If you look to the south when standing on Jingshan Hill in central Beijing, the Forbidden City extends out in front of you. Beyond is Tiananmen Square with Chairman Mao’s face staring blankly onto the crowds of tourists buying replica communist memorabilia. But look in every other direction and you see the new China extending out on this flat plain in the shelter of the Xishan hills. Rising out of the haze of construction dust and traffic fumes are the glass, steel and concrete edifices that are home to the 20 million residents of this rapidly growing megacity.
(The Forbidden City.) (A new Beijing skyline.)
A country of superlatives, China has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. The opening up of China to the rest of the world has led to three decades of double-digit annual economic growth. The impact of this growth has been wide-ranging: China has simultaneously become the world’s largest car market and the world’s largest CO2 emitter. An estimated 250 million migrants have moved from rural areas to the connected coastal cities, creating an insatiable demand for housing and leading to a dramatic drop in absolute poverty.
These changes have put China at the heart of globalisation in the 21st century. But globalisation doesn’t stop with international trade; it extends to all areas of our society, not least education. In the UK, Michael Gove has actively looked overseas for educational ideas; Free Schools, Ebacc and Teach First all owe their existence to schemes already operating in countries that rank more highly than the UK in the PISA world rankings. Meanwhile, in China, despite their apparent success in education by PISA standards, schools are also looking overseas for a different approach. In the past Chinese education has focused on students acquiring knowledge to pass exams, often at the expense of creativity and critical thinking. In 2010 the national government recognised that this element of their education system needed reform to equip learners fully for their globalised future.
There is, therefore, considerable potential for improving teaching and learning by sharing ideas internationally and for this reason I was delighted to be able to attend a conference at RDFZ Xishan school in Beijing in late November 2012. RDFZ Xishan, like The Perse, was a founder member of the Sage Alliance of Global Educators in 2011. It is a remarkable school, only founded in 2009 (the whole school campus for 1,000 students was built in just eight months) but it has already established itself as one of the highest achieving schools in Beijing with its pupils gaining places at the leading Universities in China, the UK and the USA. In addition, the school is justifiably proud of its modern approach to education in China, focusing on encouraging students to be ‘self-directed, lifelong learners’ and supporting the idea that ‘learning should be happy, exciting and fulfilling’.
(RDFZ Xishan School, Beijing.)
The focus of the conference was the use of technology in education, specifically looking at the use of computers or tablets in classrooms in a so-called ‘1 to 1’ arrangement whereby each student has their own device that they bring to every lesson. This is an area which RDFZ Xishan has particular experience, as this video demonstrates.
With teachers from schools in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and the USA, the conference generated some fascinating discussion about 1 to 1 technology in the classroom. It was very interesting to see how different schools were using devices to support learning and the wide range of meaningful, personalised activities that are possible, especially when technology is embedded in lessons rather than residing in a dedicated ICT room. The conference also highlighted the importance of treading cautiously into this area and how introducing 1 to 1 comes with issues that need to be tackled to maximise any positive impact. That said, if a school can choose the right platform, introduce it gradually, invest in training for its students, staff and parents to ensure the devices improve learning, then the use of 1 to 1 technology in schools could represent a tremendous educational opportunity.
It was an unforgettable experience to visit Beijing and to be able to meet and share ideas with teachers from around the world. I am extremely grateful to my Headmaster for giving me the opportunity to attend the conference and to the Principal, Staff and Students at RDFZ Xishan who made me feel so welcome.