WAYAO, CHINA — Light snow speckled the bare dirt courtyard outside teacher Cai Limei's fifth-grade classroom. Inside, an ancient radiator was barely warm to the touch.
The classroom at the Gaoyakou Central Primary School, about an hour outside Beijing and not far from the Great Wall, was as austere as it was cold. Little more than a Chinese flag and a blackboard served for ornamentation. Yet the students, bundled in colorful parkas and scarves, were bubbling excitedly as they sat in knots of twos and threes, trying to come up with answers to a series of grammar exercises.
An American teacher walking into this room might be put off by the lack of creature comforts, but surely would recognize the teaching methods being deployed by Cai, an enthusiastic 27-year-old in a puffy, shin-length blue coat.
And with good reason. Although she teaches at a school that outwardly appears little changed from the days of Maoist indoctrination, Cai is on the cutting edge of Chinese educational reform, using methods based on those used in the United States.
"In my time as a student," she said, "we accepted only what we were taught." Now, as a teacher, she tries to encourage "more active thinking," letting students figure out answers for themselves.
"It's better now," she said.
The best of both worlds
In many ways, China and the United States represent the yin and yang of international education. Whereas China's top-down system places supreme emphasis on tightly structured, disciplined learning, the United States has a highly decentralized system that places greater importance on critical thinking and "student-centered" learning.
Still, in recent years, the Chinese and American systems have been taking baby steps toward each other, learning and adapting what the other does best.
American educators have been exploring why Chinese and other Asian students do so well in math and science, and trying to apply some of their findings to U.S. classrooms.
The Chinese, in turn, are trying to distill the American genius for innovation, recognizing that, for all its faults, the U.S. educational system is unrivaled at turning out creative minds -- inventors, filmmakers, rock 'n' roll stars and Nobel laureates among them.
"The two systems cannot totally merge," said Zhou Mansheng, who studies the American educational system in his role as deputy director of China's National Center for Educational Development Research. "What they can do is have a very deep understanding of each other's educational systems and try to learn from them."
Math, the Chinese way
Thousands of American educators have visited China in recent years, meeting with education officials and shuttling to showcase schools selected by the government. These trips have led to changes in some American schools and a general consensus among education leaders that more change is needed, especially in the teaching of math.
At the root of the difference is the idea, in Chinese and other East Asian math curricula, "that there is a very small body of factual mathematics that students need to learn, but they need to learn it really, really well," said R. James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University and one of the authors of California's public school math standards.
Last fall, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics adopted a policy that urges American schools to focus math studies on just three basic topics in each grade from pre-kindergarten through eighth. That idea, Milgram said, comes from Asian curricula. However, he said, American schools will have a difficult time emulating their Asian counterparts unless they sharply improve the math abilities of primary school teachers.
China has a powerful, millenniums-old tradition of education that is woven deep into its societal DNA. But just as that can't be bottled and shipped, neither is it easy for a society such China's to mine the best of the American educational tradition.
That hasn't stopping it from trying.
Under the leadership of Zhou and his colleagues, China's educational system has been undergoing a major overhaul since 1999, when the government recognized that the country's explosive economic growth could not be sustained without a better-educated workforce. It set out to improve the educational system from bottom to top -- upgrading rural schools, quintupling the size of its university system and, perhaps most radically, bringing more critical thinking and creativity into its classrooms.
"China wants to become a big nation of innovation in the 21st century," Zhou said in an interview in Beijing. "To meet this objective, China wants to cultivate more creative talent."
To do this, the Education Ministry has revamped the national curriculum and begun training teachers in a more interactive style. There will be less rote learning, more give-and-take with teachers, and more exercises such as the one at the Gaoyakou Central Primary School, where the students learn in groups.