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Bringing alternative teaching to China

China Daily | Updated: 2017-05-18 07:32

Yin Suyu chats with students. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Chinese schools are inclined to focus more on student discipline and obedience than individual autonomy, but a village school in eastern China is attempting to break the mold.

Zhangjiabu Elementary School is located in Longyou County, Zhejiang province. The small, single building, which has paint peeling from the walls, lies amid a tatty playground of dust and sand.

More than 120 students attend the school. Most are "left-behind" children whose parents work in distant cities.

Principal Yin Suyu, 40, spent her childhood in Longyou. In 2011, when she returned as the head teacher at Zhangjiabu Elementary, she decided to try alternative education methods that give students more freedom, are focused on student-centered, progressive education and allow children to make decisions about their schooling.

"It's like Summerhill School in the United Kingdom," she said.

Summerhill, located in the eastern English county of Suffolk, was founded in 1921 by the educational philosopher Alexander Sutherland Neill. The school's curriculum adapts to fit the needs of the children, not the other way round.

At Zhangjiabu Elementary, the classrooms are called "learning centers." Students remove their shoes before entering the classrooms and do not sit on fixed seats. In summer, the desks are put away and teachers and students sit on the ground outside. The students even oversee the library.

"I like this style of teaching. It brings the teachers closer to us. I do not have to sit upright all day and take notes while the teacher talks," said He Enze, a sixth grader.

New methods

There is no reason why Yin's experiment cannot endure. There are no anxious parents eager to see grades improve, because most of them are away earning money and therefore absent from their children's education. Moreover, as a small village school, Zhangjiabu Elementary manages to fly below the radar of the local education department.

Chinese educators have ushered in reforms in recent years, aiming to respect each student's individuality and develop their overall character instead of blindly focusing on grades.

At Zhangjiabu Elementary, Yin has become a champion of this new form of education that has few restrictions.

She believes education is about bringing out the best in a child, and that the spirit of freedom in her school will help the students become more independent and make up for their parents' absence.

"There is one boy who seems careless and aloof at school, but when he goes home he sends long voice messages to his teacher, sharing whatever is on his mind," teacher Wang Yiheng said.

To help students air their grievances while their parents are away, the school has introduced a "tree hole" project - a cardboard box or a baby formula jar is placed in every classroom and the children write messages for their teachers to read. It makes them feel better.

"When I arrived five years ago, the school was like a stagnant pond. Students failed courses and no one cared how they performed. Almost no one read for fun," Yin said.

In 2014, a number of nongovernmental organizations provided funds to renovate the school's library and classrooms.

"I have been teaching for about 19 years, and if there is one thing I know it is that children should read, and that reading enriches their minds," she said.

Her experiment has recently started to register successes. The school's average scores were once bottom of the school district, but now they rank among the highest. Several students excel in Chinese literature, as well as sports and music.

Parental concerns

Yin has not met strong opposition to her alternative style of education, but some parents have voiced concerns.

"Some of them doubt whether greater freedom will improve grades, but most are happy that their children have become more open, confident and willing to engage with others," she said.

Yin has never visited Summerhill, a boarding school where the students call the teachers by their first names and have a say in how decisions are made, but she shares similar beliefs in terms of greater freedom for children.

But as a public village school with limited funding, Zhangjiabu Elementary is an experiment that can only go as far as resources will allow.

The playground is about to be renovated, and the children have been asked to help with the design. One said he wants a "wish tree", while another wants a swing and a garden.

"I am hoping for a new school powered solely by solar energy," said sixth grader Yin Shumiao.


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