Before I describe our visit to two very different high schools, some more background about the Chinese educational system: School is compulsory through 9th grade, which includes 6 years of primary school and 3 years of “junior secondary school.” During the 9 years of compulsory education, all students study a similar curriculum. After 9th grade, at age 15, young people’s lives can diverge dramatically. Some discontinue their education at this point and enter the workforce, but more (89.1% as of 2017¹) go on to “senior secondary school,” which is the final 3 years of secondary education.
There are 2 tracks for senior secondary school — academic/university prep and vocational. Students’ scores on the senior high school entrance exams, called the zhongkao, determine which options are available to them. Our travel group had the opportunity to visit a college preparatory school and a vocational school on the same day in 2 different cities, which made for some interesting contrasts.
Our last activity before departing Xi’an was a visit to the Xi’an Foreign Language School, a top-ranked K-12 private school. The school is very large, with about 4,000 students and 500 teachers. About 50% of the senior secondary students are boarding. The school was founded in 1963, was one of the first foreign language schools in China, and has been affiliated with Xi’an University since 1995 (2 years after the university was founded). They offer courses of study in 8 languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Russian. There are study abroad opportunities for students, and they have sister schools in 8 countries, which provide teachers opportunities to visit each other and share ideas.
At this school, instead of observing classrooms, we met with some of their faculty, many of them first-year teachers. Although our group’s purpose was to learn from the schools we visited, it turned out that in the case of both schools we visited on this day, they were expecting to learn from us. We were introduced as “expert educators from the University of North Carolina,” which made me a bit uncomfortable. Perhaps they thought we were all UNC faculty? My initial reaction was, Wait, what? Nobody at home considers us teachers experts. But soon I found myself appreciating how nice it was to be treated with respect. It certainly was in line with everything I’d read about the high regard the Chinese have for educators.
After a presentation about the school, we broke into small discussion groups. Two of us from the World View team met with a first-year English teacher and her mentor. The first-year teacher talked about the challenges of classroom management — a universal concern for novice teachers! — while her mentor asked about resources for teaching English. Since I’m an ESL teacher, I was able to provide links to some websites that provide lesson plans, ideas for language practice activities, and collections of online language skill practice sites. I just hope that the “Great Firewall” of Chinese censorship will allow them access to those educational resources.
From Xi’an Foreign Language School we went directly to the airport and flew to our next destination, the city of Guilin. When we disembarked, I was surprised to see that the local people resembled my Southeast Asian students much more than had the people of Beijing or Xi’an. When I considered the fact that we were now located much farther south than we’d been before, I realized it made sense because Vietnam, Laos and Burma (Myanmar) all share a border with southern China.
It’s one thing to look at the enormous size of China on a map, but quite another to see the long distance we’d traveled reflected in the faces of the people. Geography made human and personal — so interesting!
From the Guilin airport we went directly to the next school on our itinerary, the Guilin No. 2 Vocational School. The first building we walked into looked like a warehouse on the outside, and inside was a setting completely different from the academic classrooms we’d been visiting: An enormous open space with a high ceiling, a spotless floor and long rows of gleaming machines. Focused, orderly students in shop uniforms — all but one of them boys — worked in groups of 3 or 4 with what I was told were metal lathing machines. It was an amazing visual introduction to the difference between academic and vocational secondary education.
In the same building we briefly visited an engineering class that was in an academic classroom setting with a teacher, a whiteboard, and students seated around tables working out problems in textbooks. Of the classes we observed, this was the only one that wasn’t hands-on learning.
We then walked across several large athletic fields — passing a PE class along the way — and in another building observed classes of circuitry and electronics. As you can see in the photos, all of the shop classes were large by US standards, with 40 to 50 students and just one teacher.
Despite the high student-to-teacher ratio, students appeared to be fully engaged in their work, and we didn’t observe any off-task behavior or even casual conversations. Of course there were about 30 visitors circulating around the room, so it’s hard to know if student behavior is always so subdued. The only hint we saw of any behavioral challenges was a wall hanging with rows of pockets holding mobile phones. Many of us were amused by this — we were halfway around the world, yet it was just like home.
The last class we observed was, much to my surprise, a ballet class. I didn’t expect to see arts instruction in a vocational school, nor was I expecting to see many girls, since we’d seen nothing but boys in the previous classes (except for the single brave girl in the metal lathing shop). What surprised me even more was the fact that roughly a quarter of the dancers were boys! I took ballet classes all through my childhood and youth, and there was never more than one or two boys in a class; more often it was 100% female. As a dance enthusiast, it warmed my heart to see boys participating. I wondered if they had chosen the class, or if it was non-elective, perhaps part of their PE curriculum? Unfortunately there wasn’t an opportunity to ask about it.
After we finished the classroom visits, we were escorted into a conference room that had a series of tables set up in a square, microphones at each table, and a whole row of people with cameras and sound equipment. Some of them had accompanied us during the campus tour, but since they weren’t school personnel and didn’t interact with us, I’d ignored them as best I could in order to focus on the students. Once I saw this room, however, I finally understood that they were local press, and that this wasn’t going to be an informal conversation among educators.
The school’s principal gave a formal address in Chinese, interpreted into English, which opened with an elaborate greeting that cited impressive stats about UNC, including the facts that there are 2 Nobel laureates on the faculty and it’s where Michael Jordan started his basketball career. (They definitely had done their research.) He then shared detailed information about the school, which I did my best to capture in notes:
- School was founded in 1978, funded by the Guilin municipal government
- Moved to the current campus of 17.6 acres in 2015
- 60 courses including auto repair, electronics, mechanics, computer repair, accounting, tourism, graphic arts, among others
- 2,500 students, 153 teachers
- School has won awards at provincial level
- Most common areas of study: For boys, automotive and electronics; for girls, preK education and tourism
- School has graduated 20,000 students
- 100% employment after graduation!
That last point is truly impressive, and we oohed and aahed. The principal then directed some questions to us basically asking, “How are we doing? What can we do better?” During our travels we’d been discussing among ourselves the fact that some of our schools don’t do a very good job of serving students who aren’t college-bound; one member of our group was a district superintendent who had told us about initiatives they’re implementing to provide technical job training. So naturally, we turned the microphone over to him to answer the principal’s questions.
His feedback was that they are on the right track, given how important workforce development is in both our countries’ economies. Since his school district is engaged in a similar push to augment vocational education, he invited them to visit and exchange ideas. (It’ll be very cool if that happens!) Other teachers also shared how impressed we were with what we’d observed, as well as information about vocational programs at their schools. Afterwards, the leader of our group and the superintendent participated in an interview with a local TV station.
Later, I learned more about the context of all this: The school was being evaluated by the government for its effectiveness in engaging the public and forging international connections, which explained the formal nature of the meeting and the presence of other visitors in addition to our group, as well as the press. The superintendent who’d served as spokesman for our group recounted afterwards that the principal had told him he’d been under a lot of pressure leading up to our visit, and that he was looking forward to a good night’s sleep once it was all over.
It felt a bit unsettling to realize that our visit to this school was to some degree part of a PR effort. Up to this point in our journey, I hadn’t sensed any direct intrusion by the Chinese government (although it was hard not to notice the security cameras in city centers — but to be fair, London now has them, too). However, I don’t think it was just propaganda to impress Americans; the Chinese government does have a real need to focus on vocational education. I’ve done some reading about economic development in China, and understand that one of the challenges the country faces, as its birth rate slows and employment shifts from the agricultural sector to manufacturing, is having enough skilled workers to sustain economic growth. So the Chinese have an imperative to improve and expand vocational education in their country. According to a recent OECD report²,
China has made significant efforts to expand participation in secondary vocational schools in recent years in order to meet the country’s fast-evolving economic and manpower needs. In 2014, secondary vocational schools accounted for a little less than 22% of total senior secondary school enrollment in China (UNESCO-UIS, 2016).
Much like the US, for the past few generations China has put more emphasis on increasing participation in higher education than on providing job skill training for those who don’t attend university. After visiting Guilin No. 2 Vocational School, I can say that we definitely need to look to China (and probably some other nations) to find models of effective, large-scale vocational programs for our under-served non-college-bound students.
¹Education Statistics in 2017, published by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China. http://en.moe.gov.cn/Resources/Statistics/edu_stat2017/national/201808/t20180808_344698.html
²Education in China: A Snapshot, published by the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD), 2016. https://www.oecd.org/china/Education-in-China-a-snapshot.pdf