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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Taking the Pressure Off China’s Students

Hiroki Yajima

Jan. 29, 2016

Educators in China are trying to come up with ways to make things easier on students who are preparing for the country’s annual university entrance exam. With a population of 1.3 billion people, life in China can be quite competitive. Parents want their kids to go to the best universities and the demanding preparations can start at an early age.

Many parents believe alternative forms of schooling can foster creativity in their children. These types of programs are becoming increasingly popular in cities around the country.

At one such class in Beijing, a teacher is leading demonstrations to illustrate basic scientific concepts for his young pupils.

"Through this playing and learning process, they learn the science, and they have a lot of fun,” said Hong Dong, CEO of Diligent Knowledge World Group. “We need to prepare our students with the quality for creativity and innovation."

China's public education system has long focused on exams, but that approach has its downsides.

According to a recent study by Beijing Lejent Technology, more than 85 percent of children in China's elementary and junior high schools suffer from stress because of the amount of homework they're given.

In the same poll, 80 percent of parents said they are unable to assist their children with their homework and that they need help.

Last April, an 11-year-old boy committed suicide after becoming exhausted from studying too much. In November, another teenager was found dead in his classroom, where he had been doing homework.

To help students deal with the workload, one company launched an online tutoring service and it became an instant hit. Eleven thousand tutors and 20 million students now use it.

"We had to undergo years of exams and homework, and students are still going through the same or even worse,” said Beijing Lejent Technology CEO Wang Qingyuan. “We're helping them do their homework so that they can go to bed once it's finished."

Educators are striving to come up with new methods and services to help children learn. They hope their efforts will mark the beginning of a groundswell that will bring about fundamental changes to the country's education system.

NHK World reporter Hiroki Yajima spoke to anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya from Beijing.

Shibuya: Hiroki, we just saw in your story that cram schools are trying things like getting students to think more creatively. How are they coming up with this new method?

Yajima: The cram school in my report uses techniques from Japan and Germany. They even bring in instructors from Japan to train teachers. Private educators are looking at different ways of teaching and they're trying to make classes more attractive to both children and parents.

Beppu: You told us about some tragic incidents at schools. What's behind the despair?

Yajima: Well, the crucial point is that university entrance exams are only held once a year. And students are only judged on overall score. So it's very competitive. Parents want their children to have the best opportunities, so they worry about choosing a good private education. One survey says elementary and junior high school students spend three hours a day on homework. And some parents spend more than half their income on education. That puts a lot of pressure on getting results.

Shibuya: So Hiroki, what have the authorities done, and how can they make a change?

Yajima: They realized there was a problem years ago. The education ministry said the excessive homework was having a negative effect on children's development. Since 1988, it's been issuing advisories to reduce the work. But not all schools have followed the advice. Their reputation is based on how many of their students get into the best universities. The ministry hasn't been able to ease the competition or replace the entrance exams. And unless broad reforms are brought in, it's hard to imagine how true reform will be possible.