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Taking a look into the future

In the past few months, John and Doris Naisbitt have made a point of meeting thousands of school and university students on the mainland for one reason: they want to see the future.

Their aim is to understand and interpret the major forces that will shape the world in the 21st century and, for that, they believe it is crucial to hear directly about the goals, concerns, attitudes and education of the mainland's younger generation. The Naisbitts were in Hong Kong earlier this month to lecture on "Megatrends 2020: The Role of Education and Innovation in the Shift from West to East" at the University of Hong Kong's School of Professional and Continuing Education (HKU SPACE).

"The shift from West to East has been going on for a long time, but there are more stories about it since the financial crisis," says John Naisbitt, whose various Megatrends books have sold in the millions since the 1980s and made him an adviser to presidents and policy makers around the globe, including former United States presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

"In certain sectors, it is clear China is moving ahead of everybody. The country is so dynamic, and the experimentation going on is quite remarkable."

Having identified and examined key factors in China's Megatrends: 8 Pillars of China's Success, a 2009 book co-written with his wife, Doris, he fully expects the shift to accelerate - perhaps dramatically. That assessment is based largely on two phenomena: the continuing, though under-reported, decline of the West and the importance the mainland places on improving its education system.

What the Naisbitts see during the six months a year they now spend on the mainland is widespread recognition that better education is an economic and social imperative. From top down and bottom up, whether talking to ministry officials or individual teachers, they find signs everywhere of innovation, ambition and a willingness to move away from the traditional reliance on rote learning and exam scores.

Citing recent visits to a leading high school in Chengdu in Sichuan province, they note how an experimental programme there uses three teaching methods in parallel. Roughly a third of class time is still rote-style instruction, accepting that certain facts must be learned as a foundation for academic progress. Another third sees teachers engaging students in dialogue and debate about the subjects studied. And the remaining time is for students to discuss with each other, with minimal direct supervision.

"There is no debate tradition in schools in China - efforts in the past have been more towards harmony - but it is starting to happen," Doris says. "[We visit classes where] kids can ask what they want and they're not just repeating what the teacher says. It is a great step forward because, in the end, the goal is to educate young people to think creatively and have the eloquence to present their opinions."

The Naisbitts are similarly impressed by the changing outlook and new freedom to experiment in other areas within the system. They see teachers at the top universities and high schools encouraged to take part in exchange programmes with rural areas to spread knowledge and upgrade standards.

Contacts with university deans and professors show a readiness to forge ahead. And planners are realising that the basic curriculum should offer a better balance between science and other endeavours.

What has the most impact, though, are the talks with students, seeing their eagerness to learn, sense of purpose, and confidence in the future.

"The energy and enthusiasm is almost euphoric and makes us very excited," John says. "The generation coming up is very motivated and, for us, that makes China the most fascinating place in the world." 

Changing trends

  • A new trend sees US-trained schoolteachers moving to the mainland in search of better opportunities
  • The Chinese students' dream of studying abroad and then returning to "serve the country" is still very much alive
  • The Naisbitts foresee interesting changes if, as expected, China's next generation of leaders includes more sociologists