21st Century Education: 5 Lessons from China

by Catherine Yan Wang, National Institute of Educational Sciences

China has redesigned its education system since embarking on opening up the country and engaging in reforms in the late 1970s. The journey of change started from an ethos of “Orientation Towards the Modernization, Orientation Towards the Future, and Orientation Towards the World” created in late 1970s, went though a three-decade long reflection and debate on quality-oriented education (vs examination-oriented education), gained momentum in an Action Plan for Invigorating Education for 21st Century in 2001, and resulted in ground-breaking Basic Education Curriculum Reform that profoundly changed education philosophy, content and pedagogy for education from Grade 1-12. After 3 decades, not only has China achieved universal access to basic education, but also Shanghai became a top-performer in PISA tests in 2009. And in 2014, the changes still continue. Although there are still many challenges and barriers with education system in China, several strategies and approaches proved to be workable and effective, including the following 5 lessons:

1) Evidence-based, participatory policy-making: Like many policies of China, the formulation of the Basic Education Curriculum Outline involved five steps: conducting surveys, drafting, consulting, experimenting and implementations and expansion. It began with stakeholder survey including teachers, parents, researchers, local authorities and communities, followed by drafting the document by a team consisting of researchers, practitioners and administrators. It then went through consultations with schools, teachers, local governments to solicit their opinions on the relevance and feasibility of the policy. The policy for trial was piloted in four provinces and amended on the basis of piloting. The finalized Outline was put into implementation nationwide.

2) Provision of professional support for teaching: China created a Teaching Research System to provide ongoing support to teachers’ classroom teaching, consisting of teaching research institutes at provincial, prefecture (municipality) and county levels. The researchers, mostly selected from the best teachers, support teachers’ work by coordinating school-based research projects, regular visits to schools, interpreting curriculum standards, analyzing classroom teaching, preparing teaching lessons, developing teaching materials and distilling best practices for extension (e.g. through demonstration class). Some of the institutes have been integrated with teaching training college and this made teaching research a booster of teacher’s professional development.    

3) Learning from the world: China, its government agencies, research institutions and even schools all look to other countries’ experiences for inspiration in the process of making changes for improvement.  Since the 1980s, Government officials have made many overseas study tours to learn different practices.  These brief glimpse of the outside world impacted their way of thinking and doing their work. Major studies almost always contain a component of international comparative study to benchmark against developed countries, and draw upon best practices to generate policy recommendations. The schools, in their pursuit of internationalization, developed exchange partnership with overseas counterparts, and also kept on learning from outside world to update their teaching content and methods.

4) Experimentation: Partly originating from the principle borrowed from economic reform, “cross the river by touching stones,” various new thoughts and ideas have been tried as experiments in the education system continually, with successful experiments often being translated into policies. A typical example is the “Shiyi Experimental School”: it abandoned traditional way of organizing students’ learning in fixed classes on dozens of subjects, and instead, developed over 1000 courses from which 4600 students could choose, many of them relating to emerging issues of the 21st century.

5) Balancing between centralization and decentralization, emphasizing both unity and diversity: In 2001, China adopted a three-level curriculum structure aligned with the principle of “common basics, diversified options” that encompasses national, local, and school-based curricula, of which the national curriculum accounts for 80%, and local and school-based curriculum 20%. Such a structure ensure that all the students master fundamental knowledge and skills, while leaving schools ample room for experimentation and innovation.

It is hard to generalize about education development, given its inherent complexity compounded by the size and diversity of such a large country as China. A Chinese idiom “Bearing global perspective (big picture) in mind, and start from (small) concrete action” might best summarize and illustrate the lessons in setting educational policy for the 21st century from China. Education can and will make a difference on students' learning and social well-being, when taking into consideration the tremendous changes happening and coming in the 21st century and taking actions to meet these challenges and opportunities step by step.  

The above entry was written by Catherine Yan Wang, from the National Institute of Education Sciences (NIES) of China, one of our GEII institutional partners.  Catherine is senior specialist and coordinator of international programs at NIES.  Her research areas cover education policy, education reform, social studies of education, international studies, comparative education and research methodology. In cooperation with international organizations, government agencies, and research institutions, she has designed and implemented more than 30 qualitative and quantitative research projects on various education topics.  Among others, she was the chief investigator of the World Bank Project “Case Development and Paper on Institutional Learning and Catalyzing Reforms for Growth and Poverty Reduction.” She has authored, co-authored and edited numerous articles, reports, journal and books,and she is editor of the book Education Policy Reform Trends in G20 Members. In her prior role, she was consultant at the World Bank and curriculum specialist and coordinator of international programs at Beijing Education Research Institute. She holds a Ph.D. of education policy, administration and social studies from the University of Hong Kong.