Reference: Xuan Meng, Andrew Horrell, Paul McMillan, and Guorong Chai (2020). ‘Health First’ and curriculum reform in China: The experiences of physical education teachers in one city. European Physical Education Review, 27:3, 595-612. doi.org/10.1177/1356336X20977886
The abstract and section headings: China is not alone in its concerns about health and this had led to an increase in policies and initiatives which either have a direct or indirect impact on education. This paper focuses on the ‘Health First” policy and its local impact on Chinese physical education teachers from one city in the north of the country. “Health First’, which aimed to transform the nations’ health through national curriculum reform, was build on ‘borrowed’ policies from other nations but had complexities beyond the individual teacher’s perceptions of what health is and what physical education’s contribution to health and the ongoing education of the children in their care. The ways in which the ‘Health First’ were taken up and responded to sit at the centre of this paper.
The section headings were: National curriculum reform and ‘three-level’ curriculum management; ‘health first’ and the PE and health curriculum in China; PEPE for high school entrance; Methodology; discussion of findings; PE teachers’ experiences if curriculum reform; Teachers negotiating policies and stakeholder priorities.
Introduction and conclusion: At the end of last century (1999) the communist party and the State Council of the Chinese Central Government made the decision that the “entire school system would be based on the guiding ideology of health first.” This was put into place to address the growing concerns about the health of students of all ages and at all stages of education. Any curriculum reform that came out of this edict must reflect the idea of “health first.”
In their efforts to enhance the overall health of their student-aged population, China engaged in a process of policy borrowing and national curriculum reforms that set out to change long standing and systematic principles and practices. This paper set out to understanding how the both rounds of policy reforms - in 2001 and 2011 -affected the (a) relationship between health and PE, (b) the impact of policy borrowing on teachers experiences of physical education teacher education (PETE), and (c) their continued professional development.
In many cases, and China was no exception, policy reform is top down, and teachers are expected to straightforwardly implement these policies. The reality is very different. The prescription of (i) educational objectives, (ii) curriculum content, (iii) teaching materials and (iv) assessment approaches (ideas which in this case travelled from the west) are never merely implemented but instead had to be interpreted, translated, and recreated. The lives of these teachers and education policies, practices, and contexts all impact in the pattern and shape of these interpretations and enactments.
The paper concluded that the ‘Health first’ policy did not achieve the reduction in ill-health the Chinese government has sought. The proliferations of aims, i.e., a drive to embrace decentralisation, increased school autonomy, the adoption of student-centred teaching, and the development of critical and innovative thinking to support professional development and structural changes in education exposed PE teachers to significant reform that the teachers were not prepared for and which overwhelmed them The origins of these complexities when beyond the teachers and their perceptions of health and change. This was made more so by the existing culture of an education system steeping in the focus on high stakes examinations and the progressions of students to the next level of education. It would be easy to portray the teachers as resistant and incapable of change – and that was probably part of the barrier to change – but the central pillar of resistance was the lack of resources to support change. Teachers were never fully prepared in their PETE and there were underlying concerns about traditional practices and teaching repertoires that made local reception, adaptation, and appropriation difficult – especially when the ideas themselves were foreign.
Tables and diagrams: There are three tables in the paper. Table 1 explores the core principles and objectives of the PE and Health curriculum and highlights the need to adhere to the guiding ideology of ‘Health First’ and promote healthy growth through the four main objectives of sports participation, sports skills, physical health, and mental health and social adaptation. Table 2 lists both compulsory (C) and selected (S) tests for the standardised performance scores (with maximum scores and performance indicators for boys and girls) in the Nuanyan city. This includes (C): 1000m running (Boys), 800m running (girls) standing long jump, and one of four (S) tests: rope skipping (I minute), sit-ups, medicine ball throw (2 kg) and sit and reach test. Table 3 provides participant information and school context.
The point of the paper: The aim of the paper is to move beyond the dominant western lens on curriculum reform and explore what happens somewhere else. Somewhere we are not very familiar with. The paper explores the consequences of importing western ideas into eastern practices and the challenges that teachers experienced as they tried to implement this huge national reform. It was a reform that went against their existing practices and this had consequences with regards to what they could (and wanted) to achieve.
The main arguments: That importing ideas and curricula, piecemeal, from other countries and other countries is a less than satisfactory means of changing practice and the positively impacting on the outcomes of school physical education. The ideas may be sound in other countries but there is a difference between the hope and the happening in many different contexts. Especially when the outcomes of school are straightforward.
The importance of this paper: It is important to consider this somewhat familiar argument from a different perspective. Anything that de-westernises knowledge and allows us to see into another culture – especially one as large and influential as China’s – is a good thing. The lack of teacher blaming is also a move toward a more appreciative approach to research in physical education.
The paper’s contribution to my knowledge: Firstly, understanding curriculum reform in China. I was surprised that there was so much borrowing of ideas – ideas that I wondered at their fit in China given what little I know. I also think it is important to understand that China faces similar problems to the West and goes about addressing them in similar ‘top down’ ways that don’t include the teachers nor seek to upskill them appropriately.
Summary of the paper in one or two sentences: Health is a problem in China and the Government went about trying to address this in the form of massive ‘borrowed’ curriculum reform. This didn’t work because of the contrast with existing practice and the differing outcomes that were important to the teachers and the schools where change had to occur.
To the Authors: I would welcome a response to this blog. If you wish to write a response to be published on PEPRN, please email me – A.J.B.Casey@lboro.ac.uk with the final text.
About the Twenty 20 Vision Blog: For many years I wrote a weekly blog. In fact, between 2011 and 2021 I accumulated a catalogue of more than 450 blogs. But then I hit a wall. I simply ran out of energy and time. Consequently, 2022 wasn’t a great year for PEPRN. Following a modernization of the blog by Philte (thanks), and recognising my enduring desire that this break be a blip and not an end, I’m back with a new format and renewed ambition.
During 2022 I acknowledged that I needed to run PEPRN differently and over time the idea of a “Twenty 20 vision” blog emerged. This was, in part, in tribute to T20 cricket (which I love) and 20/20 vision (which I used to have) and in part due to the recognition that PEPRN needed to be easier to write and therefore sustain.
The idea of the Twenty 20 vision blog is for me to read a paper in no more than twenty minutes using an approach I often recommend to students but have never actually done myself. For each paper I will do a shallow dive, reading only (a) the abstract and section headings, (b) the introduction and conclusion, and (c) the tables and diagrams. All other writing will be ignored. With this information to hand, I will then write the blog in no more than 20 minutes (thus the “twenty 20 vision” blog) using eight headers: (i) Reference; (ii) The abstract and section headings; (iii) Introduction and conclusion; (iv) Tables and diagrams; (v) The point of the paper; (vi) The main arguments; (vii) The importance of this paper; (viii) The paper’s contribution to my knowledge; and a (ix) Summary of the paper in one or two sentences. Whatever emerges will then be published (after a little editing because I make a lot of grammatical errors typing that fast). The aim is to make paper reading and blog writing manageable once again whilst maintaining the integrity and usefulness of PEPRN. My plan is to publish a blog every two weeks and provide an opportunity for the authors to respond to the blog (an aspect of publishing that I’d like to see more of in this type of endeavour).
I hope I will achieve these aims, but feedback is welcomed and invited. Please let me know how I can get better at this and how the blog can better serve the community.