Reimagining Education in Rural China

Marco Flagg
A first grade art class at Guan Ai Primary School in Shanxi Province, China, a Rural China Education Foundation partner school. RCEF works with local teachers to develop creative curricula that promote independent thinking and civic engagement.

Rural China is home to about one in every ten people on earth and to more than 150 million school-aged children—a staggering number, comparable to half the entire U.S. population. The children of rural China suffer the negative consequences of the country’s economic boom: their parents often move to the cities as migrant workers and they are left to fend for themselves in underprivileged communities. Many rural parents see education as a means for their children to break free from harsh living conditions and find jobs in the city. In practice, however, the odds are heavily stacked against rural students, due to the lack of adequately trained teachers, their parents’ inability to afford private exam preparation, and, sometimes, the need for them to earn money for their families. In addition, the rules of the university admission system are biased against them: rural children need higher test scores to enter university than those who live in the city. Studies have shown that nearly half of rural students do not go on to high school and that they are grossly underrepresented in Chinese higher education. In contrast, most urban children finish high school and go on to college.

This disparity is not the defining challenge facing rural education. The deeper issue involves the single-minded focus of the curriculum. Throughout China, the contents and methods of the entire basic education system are finely tailored to make students perform well on standardized examinations. By comparison, little attention is devoted to the development of thinking and action skills that are applicable outside the classroom. In cities, this is mitigated by extracurricular activities and other learning opportunities, which are largely absent in rural areas. The basic education that rural children receive is not relevant to their lives and does not provide them with the capabilities they need to make a difference in their communities.

A middle school teacher in Guizhou put it this way: “I started teaching wanting to develop human talent, but this education is taking human talent and making it useless. Students come in with their own talents, interests, and a desire to learn. Only those with extreme determination make it through and most break under the pressure, becoming good-for-nothing. Those ones will go to labor in the city or stay here as farmers, but will not have learned to do either. I want to make the fields their school. I want them to learn how to take the riches of our land and turn it into something valuable. I want them to develop the talents they have into something that is useful to them.”


A first grader at Guan Ai Primary School participates in language arts class. RCEF students are encouraged to ask questions and express their opinions in the classroom.

We founded the Rural China Education Foundation (RCEF) in 2005 with these problems in mind. We found that many nonprofit organizations already focused on material aid for rural students, including book fees, boarding fees, school buildings, books, teaching supplies, school furniture, and computers. It was disconcerting to observe that attempts to improve the quality of education—that is, what happens in the classroom once material needs are satisfied—were few and far between. RCEF’s mission became “to promote education for people in rural China that prepares them to improve their own lives and communities.”

In our first years, we organized summer volunteer programs in which students and young professionals, mostly from overseas, received a one-week training course and went to rural schools to teach classes. Subjects ranged from health education to community research to theater games. In late 2007 we decided to stop these extracurricular summer camps. The program was successful, and expanding it to more schools would have been relatively straightforward, but such a program was too short in duration, was not integrated into the regular school curriculum, and relied on nonprofessional teachers. For these reasons, RCEF’s focus shifted to providing year-round training of local teachers in new teaching methods and curriculum development.

We received a fellowship from Echoing Green, the nonprofit incubator that supported Teach for America in its early days. Our main site became Guan Ai Primary School in Yongji, Shanxi Province, a school founded by local teachers dissatisfied with the regular education system, who wanted to provide nurturing, holistic education to rural children. Our teaching coaches—experienced teachers or other educational professionals—collaborated with local teachers using a method called “action research,” a term coined by the American psychologist Kurt Lewin. In this method, the teaching coach observes a class and then meets with the teacher to discuss, evaluate, and reflect on the teacher’s methods. The teacher then implements improvements, which are discussed at the next meeting with the coach. Coaches sat in on classes and met with teachers at least a few times a week during the school term. Teachers said this method was more helpful than watching “model lessons”—a frequent training technique in China—as it was tailored to their particular situation, required their active participation, and encouraged them to engage in critical reflection on the outcomes of their teaching.


As part of an interdisciplinary project focused on the local environment, RCEF students raised chickens at their school. Here, students work together to build a chicken coop.

RCEF worked with teachers to develop creative curricula across a range of subjects, but we came to focus on a flagship subject: service learning. In one characteristic example of service learning, fourth to sixth graders conducted research on smoking in three villages around their school. They conducted interviews with villagers and analyzed statistical and qualitative data that they had collected themselves. The students then formulated and implemented an antismoking campaign, and gave a presentation to the residents of the villages. Students reported feeling greatly empowered by this project.

In another project, students raised chickens at the school. This involved many activities that developed children’s analytical, decision-making, lateral-thinking, and communication skills: students interviewed chicken farmers about their techniques, designed the coop, calculated the amount of material needed to build it, and discussed whether to use chemical or organic feed (the students unanimously chose organic). The students eventually sold their chickens’ eggs at a local market.

These projects stand out in China for two reasons. First, RCEF lets students decide what topics they want to research—the students, not the teachers, chose the projects described above. Second, RCEF’s projects integrate skills from different subjects (language, math, science, art, social studies) so that children can learn to pull together and apply academic skills or knowledge to solve real-world problems.

At Guan Ai School, we introduced methods for creative testing to complement the national examinations, which typically only test for a narrow set of skills. We also initiated parent meetings; in rural China, it is still very uncommon to actively involve parents in their children’s education. The first few parent meetings focused on common parenting challenges, such as how to help children make better use of holiday time or how to limit children’s intake of junk food.

Guan Ai closed in 2010 because of a nationwide policy that consolidated smaller primary schools into bigger ones. However, with the support of the local government, we began partnerships with two public primary schools in the same county. In these schools, we continue our focus on service learning, typically embedding it in reading class. For example, a recent service learning curriculum for third and fourth graders at our program schools in Shanxi Province focused on the needs of the children and elderly who are left behind by adults who have migrated to urban areas for work. First, teachers selected age-appropriate books and a short film to get students thinking about this topic from various perspectives. Then, the students interviewed children and elderly people in their communities about the challenges they face. Afterward, the students discussed how they might help. They chose to focus on the following issues related to the absence of working-age adults: for the elderly, the heavy work burden borne when they take on farm and household labor normally performed by younger adults; for children, the struggle to keep up with school work and to maintain personal hygiene. Students elected to form small groups in each village, pairing older with younger students to provide homework help, improve personal hygiene, and assist the elderly with chores and farm work.


A villager gives farming tips to Guan Ai students at their school garden, where they are growing vegetables. RCEF invites community members to share their skills and experiences with students.

Our programs’ evaluation systems strive to track students’ communication and analytical thinking skills, civic attitudes and values, and test scores. While we have not yet accumulated enough data to track changes over time or to compare our students with those in other schools, anecdotal evidence reveals marked improvements in student’s oral communication skills and greater enthusiasm for extracurricular reading. We also measure success by the growth we observe in our participating teachers. Several of our teachers have chosen to become full-time program staff and have even begun training other teachers in our methods.

There are systemic obstacles to implementing high-quality service learning in rural China. The government typically evaluates rural primary school teachers only on the basis of their students’ test scores in language arts and mathematics. The standard way to prepare students for these tests is rote memorization and practice drills. Our curriculum, in contrast, requires teachers to cultivate student skills such as independent thinking, communication skills, and civic engagement. This kind of teaching takes more thought, planning time, and collaboration with other teachers than traditional test-centered teaching methods do. For this reason, we have experienced slow progress and setbacks in our work with many rural teachers. In response, our strategy is to support those teachers who are already passionate and motivated and to assist them in mastering and developing service learning methods. They can then share their expertise through presentations and trainings and inspire others. We are hoping to spark bottom-up, teacher-led change, which we believe has the most promise for having a substantial, long-term impact on education.

RCEF’s model is considered to be one of the most innovative education initiatives in China, and has been recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative, Echoing Green, the Global Fund for Children, the Tiger Woods Foundation, and others. RCEF is working to become a platform for teachers and principals from all over China to develop their own ideas on quality education. We are developing teacher training methods and written documentation to provide support to practitioners in other schools. We hope that by using specific case studies and practical, proven methods of teaching service learning in rural China we can inspire more educators to think critically about the goals and potential of education.