Last week we visited China with a small team to learn more about their education system. The timing was good with today’s announcement of the results of the latest PISA survey, with the Chinese regions once again performing very well.
Amongst others we visited a variety of successful private and state-owned enterprises as well as a government department of education and – best of all – a primary school. It was an inspiring experience and we were greeted warmly and had open discussions everywhere we went.
The primary school felt very similar to those in our home countries, although the class sizes were twice as big at 50 rather than 25 students. We sometimes have the impression of Chinese children doing heavy duty rote learning, but I was struck by the emphasis on meaning, aspiration and happiness in the school we visited. Teachers were experimenting with project-based learning and digital, not dissimilar to recent innovations in Finland.
The companies we visited were all proud to present what they were working on, very open to answer questions and to curious to learn about us too. Finnish education was well respected. The tech companies looked and felt very similar to those in Silicon Valley but somehow seemed even more keenly commercial.
The government clearly has a big voice in education, with central government setting overall policy through the five year plan and the local authority we visited was actively working to understand and improve school performance across the region, driven by quite a rich set of data.
It made me wonder:
“is China going to lead the next wave of breakthrough innovations in education and learning?”
The scale of the market, commitment of the key players and innovative potential of the ecosystem create a compelling case.
With a population of over 1.3 bn inhabitants and about 200 m students in K-12 education this is a huge market. Each year about 17 m new students join the system, with this number likely to get boosted by up to 6 m each year due to the recent move to a “two-child” policy.
The government is highly committed to education and the 13th 5-year plan (2016-2020) focuses on improving quality and access, with a key role for digital. Significant new resourcing is being dedicated to the transformation. At the same time, private spending on education is huge, estimated to be of the order of 1/3 of average household disposable income, driven by the “six adults – one child” phenomenon resulting from the earlier “one child” policy. The commitment to education in China seems unrivalled on the global stage.
The companies and organisations we met had high quality management and development capabilities at least comparable with what we have seen in the West. There seems to be a “learning culture”, with people keen to try new things and work hard at it. There is everything to win. The transformation need is clearly articulated and well-funded. Authorities and companies are building large networks of users and rich databases. Surely the insights that will come from this ecosystem about learning on all levels (individual, class, school, region, nation) will power innovation in education and learning?
China: coming to a school near you
All-in-all I think it’s highly likely that China will become a powerhouse of innovation in education in the coming years – and that our education systems will also benefit from Chinese innovations in education. Also, given the growing global importance of China, how long will it be before Mandarin is a common second language in our curricula? One way or another, the Chinese are coming to a school near you pretty soon.