Yunnan Province, on China’s southwestern border, is well known for its beautiful natural landscape and rich ethnic culture. Yet it is also one of the country’s poorest provinces. Its per capita GDP in 2010 was only half of the national average. With 84% of mountainous land, the majority of its 45 million people live in rural areas – 1/3 of them belongs to 25 ethnic minority groups.
The labor force in Yunnan generally possesses low levels of education and skills. Most have completed just nine years of compulsory education or less, and professional and technical workers often lack skills certificates.
As demand for specialized skills surges, such gaps have become more apparent. Throughout 2010 and 2011, only 35 to 45% of the job openings in Yunnan were filled, and only 50 to 55% of job applicants were hired. Companies often complain about the difficulties of finding skilled workers, considering it a major constraint on business growth.
In 2012, guided by the Chinese government’s goal to improve the labor force’s skill levels by 2020 particularly through vocational schools, the World Bank and the Yunnan provincial government launched a project to improve the quality and relevance of technical and vocational education and training to produce skills that respond to the labor market’s demand, and contribute to Yunnan's economic development. This project is financed with a World Bank loan of $50 million, and implemented in nine vocational schools in Yunnan from 2012 until 2017.
Activities carried out under the project included strengthening school-industry collaboration, developing school-based competency-based training (CBT) curriculum and teaching materials, training school managers and teachers, developing student and teaching assessment systems, upgrading key instructional facilities and equipment, and strengthening the provincial capacity in coordination, policy development, and monitoring and evaluation.
Competency-based curriculum and new teaching methods put students in the center
The project set out to improve the curriculum which was outdated and overly theoretical and make the teaching methodology center on students and not teachers.
At Dali Secondary Vocational School, an international expert from Cambridge Education Ltd was brought in to provide courses on competency-based training (CBT) and active learning. CBT focuses on cultivating the core skills and competencies that students will need for their future jobs and life-long development, while active learning emphasizes students’ engagement rather than teachers’ delivery of the course content and seeks to turn students from passive listeners and receptors into active participants.
“It is different from our traditional teaching method. It can motivate students and stimulate them to learn more actively. It also develops students’ ability to work together and interact with each other, and gives them a sense of achievement,” said Sun Mandan, a teacher of Chinese language and literature, who participated in the training and then applied the new teaching method in her class.
Yang Mei, a teacher from the tourism department, noted the changes among students after she used the new teaching method. “Students exposed to active learning perform very differently in class. They are very confident. For example, they respond to teacher’s questions and take assignments more actively. In group work, they also learn to help and support each other. What is most valuable is that they learn to listen to other’s ideas and suggestions, and accommodate differences,” she said.
This new approach was generally welcomed by students. “We can focus our attention and do not easily get distracted in class,” said Zhao Pengqing, a major in tourism service and management. “It gives us more confidence,” said Zhao’s classmate Liu Bin. “After the new learning method was introduced, I have become bolder and more active in class,” said Zhang Tao, a shy young man majoring in auto repair.
To date, 143 teachers joined the training courses. Many of them are already using the new techniques. “Teachers are key to the development of vocational schools. Our teachers are changing their mindsets and are actively involved in curriculum development and reform. Now our students are more interested in learning and teachers have grown,” said Chen Wenbin, Principal of the Dali Secondary Vocational School.