Thousands of soldiers trying to cross a narrow bridge on horseback (in Mandarin: 千军万马 过 独木桥) is the phrase that decorates, in different versions, the walls of a large number of educational centers and with which the national exam is identified access to university in China, the well-known Gaokao and that makes it clear the fierce competition that lies ahead for students.
In 2019, it welcomed almost eleven million students and the qualification obtained shaped their destinies: savor the triumph of accessing the best universities in the country – and from there, probably, opt for a coveted residence permit in one of the main cities of China – or accept, with bitterness in many cases, other educational centers where to continue training and lead a life in the provinces forever. The exam – understood as a social filter and an opportunity to prove your own worth – is at the center of an educational system that in 2020 has managed to produce 8.7 million university graduates.
The figures in themselves justify the interest in reflecting on the Chinese educational system, the largest in the world, and the challenges it faces.
The questions it raises concern not only those interested in education – how to foster learning and constant improvement in 400 million individuals? What is the function of the education system: promoting careers or selecting talent? – but also to politicians who think about the long term – where to place the optimal point between equity and creativity? – and those who are interested in innovation such as mechanism to increase productivity and the position of a country in the world – What dilemmas does the 2017-2030 plan for the development of artificial intelligence (AI) pose that includes training in secondary school classrooms and that China has started with surprising resources and financing? -.
The traditional view, not explicit but deductible from many of the educational plans or legislative documents in China, understands that the student is the part of a system that subordinates, for a certain period of time, the rest of the elements of his life to achievement of an educational objective that later marks their social position. It constitutes the center of learning, but it does not fulfill a creative function but rather a product that has to be validated at the end of a process against many others waiting in line. The Chinese system fascinates because of its competitiveness and pressure, but also because of the motivation of the students.
It would be easy to fall into the temptation and reason that all this is due to the fear of being overtaken by rivals, the supposed existence of an Asian character that makes students more diligent, or that all this is the consequence of a political system that conditions students. the students. Without denying the influence of these factors, we argue here for another fundamental reason: the sense of opportunity and progress.
In the Chinese imaginary, education and its equal exams for all are the first and fundamental steps of a narrative that configures a socio-political system based on meritocracy. It is a circle that feeds itself: students who study and work obtain rare and highly demanded positions, and become social models, which in turn decisively influences that more students want to become part of this elite.
Making homeland from education
In fact, many of the Chinese students who enter university express their motivation to be building an increasingly better country, which hardly agrees with a possible ideological caricature. Hence, the pragmatism of the Chinese student draws attention to the disenchantment observed in students from countries with more innovative educational systems.
The Chinese effort in recent years in the field of education, as demonstrated by the controversial results of the PISA tests in December 2019, is incontestable. The claim of economic improvement or directly verbalized as the interest in being part of the middle class, is something common to comment on with university students whose grandparents lived through the first literacy processes.
There is education understood as a social elevator and at the same time the problem of a standardized test to detect that talent. Critics of the system understand it as a sentence, since it takes place only once a year – mothers have been known to ask for unpaid leave to care for their children in the last decisive months – and its defenders argue that it is the great promise of students from the provinces, who see it possible — perhaps not likely, but within their personal horizon — to access the best universities in the country.
A bridge that supports the education system
Seen from the outside and aware of the intentions of the Chinese government to reform it and make this examination more dynamic and adapted to the new times, it can be understood that the Gaokao, that narrow bridge, joins two opposite banks. These are two sides that constantly stress education systems: on the one hand, a standardization that expands access and equity but homogenizes its students and, on the other, an openness that encourages creativity and excellence, but widens the distances between their users.
Harmonizing both poles, finding the necessary flexibility for the student to regain his status as an individual without losing consciousness of a social animal is the great challenge for teachers. Without destroying the bridge that serves as the paradigm of meritocracy.
Based precisely on that idea of meritocracy, Chinese families, spurred by fear of the hardships of previous generations, make education their highest priority. So much so that nothing is superfluous: finding a nursery that stimulates the learning of your (usually only) child, starting from an early age in a foreign language such as English, preferably with native speakers (online and offline), attending extra classes and tutors at the end of classes to improve in mathematics, learn to play the piano or a musical instrument and even, if the economy allows it: horseback riding.
This brings beautiful images, such as parents who draw with their children in front of museum paintings, but also dramas, when there are artistic or humanistic vocations not fulfilled by the prevailing pragmatism. Hence the novelty and controversy that recent educational innovations have brought: robotics, programming and computer language teaching and, also present in children’s educational books, artificial intelligence.
At the Chinese National Conference on Artificial Intelligence, held in November 2019 in Xian, a training on its application was carried out in primary and secondary schools that brought together about 200 teachers and was viewed by about 74,000 on the different Chinese platforms and social networks.
Teachers should review their methods
The main argument of the majority of speakers was to emphasize that the future requires not only that students learn, but that teachers also accept a need for constant revision and learning. Artificial intelligence is not going to be another tool but a catalyst that will completely change the way of working and learning in the classroom. Teachers need to understand these changes if they want students to be able to fit into the world of the future.
The event was of paradigmatic importance as it analyzed the first two years of development of one of the most ambitious initiatives at an educational level. China started developing the Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Plan in 2017 . It will last until 2030 and includes the training of 500 teachers and 5,000 university students. In line with this plan, the Artificial Intelligence Training initiative has been developed, which includes universities, secondary schools and primary schools.
It is carried out in cooperation with China Association for Artificial Intelligence , private companies, three robotics centers, 10 vocational training hubs and 90 vocational schools. Local governments, within the framework of competition when implementing policies typical of China, volunteer to be the first to serve as a social experiment. It is estimated that the Chinese Ministry of Education has allocated an initial budget of eight million yuan (about one million euros) and that it will increase.
Listening to the testimonies of the teachers, it could easily be deduced that China faces the same problem as other countries such as Spain in terms of educational innovation. Technology is growing exponentially and it is difficult to keep up. Especially for structures that need special regulatory rigidity, such as educational centers or the Administration.
What technology is the most suitable for teaching
Also, it is not easy to identify which technology will be the most appropriate to teach future students. The appearance of a new technology always generates a series of debates and negotiations when adopting its use, think of QR codes, virtual and augmented reality, creation and development of video games in the classroom or 3D printing.
These doubts extend to the very notion of AI and its effects in the classroom. Today, artificial intelligence is far removed from the most popular sci-fi dystopia in film culture. What we understand by AI is the ability of a machine to process, analyze and encode a series of massive data (big data) and thereby develop algorithms that help to systematize processes and make predictions.
In this way, as Kai-Fu Lee points out in his well-known book Superpowers of artificial intelligence , data is the new “oil”, since it allows everything that the sensors capture (faces, voice, images, numerical variables related to our health, studies, finances) is analyzed in order to extract trends.
For this reason, it argues that the last years have been of technological development and that the next decade will see the adaptation and implementation (application / implementation) of said discoveries within the typical cycle of technological diffusion and social adoption.
The fundamental question, not asked in public but which ran through the conversations and the small groups of teachers, was how to combine this type of teaching with standardized tests and regulations. That is: what type of curriculum to develop, what weight to give to this type of training in educational plans and what role will it play in the all-powerful Gaokao, the bridge that supports the educational system?
The emergence of COVID-19, the black swan that paralyzed the traditional educational system and forced an unprecedented migration to the digital format – in official documents it already refers to traditional education as offline – has brought some of those responses and has served to drive the debate.
Machines will take on the skills of humans
So much so that, in June of this year, within the UNESCO Futures of Education initiative , an online forum was held where different educational representatives presented their visions for the near future. They assured that 80 percent of the skills that the educational system develops will be exceeded in less than twenty years by the work that a machine can do.
Different scenarios were established for education in 2030 and 2050 that ranged from totalitarian dystopia where massive data analysis predicted and conditioned the future development of a student to more techno-optimistic visions where the student created their learning itinerary based on of blocks of knowledge, linked to the companies and brands they like and the cultural products they consume: Marvel, Disney, etc.
All the speakers agreed on the importance for the future of education of creating platforms and learning experiences and evaluating them objectively. For UNESCO, the key to the future of education is to link technological development in schools with the United Nations goals for sustainable development. Some goals for everyone and for everyone.
The technological and social development of recent years has accelerated historical processes and the educational system, understood both as a theoretical and legislative framework and as the ecosystem of the agents and institutions that comprise it, has been one of the main affected. Faced with a changing reality, liquid in the words of the philosopher Bauman, the school has the difficult task of functioning as a link that allows preserving the best knowledge of the world of yesterday, while helping to develop the aptitudes and capacities that will be needed in The world of tomorrow.
However, as discussed above, there is no unambiguous solution to the problems posed by the future, but only a dynamic of trial and error and constant learning where the system accounts for the tensions between the individual, the student, the critical citizen and the community, a system that requires reaching a certain sustainability if it wants to ensure its survival.
The bridge is certainly very narrow. A framework where education is part of a vision of social entrepreneurship and a technological support for analysis can help us to optimize flows, increase the attractiveness and social utility of education, broaden the bridge and ensure that even more students can cross. Although, perhaps the real challenge is to be able, as in the movie Matrix, to wake up from an induced sleep and understand that the best bridge is the one that is not necessary, and that our responsibility as teachers is to help students arrive to the best possible place that their talent and work will take them.
Author Bio: Claudio Feijoo is Professor of Telecommunications Engineering. Director of Asia at UPM at the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM)
This article has also been written by Javier Fernández , an expert in education at the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training (MEFP) in China.