Chinese Schools Get Creative ; High Standards Are the Norm in This Chinese School. but Can Students Think Creatively?

Article excerpt

It's 7:30 on a Monday morning, and the 3,500 students who attend Suzhou Middle School No. 9 are streaming toward the school field. The kids are getting their midterm exams back today, and the nervousness in the air is palpable.

"We call it 'the last breakfast,' " jokes 17-year-old Shen Wenjie, a somewhat unexpected Christian reference to the morning meal before the exams are returned.

Like all schools in China, School No. 9, located in the city of Suzhou in the Jiangsu Province, revolves around a competitive system of standardized tests and exams. This process culminates with three "black days" in July: a comprehensive national college entrance examination for high school graduates that determines placement in the nation's university system.

But as China's economy continues to grow at a breakneck pace, the nation's education system is beginning to change. Just like the United States, the world's most populous country is in the midst of national school reform. But the US, under No Child Left Behind, is moving toward national standards with a focus on reading, writing, and math. China, on the other hand, is restructuring its system to stress creative thinking and local control.

"In the past, education was very rigid; we call it 'force-fed' education," says Gu Yue Hua, deputy director general of the Suzhou Education Bureau. The teacher used to be the authority, she says. "Now the teacher's job is to promote, cooperate, and guide. Now we emphasize hands-on experience for students."

Located 30 miles from Shanghai, Suzhou has a population of 2.2 million people and a reputation as a sophisticated high-tech metropolis. Many of its public schools, including No. 9, are considered national models of excellence.

No. 9 may represent one end of the spectrum. But it also exemplifies the challenges associated with fostering ingenuity and innovation in a culture that has valued rote memorization since the days of Confucius.

"The students' endurance for work and their ability to focus is amazing," says Kevin Crotchett, a principal in Portland, Ore., who spent the 2001-02 school year teaching English at Suzhou Middle School No. 10. "We're constantly talking in the US about creating lifelong learners," he says. "The kids I was with [in Suzhou] were lifelong learners."

Still, says Crotchett, China's social and political history of conformity complicates efforts to create a more student- centered, exploratory curriculum. "The Chinese do a phenomenal job in the sciences and mathematics," he says. "But the students don't have the discussion skills."

Several Suzhou teachers and administrators had their own reasons for being skeptical about school reform. …

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