When Toni Xiong was finally back home on her couch after a long day at school, the first thing she reached for was John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The high school freshman had just finished J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and was ready to move on to something with a darker theme.
When she’s not poring over the pages of great American novels, Toni can be found outside practicing photography or playing games on her computer. She is also a member of the Model United Nations club at her school, and regularly debates issues from ecological devastation to feminism in the Middle East.
“My academic focus is on the sciences,” said Xiong, a freshman at Beijing No.4 High School. “But I also have strong interests in culture and the humanities.”
Beijing No. 4 High School scored the highest citywide average in last year’s gaokao, the notoriously grueling national college entrance exam that is the sole determinant of a student’s higher educational prospects. The importance of such an exam is well understood by everyone involved — it is not uncommon for students to study around the clock for three years in preparation for the exam, sometimes in schools that impose military-style discipline and conformity as the route to academic excellence.
For all the rigors of the gaokao, unsuspected by the outside world, life for many students at elite high schools is far from a monotonous succession of classes and exams, interspersed with ideological lessons and eye exercises. Teachers and students alike have been breaking away from the confines of the textbook, instead experimenting with new ideas to make learning, and life, more interesting.
Kang Yingxin is another case in point. One of her current pet projects is using the theory of six degrees of separation to investigate the complicated sales network in WeChat, China’s largest social media app. An aspiring mathematician, Kang also wrote science fiction epics in middle school.
“It was sort of zhong’er (an internet slang term, originally meaning the second year of middle school, that has come to imply teenagers’ delusional pretentiousness),” said Kang, a self-deprecating sophomore at Beijing No.4 High School. “My frameworks were too grand. We used to pass around all our unfinished novels and offer each other advice. Some of them deal with love between boys, some time travel, others straddle different genres.” Kang’s classmates study the sciences almost exclusively, but often score higher in history than even the best humanities classes. Perhaps some have their passion for fictional time-travel to thank for that.
The current division of the sciences and humanities in the gaokao means that students have to decide on a direction early on in high school. But fortunately for young polymaths like Kang and Xiong, that is about to change. Twenty different provinces in China have rolled out gaokao reforms that will come into effect next year. The most common and prominent change is the elimination of this divide, whereby students have been required to choose from either biology, physics, and chemistry or history, politics, and geography. Starting from next year, they are free to choose any three from the six.
Chinese teachers are also trying out new ways to make learning go beyond the textbook. Li Yongle is a graduate of both Peking and Tsinghua University, China’s two most prestigious universities, and currently teaches physics at Renda Fuzhong (abbreviated as “RDFZ”), commonly regarded as Beijing’s best high school. Students who are fortunate enough to have Li as their teacher cited his personal charm and whimsical style as one of the more important reasons for their interest in the subject.
Indeed, Li’s WeChat account is peppered with jokes and one-liners. But for Li, WeChat is also a pedagogical tool. In an ingenious flash of insight, Li decided to take teaching outside of the classroom and into the lives of students — more specifically, the 10 minutes of their day spent on the toilet. He founded the WeChat public account “Toilet Classroom,” which distributes short video clips on physics problems he doesn’t have time to cover in class. With more than 600 followers, Li ultimately aims to make Toilet Classroom the Chinese version of Khan Academy, the online learning platform famous for its high quality free lessons.
It’s not just the form of teaching that’s being innovated. Politics and Chinese, two of the bastions of communist ideology in schools, are increasingly taught with content previously thought “unfit” for students. Toni Xiong’s politics teacher challenged his students to think critically about the political strategies of superpowers. For example, why can the United States afford to be a global hegemon, while China’s rhetoric has always been one of peaceful rise? (The answer, according to him, lies in the geography of the two countries) Jin Chuan, a student at Zhongguancun High School, said his Chinese teacher was eager to teach the reality of the Cultural Revolution, and the topic has also been showing up in tests in recent years, which Jin interprets as the leadership placing more emphasis on historical truth.
Indeed, truth is what many young idealistic students seek. “The China Dream is something people mention a lot these days,” said Yang Youran, a sophomore at the high school affiliated to Beijing Institute of Technology. “But a lot of people would rather feed themselves than their dreams. Idealism is hollow. There are so many problems in China and more than just ‘me’ in the world. I always say my dream is to change the world.” Yang went on to acknowledge that she would probably end up as a nameless one among millions, but even a small change is still a step in the right direction.
Timothy Guo has already been an agent of change at his school, the Beijing No.4 High School. The student government used to only elect leaders from the Communist Youth League, but Guo petitioned for two years until the school finally allowed non-Youth League members to run for student government. “Even though China is ruled by the Communist Party non-party affiliated people can still run for office,” said Guo. “Why should our school be any different?”
Guo vividly recalls the first day of high school, when the mandatory talk was less “fake, big, hollow” propaganda, as is the customary format of school morale-building sessions, but a reminder that alumni of the school have always been at the forefront of Chinese social reform. Instead constantly stressing the importance of the exams and the “correct career,” elite schools seem more interested in imbuing their students with a sense of noblesse oblige.
“Our school never wanted to produce sophisticated egoists,” said Wu Ling, a Chinese teacher at RDFZ. “We want our students to care for their country, to have compassion for the suffering of others and to even feel a sense of heroism for the responsibility they shoulder.”
Qi Xie is a Visiting Student at Columbia Journalism School.