Raising children for the 21st Century – Changing methods and moralities in Chinese primary education


Dr Anni Kajanus

Elite schools in China aim to educate citizens fit for the 21st Century – competitive, competent and creative people with good cooperative skills and an international outlook. The adaptation of new progressive pedagogies that are used in combination with more traditional modes of discipline and learning, vary across institutions. Moreover, the current education system epitomizes the competitive spirit that has come to form a backdrop for everyday moral experiences and aspirations in contemporary China. Children work under high pressure to compete for access to the best educational tracks, which, it is hoped, will lead to socioeconomic mobility. At the same time, imported Euro-American pedagogies that emphasize free expression, self-discovery, creativity and deep learning, have been adapted to varying degrees. Finally, there is an increased emphasis on cooperative skills, sharing and helping others. The explicit teaching of these skills is part of the effort to resolve the “moral panic” of raising generations of selfish, pampered and egotistic only children, that has preoccupied parents and educators since the launching of the one child policy.

The three publications highlighted here explore the patterns of competition and morality that children develop in this transitional context. I have compared two schools in Nanjing, an urban ‘elite school’ that emphasizes competition and explicit moral education, and a semi-rural ‘average school’ that has less explicit instruction in moral values and norms, less emphasis on competition, and more free time for children to cooperate with each other without adult direction. The comparison revealed interesting differences, as well as shared aspects, in the following areas that were reported in the three recently published papers:

  • Cooperative skills. Children from the average school were more skilled in organizing joint activities and resolving conflicts without adult intervention. (Kajanus 2018) In my role as a sports instructor, I introduced a novel ball game in both schools. Two teams played against each other, in a manner that required both competitive motivation and cooperative skills. I found that when given the responsibility to manage the game without adult intervention, the elite school children struggled to enforce rules and to resolve conflicts. In the average school, children enjoyed the competition, but prioritized the smooth running of the game over winning or strictly enforcing rules. They also actively involved team members of varying abilities, thus making the game more engaging and enjoyable to all. I concluded that the overwhelming adult direction and management of the elite school children hinders the development of subtle skills of cooperation.
  • Competitive motivation. I explored children’s competitive motivation in more detail through a formal running experiment, in which children run on their own (non-competitive condition) and against a partner (competitive condition) (Kajanus 2019). The improvement of speed in the pair run is taken as a measure of competitive motivation. Even though children in the two schools were equally competitive, the elite school children’s motivation was more tied to the result of competition, that is, they enjoyed competitions if they won, but were not motivated to compete if they did not do well. At the average school children’s competitive motivation was not tied to winning to same extent. They were also motivated by the excitement and the communal atmosphere, and emphasized the benefits competition has through improving performance even when not winning.
  • Fairness. I collaborated with developmental psychologists Peter Blake, Katherine McAuliffe and Felix Warneken, to test children’s fairness behaviours through an experiment on inequity aversion (Kajanus, et al. 2019). Children played with a partner, making decisions of either accepting or rejecting distributions of sweets that were equal, advantageously unequal (getting more sweets than their partner), or disadvantageously unequal (getting less sweets than their partner). Children in both schools rejected both types of inequality, which was interesting in the light of previous studies that have shown that children in several societies accept advantage, while rejecting disadvantage (Blake, McAuliffe, et al. 2015). A detailed analysis of our findings also supported the conclusion that despite the similar results across the schools, the differences in these learning environments also had an impact on the children. Our findings suggested that at the elite school, children fell back on explicit moral norms learned from adults, while at the average school, their norms of fairness were more internalized through extensive participation in communal activities.

LogoAll three papers are based on research that brings together methods and approaches from social anthropology and developmental psychology. At the time of my ethnographic fieldwork (2014-2015), the children were 8 to 9 years old. I spent 10 months observing the everyday life of one 2nd grade classroom in each school, while living in the two communities and spending time with the children and their families also outside school. I later returned to the schools and the communities for several shorter visits (from 3 weeks to 2 months) to carry out experiments designed to address particular questions that had emerged form the ethnographic fieldwork. Originally an anthropologist by training, I have later also been trained in experimental methods. With my collaborators in the fields of developmental and cognitive psychology, we have shared a motivation to study child development in a culturally grounded way, and recently, this has led to us launching Culture & Ontogeny Research Initiative (CORI). https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/cori/(Facebook: fb.me/CORIteam  Twitter: @CORI_team)

In short, my research interest has been human cooperation, and the competitive and conflict behaviours that revolve around cooperation. Babies are born with basic capacities and motivations to cooperate with others. That is to say, to the relief of many parents, that they do not need to be taught to help others, to share, to make friends, to engage in joint activities, and so on (Tomasello 2009). However, they must learn, with age, the specific rules and patterns that pertain to cooperation and conflict resolution in their community. As children grow up in an environment of particular social norms and cultural values, the development of their cooperative behaviours is shaped by them. For example, while in some societies cooperation is mediated by explicit rules, such as turn-taking, in others, children learn to subtly align their interests and activities with those of others, and explicit conflicts rarely occur (Rogoff 2003).

The study of child development is, to a large extent, a study of Euro-American children, and the so-called cross-cultural study remains at the margin, often still serving the purpose of standing as the comparative ‘other’ to the Western norm. The aim of these three papers has been to provide nuanced within-culture comparisons that reveal some of the complexities of the current socio-moral transformation, and go beyond the simplistic characterizations of the Chinese society, often present in cross-cultural studies of child development and education.

Moreover, they offer a glimpse into how children’s cooperative skills and motivations develop in these diverse school environments. The disparities between Chinese educational institutions are infamous, and social mobility through education is not equally accessible to all. It is possible, however, that the more relaxed atmosphere of the average school, which leaves more room for the development of children’s own cooperative skills and supports a competitive mode that protects from the psychological burden on losing (inevitable at some point), will benefit the children later on in life. It is, of course, also possible, that the more strategic moral code and the zero-sum competitive mode of the children of the elite school, will help them fair better in their educational trajectories and the equally competitive job markets.


Blake, P.R., McAuliffe, K., Corbit, J., Callaghan, T.C., Barry, O., Bowie, A., Kleutsch, L., Kramer, K.L., Ross, E., Vongsachang, H., Wrangham, R., and F. Warneken (2015). The ontogeny of fairness in seven societies. Nature, 528(7581), 258-261.

Kajanus, A. 2018. Playing ball – cooperation and competition in two Chinese primary schools, in Cooperation in Chinese Communities. Morality and Practice. (eds.) Stafford, C, Judd, E. R. and E. Bell, London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic. https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/cooperation-in-chinese-communities-9781350077218/

Kajanus, A. (2019). Mutualistic vs. zero-sum modes of competition – a comparative study of children’s competitive motivations and behaviours in China. Social Anthropology 27(1): 67-83. https://doi.org/10.1111/1469-8676.12578

Kajanus, A.; McAuliffe, K.; Warneken, F. and P. R. Blake. (2019). Children’s fairness in two Chinese Schools: A combined ethnographic and experimental study. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 177: 282-296. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2018.08.012

Rogoff, B. (2003), The Cultural Nature of Human Development. Oxford;: Oxford University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2009), Why We Cooperate. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


Author bio

BookAnni Kajanus is an Assistant Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Helsinki. Her research focuses on education, child development, migration, morality and cognition. Anni is the author of the monograph Chinese Student Migration, Gender and Family, which situates the family project of investing in the overseas education of the only child within the wider socio-moral transformation of the Chinese society. Her most recent research brings together methods and approaches from anthropology and psychology to compare the cooperative, competitive and conflict behaviours and motivations of children in different communities. For this project, Anni has carried out ethnographic and experimental research in primary schools in China and the UK.

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