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Tsinghua University High School

Students Play Lead Role on Educational Stage


Students Play Lead Role on Educational Stage


Developing apps, wearable devices or electric vehicles - what sounds like Silicon Valley startup preoccupations is everyday school life at China’s Tsinghua University High School, where high schoolers have access to the top-notch facilities and faculty of the prestigious Tsinghua University.



Students Play Lead Role on Educational Stage

By Jenny Cheng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 586 )

How can you marry street dance and traditional dance in a performance on the same stage? For the 100th anniversary of Tsinghua University High School in Beijing, students choreographed the collision of the two worlds in an innovative colorful stage show.

“My field of expertise is math, but I feel that the biggest common denominator of art and science is creating," remarks Principal Wang Dianjun. Although it is already 10 p.m. Wang has only just returned from a meeting of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education. Wang is visibly exhausted after his long workday, but his eyes light up when he starts to talk about education.

Tsinghua University High School counts among the “good” high schools in China because its graduates usually make it into the nation’s top universities. Wang, however, prides himself more on the school’s arts education. He believes that innovation or art cannot be learned in a traditional classroom setting.

“It depends on the kind of platform and space that you create to provide the students with sufficient resources. Then they will develop all by themselves,” Wang explains.

Education without Borders

On the day of the school anniversary students in the second year of senior high school filmed every detail with a camera drone that they controlled themselves. “We also built a camera drone ourselves, but it wouldn’t fly very well," admits a chuckling male student with a crew cut and glasses.

A large sign next to the laboratory building on the school premises reads: “Wearable devices, electric cars.” Third-year junior high school students at the other end of the campus developed an app for solving middle school math lattice point problems, which was officially released in October. All these are products of the school’s maker space, which provides digital manufacturing tools that students can use for their projects.

Aside from creating the maker space, school officials went on a fact-finding mission to the United States. Upon their return, a world-class research laboratory was set up on campus.

Tsinghua University high schoolers not only benefit from top-notch facilities and generous space, they can also draw on support from university faculty and engage in inter-disciplinary studies. Let’s say the high school students want to do some research on human cloning; their subject teacher can contact a Tsinghua University professor with relevant expertise to tutor the students.

“Schools have walls, but education is borderless; you cannot confine it within schools because it would hold back the students," says principal Wang. Therefore, the school joined the travel program of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education, under which students are assigned to carry out experiments alongside scientists from various fields. Experts and academics are also invited to tutor the students at school.

Inter-school Interdisciplinary Courses

At other high schools in the Chinese capital, educators of various subjects discuss subject matter value and teaching methods among themselves. But at Tsinghua University High School, teachers from several subjects cooperate across their respective disciplines to develop interdisciplinary courses with a special profile.

One such course took students to a plateau in Inner Mongolia, where they designed a weather balloon experiment. The balloon, equipped with a camera and a global positioning system device, filmed the topography of Inner Mongolia from the air at a high altitude. After the experiment the balloon had to be retrieved. The students used a GPS tracker to locate the balloon some 90 kilometers away from its launch site.

Another interdisciplinary course called “science and technology against the backdrop of international security" covers not only technology but also politics, culture, territory and military systems. “Generally applying what you have learned is a very good way of training creativity,” says Wang.

Wang also believes that the American Advanced Placement course system, which allows high school students to earn college credit, is very helpful for talent development. Therefore, he submitted a 200-page report to the Education Ministry before he founded the first AP courses to break up the rigid, ossified course system. The AP courses are taught by veteran faculty from the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University and the Department of Economics at Tsinghua University.

At Tsinghua University High School, students not only take the stage when it comes to extracurricular activities such as hands-on programs and arts projects, they also get a chance at switching places with their teachers at the lectern.

In Taiwan, it might be difficult to imagine high schoolers taking the podium and scribbling endless rows of mathematical functions on the blackboard to explain the process of integration to younger or lower grade students. But standing up there on the podium in Beijing is math genius Shao Chengyang.

Students Get a Go at Teaching

Each school term, students are encouraged to submit their own course plan proposals. From the first to the last lesson, the course content must be planned in great detail.

After the proposals have been passed by the school’s curriculum committee, the students are required to teach a trial lesson before their teachers and the principal. Only if a course gets the green light can it be officially listed as an elective in the course system.

Nevertheless, Wang has had to fend off doubts and misgivings from his own staff and outside his school about what many perceive as an overly liberal atmosphere.

Pointing to the current emphasis on advanced academic degrees, Wang notes that the young talent that schools cultivate today will enter the work place more than a decade from now. The problem is that no one knows which skills and abilities we will need in the future. Therefore he strongly believes that cultivating interdisciplinary, widely applicable skills is still of utmost importance.

Tsinghua University High School offers students a broad, open stage for personal development to ensure that they will continue to thrive in the coming decade.    

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz