Position Paper on the Confucian Education System

A study of education in China.

Second in the series of position papers published by the U21 Teaching & Learning Network.  

Executive Summary

Confucian is here defined as traditional attitudes and practices existing in East Asian societies which ultimately are derived from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BCE) and his later followers. These teachings are characterised by their emphasis on ethics and statecraft, and resulted, in the case of China, in a society dominated by a secular elite recruited through a merit-based examination system. Education was the route to social status and material success, and promoted harmony based on morality and hierarchy. The status of education remains high in Confucian heritage cultures; this is reflected in the degree of parental interest in education, in pressure on children to succeed at school and in the priority it receives in family expenditure.

Following Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reform and opening up’ policy from 1978 onwards, China re-entered the world economic system after the period of seclusion of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Western teachers of English started to go to China taking communicative language teaching methods and Chinese students began to travel abroad to study. Western educators who came into contact with Chinese learners found approaches to teaching and learning that contrasted markedly with current Western practice, though not necessarily with much earlier Western practice. These included teacher-centred whole class teaching, very large classes, apparent passivity on the part of learners with low levels of active learner participation, and much use of teacher-led chanting, rote-learning and mimetic methods.

Western educators however noted a paradox. According to Western pedagogic theory, such methods are typical features of a surface learning approach, and will result in a failure to achieve a deep level of understanding and in poor learning outcomes. However, this was not reflected in the actual learning outcomes of Chinese learners, many of whom showed higher achievement levels than Western learners. During the 1990s and early 2000s this led to the publication of a significant amount of research based on observation, interview and questionnaire data, much of it collaborative between Western and Chinese scholars. The conclusion was that Western educators were mistaken in their perceptions of the process of learning occurring in Chinese classrooms. What appeared to be mindless rote-learning was in fact a process of memorisation and reflection; the absence of learner initiated verbalisation, such as spontaneous questions, masked a process of silent but effective mental engagement with the topic. We present recent data which confirm the continued high achievement levels of Chinese and other Confucian heritage learners in international comparisons.

Rising levels of Chinese government and Chinese family investment in education, coupled with China’s huge size, are likely to result in the economic drift eastwards being accompanied by an educational one. The Chinese government is actively encouraging this by funding its Confucius Institute programme to promote Chinese language and education globally. The big quantitative increase in Chinese research output is likely to be followed by a qualitative one. There is a message here for Western educators and policy makers.


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