out of the country.

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Of course, it’s a positive step forward to have Beijing’s top education officials promote education reform. But they seemed to have little sense of what education means, and no sense at all of what reform entails.

A system, especially one as calcified as the Beijing public school system, can only ‘swallow, digest, and absorb’ the familiar. A digestive tract will repel the unfamiliar, anything that could potentially shock or challenge the system. But it’s only by stomaching that initial pain and trauma that the new actually becomes familiar. China, on the other hand, doesn’t plan to adapt to what is new—it expects the new to adapt to China.

‘We’re encouraging reform and experimentation in public school international divisions’, Beijing’s top education officials seemed to be saying at the meeting, ‘but only if we maintain complete control, no mistakes are made, and the results are exactly what we anticipate’. 

But change by its nature is shocking and traumatic, and the results of reform unpredictable and uncontrollable.  I’ve written before about a radical education experiment that caused, to continue the digestive analogy, the school to vomit and spit out blood. But while things got out of control and mistakes were made, the experience taught students like Zhou Yeran to excel in the United States by not fearing failure.

The trauma from the Shenzhen experiment also shocked the management team into being a more cohesive unit that was able to quickly build a strong study abroad programme.

If it’s to truly become ‘globally competitive’ and reform education, China needs to swallow the new whole, and learn bear that initial pain and shock to its system. And it needs to let in not only Western teachers and curriculum, but Western schools and management. China’s best students may flock to these Western schools, but this shock to China’s education system can also shock its schools into being better.

China’s public high schools will only learn from the West if they learn to trust and empower Westerners instead of just putting them on display. If China is to engage the world, it must first learn to welcome it. Until then, Chinese students will have to just look forward to pizza drowned in sweet corn and mayonnaise.