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Changing culture, changing early childhood curriculum in China

Weipeng Yang (pictured) Hui Li

School-based curriculum development (SBCD) has been advocated in order to enhance the quality of early childhood education within the context of modernisation and globalisation (Li, 2005). However, few studies have examined how social change and globalisation may shape the early childhood curriculum (ECC). Since ‘educational reforms are complex and embedded contextual, cultural, and historical stories’ (Luke, 2011, p. 372), we examined the underlying sociocultural mechanism of curriculum innovations through an informative case study of SBCD in two Chinese kindergartens serving children aged between three and six from a cultural-historical perspective (Yang & Li, 2019).

A cultural-historical system of concepts enables institutional curricular practices to be studied in their sociocultural context. This study focusses on contradictions encountered by early childhood practitioners during the process of innovating their curriculum practices. These contradictions, at the micro level, reflect school-based curricular change, while at the macro level they reflect the cultural change occurring in contemporary China. We have presented empirical data to illustrate the complex and dynamic influences on curricular change in Chinese early childhood settings.

This study revealed that the curriculum in each case was an integrated system balancing different curriculum approaches. For example, procedures in each of the studied curricula were interwoven with various types of activities and corresponding instruments being developed, localised and used. Also, conflict between and fusion of cultures were evident throughout the dynamic transformation of curricula. Chinese early childhood educators have absorbed the progressive idea of child-centeredness to develop their curricular practices. However, conflict between child-centered and teacher-directed approaches have led to the balanced practice preferred by current Chinese teachers. The balance is also related to the dynamic equilibria between freedom (relatively more child-centered) and discipline (relatively more teacher-directed), and between play (relatively more child-centered) and academic learning (relatively more teacher-directed).

The Chinese kindergartens under investigation were found to highly value children’s individual learning and development. However, this is contradictory to China’s collectivist tradition that originated in Soviet ideology; therefore, individual learning is difficult to achieve in large kindergarten classes that are common in contemporary China. Low teacher-child ratios, teachers’ lack of competence in facilitating personalised learning, and problems in the original curricula have made individual learning and development a challenge. Teachers have struggled to overcome these difficulties and have addressed this contradiction by revising their curricula during SBCD.

‘Chinese early childhood practitioners tended to revise and tailor tools, materials and procedures from other curricular approaches to fit their own uses and curricula, and to match local conditions and situations.’

This study also revealed that some of the Chinese practitioners may have carefully considered their cultural and contextual situations before they put overseas curricular approaches (such as Montessori methods, Reggio Emilia approach and the HighScope Curriculum) into practice. Chinese teachers tended to integrate what is useful from other curricular approaches into their curricula by revising and tailoring imported tools and materials to fit their use, as well as to modify and change the procedures and delivery of those imported approaches to match local conditions and situations.

This study reveals that conflicting motives have led to a balanced practice reflected in the integrated and balanced curricular system in the Chinese context. The Chinese philosophical idea of the doctrine of the mean (called Zhongyong by Confucius) – which has the meaning of ‘being rational, being balanced, advancing with the times, and sticking to what you believe in’ (Li, 2005, pp. 50–51) – could well explain Chinese educators’ beliefs and their hybridising innovations in ECC (Yang & Li, 2018). We found that the curricula were renewed, intertwining diverse cultural threads in a situation of cultural collision and fusion because of social change. By presenting findings from modern China, this study makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the dynamic and complex relationship between culture and curriculum, and unveils how ECC innovations may be achieved in the current globalised era characterised by great social change and cultural conflicts.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Changing culture, changing curriculum: a case study of early childhood curriculum innovations in two Chinese kindergartens’ by Weipeng Yang and Hui Li, which is published in the Curriculum Journal and is free-to-view for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Routledge.


Li, H. (2005). Developing school-based curriculum in Hong Kong kindergartens: Insights, challenges and solutions. Hong Kong: The Hong Kong Institute of Education.

Luke, A. (2011). Generalizing across borders: Policy and the limits of educational science. Educational Researcher, 40(8), 367–377.

Yang, W., & Li, H. (2018). A school-based fusion of East and West: A case study of modern curriculum innovations in a Chinese kindergarten. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 50(1), 17-37.

Yang, W., & Li, H. (2019). Changing culture, changing curriculum: A case study of early childhood curriculum innovations in two Chinese kindergartens. Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication.