Is there any secret to the global success of Chinese education?
As a research assistant in the Learning from Asia project of MCC Learning Institute, three members of the project team – János Setényi, director, Gábor Halász, professional mentor, and I paid a fact-finding visit to China this May. We visited prestigious Chinese universities and schools and had inspirational talks with talented people and scholars. During the journey, the picture behind the so-called “Chinese educational miracle” was getting clearer and sharper.
Is there any secret to the global success of Chinese education?
2T2C: Talent, Technology, Capital, Cognition

Is there any secret to the global success of Chinese education?

Photo: iStock
Fan Mizi 05/01/2024 19:10

As a research assistant in the Learning from Asia project of MCC Learning Institute, three members of the project team – János Setényi, director, Gábor Halász, professional mentor, and I paid a fact-finding visit to China this May. We visited prestigious Chinese universities and schools and had inspirational talks with talented people and scholars. During the journey, the picture behind the so-called “Chinese educational miracle” was getting clearer and sharper.

Chinese education system (jointly with other East-Asian education systems) became an object of study and inspiration when China (in fact, first Shanghai) joined the OECD PISA test and landed first. Since then, Chinese students excelled in other global competitions (like the International Student Olympics of Natural Sciences) and other tests.

After the first shock, the Western reflection was mixed. Some authors explained the results with the after-school private tutoring industry (so-called “shadow education”), while others blamed the social and emotional costs of “over-learning.” Outright racist comments were also issued, like rote-learning Chinese are weak problem solvers and not creative at all. The excellent Chinese results of later PISA tests (fully packed with problem-solving and creative tasks) clearly denied these “cultural” explanations.

Figure 1 shows the OECD PISA Results in 2018 and the top-rated countries. China ranked top one among world other countries in terms of the comprehensive performance of science, reading and mathematics.

Source: Statista

What we have found is that the “success factors” actually grow in a specific soil. We can’t talk about a single success or failure without considering its context. In this article, I will highlight several points we, as a team, observed and reflected on in and after the fact-finding journey.

Seriousness to Education

We first notice the attitude of seriousness that everyone puts into school education through observing classes in a primary school in Beijing. We consider it as one noticeable factor promoting the achievement of Chinese basic education. Seriousness is not a solemn expression from teachers or students or a disturbing and insecure classroom atmosphere. Actually, the atmosphere in all the observed classes was quite active. Seriousness is embodied in teachers’ adequate lesson preparation, passionate morale, positive comments, and prompt interactions with students. The rigour of teaching also cultivates students’ self-discipline, focusing on the significance of learning and the ways to make it realized. Students, on the other hand, always keep curiosity about questions and answers, high interaction with teachers, and classroom discipline.

High level of Parental Involvement with Digitalization

This seriousness of school education is partly due to high expectations coming from teachers, parents, the whole society, and even students themselves. We also have to mention the high level of parental involvement in school education. After talking with teachers, we know that each class has a study WeChat chatting group (Wechat is the instant chatting tool in China), which consists of the head teacher of the class and each student’s parents. Messages in the group chat are communicated on a daily basis. The function of this chatting group is information communication, student performance feedback, and parent task assignments, strengthening the home-school connection.

In recent years, this communication mode has gradually replaced home visits, which was the very popular way that teachers maintained home-school relationships almost two decades ago. This reinforced connection and increasing attention to students’ school performance raised the expectation from parents, family, and social networks, exerting the influence on students externally and, in turn, transforming students’ intrinsic motivation to some extent.

Respect for Traditional Values

In addition, this seriousness also comes from the Chinese traditional values, for instance, respect for authority and worship of hard work. Chinese people respect teachers as the authorities. They do not respect the social roles or identities of teachers but respect the knowledge, experience and wisdom that teachers hold. Emphasized by Confucian philosophy, respecting teachers and valuing teaching is not a top-to-down slogan, but a serious methodology and clear path for learners to search for the truth. In the meantime, it restraints teachers as well, a request to increase their responsibility and accountability to be role models for their students through professional development and self-cultivation.

And nowadays, more and more people believe that there is no shortcut to academic achievement. Only hard work will make it happen. Hard work means a commitment to learning, a clear mind to focus, and the pursuit of results in the educational process.

Lesson study as a method of continuous professional development of teachers

The second point worth noting is the Teacher Professional Development in the Chinese education system. We attended one demonstration class in a primary school. It was a math lesson for Grade 6 students, with around 50 teachers coming to learn how to teach math in class from the same school as well as other schools all over the country. After the class, those 50 teaching-learners stayed and discussed what they had learned and also asked questions from the teacher who demonstrated. It’s a good process for teaching learners to interact and learn from the ‘better’ and also a good chance to reflect on and improve accordingly. It allows them to critically assess their own teaching methods and adjust better to meet the learning needs of their students.

Demonstration class used for teacher development is very common and prevail in China. It serves as a powerful tool for professional growth and improvement within the educational system. A demonstration lesson is an opportunity for experienced and skilled teachers to showcase effective teaching methods, strategies, and techniques. They provide concrete examples of how to engage students, manage a classroom, and deliver content effectively. For other teachers, this firsthand experience is invaluable in understanding what works and how to apply these methods in their own teaching. Besides, demonstration lessons offer a platform for teachers to learn from their peers and mentors. People believe in the power of social learning. In this teaching community, teachers attending these lessons can observe good practices, innovative approaches, and the application of pedagogical theories in real classroom settings. Different from European countries, demonstration lessons in China foster a culture of peer learning and collaboration where teachers can freely exchange ideas, share experiences, and provide constructive feedback to one another.

In addition to demonstration classes, China’s school-based teaching research system plays a very important role in teacher professional development as well. In general, this system aims to foster innovation and continuous improvement in educational practices to meet the evolving needs of students and enhance the quality of education and teaching in China. Teaching research focuses on classroom teaching reform and enhancement, relies on the teacher learning community, and encourages teachers to interact and participate in research activities. Research Activities involve action research, classroom observations, and lesson evaluations, which identify best practices and make data-driven decisions to enhance student learning. Teachers use real teaching examples and plans as a focus and, in the meanwhile, systematically consider other elements, such as curriculum structure, assessment, teacher professional development, and teaching culture.

This initiative has also been supported by the Chinese government, which provided resources and incentives to promote school-based teaching research. Government support includes policy, funding, recognition, and awards for outstanding research projects and innovative teaching practices. In November 2019, the Ministry of Education of China issued “The Opinions on Strengthening and Improving the Teaching and Research Work of Basic Education in the New Era”, which insists on advancing with the times and puts forward the goals and tasks of teaching and research work in the new era.

While having a closer look at how school-based teaching research is conducted, we find that within the research framework, there are three teams for different research functions. One is the lesson preparation team, focusing on process(discuss-question-disabuse-adjust-improve) and methodology within the disciplinary groups, the same grades, different grades and Interdisciplinary groups. The second is a thematic study group with the purpose of cultivating teachers’ consciousness about the students by deepening the bilingual knowledge, ability and mind-training in both Chinese and English reading to enhance teachers’ capability of writing research papers. The last is the outcome study group, which leads to teaching competitions and role-model creation.

Figure 2 shows the Six-dimensional Model in the Chinese School-based research system and from what aspect it promotes the research work conducted within the teacher community. We notice that AI technology has been applied to this process to support the convenience of data collection and analysis

In the future, the Chinese school-based research system will shift its focus from teaching to learning, provoke a cooperative teaching culture, and create more platforms for interaction and sharing.

Experimentation in Education Reform Implementation

Last but not least, we should mention the education reform in China without giving any concrete case. Like many other countries, China did and has been doing all kinds of education reforms involving curriculum, teacher professional development, examination system, vocational education, rural education, innovation in education and so on. We know that any education reform is a complex and ongoing process, and the success of these reforms depends on their design, implementation, adaptability, and continued commitment from both the government and educational institutions. During the China trip, we interviewed professors and scholars from universities and policymakers in authority; many of them drew our attention to the practical way of implementing education reforms in the context of the highly centralized education system with a vast population and various regions.

Policy experimentation is the way the Chinese implement any national or regional education reform to test new educational approaches and reforms on a smaller scale before implementing them on a larger scale across the entire education system. Not a single education reform policy is perfect and doesn’t need continuous adjustment and improvement. These pilot experiments allow policymakers and educators to assess the effectiveness of the proposed reforms and make necessary and fast adjustments before full-scale implementation.

Below are a few examples of pilot experiments in Chinese education reform:

Shanghai’s PISA Success: Shanghai’s education system gained international attention for its impressive performance in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams. To achieve this success, Shanghai conducted pilot experiments in curriculum development, teacher training, and educational assessment. These experiments aimed to improve the quality of education in the city and were eventually expanded to other regions of China.

New College Entrance Exam System (Gaokao) in Zhejiang: Zhejiang Province was one of the first regions in China to experiment with reforms to the traditional college entrance examination system, known as the Gaokao. The province introduced a new system that placed less emphasis on memorization and more on critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The pilot program aimed to reduce the intense pressure on students and encourage a more comprehensive evaluation of their abilities.

Rural Education Reform in Guizhou: Guizhou, one of China’s less developed provinces, implemented pilot experiments to address educational disparities between urban and rural areas. These experiments included initiatives to improve the quality of teaching in rural schools, increase access to education for students from poor backgrounds, and enhance the overall education infrastructure in rural regions.

Shenzhen’s Innovation in Technology Education: Shenzhen, a city known for its innovation and technology, conducted pilot experiments to integrate technology education into its schools. These experiments included initiatives to promote coding and robotics education, as well as the use of technology in traditional subjects. Shenzhen aimed to equip students with skills that are relevant to the city’s high-tech industries.

Special Education Inclusion in Beijing: To promote inclusive education, Beijing has implemented pilot experiments that integrate students with special needs into mainstream classrooms. These experiments involve providing specialized support, resources, and training for both students and teachers to ensure that all students have access to quality education.

Hong Kong’s Liberal Studies Curriculum: Although Hong Kong has its education system separate from mainland China, it has also conducted pilot experiments in its education reforms. One notable example is the liberal studies curriculum, which aims to foster critical thinking, civic awareness, and broader knowledge in students. This curriculum was tested in pilot programs before being adopted across the region.

From the above cases, it’s clear to see that pilot experiments are essential for testing and refining reforms before nationwide implementation. It also demonstrates many advantages, like conducting data-driven decision-making, collecting teachers’ and other stakeholders’ feedback, risk mitigation, customization and adaptation, etc. And it indeed helped in the success of many education reforms in China.

We want to explore the reasons behind driving Chinese educators’ behaviour. What is the soil for pilot experiments? We hope we can find proper explanations; ‘Pioneer Spirit’ might be one of them. This concept embodies the idea of embracing innovation, taking risks, and forging ahead into new territories in pursuit of progress and development. In the context of China’s development, the Pioneer Spirit has played a significant role in the country’s rapid economic growth and transformation over the past few decades. In the era of Chinese reform and opening up in the 1970s, the Chinese government encouraged ‘to let some people and some regions, not need all of them at one pace, prosper before others, so that the advanced people and regions have the ability and obligation to help the backward.’ Another example is Wuhan, one of the Chinese cities; its city slogan is 敢为人先 (making pioneering efforts), promoting city development by pushing people to think and move an extra step forward, embrace innovation and mistakes, and implement fast correction and adaptation.

According to the Chinese approach, experimentation produces both success and failure. The chart below shows the proportion of scaled-up and canceled experimentation in China:  


Chinese educators know well about the far-reaching influence brought by any education reform policy, and they also know there is no time for hesitation. ‘Plan and do’ may be the simple philosophy of Chinese people in every single aspect of life. However, it reveals sophisticated wisdom as well.

Some Thoughts as Epilogue

Learning from the Asia project opened a horizon to look into the miraculous but still quite mysterious world in Asian education. The fact-finding visit to China provided us with the opportunity to learn through interaction and unveil some key factors for the success of the Chinese education system. What is mentioned in this article, the seriousness of education, high level of parental involvement, respect for traditional values, unique teacher professional development and the pilot experiment for education reform implementation are only a small part of the drives but also typical enough in the Chinese context. Some thoughts after the project and conference left for us is what we can reflect on and develop ourselves in a European or Hungarian context. To apply any borrowed advanced methods or policy without tailoring according to local culture and issues or ignoring the soils that foster people’s minds and spirits will be a catastrophe.

If I should make a final observation through this project and some takeaways, it’s probably better to shift focus from external factors to internal ones in terms of any education issues. To think about human behaviours from a deeper perspective and then return to the starting point of the development of humans, maybe it’s a wiser way to go.

The author is a research assistant at the MCC Learning Institute and an MA student at ELTE PPK

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