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At first glance, it looks like an ordinary gym class at a public school in Yibin

, a city of about a million people in southwest China's Sichuan province.


But then you notice that the students are wearing signs: "Nitrate," "Sulfate," "
Phosphate." In their game of tag, they chase the classmates they need to start a
chemical reaction.
This is how gym and chemistry classes are combined at the Cold Water Well Middle
School. Upstairs, in a combined history and math class, students use statistics
to find patterns in the rise and fall of nations.
These experiments are the brainchild of former journalist Zhang Liang.
"What we're trying to tell them is that the real motivation behind all your stud
ies is to help you realize how fascinating this world really is," he explains. "
Once they get this, their own initiative will gradually emerge."
Students at Cold Water Well school affix signs identifying themselves as chemica
ls for a special game of tag in their combined chemistry and physical education
class. The object? Tag the students needed to start a chemical reaction.
Students at Cold Water Well school affix signs identifying themselves as chemica
ls for a special game of tag in their combined chemistry and physical education
class. The object? Tag the students needed to start a chemical reaction.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Zhang's experiments are hardly an isolated phenomenon. From Confucian-style acad
emies and home schooling to foreign Waldorf and Montessori models, a grassroots,
alternative education movement is blossoming across China at the secondary leve
l. Universities and colleges, meanwhile, remain under tighter government control
.
Education professionals are hopeful that these new teaching methods will benefit
both public and private school students and produce future generations of Chine
se young people who are curious, self-motivated and independent critical thinker
s.
"Look how active these kids are, how they discuss things as equals. Once that be
comes habit, it will produce big changes in their values. They will lose their b
lind faith in the supreme authority of teachers, or of anyone else."
Chinese Educator Zhang Liang
Zhang Liang, 47, speaks quickly and softly, with an intense gaze that darts out
from behind his wire rim glasses. His inspiration to go into education came from
what he witnessed during the devastating Sichuan earthquake of 2008, which kill
ed nearly 70,000 people.
He noticed that mental strength and resilience were often a matter of life and d
eath, and became determined to put humanity and humanism back into education, in
order to prepare students for life's challenges.
The problem with China's current educational system, Zhang says, is that the way
academic subjects are divided up severs the logical links between them.
He says the whole system is too focused on accumulating knowledge, passing tests
and following orders.
"This makes students feel that studying is meaningless and boring," he says, sit
ting in a classroom at Cold Water Well. "They have to have some strong external
pressure to move them forward."
Zhang Liang, a reformist educator and social entrepreneur, talks to students aft
er class at Cold Water Well Middle School. Zhang advocates breaking down the tra

ditional course structure, and restructuring education around the needs of the s
tudents.
Zhang Liang, a reformist educator and social entrepreneur, talks to students aft
er class at Cold Water Well Middle School. Zhang advocates breaking down the tra
ditional course structure, and restructuring education around the needs of the s
tudents.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Once the students' curiosity is ignited, Zhang's hopes are that students ultimat
ely can design their own courses of study, assign their own tasks, and make thei
r own rules. This is already happening at a private high school in the neighbori
ng city of Chongqing.
The kids at Cold Water Well aren't ready for that yet. They're younger
in grades
six through nine
and of the some 600 students, more than half are the children
of migrant laborers who have gone to work in other cities.
But the new teaching methods and philosophy have turned the school around, says
Vice Principal Wu Ge.
"When these kids entered the school, we ranked near the bottom of our district i
n terms of test scores," he says. "Three years later, they're graduating, and we
now rank first."
Zeng Liang, an eighth-grader at Cold Water Well, remembers how she was so afraid
of giving a wrong answer in class that her hands used to shake. But here, she d
oesn't need to worry about that.
Instead of listening to a teacher's lecture, the kids divide into groups, do the
ir own research using tablet computers, and discuss and debate their findings.
Students perform a creative writing exercise at Cold Water Well Middle School. S
tudents write descriptive prose from the perspective of a human statue, a blind
person feeling the statue, and an outside observer.
Students perform a creative writing exercise at Cold Water Well Middle School. S
tudents write descriptive prose from the perspective of a human statue, a blind
person feeling the statue, and an outside observer.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR
"When we were little, we all studied on our own," she recalls. "There was no ent
husiasm, and we didn't dare to speak our minds. Here we discuss and share our op
inions. Now I stand up and speak, whether I'm right or wrong."
Only a few decades ago, China had a Soviet-style education system. The state ass
igned college majors and jobs based on what the state needed, not what the stude
nt wanted. And some subjects like English
are taught the old-fashioned way, by r
epetition and rote memorization.
But in the past two or three years, Zhang Liang says, local governments have giv
en schools some leeway to try new things. Although the government retains nomina
l control over curricula and teaching plans, Zhang says they are tacitly allowin
g experimentation, or at least not interfering with it.
The implications are exciting, Zhang says.
"Look how active these kids are, how they discuss things as equals," he says. "O
nce that becomes habit, it will produce big changes in their values. They will l
ose their blind faith in the supreme authority of teachers, or of anyone else."
Students take part in a protest at the University of Hong Kong on Jan. 20. They
protested after a pro-Beijing official was appointed to a senior role, amid grow
ing worry over increasing political interference in academia.

PARALLELS
In Hong Kong, A Tussle Over Academic Freedom
Zhang is aware that the independent thinkers he trains could have a rough time f
itting into China's authoritarian system. So Zhang teaches his students how to n
avigate the political minefields of Chinese society.
"In the private sphere, you are the highest authority, and you decide everything
," he tells them. "But in the public sphere, it's not all about you, and you hav
e to regulate your behavior according to a set of public rules."
This is a novel approach in China, where students are seldom told what rights in
the private sphere the government can't touch, and what activities in the publi
c sphere citizens have a right to participate in.
Zhang says Chinese authorities haven't completely realized the impact these refo
rms could have on their authoritarian system. They're too busy trying to cope wi
th sweeping shifts in both social attitudes and demographics. And this is what i
s driving the changes.
Students connect into a "chemical reaction" during an unconventional game of tag
.
Students connect into a "chemical reaction" during an unconventional game of tag
.
Anthony Kuhn/NPR
China's population is aging. Schools have to compete for a shrinking number of s
tudents by providing more individualized instruction.
Secondary education has become a buyers' market, Zhang says, and parents with ki
ds in both public and private schools are increasingly aware of their rights as
consumers.
"School principals tell us that they're getting more and more pressure from pare
nts," Zhang says. "Parents are starting to intervene when they feel that the sch
ool is treating their kids like cramming and testing machines."
The number of children who need glasses has risen quickly across East Asia and S
outheast Asia. But some parents and doctors in China are skeptical of lenses. Th
ey think glasses weaken children's vision.
GOATS AND SODA
Why Is Nearsightedness Skyrocketing Among Chinese Youth?
The children of wealthy Chinese attend classes designed to teach them how to do
things like raise money for charity. The parents pay up to $10,000 a year to sen
d their kids to weekend classes.
PARALLELS
Children Of China's Wealthy Learn Expensive Lessons
As a result, the number of students taking the high-pressure national college en
trance exam has dropped to new lows in Beijing and other cities, as parents send
their kids overseas for study or choose alternate paths, such as homeschooling
or vocational education.
The government responded in 2014 by allowing students to choose three of six sub
jects to be tested in. Before, students were only tested in math, English and Ch
inese, and there was a strict division between students studying humanities and
sciences.
Very few of Zhang's students have taken the national college entrance exam
he ha
s been in the education business for only four years but he is confident that ba
sed on their performance at his schools they should have no problem with it.
Zhang says his foray into the education business has seen its ups and downs. He

says he's more suited to education than entrepreneurship.


But in order to popularize his methods, in addition to running three schools
the
third is in Guangzhou he has established a consulting company that custom-desig
ns school curricula.
He has set up a network of regional sales agents, and he funds it with the help
of angel investors who see education as a potentially lucrative new market.
It appears that Zhang Liang's bold experiments are about to really take off. By
next semester, he expects to sign deals for 30 schools to adopt his educational
model.