How do you teach history in a communist country? (China, April 2016)

When we first started engaging Wang, a history teacher in Wen Hua Secondary School in Yunan (posted there as a Teaching Fellow from Teach for China) to do some Maker experiments (however you call it, actually), it was very open-ended. Deliberately so, because we think it’s important to be patient enough to let ideas grow out of people’s minds rather than prescribe Key Performance Indicators from the outset.


In between, it came as a shock that lessons are taught by reading from textbooks, and that the most critical tasks expected of students are underlining and highlighting — yet one cannot begin to fault the people who participate in the grind, because the status quo is the inevitable result of standardised exams taken to their logical extremes.

The obstacles are many:






To translate (very loosely) from the above,

  1. It is most easy to read from the text and lecture for a teacher. To make a student the basis and the centre of the lesson requires far more attention and energy, and this is something that a lot of teachers (especially the jaded ones) are unwilling to invest in.
  2. The second difficulty is in making concrete domain knowledge and technology. How do you make history smart? To me, ancient history is a series of stories recorded by dead men, it is but “dead” characters in books; these are events of far-reaching significance and individual knowledge points, how can technology be integrated into this subject?
  3. Real gaps in terms of age, knowledge, perspective, background persists between myself and the students. I know who I was as a 13, 14 year old but I find it hard to understand these 13, 14 year olds.

Then Ernie sent Wang a link and posed the following questions:

… 反思一下中国教导历史的方法有哪些优劣点。以知识为基础讲课的目的是什么(对谁而言的目的)?有效地完成了这项目的吗?这些我们信手拈来的知识凭什么就是知识,为何不是其他的一些东西?历史课上保留或者对之沉默的东西告诉了我们什么?

What are some of the pros and cons of the way that history is taught in China? What are the aims (and for whom) of delivering lessons with such knowledge points as basis? Has it been effective? Why are these “knowledge” considered “knowledge”, and not something else? What does the retention or silence of history lessons on certain matters tell us?

To which Wang responded eloquently,

that it is perhaps the inevitable result of a system that selects talent on the basis of standardised exams, that this is the history that the powers that be want us to know of.



Slightly more than a month later, Wang did a little activity to have students guess historical events. 1 would try to guess the keywords involved, while the rest use their vocabulary of historical knowledge and language to prompt. Of the 56 student groups in 7 classes, the best result was 9 right guesses obtained in 3 minutes and the worst was 1 group abstained.

Technology and making in our conventional understanding of such terms are not yet “fully” utilised, but don’t you just love how there is always a Chinese twist on things? We can’t wait to see what happens next.