The Guilin Conference: Education Reform and Social Change

The conference in Guilin was fascinating and thrilling. Co-organised by East China Normal University and Guangxi Normal University, its focus was on educational reform in the context of social change. They have both in spades in China and they invited a small group of international speakers to share experiences.Professor Yang Xiaowei, Director of the Institute for School Reform, about to open the conference in the video above, introduced by the Dean of Guangxi Normal University’s College of Education.

Guilin is in Guangxi province, in the south west of this enormous country, a relatively poor area and quite unlike the metropolis of Shanghai where East China Normal is based. One of the challenges in this region of China is to ensure that high quality education is extended to large parts of the population in rural areas and to minority ethnic populations that have, historically, been poorly served. One of the most impressive features of the conference (it was simultaneously translated) was the persistent attention to equity and social justice in the presentations; to the extension of a broad and balanced education in opposition to rote learning; and a mistrust of PISA as a measurement. So quite unlike the discourse in England and many other western countries. Instead, the discourse at the conference reflected the Chinese National Plan for Medium- and Long-Term Educational Reform that was published in 2010 with its strong emphasis on equity, social justice and attention to all schools, not just those for an elite.

The fantastic student helpers - all students from Guangxi Normal University
The fantastic student helpers – all MA students from Guangxi Normal University

An important part of the conference was devoted to the work of teacher educators and researchers at the two universities who were working with schoolteachers to change schools and teaching for the better. I heard thought-provoking presentations about improving science education by increasing practical activity; I learned that around 60% of school children in Shanghai never do any kind of practical science and are often unable to apply their school science to real world situations. Instead of making a connection between a place on the PISA league table and a country’s economic competitiveness in abstract terms, the Chinese speakers were making a link between not being able to do real world science and lagging behind the rest of the world in technological innovation. Rote learning of science in schools was linked to being a ‘Foxconn economy’ rather than a knowledge economy. Foxconn is the company that makes Apple products in low-wage, high-stress Chinese factories. The strong message was that unless China does something to reform its schools and science teaching, it will always be manufacturing smartphones for western companies rather than designing them.The conference day-trip was a cruise on the Li River for all invited participants – four hours in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity plus on-board buffet and beer!

Another theme was the growing suspicion of PISA and the ongoing discussions over whether to enter Shanghai in the next round of PISA assessments. It has always only been Shanghai and Hong Kong SAR that have been entered into PISA rather than the whole of China. If England only entered London, it would probably be positioned much higher up the league table. But Shanghai sees its position at the top of the Maths table, for example, as a distraction to the real problems affecting its system: an over-reliance on memorisation; a lack of critical debate and problem-solving; a deference to the status quo and a wariness about creativity; a lack of consideration of the whole person. In response, they have developed ‘The Green Index’, an alternative measurement to PISA that includes reading, mathematics and science but goes beyond these core PISA domains. Included in the 10 item Green Index is a measure of happiness. I can’t see that catching on in PISA-obsessed western countries. But the concern for the wellbeing of its sometimes highly motivated students is at the core of these reforms. A professor from East China Normal translated a TV news broadcast for me from three years ago that reported on suicides among school-aged students and declining mental health in schools. In one classroom they visited there were posters on the walls saying ‘I will get into Fudan University or I will kill myself’.The conference dinner at Guilin – gifts and Gan Bei (a Chinese toast)

I always come back from China slightly shell-shocked and embarrassed to have been invited. To see and hear such a vast and developing country confront its educational problems so honestly and to be working so hard is very humbling. And as I left for China, 60 Maths teachers were heading to England from Shanghai. We have much to learn from China – and from Shanghai in particular – but we won’t accomplish that by fetishising some rapid fire maths exercises. A Medium- to Long-Term Plan for Educational Reform might be a good start rather than a series of short-term, knee-jerk, headline-grabbing trivia? I think the last thing our school system needs is more policy tourism.

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