"The new China is strongly making for good," proclaimed my great great Uncle George E. Morrison (NY Times feature article, 1912) who advised the Chinese leadership during the formation of the first Republic. Dr. Morrison's speeches about the vision of his Chinese friends at the turn of the 20th century remind me of Henry Kissinger's remarks about China's determination to continue its remarkable economic growth in his new book, On China. President Obama recently described China as a "strong, prosperous and successful member of the community of nations." And educators will not forget Education Secretary Arne Duncan referring to Shanghai ranking #1 on PISA, the global standardized academic test, as a "wake-up call" for education reform in the American system.
Meanwhile, in China, the national newspapers published the comments of a Chinese mother passionately complaining about the long hours her child was spending on school work. Is this a nation of Tiger Mom test takers who only memorize what teachers and textbooks say, or is this also a nation of creators and innovators?
I had the great honor of interviewing the highly esteemed Professor Minxuan Zhang, director-general of the Center for International Education Studies, Ministry of Education, China, and national project manager of PISA.
What kind of education system will permit China to have the human skills to compete globally?
I do not think there is one answer to your question. Different countries require different systems. One kind of education system cannot cover all the people skills. In nature, we have various kinds of trees and flowers. In the same way, there are many kinds of education systems which will be workable for a particular culture, economic situation and social history. In China, we have several types of sub-systems. For example, in Shanghai we have a system suitable for a metropolitan area. I have worked in our rural areas, too. We have systems that are more suitable for them. Of course, in our overall education system, there are common characteristics.
From my personal experience of working in China, an education system should pay attention to all the students. As a nation, we cannot rely on a few elites. All the people in a society need to feel that they are helping that society. Government must ensure all people have a good education. This is very important to the Chinese people. My experience in other countries, even in poor countries, is that you can find good schools, but only for elites.
Do you believe Chinese standardized tests measure the broad range of your students' skills?
We have a long history of testing in China. In Old China and perhaps even now, we still have the tradition that we select the best students from testing. But testing is only one way. It comes at the end of education. If we want to build a good system, we cannot only rely on testing at the end of learning. Testing implies that the student has finished the educational system. The most important thing is not just to see the testing results, but to pay close attention to the educational process. The process of education is much more important than the testing.
Are there other capabilities that we should also be evaluating?
Testing is an oversimplified way to check educational results. Education is not just about knowledge. It is also the process of socialization of the individual. There are other important elements such as social responsibility, personal potential in arts and the fine arts, how a student handles himself in relationships with other people, how students handle their work. Those kinds of skills and capacities are very important, sometimes even more important than subject testing.
From a larger perspective, does China's definition of educational excellence take into account the quality of life of individuals and society?
In the Chinese culture, we have two kinds of perspectives on educational excellence. One is that students should learn more knowledge and skills. In China, because of our heritage and our history, we have always said before you can be happy you must be educated. Learning is the bridge to what you want to do in your future. If our nation had no constructors, no leaders, no people who serve the country, or serve the family, how can we have a bright future? But now we also try to pay attention to happiness in the learning process. We want to help our children not just to learn for the future, but to also enjoy the process of learning. This is our challenge, but we will try hard to find the way forward.
As competition in education accelerates, are we risking the emotional well being of our students in face of increased academic pressure?
After the PISA results, we wondered if we could lessen the learning burden of the students. In China, historically we have encouraged students to work hard and even struggle in their learning, but we do not want students to suffer because of education. We talk about not trying to learn all knowledge today. In the future there will be more knowledge. So the most important thing is not our students' learning achievements today, but is to cultivate our students to have active learning attitudes. High school should not be the most important time. Of course, they are important years, but it is more important to keep students' interest in learning so that they continue to learn by themselves.
World Wisdom from China
Different kinds of education systems are needed for different cultures, economic situations and social history, among countries and within countries. Education systems should pay attention to all the students, not just the elites. A nation cannot just rely on its elite; all people in a society need to feel they are contributing.
The process of education is much more important than the end point testing. Such testing implies that students have finished learning. Educational excellence is about knowledge and skill, but it is also about the socialization of the individual, about cultivating students to have active learning interests for the rest of their lives and about strong cultural support for education.
In The Global Search for Education, join C.M. Rubin and globally renowned thought leaders including Sir Michael Barber (UK), Dr. Leon Botstein (US), Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (US), Dr. Madhav Chavan (India), Professor Michael Fullan (Canada), Professor Howard Gardner (US), Professor Yvonne Hellman (The Netherlands), Professor Kristin Helstad (Norway), Professor Rose Hipkins (New Zealand), Professor Cornelia Hoogland (Canada), Mme. Chantal Kaufmann (Belgium), Professor Dominique Lafontaine (Belgium), Professor Hugh Lauder (UK), Professor Ben Levin (Canada), Professor Barry McGaw (Australia), Sridhar Rajagopalan (India), Sir Ken Robinson (UK), Professor Pasi Sahlberg (Finland), Andreas Schleicher (PISA, OECD), Dr. David Shaffer (US), Chancellor Stephen Spahn (US), Yves Theze (Lycee Francais US), Professor Charles Ungerleider (Canada), Professor Tony Wagner (US), Professor Dylan Wiliam (UK), Professor Theo Wubbels (The Netherlands), and Professor Michael Young (UK) as they explore the big picture education questions that all nations face today.