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Innovative child-friendly schooling gets high marks from rural students

GUILIN, Nov. 21 (Xinhua) -- Chinese classrooms are typically associated with rote learning and stern teaching methods. Sticking rigidly to the curriculum, the teacher drums in the lessons, making the students copy down everything on the blackboard so that they can pass the all-important exams that will determine their future. Student-teacher interaction is largely neglected.

    But the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is promoting an entirely different approach to child education.

    In UNICEF-sponsored "child-friendly learning environments, child-centered and activity-based teaching and learning processes help children fully develop their potential," said Anjana Mangalagiri, chief of the education and child development department at the UNICEF China Office.

    UNICEF claims that "child-friendly learning" improves teaching methods and the general learning environment. In its campaign to introduce this approach to China, it is concentrating its efforts on 30,000 students in 200 rural schools in 18 counties in China's seven poor provinces.

    What's in my whisper bag today?

    In Danzhou Township Elementary School, in south China's GuangxiZhuang Autonomous Region, Wu Qunjian is one of 246 students that have benefited from the child-friendly approach.

    "See, that's my precious whisper bag", says Wu, pointing to a small envelope on the classroom wall, decorated with a big green tree and a path to a yellow-brick house.

    Wu's classmates and teachers are able to discreetly slip notes of encouragement and kind wishes into the girl's "whisper bag". Digging into it, she finds a red paper from one of her best friends. There is also a note from teacher Chen Kuixuan, telling Wu not to worry too much about losing her student badge because "everyone makes mistakes".

    "I've written my thanks to them," says the 10-year-old, beaming.

    When she first came to this elementary school a year ago, Wu --whose parents had left home to work in the city, leaving her and her three-year-old sister in the care of their grandmother -- was not very welcome. "Her hair was messy and her clothes were dirty, and she was always getting into fights with other students," teacher Chen recalled.

    The child-friendly approach has made a big difference.

    Wu soon stopped quarreling with the other students. She made friends and now has overcome her loneliness. After listening to her teacher's lectures about health, she washes her hands before eating and after going to the toilet. But the most profound change is a change of attitude. "I love going to school," she says, "and I can't wait to see if there are any new messages in the 'whisper bag'".

    What makes a good teacher?

    There are five dimensions to UNICEF's child-friendly schooling concept: inclusiveness, academic effectiveness, health, safety and protection, gender-equality and the involvement of students, families and communities.

    "Teachers play a key role in embodying these concepts in schools and making them a reality," says Guo Xiaoping, a UNICEF-China educational official.

    Over 13,000 teachers in pilot schools around the country have been trained in UNICEF-supported child-friendly schooling. They hold regular meetings at school and with students' parents to discuss the new methods.

    Children are encouraged by their teachers to make suggestions.

    "Before, students' articles and drawings were pasted up too high on the back wall of the classroom. The students complained they couldn't see them easily so we brought them down to eye-level," said teacher Zheng Caixia at Danzhou School. The school has also organized outings and a trip to a nearby power plant in response to student suggestions.

    In Zhaizhun Elementary School in Sanjiang, students have written up their 10 criteria for a good teacher on a school blackboard. They include "don't favor girls", "let us go out and play as soon as the bell rings", "ask students for ideas about where we should go for spring outing" and "chat with students".

    Teachers in these schools now hold meetings regularly to discuss students' views and suggestions and debate their merits before explaining their views to their students.

    Teacher, I know the answer!

    He Shun is an 11-year-old third-grader in Zhaizhun Elementary School who walks with a crutch. When the teacher asked him a question, he would answer in a barely audible voice "like a flying mosquito".

    Most of the time, embarrassed, he remained silent. "I was afraid I would give the wrong answer and people would laugh at me."

    "But teachers keep encouraging me and if I say something wrong, they never criticize me." In his homework notebooks, judgmental red crosses have been replaced with red circles, sometimes accompanied by a note from the teacher asking the student to reconsider the question.

    He now raises his hand as high as possible to compete with other classmates for a chance to answer a question. "Every time I raise my hand, I hope the teacher will choose me," he said proudly.

    Clash of cultures

    There is much to be said for the child-friendly approach to learning. Discrimination, scolding and endless homework have disappeared from students' lives in the pilot schools. But the child-friendly concept clearly runs counter to entrenched Chinese educational culture.

    "Some parents say they don't care whether education is child-friendly or not. All they care about is their kids' academic scores," said He Qihua, headmaster of Zhaizhun school.

    But He is confident that, with patience and regular communication, he will succeed in persuading die-hard parents. What bothers him most is that the school evaluation system depends almost entirely on academic performance.

    "There are no concessions for child-friendly schools. We spend a lot of time building kids' enthusiasm for study, but at the end of the day we still face the same tests as other schools do and have to compete on their terms," he said.

    "Child-friendly schooling is a step toward quality education, but it's hard to evaluate," said Guo Xiaoping. "The educational evaluation system should include factors that child-friendly schooling handles particularly well -- such as developing students' potential."

    UNICEF says that China is developing its own national guidelines for quality education based on the UNICEF definition, and provinces are being encouraged to develop their own standards based on national guidelines.

    To facilitate the process, UNICEF will spend about 20 million U.S. dollars to promote quality education in 1,000 rural elementary schools in China's 10 western provinces over the next five years.

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