/ 26 April 2005

Loosening up on lessons

Elaine Cornish returns to school in Guangzhou, China after four years of economic growth and sees how much has changed

Brightly painted pictures of communist party icons like Deng Xioping smile down on the pupils seated at modern open-plan tables.

Elite primary education in China has changed dramatically in the four years since I last visited. Nevertheless, the heavy ideological flavour remains evident. The slogans are bright and friendly – Be creative, be ethical, be happy, be healthy, and learn to create – they declare.

At the Guangzhou Shamian Primary school, I remarked on how much the teaching styles had changed. There has been a shift from the traditional classroom model to a far more relaxed group teaching, outcomes-based-style operation.

Imaginative use has been made of geometrically shaped tables that can be used as single units or joined into an infinite number of shapes to accommodate larger groups. The children sat in clusters, chatting and laughing. This was far removed from the stiff rows of silent children who remained at their tasks and hardly glanced at me on my visits to classrooms four years ago.

“Do you notice that the children are a lot more open?” asked grade 1 teacher Crystal Pan, who proudly showed me around. There was a lot more noise and activity. The children I saw in the classrooms and in the corridors never failed to greet me in English. “That is the way it should be,” said Pan. Guangzhou Shamian Primary is a school of 1 200 children. As a private school it is able to limit class sizes to 24. Each classroom is equipped with a television set which is used view broadcasts from within the school (the school has its own station) and from outside.

Modern technology is evident throughout the school, with 24 grade 1 computers, video machines and language laboratories.

In a country with a population of 1,22 billion people, schools are obliged to use space creatively and this is done most impressively at Shamian. The teachers for example have created a hothouse, with an insect compartment, an aviary and a pet zoo. They have also developed a comprehensive weather station.

All these innovative projects are housed on the rooftop of the school building enabling hands-on participation by the children.

Shamian Primary is undoubtedly a special school. If the degree of parental involvement is some indication of the well-being of the school, then it must be given a hearty bill of health. Parents – kept off the premises by a stern marshal – wait to collect their children at the end of the day. Those able to converse with me said it took some financial sacrifice to keep their children there, but they were happy to do so.

Guangzhou, one of China’s fast -growing eastern seaboard cities, can hardly be expected to yield a “normal” Chinese school. Already developed as a trading post from the colonial era, Guangzhou seized the opportunity for growth. Visiting a school in Gunagzhou – like visiting a school in an affluent urban area of South Africa – can hardly give a picture of typical education. Officials freely admit this.

China has growth targeted in specially cordoned regions, as part of plans to then spread the development and wealth created to less advantaged areas.

Nowhere is the change more evident than in the ultra modern Guangdong Country Garden School outside the city. Opened in September 1994, the school has 3 600 students, from kindergarten to senior high school, and has 404 teachers.

Guangdong Country school claims in its prospectus that it aims to “Bring up successful men for the 21st century”. Students are taught to be honest citizens. The emphasis in teaching is placed on reform and building. It is a superbly equipped school providing first-class teaching conditions.

It is equipped with 750 computers, which are fixed in 12 special classrooms. The whole school can be managed through these computers which are networked.

Every classroom is equipped with a television set, a pentium computer, a video player, a tape recorder and an overhead projector. The school has its own television network. It boasts a library of 70 000 books.

For the more energetic pupils there is a sports ground with a 400-metre track and the constant -temperatured Natatorium. Many of the children have siblings – rare in a country with a strict one-child policy. The well-heeled parents have been prepared to pay the yuan 20 000 penalty to have more than one child. They pay 47 000 yuan a year in fees for each child who boards at the school and goes home every fortnight.

The teachers pride themselves on being the pick of the profession. They are paid twice as much as teachers at state schools but there are strict requirements. For example, a primary school teacher needs to have city honours, at least five years teaching experience, be in good health, under the age of 35 and have a university degree in education. The 100 primary school teachers were selected from 8 000 applicants. Teachers who excel at their jobs are given apartments. They have free medical aid and a pension scheme.

The school has 15 foreign teachers who teach English. As this is a bilingual school, an English environment is created in the school and the children are encouraged to speak English from a very early age. The school also has regular exchanges with the United States.

After-school education plays an important role in the development of children in China. After classes, children may take part in scientific, cultural and recreational activities organised by “children’s palaces.” In a recent survey it was found that primary and middle school children were being burdened with an excessive amount of homework and even extra classes at night. This has been attributed to the examination-oriented education system. The Chinese education department is trying to change the concept of education and expand secondary education so that more children have the opportunity to attend without having to pass examinations. This is widely considered to be the hardest task facing the Chinese government in the new century.

Elaine Cornish is Junior Head of Department at Waterkloof House Preparatory in Pretoria

— The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, January, 2001.