Read all about it is good advice

By China Daily | Mei Jia Updated: 2021-03-24 20:38

The cover of Dialogue in Education, co-written by Zhu Yongxin and British historian Alan Macfarlane. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Leading educationalist has the last word on the various benefits of books and writing for children, Mei Jia reports. 

British historian and anthropologist Alan Macfarlane was generous in his praise of writer and veteran education expert Zhu Yongxin. He is, Macfarlane said, "a very hardworking, driven man". He writes in the preface of the book Dialogue in Education, which the two co-authored, that "it was an increasingly interesting exchange. He's filled with what seem like excellent and liberal ideas when thinking of the creative and active role of education."

The book, recently published by Changjiang Literature and Art Publishing House, records, in dialogue format, communications between the two spanning more than four years.

They discuss the two countries' educational history and systems, personal ideas in education, as well as thoughts on reading and writing. The pair also offer personal life stories as thought-provoking exemplifications of their backgrounds, growing up and becoming major voices in their respective fields.

Its English version will be brought to a wider international audience by Cam Rivers Publishing, according to its editor, Ma Xiao.

Zhu, deputy secretary-general of the Central Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, is the founder of the New Education Initiative, and one of the country's key promoters of better reading habits.

"I believe the best way to elevate educational and social equality is to promote reading," he says.

For his advocacy of reading, and his work related to its promotion, Ahmad Redza Khairuddin, chairman of the Reading Promotion Jury of the International Board on Books for Young People, announced Zhu as one of the two inaugural winners of the 2020 IBBY-iRead Outstanding Reading Promoter Award in May, along with writer and illustrator Marit Tornqvist from the Netherlands.

"Zhu has devoted his life to continuous research and activities related to reading promotion… His programs help schools to carry out comprehensive reading courses for parents, children and teachers with a strong focus on rural areas," Khairuddin says. "He continues to be the driving force for promoting reading among children in China and is recognized internationally as an expert in the field."

An essay by Wang Yan, associate research fellow at National Institute of Education Sciences, titled A China Solution to Future-Oriented Teacher Development and School Innovation, hails a basic reading list Zhu initiated for first to 12th graders as China's first complete and a systematic reading list of basic and subject books for teachers.

Zhu and his team also surveyed and released a basic reading list for Chinese aged under 18 and their teachers, one of the country's first.

Veteran education expert Zhu Yongxin reads books to inquisitive children on a video program at the National Library of China in 2016. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"Some 30 years ago, reading extracurricular titles was deemed by most parents as not doing the real business of 'learning'. Now both schools and parents believe in its benefits," Zhu says.

Among his new titles published this year, one by Unity Press entitled Rendezvous in Spring is a collection of his diaries as a CPPCC member during the two sessions in 2013-17.

Two sessions refers to the annual gathering of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's biggest annual political events.

"It's a raw and panoramic personal record of what happened as a member and what we do during the two sessions. I'm offering it to a wider audience," Zhu says.

Another new book he has compiled offers tips for solving problems caused by stay-at-home learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zhu hands in proposals each year centering on promoting reading, as well as education, in rural and remote areas.

One of his most influential proposals is the High-Speed-Rail Reading campaign. In 2019, the annual number of journeys on the country's HSR were 2.29 billion.

"It's possible in space and time, with the railways running on strict timetables, and with enough flow of passengers," Zhu says, suggesting the opening of rail library services and delivering books just like food.

"E-reading on trains can also be made more accessible," he adds.

He reads a book and writes diaries, daily. "If I did not, I would be fretful".

Zhu has also collected more than 4,000 books signed by their authors.

He believes the best way to help learning and thinking is by writing. Busy every day, Zhu rises very early, and begins his day by reading and writing. This routine has been unchanged for decades.

"It's kind of gift from my father, a schoolteacher. Since my first day at school, he would drag me out of bed early to practice calligraphy. I never became a calligrapher, but I'm accustomed to knowing that when people are usually brushing their teeth, I've already been working for two hours," Zhu says.

No wonder Zhu has a large and expanding body of work being published, not just in Chinese, but also in more than 20 foreign languages in 40 countries and regions, including English, Japanese, Korean, French, German, Russian and Spanish.


Zhu joins speakers at the 13th New Oriental Family Education Summit in Beijing on Nov 7. [Photo provided to China Daily]

His To Teachers sold 400,000 copies in Chinese. And his Works by Zhu Yongxin on Education series is published by McGraw Hill in 16 English-language volumes.

Zhu's core ideal in the New Education Initiative is about living a happy and complete educational life. It's a student-centered ideology, instead of a knowledge-centered mechanism.

"We started with the teachers, and '10 actions' make our pathways," Zhu says.

The essential elements in the 10 actions are reading and writing, as routine.

Zhu has been carrying out the idea himself with unusual persistence, and effect.

In 2002, he initiated the idea of writing at least 1,000 words every day, constantly for 10 years. Wu Yinghua, a Chinese language teacher then with Yufeng Experimental School in Kunshan, Jiangsu province, was inspired by the idea and began the trial. She kept on writing, and encouraged her students to write daily as well. One of her students, Song Xiaodi, who used to be a "naughty" boy, later won first place in the entrance exam to high schools in the city.

Zhu tells China Daily his idea has inspired many teachers over the past 18 years to bring positive influences to their students.

Guo Liping, a teacher at the Primary School Attached to Capital Normal University in Beijing, says she feels it's too hard to write 1,000 words a day, so she adjusted it to 500. She is now leading the Sunflower Class of the school.

In Suzhou, principal of the Xukou Experimental Elementary School Liu Yongzhong posted all of his daily writings on a forum, labeling himself as "first generation of beneficiaries". Both Guo and Liu have published books based on their accumulated daily writings.

Born in a small town in northern Jiangsu province in 1958, Zhu enrolled in Jiangsu Normal College (now Suzhou University) in 1978 and stayed there as a professor before becoming the deputy mayor of Suzhou city in 1997.

All of his personal reading and jobs have been bound to education since very early in his career.

In 1999, he encountered a "life-changing" book, The World According to Peter Drucker.

"Just two sentences, by Joseph Schumpeter, when Drucker mentioned in the book about his dying wish," Zhu recalls. "Schumpeter says books and theories are not enough, unless we can change things.

"It was like an A-bomb to me. Then I realized I was too much into research, I should begin taking action," he adds.

Zhu and his team initiated the New Educational Initiative in 2002.From teacher Wu's school in Kunshan, the nongovernmental trial currently involves 5,215 schools and 5.6 million teachers and students in the country, among them 40 percent are in rural areas.

The initiative also includes training schools for teachers, and 11 city-level and 152 town-level experimental zones. Zhu visits up to 100 schools every year.

Macfarlane, a Life Fellow of King's College in Cambridge, Fellow of the British Academy and the European Academy of Sciences, says he is particularly impressed by Zhu's description of the many new experiments that are taking place across China.

"At the primary and junior high school level, schools are trying a new, freer and more creative approach … Much more emphasis on art and music, hobbies and self-regulation. And two universities in Suzhou and Beijing are being planned on a new model. Colleges, self-governed by the students who are required to write letters monthly to their parents, keep diaries and have hobbies. All looking very hopeful," Macfarlane records in his diary.

Macfarlane adds: "The evolution of new educational systems is likely to be faster in China, through the selection of the best working experiments, than anywhere else in the world ... Furthermore, China's social and cultural structures have changed faster than any civilization that I know of, and they continue to change immensely fast."

In 18 years, many experimental textbooks of the initiative have been published on various themes. Textbooks on life education are in use in hundreds of schools.

"Life education combines graded education on safety, health, psychology, career and beliefs," Zhu says. "It's complementary to current school education."

Never lacking controversies and criticism, Zhu persists with his team and is thinking broader in terms of education in the future.

To him, maybe just in the coming decades, schools will vanish and learning centers, an online and offline compound, customized for the students as individual learners, will be reality. Then, teachers will be learning partners.

"Students will be encouraged to explore by themselves, with full support," he says.

Wang believes Zhu's initiative offer inspiration for 518,900 primary and secondary schools at all levels in China, and "its concepts and methods have influenced many education systems in other parts of the world".