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Chalking about a revolution

By Rong Jiaojiao (China Daily)

CHINA, 20 September 2006 - Whenever a newcomer enters the classroom, little Li Shunye would point at the wall. “Look at that!” he says looking at a picture of something that looks a bit like a pink furry fox, only with an over-sized tail.

“It's a squirrel,” says the 9-year-old. “I made it.”

Fox or squirrel, it doesn't matter because Li still feels like the king of the castle: The wall is ablaze with colour sunshine, houses, chimneys, flowers, trees, monkeys, roosters, dolls and a fat grey cat with extra-long whiskers.

Until recently, a smiling sunshine face was never to be seen at Shuiquan Elementary School in central Gansu Province: posted on the walls instead were articles 1-10 of the comprehensive school regulations and various slogans exhorting students to study hard, study every day, and so on.

Nowadays, says the boy, students are exhorted to play a game or sing a song at the beginning of class. Those who get the right answer receive applause from their classmates. Students swap seats and form discussion groups. “It makes the atmosphere much more lively,” he said. “I am constantly concentrating and being encouraged.

“I love going to school because I love my teacher Ms Li, who is always in a good mood and smiles to us in class.”

Outside in the playground is where the boy feels happiest. He can play basketball now because the hoop doesn't wobble precariously anymore.

“Last winter, our teachers reinforced the base with steel so that the hoop was fixed when we shoot ball,” said the third-grader. Plus, the court is smoother too, says Shunye, because teachers filled potholes with sand and removed all the big stones.

Chalk & talk

Located in Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous County, the 761-square-metre school consists of four red-brick single-story houses accommodating 212 students. Their parents earn on average 1,523 yuan (US$190) a year, less than half the rural Chinese average of 3,255 yuan (US$407).

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in 2004 decided to install Shuiquan in its child-friendly school framework, which affects 30,000 students of at least 200 rural schools in 18 counties in China's seven western provinces.

“The framework is designed to create a child-friendly learning environment where child-centred and activity-based teaching and learning processes help children fully develop their potential,” said Guo Xiaoping, a UNICEF-China educational official.

The traditional “chalk-and-talk” teacher-centred teaching methodology dominates schools in the Chinese mainland. A frowning teacher, a bullying father or a pleading mother browbeats the child to study harder. Playtime is more and more trimmed to make way for more and more study. Children today were caught up in an endless race of extra tuition sessions, piano lessons, late-night homework and much more, said Guo.

“Education should not overload students with stress but prepare them for success. We need to give students the tools they need to build up their confidence,” he said.

The child-friendly school framework, first used in Thailand in 1997, was conceived as a means of converting the theory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into actual practice in the classroom.

Child-friendly schooling, explained Guo, consists of five broad dimensions; inclusiveness, effectiveness; health, safety and protection; gender-friendliness; and the involvement of students, families and communities.

UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office Youth and Partnership Project Officer Joachim Theis visited the child-friendly schools of Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous County.

“Inclusiveness means seeking out and enabling the participation of all children and especially those who are different ethnically, culturally, linguistically, socio-economically and in terms of ability,” Theis said.

Theis strongly believed children should not be marginalized by teachers who did not engage with them, did not believe they were capable of learning and did not have the teaching skills to handle their diversity. In short, it was about learning to talk the same language.

“I had thought that my teachers and schoolmates would barely understand me,” said Qian Li, “because I speak Tibetan in the family and I am not good at Chinese.”

The 11-year-old studies Tibetan, Chinese and English with her Tibetan classmates at Tianzhu Elementary School, affiliated to the Tianzhu Normal Institute.

Li's herder parents have rented an apartment in the county town of Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous County to help their daughter qualify for a better elementary school and the chance of a better high school.

“I feel comfortable here speaking and learning my own language while learning English,” said the fifth-grader. “I think English is not difficult compared to Tibetan. Maybe in the future, I can teach foreigners Tibetan.”

A child-friendly school “should not only protect the children's physical condition, but also their emotional and psychological well-being, said Guo.

Wang Hong, 11, was buoyed by her experience of giving the wrong answer in her class at Shimen Centre Elementary School of Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous County.

When I stood up to answer a question I was confident only to find out that the teacher had asked another question. It was so embarrassing at first,” said the fifth-grader. But the teacher asked me to speak it out again, and then asked the whole class to discuss my question first. He told me each question has various answers rather than one solution.”

Wang said she loved the feeling when her classmates applauded her. “In the past, students just followed the teacher's directions. Now it's a good feeling to be acknowledged by your peers.”


A child-friendly school should also be “gender-responsive,” creating environments of gender equality for the students through the active engagement of family and community in all aspects of school policy, management and support to children.

When a maths teacher Li Chunling, at Shuiquan Elementary School, noticed all the girls were sitting together in a discussion group, she knew what to do. She invited the students to change seats, mixing girls and boys together in different groups. “After I attended the workshop organized by UNICEF on child-friendly schooling and child participation last November, I began to realize the importance of interactive learning, not only between teachers and students, but among students of different gender,” said Li.

After the first class with boys, said Li, one of the girls approached her and said it was efficient and interesting to work with boys together because “in rural places, girls sometimes feel inferior to boys, and even jealous about the boys as they are considered the centre of the family.”

Li hopes that gender-sensitive teaching would also prepare students to live more harmoniously with the opposite gender in wider society.

As Joachim Theis puts it: “If the teacher just changes the order of the seats instead of the teaching methods, it's useless.

“It depends a lot on the teacher. Some poor places can have good teachers. Also with good facilities, teachers can disappoint students.”

Teacher Li Chunling was still worried about the practicality of child-friendly teaching. “Some parents tell us to punish their kids as severely and as often as we can, otherwise they worry their child won't study hard,” Liu said. “So when we grant some autonomy to children, they consider us irresponsible.”

The greatest challenge to child participation, according to a trainer for the UNICEF workshop and a professor with China's Women University, was adults.

“Adults are gatekeepers,” said Professor Jiao Jian. “They create opportunities for children and also they set limits sometimes. Adults will decide how much autonomy should be given to children. Sometimes they find an excuse not to promote children's rights.”

Problems include not only parental expectations and examination pressures, but a lack of boldness in taking on the status quo among teachers and education officials. “So it is society and people that ultimately determine how far child participation can go,” she said.

Source: China Daily 09/20/2006,



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