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China's prodigy education project sparks controversy
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As 40 newly-joined teenagers are leafing through the college textbooks for a bright academic future, China's unique education program for gifted youngsters has raised controversy about the country's education reform 30 years after it began.

The "Shao Nian Ban" project ("Special Class for Gifted Youngsters") was first set up in 1978 in the University of Science and Technology (USTC) at the suggestion of Nobel Prize Laureate Lee Tsung-dao.

Most of the students, aged between 11 to 16, skipped years of primary and secondary school to enter college because of their outstanding intelligence. The project is aimed to train them to be top-notch scientists in the shortest possible time.

"The special class reflects the innovation of the country's education system and is a new full-scale approach for education reform," said Lin Chongde, vice-president of the Chinese Psychological Society, at a seminar on special education for gifted youngsters held on Friday to mark the 30th birthday of the project in east China's Anhui Province.

While school marks only play a minor role in the evaluation for the children, the project's enrolling process mainly consists of exam papers and interviews drafted by education experts. According to an interviewer, the professors may even give a spot lecture for the applicants and ask questions to see how much they get.

In the first two or three years, students in the class have to learn all basic subjects. Later, they can choose any major they like among all the university provides.

Zhou Mansheng, an official with the Ministry of Education, supports the project and encourages schools to explore their own way of selecting students. "In the future the country will give colleges more freedom to choose students who are suitable for their own education style."

While other similar prodigy classes in the country all died out, the project itself has been struggling hard amid media fuss and expert criticisms which say that it is unreasonable to group those talented children together by sacrificing their childhood and social experiences.

Xin Houwen, former vice-president of the USTC, said it was true that a small group of talented children exist and society had to create a fitting environment for them to learn and grow.

Jiang Yong, an '86 classmate and now a company boss, said "At first I didn't want to admit that I was a genius because it meant much more responsibilities I had to take. After joining the class, I finally did and I learnt to pursue my own dreams in a world full of obstacles."

Li Junlin, an '87 classmate and a graduate from Stanford University, said, "After joining the class, I finally felt the freedom of academic study. We have little limitations and teachers always did their best to satisfy whatever we wanted to learn."

However, Zhou points out, "The project is only a supplement to China's mainstream education. And since the country's education resources are limited, the project system should not be promoted much further."

(Xinhua News Agency March 24, 2008)

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