A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://i.imgur.com/onHXq.png) pointed out that the US and Chinese education systems were moving in opposite directions. Put simply China was embracing a more liberal approach that embraces skills and creativity and downplays rote learning. Meanwhile the US is embracing astandards driven agenda that attempts to precisely define what knowledge children should know. Within this system high stakes standardised tests assess both students and – by implication – the quality of their schools. This focus encourages teachers and schools to teach to the test and screen out any more interesting work with students.
So what are we to make of all this and who is right? There are three factors at work here. The first is the background of each country’s education system; the second is their current economic positions and the third is the way each country operates its public services such as schools.
The Chinese system stretches back several millennia. It has a history of formal education that delivers high levels of literacy and knowledge to, at first, an elite class of bureaucrats that effectively ran the country. In the past century the system has been expanded and adapted to cater for all Chinese children. So far so good. But a modern economy demands imaginative effective and creative people. Since China’s economy now heads towards being the largest in the world it is no surprise that the government has considered the issues around creativity seriously and now counts this as a major aim for the education system over the next quarter of a century.
Compare that with the American situation. Here a once pre-eminent economic power is in comparative decline. People wonder if this hasn’t got something to do with a too liberal education system. Consequently the cry has gone up for the introduction of standardised testing and specifying what children should know when they leave school. This policy has been reinforced by the Federal government in programmes such as ‘No child left behind’ and ‘Race to the Top.’ Although the government has no responsibility for education such programmes offer additional education dollars to states that take part. As a consequence US schools – desperate for money as local sources have dried up due to economic conditions – have taken the government money and changed their curriculums accordingly.
Of the two approaches I would say that the Chinese is the more enlightened. We really don’t know much about the future but what we do know is that advanced economies like China’s gradually shift away from low paid manufacturing to develop both service industry jobs and more hi-tech manufacturing jobs. We also know that such economies are driven by innovation – new ideas for businesses combining service with technology. It is pretty much young people that have both the ideas themselves and the ability to turn them into reality. So such skills are now as important as academic skills to move economies forward. Consequently the Chinese approach to encourage children to think imaginatively about problem solving is a good one.
America by contrast may not be looking forward but looking backward in its educational approach. Seemingly the thinking is that if they just repeated what their education system had done in the past then future success would be assured. Sadly the education processes that served an industrial past so well are not the processes that will build a future economy based on intelligence. In a way the nature of intelligence has changed as technology has developed. Today, social , technical and networking skills are vital for the development of new ideas and new opportunities. It was the American sociologists the Lynns writing in 1939 who made the link between old people and societies in advanced stages of decline. They noted that old people tend to look back to their youth, a time of success and triumph and in much the same ways societies undergoing decline also tend to look backwards and to seek solutions from the past.
Lastly the difference between China and America can also be seen in the way both countries operate their schools. America has tried to embrace market mechanisms to improve schools whilst China has stuck to its socialist traditions. The market approach has built competition between schools but despite billions of dollars the system itself is very variable. The Chinese system, on the other hand, lacks competition and other market incentives, but it is able to move forward consistently on a broad front. Not burdened with short term electoral cycles – as in the US – China can commit itself to a long term steady approach to developing innovative schools and innovation in its education system.