Web opens new world for Chinese students
Christian Science Monitor
Jun. 24, 2007

Peter Ford

BEIJING - Excited and emboldened by the wealth of information they find on the Internet, Chinese teens are breaking centuries of tradition to challenge their teachers and express their own opinions in class.

Wearing jerseys emblazoned with the names of European soccer stars, downloading weekly episodes of Prison Break, listening to 50 Cent and reading Japanese comic books, China's current high school generation is plugging itself directly into international culture.

And it's giving the kids ideas. Ideas that could one day transform the way this country is governed. "The Internet has given Chinese children wings,"
says Sun Yun Xiao, vice president of the China Youth and Children Research Center.

Many are using those wings to fly in the face of received wisdom about how and what they should learn and about how much respect they owe to authority.

"Today students ask you, 'Why?' And if you don't have a good answer, they won't necessarily accept what you say," says Zhao Hongxia, a young teacher at a private school in Beijing. "In my day, if the teacher said something, he was always right."

The "post-90" generation of Chinese youngsters, named for the year the eldest of them was born, is "very different" from its predecessors, says Tony Hu, a Beijing high school student who has just turned 18.

"We have far more ways to get information," he explains. "The generation before us knew nothing about anything except studying."

That judgment may be a little harsh, but Sun, whose research institute is linked to China's Communist Youth League, agrees with its essence.

"The post-90 kids are more confident and have more experience, and they are definitely braver and readier to challenge" their elders, he says. "The reason is that they have the Internet as a way to learn things and because a lot more of them travel. They have more ways of acquiring knowledge."

Internet use in China has exploded in recent years, and at the forefront of that revolution have been young people, hungry for a taste of life outside their country's borders.

In 1999, there were just 4 million Internet connections in China; by the end of last year, there were 137 million.

More than 70 percent of Chinese children between ages 7 and 15 had used the Internet at least once, according to a survey Sun's center carried out last year.

That total rose to 87 percent when only urban youngsters were polled.

That gives them opportunities to broaden their minds that teachers often cannot match.

"I learned from books," says Jenny Li, who now trains teachers at a Beijing college. "These kids learn from the whole world."

That makes them more difficult to teach, Zhao said. "It's harder for me to keep their attention in class," she complains, "because they already know a lot. Teachers have to keep broadening their own horizons."

Zhao, who has been teaching for six years, finds it hard to keep up with her students; older teachers are often baffled.

"A lot of teachers over 40 feel uneasy and uncomfortable with the new knowledge their students have and their lack of control," says Yan Ming, a young teacher at the elite No. 1 Middle School in the port city of Tianjin.

Teachers are also having to cope with an evolving curriculum. A series of reforms since 1997 have edged the Chinese education system away from rote learning and toward a more Western emphasis on independent thought.

"We are moving from a teacher-centered to a student-centered approach," says Wang Wu Xing, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Education.

At the cutting edge of this drive is Tianjin's No. 1 Middle School, which teaches students up to the university entrance level.

The school is experimenting this year with a history curriculum that breaks the old rules.

For the first time, says Yan, students are allowed to write history essays that disagree with the textbook's conclusion about the political significance, for example, of the Boxer Rebellion against colonial powers.

So far, however, this history test has only been administered at the middle school level in three school districts.

That exam is so critical for ambitious students desperate to get into China's top universities, says Wang Zhangmin, a veteran history teacher at the school, few of them dare to step out of line for fear of risking their chances of success.

That fear acts as a brake on change. At more ordinary schools, too, teachers do not always encourage student-initiated digressions.

"We don't get many debates in my class," says Xi Haixin, a 17-year-old Beijing high school junior. "Sometimes we want to discuss something, but the teacher has too much material to get through and he drops the issue."

Even if his teachers do not satisfy his Web-fueled curiosity, Xi says, the Internet has still changed his generation.

"I'm part of international society now," he reckons, listing the Miami Heat as his favorite basketball team, rhythm and blues as his favorite music and Spider-Man 3 as the best film he has seen recently.

"As students learn from foreign cultures, they will definitely feel more global and more international," says teacher Wang Zhangmin.