Policy and Practice on Curriculum and Teacher Education Reform: Paradox in Development

The later part of the 1990 was a major turning point to China for social development. Following the breakout of the financial crisis in 1997, China’s social transformation moved further towards a market economy. But, at the same time, the advent of knowledge society and knowledge economy worldwide prompted the country and education departments to keep up with the tide of globalization, so as not to fall behind in this competition. In the late 1990s, therefore, China embarked on its eighth basic education curriculum reform since 1949. As the vice president of Nanjing Normal University, I became the director of the National Curriculum Reform Nanjing Base. For the new curriculum reform, a meaningful—yet still controversial up to date—policy was made: Each discipline should have not only knowledge criteria, skill and method criteria, but also criteria in respect of emotion, attitude and values. That was the first time that a three-dimensional learning goal was raised at national level since 1949, requiring that teachers take an integrated approach to the three dimensions in teaching. To achieve teaching targets for emotional education, above all, requires teachers themselves to have zeal in their disciplines so that they can pass this zeal to students. We know that achieving emotional, attitude and values targets relies mainly on teaching itself, not outside of teaching and learning activities. This certainly requires teachers to have a deep understanding of their teaching materials so that they could comprehend and tap into the wealth of emotion and values in teaching materials, represent it in an artistic way, and work with children in the classroom to create teaching and learning activities of values significance. In the curriculum reform, the country raised the grand and lofty requirement of “All for children”, “For all children” and “For everything about children”, a requirement that made it necessary for teachers to care for the emotional state in learning of all students and to have skill at creating a good atmosphere in the classroom. Some primary and secondary schools required that teachers “learn before teaching, determine what and how to teach based on student conditions” and actively adopt the practice of cooperative learning, leading to a considerable decrease in the use of “cramming method of teaching”. Nevertheless, teachers who not good at this teaching method still believe that passing knowledge is the most time-saving and most efficient method of teaching. At present, there are both traditional classroom teaching and so-called reformed classroom teaching in China, and there is no final conclusion as to which is right and which is wrong; nor has there been deeper and more thorough clarity of teaching theory from the “Zhong Qiquan versus Wang Cesan Debate” in the Chinese education community. I was involved in this curriculum reform and knew very well that the intention of leading reformers was to keep up with the global tide of “knowledge society” by changing our deep-seated educational model of teaching and learning, repeating from memory, and examination. But the main problem now is that teachers are unable to keep up with the times: they are accustomed to pass the fixed contents as instructionally designed, not good at motivating, diagnosing and coping with voluntary and individualized learning of different students. How to sort out and continue to make use of advantages of traditional teaching and how to look at the original foundations of different regions and schools differentially? The complex situation not only posted a challenge to teachers over the depth and breadth of their understanding of knowledge, but it was also a test of teachers’ professional emotion, personal emotional quality and competence, including moral sensitivity, respect, goodwill, patience and responsibility. In 1998, the Ministry of Education held a conference in Nanjing, which I also attended; through discussion, the conference decided to change the designation “normal education” to “teacher education”. Afterwards, the “three-level” normal education system (consisting of middle-level normal schools, higher-level normal colleges, and normal universities), which was intended to remain unchanged for 30-50 years, was largely abolished in a matter of a few years, without only a number of middle-level normal schools still in service in some remote and rural areas. The normal education reform was intended to accelerate increasing educational criteria for primary and secondary school teachers, and by turning normal universities into comprehensive ones, to increase levels of general education for normal school students and broaden sources of new teachers. But, at that time, none expected that the reform would proceed so rapidly, nor anyone expect what serious consequences it would bring about.

The second major event was the central government’s endeavor made in the early years of the 21st century, following the popularization of compulsory education, to narrow gaps between regions and between schools through such policies and measures as increasing financial inputs and central transfer payments. In the meanwhile, along with the process of urbanization, action was taken to merge schools in rural areas. At the same time, efforts were made to strengthen the evaluation and supervision of educational quality and advocate the so-called educational quality of justice. I took part in many such policy surveys and discussions. On the one hand this showed the Chinese government’s unprecedented resolution to give importance to education, but on the other, with it came to the fore paradoxical results. Japanese education scholar Prof. Manabu Sato once gave an account of the profound lesson that in pursuing educational equality following the end of World War II, Japan took a road that ran counter to the original intention, as well as some remedial measures it took afterwards (Zhu 2014, pp. 106-108). With what he claimed to be “approximation” logic, he described the character of the teaching profession as regressive, uncertain and having no boundaries (Sato 2003). These inspired me greatly. I think that if we cannot fully understand the characters of the teaching career, we will certainly in reality run counter to the most essential requirement of the teacher profession, neglect the moral nature and emotional dimension in the meaning of teaching specialization, blindly pursue high degrees and standards of education, and rely excessively on educational quality control that focuses on quantitative evaluations. The paradoxical result will be that new teachers have higher degrees of education by and large, but teacher qualities decline on the whole. Of course, for this phenomenon, there are not only reasons relating to the education system, but reasons concerning the broader environment in which the level of spirit cannot keep pace with social and economic development.

Like many other teachers, I, too, am often in a conflict between pursuing educational quality and coping with the practical requirement of examinations. In China, for reasons of economic development levels, cultural notions, administrative capabilities, etc., gaps in actual expenditures between urban and rural schools, which have narrowed in recent years, though, still remain considerably wide, so that it need take quite a long period to pursue educational equality and improve educational quality. The top-down reform policy must be implemented practically and flexibly at local level, and requires more of creativity on the part of schools; or it would be very likely to lead to a situation in which teachers are at a loss as to what to do, shoulder too heavy a burden, and even feel tired both physically and mentally.

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