Web opens world for young, but erodes respect

Updated: 2007-05-20 08:42

Teachers are also having to cope with an evolving curriculum. A series of reforms since 1997 have edged the Chinese education system away from rote learning and towards a more Western emphasis on independent thought.

"We are moving from a teacher-centered to a student-centered approach," says Wang Wu Xing, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Education. "If we want to produce top talent we need millions of inquisitive and critical-minded innovative talents. The new generation will develop the ability to explore things."

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At the cutting edge of this drive is Tianjin's No. 1 Middle School, which teaches students up to the university entrance level. The school is experimenting this year with a history curriculum that breaks the old rules. For the first time, says Mr. Yan, students are allowed to write history essays that disagree with the textbook's conclusion about the political significance, for example, of the Boxer Rebellion against colonial powers.

"If they argue well, they get good marks," explains Yan. So far, however, this history test has only been administered at the middle school level in three school districts. "Whether they will allow this [latitude in answering the question] in the national exam [to get into university] we will have to see," he adds.

That exam is so critical for ambitious students desperate to get into China's top universities, says Wang Zhangmin, a veteran history teacher at the school, few of them dare to step out of line for fear of risking their chances of success.

That fear acts as a brake on change. Teachers at the Tianjin school, which prides itself on the high proportion of its graduates who get into the best colleges, say the pressure is so intense on elite students that they are still scared to challenge their teachers or to spend much time exploring topics outside the prescribed curriculum.

At more ordinary schools, too, teachers do not always encourage student-initiated digressions.

"We don't get many debates in my class," says Xi Haixin, a 17-year-old Beijing high school junior. "Sometimes we want to discuss something, but the teacher has too much material to get through and he drops the issue."

It is also difficult, Xi acknowledges, to hold a coherent debate when there are 50 or so students in the class, as is normally the case in China.

"Spider-Man 3": Already seen it

Even if his teachers do not satisfy his Web-fueled curiosity, Xi says, the Internet has still changed him and his generation. "I'm part of international society now," he reckons, listing the Miami Heat as his favorite basketball team, rhythm and blues as his favorite music, and "Spider-Man 3" as the best film he has seen recently. "Kids my age all listen to the same stuff and watch the same films."

"As students learn from foreign cultures they will definitely feel more global and more international," says teacher Wang Zhangmin.

How far this globalized generation will change the face of China is a matter of debate among those following young peoples' attitudes.

Tony Hu is dubious. "I'm not sure that our individualism can change the environment much," he says. "The Chinese mold has been established for many years. And if we can't change the environment, the environment will change us. We have to survive."

Sun Yun Xiao, the researcher, has greater hopes. "The sense of participation among post-90 kids is very strong," he points out. "Their sense of democracy is stronger, and this is a definite trend."

At Tianjin No. 1 Middle School, Yan Ming is waiting and seeing. "If these kids really have the chance to think differently, the impact will be the same as in the West," he predicts. "They will be more creative, they'll be better at solving problems by themselves, and they won't simply do what they are told to do."


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