Asia Pacific Education Review

, Volume 14, Issue 3, pp 391–401 | Cite as

Societal culture and teachers’ responses to curriculum reform: experiences from China



Educational change is intrinsically bound to the cultural characteristics of the society. However, the relationship between educational change and societal culture is rarely explored, especially in the context of mainland China. Following a 3-year qualitative research project, the present study explored the influence of societal culture on teachers’ responses to the national curriculum reform of upper secondary education in mainland China. The results generated three themes highly relevant to teachers’ responses to curriculum reform in Chinese culture, namely teachers’ obedience, teachers’ facework and teachers’ collaboration. These teachers’ responses reflected some Confucian ethics rooted in Chinese culture and explained the absence of radical teacher resistance to the national curriculum reform. It was suggested that a culturally sensitive approach to change leadership may have been more fruitful for facilitating the aims of curriculum reform in mainland China.


Societal culture Curriculum reform Change leadership Confucian tradition Mainland China 


Change as a cultural process

Over the past two decades, scholars have increasingly seen educational change and school renewal as a cultural process (Cheng 1998; Hargreaves 1994; Fink and Stoll 2005; Fullan 2001, 2007; Hallinger and Kantamara 2000, 2001). The term “culture” is not easily defined because it is largely implicit, pervasive and embracive, but a sound generalization is that it is “the underground stream of norms, values, beliefs, traditions, and rituals that has built up over time as people work together, solve problems, and confront challenges” (Peterson and Deal 1998, p. 28). To adopt the vernacular, it can be stated as an informal understanding of “the way we do things around here” (Deal and Kennedy 1983, p. 14).

Educational change and school renewal can hardly be separated from the cultural and contextual characteristics of schools, because, as Fullan pointed out, “we are talking about a change in the culture of schools and a change in the culture of teaching” (Sparks 2003, p. 55). The interactions between school culture and change processes have been extensively explored in the field of educational change (Harris 2000; Heckman 1993; Kezar and Eckel 2002; Sarason 1996). School culture is often found to play a highly influential role in the change process, and indeed, it may be one of the most powerful determinants of the change in such an organization (Daly 2008). Research into school culture found that it can interact with the whole change process, from initiation to implementation and to institutionalization, in many ways (Harris 2000). Successful change seems to occur when some particular cultural conditions are cultivated in schools, such as group dialog, public mindfulness, “outsider” questioners and dialog facilitators (Heckman 1993), or when teachers develop shared beliefs of what ought to be, have a clear focus on improving learning and teaching and are involved collaboratively in decision-making (Macmillan 2000). By contrast, teaching or school cultures featured by other characteristics, such as authoritarianism, hierarchy, sectarianism, egalitarianism and isolationism, can be obstacles to school improvement and renewal (Hargreaves 1994; Sarason 1996; Vesilind and Jones 1998). Furthermore, strategies for implementing educational change seem to be successful if they are culturally coherent or aligned with the existing school or organizational culture (Kezar and Eckel 2002). For these reasons, many researchers advocated that efforts at educational change should be focused on “reculturing” which refers to the process of developing new values, beliefs and norms of schools’ teaching and learning (Hargreaves 1994; Fink and Stoll 2005; Fullan 2001, 2007). When one seeks to understand the change process, he or she should keep in mind Fullan’s (2001) advice that “reculturing is the name of the game” (p. 34). To accomplish sustainable change, the school leaders and all involved in the change have to create a fundamental transformation in the cultures of schools and of the teaching profession (Fullan 2007).

Most studies on the association between culture and educational change are mainly concerned with organizational or school culture. However, it has been suggested that a distinction be made between at least two levels of culture—a macrolevel (i.e., national or societal culture) and a microlevel (i.e., organizational or school culture) (Dimmock and Walker 2005). The organizational culture is located in, interacted with and affected by the societal culture, and at the organizational level, culture refers to the shared norms, values and assumptions of the school (Schein 1996). At the national level, culture is defined as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another” (Hofstede and Hofstede 2005, p. 4) or “those enduring sets of values, beliefs and practices that distinguish one group of people from another” (Dimmock 2002, p. 33). Although the two levels are closely interrelated, Geert Hofstede (1993) argued that the differences between societal and organizational cultures are distinctive in the following way:

National cultures differ primarily in the fundamental, invisible values held by a majority of their members, acquired in early childhood, whereas organizational cultures are a much more superficial phenomenon residing mainly in the visible practices of the organization, acquired by socialization of the new members who joins as young adults. National cultures change only very slowly if at all; organizational cultures may be consciously changed, although it is not necessarily easy (p. 92)

In the increasingly globalized educational context, the relationship between societal culture and change process has attracted more and more attention from researchers, especially in the non-Western or developing countries and regions. This is not least because societal culture has a profound influence on the innovative capacity of a society (Herbig and Dunphy 1998), but differences in race, language and societal cultural have rarely been taken seriously beyond the rhetoric in educational reform (Harris 2000; Nieto 2005). Such recognition of societal culture in educational change in the past decade has certainly produced benefits.

Globalization implies the exchange of educational theory, policy and practice among different cultures (Dimmock and Walker 2005). The compatibility with the cultural underpinnings of a given society makes it legitimate to ask, as Cheng (1998) argued, “to what extent do the cultural traditions of a society affect the implementation of policies for the improvement of education?” (p. 12). In a series of studies conducted by Hallinger and Kantamara (2000, 2001), they found that the contradictions between the cultural traditions of Thailand and the norms inherent in recent educational reforms are readily apparent. The cultural characteristics of Thailand, such as high power distance, high collectivism, high uncertainty avoidance and low masculinity, facilitate or impede the implementation of educational change in a particular way. Change leaders in Thai schools need to adopt a cultural perspective on educational change by integrating the cultural characteristics into their change leadership and training program (Hallinger and Kantamara 2001). In Hong Kong, Walker and Dimmock’s (2000) study showed that the culture of collectivism and high power distance make the forms of teacher appraisal inappropriate for Hong Kong teachers. The key to a meaningful appraisal system in Hong Kong may involve a model that separates rather than combines judgmental and developmental purpose. Tam, Lai and Lam (2007) explored the tensions confronting teachers within the education community regarding the gaps between the Confucian ideals of you jiao wu lei (to teach without classification; “有教無類”) and yin cai shi jiao (to teach students in accordance with their aptitudes; “因材施教”) and the possibility of realizing them in the schooling system in Hong Kong. As suggested by Dimmock and Walker (2005), all activities in schools—leadership, teaching and learning—are culture sensitive and differences in their form and practice may be attributed to the diversity of societal cultures.

Characteristics of societal culture in China

The studies discussed above on the interaction between societal culture and educational change are all in Asian cultures such as Thailand and Hong Kong. Interestingly, there is a scarcity of such discussion in mainland China, though many academics agree that China is one of the most typical cultures in the Asia–Pacific region. As the birth place of Confucius and Confucianism, mainland China exemplifies most of the cultural attributes identifiable in many Asian countries (Cheng 1995). Scholars seeking cultural differences among countries often turn to China for evidence because of its cultural specificities.

Two of the most influential of cross-cultural scholars, Geert Hofstede and Gert Jan Hofstede (2005), identified five dimensions to differentiate various cultures after comparing the data from 74 countries: (1) power distance, meaning the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations accept that the power is distributed unequally; (2) uncertainty avoidance, referring to the extent to which people feel threatened by unstructured situations that are perceived as unknown or different from usual; (3) individualism versus collectivism, which describes the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups; (4) masculinity versus femininity, which reflects a situation in which the dominant values in society are either assertive such as success, money or things, or nurturing such as caring for others and the quality of life; (5) Confucian dynamics, later labeled as long-term orientation versus short-term orientation, which reflects the degree to which the culture put emphasis on a more dynamic, future-oriented mentality or on a more static, tradition-oriented mentality. Viewed in these terms, it can be seen that the “Chineseness” of Chinese culture lies in its relatively high power distance, high collectivism, medium risk-avoiding, medium masculinity and high Confucian dynamics (Hofstede 1993).

Recently, some researchers explored the structure of Chinese culture and its impact on education in China. Although it is suggested that understanding the structure of Confucian traditions is crucial to a comprehensive knowledge of Chinese ethics and culture (Hwang 2001), they also pointed out that Chinese culture is a hybrid and consists of different aspects, including the traditional culture, the Cultural Revolution, the socialist culture, the enterprise culture and the patriarchal culture (Bush and Qiang 2000; Ribbins and Zhang 2006). These cultural traditions have a remarkable impact on the leadership, learning and teaching of Chinese education. For example, the traditional culture is reflected in continued respect for authority, collectivism and harmony in school leadership (Bush and Qiang 2000). Influenced by the collectivist tradition, collectivism emphasizing teacher collaboration and professional learning community is one of the prominent features of teaching culture in mainland China (Wong 2010). Yet, another tradition, saving face (mianzi; 面子), is also an important issue in Chinese culture where maintaining harmonious relationships is important, and under most circumstances, it is unusual for teachers to have direct confrontation with students in classrooms (Yin and Lee 2012). Consequently, in the views of Western researchers, Chinese classrooms usually feature teacher authority, student compliance and hierarchical teacher–student relationship (Ho 2001).

In short, although there are some studies on the cultural characteristics of school leadership (e.g., Bush and Qiang 2000; Ribbins and Zhang 2006) and learning and teaching (e.g., Ho 2001; Wong 2010; Yin and Lee 2012) in mainland China, little is known about the role of Chinese culture in educational change. Adopting a qualitative case study methodology, the present study aims at filling this gap by investigating the influence of societal culture on the implementation of a nationwide educational change in mainland China, i.e., the upper secondary school (USS) curriculum reform. Specifically, it tries to explore this key question: What is the effect of societal culture on teachers’ responses to the USS curriculum reform in China?

Context: the nationwide upper secondary school curriculum reform

At present, curriculum reform is the central agenda of basic education in mainland China. In June 2001, the Chinese Ministry of Education (MOE) initiated a new round of national curriculum reform. This reform involves the complete 12-year basic education system, which includes six years of primary education and three-year junior and three-year upper secondary education. For upper secondary schools, the MOE issued new curriculum guidelines (experimental draft) and curriculum standards for fifteen subjects (experimental draft) in 2003. Subsequently, the nationwide USS curriculum reform was put into practice in September 2004 in four selected provinces, namely Guangdong, Shandong, Hainan and Ningxia, and then gradually extended to other provinces with all 31 provinces having adopted the new USS curriculum by September 2011. In June 2007, the first group of students using the new USS curriculum graduated from the first four provinces.

This ambitious reform attempted to bring a systematic change to the Chinese USS curriculum, especially in the following aspects (MOE 2003):
  • replacement of the existing subject-based USS curriculum structure with a three-level structure consisting of learning areas, subjects and modules;

  • adoption of an elective course and credit system;

  • granting the opportunity of choosing courses to students;

  • improvement of students’ generic skills of independent inquiry, cooperation, communication and problem solving;

  • establishment of a formative evaluation system connecting students’ academic performance with their growth portfolio;

  • decentralization of the existing educational system and encouraging school-based curriculum development.

The USS curriculum reform is a fundamental educational change. In some sense, it can be considered as the response of mainland China to the global tendency of “the return of large-scale reform” since the late 1990s (Fullan 2009). In this national curriculum reform, teachers are the ones who must shoulder the high expectations of various groups including policy-makers, educational administrators and parents in implementing the reform successfully.

Implementing such a large-scale educational change is a very difficult job for upper secondary teachers. Just like their counterparts in other countries, Chinese teachers have to work under the pressure of heavy workloads and examination stress, and the USS curriculum reform makes teachers’ work more intensive. At the beginning of the reform, a survey of teachers’ receptivity and readiness found that teachers considered the USS curriculum reform would be difficult to implement because of its low practicality and limited teacher support in terms of resources. Nevertheless, they considered the reform valuable and had positive receptivity toward it (Ma et al. 2009). As for the implementation of USS curriculum reform, a recent study found that school leaders were placed in a “trilemma” arising from three conflicting cultural values, namely compliance culture, examination culture and the new pedagogic culture advocated by the reform, showing that the change leadership in mainland China is full of tensions arising from conflicting cultural values (Yin et al. 2013).


The present study is based on a three-year qualitative project which seeks to explore the changes of teachers’ emotions, attitudes and behaviors during the implementation of USS curriculum reform in Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong Province.

In Guangzhou, all upper secondary schools are classified into five levels according to the students’ academic achievements in the enrollment examination. In order to obtain more representative teachers’ responses to the USS curriculum reform in schools with different academic background, we selected one school from each of the upper, middle and lower levels, respectively. In each school, one school administrator with responsibility for teaching affairs and a number of teachers representative of different subjects, teaching experiences and genders were selected. This selection produced a sample comprised of a total of three administrators and 20 teachers. The sample could be described as a combined stratified opportunity sample. Table 1 summarizes background information of the schools and teachers participating in this study.
Table 1

Background information of the informants


School academic background

Informants involved


Upper level (Level 1);

One of the six key schools in Guangzhou

One teaching affair director;

Seven subject teachers


Middle level (Level 2–3)

One grade master teacher in charge of the whole-grade teaching affair;

Seven subject teachers


Lower level (Level 4)

One teaching affair director;

Six subject teachers

Data were collected by semi-structured interview supported by documentary evidence. Each interview lasted about 1 hour and concentrated on eliciting teachers’ narratives about their responses to the USS curriculum reform, the coping strategies they used and their opinions of the roles of Chinese culture in curriculum reform. The documentary evidence comprised a self-reflection journal teachers wrote about the curriculum reform, and some teachers also permitted use of their personal blogs and online forum posts as a source of data.

All interviews were transcribed and analyzed inductively. The overall analytic process was an ongoing cyclical process in which categories and patterns emerged from the data and were later cross-checked (Miles and Humberman 1994). Specifically, the grounded theory approach was used. The essence of grounded theory is that the researchers do not impose preconceived frameworks or theories on the data; rather, theory emerges from the data and so is grounded in it. This approach can produce the theoretical perspectives which are more relevant to the situation and enrich our understanding about the problems (Corbin and Strauss 2008). During the data analysis process, NVivo software was used to classify and cluster the data. Coding the transcriptions with NVivo enabled researchers to more effectively draw the codes, concepts and categories step by step, and finally to discover the patterns in the data (Gibbs 2002). Table 2 shows the themes, categories and subcategories in the refined coding system.
Table 2

The refined coding system




Teachers’ obedience


Hierarchical power system


Hierarchical bureaucracy


Political considerations


Respecting the superior


Social expectation of being obedient


The effect of being obedient


Being tolerant in adversity

Teachers’ facework


Face (Mianzi)


The importance of face


Face-emotional support




Micropolitics in teacher interaction


Feigning compliance

Teachers’ collaboration


Collective teaching culture


Shared responsibilities for students


Mutual support and cooperation


Relationships among colleagues


Enjoying the close relationships


Relieving concerns about reform


Facilitating professional communication


The inductive process of data analysis generated three themes which were highly relevant to teachers’ responses to curriculum reform in Chinese cultural context, namely teachers’ obedience, teachers’ facework and teachers’ collaboration. These themes echo a number of characteristics of Chinese culture suggested by researchers (Bush and Qiang 2000; Cheng 1998; Dimmock and Walker 2005; Hofstede and Hofstede 2005).

Teachers’ obedience: following the national reform policy

High power distance is one of the salient features of Chinese culture, which can be found in the Chinese tradition of respecting one’s superiors and authoritative bodies, especially the government and its official decisions (Bush and Qiang 2000; Hofstede 1993; Yin et al. 2013). As Hwang (2001) pointed, in China, people who have higher social status in human relationships usually play the role of resource distributor, and others who are relatively lower in status are assumed to follow the orders or directions made by the superior. As a consequence, the USS curriculum reform was easily put into school practice at the beginning of the reform because it is a national policy issued by the State Council, the highest administrative body in China. For schools and teachers, “how to implement the reform” was the only question for their consideration, rather than “whether to implement the reform.”

All the previous reform policies were initiated by the Ministry of Education, while the USS curriculum reform is led by the State Council. Thus, it is out of the question whether to implement the reform or not. You have to do it whether you are “willing” or not. In a sense, it makes the implementation easier and avoids a lot of complaints. Simply, it would not make any difference if you complain. You have to do it (S3-Administrator-Male).

Those responsible for the reform authorized by the State Council made the assumption that teachers would faithfully carry out the reform initiatives, no matter whether they personally accepted them or not. Teachers’ obedience to the curriculum reform requirements in the policy-makers’ perception was apparently a foregone conclusion, but in the event, that was not necessarily the case. Many frontline teachers held different opinions about the curriculum reform.

They expect us to carry through the new curriculum. They think our role is an implementer and enforcer. Since it is a top-down change, then we (the lower lever) are supposed to be obedient. We are supposed to do whatever the upper level says. They also expect us to be creative and innovative. However, it will not work if your innovations do not conform to their [the upper level] expectations. (S1-Teacher-Male-3)

This reform is by and large an “official will”. That is, it is dominant by the superiors’ opinions. For our secondary teachers, I think many of us would resist it. (S1-Teacher-Female-2)

Influenced by the cultural element of compliance, emphasizing obedience to one’s superiors, teachers cannot modify the decisions and strategies of the reform, because in their perceptions, they were just one small cog in the hierarchical machine of educational administration. As a result, when they experienced tension with how to implement the reform, all they could do was self-adjustment, adjusting their emotions and behaviors to comply with the national policy. As a teacher said, being obedient to the superior’s mandates is the primary task for teachers who are just “small potatoes” in the reform.

For me, it is unimportant whatever feelings or emotions a front-line teacher has. It will not impact the upper-level decision-making. Thus practitioners have to learn how to adapt themselves to the new context instead of expecting the reform to bring favorable environment to individuals. After all, you have to perform your teaching job whatever your emotional feedback might be. You cannot perform beyond our social system. Mmmmm, this can also be called conformity. You have to conform to the top-down demands even if you have different opinions. (S3-Teacher- Female-1)

Although the compliance culture suggested the curriculum reform had a good start, it did not mean the process of implementation would be totally smooth and successful. Contrary to compliance, many frontline teachers thought that the reformers’ expectation on teachers’ obedience was inappropriate, because it excluded teachers from the decision-making about teaching and learning in schools and eliminated their voices about the curriculum reform. As an informant said, the chief failing of the USS curriculum reform was that teachers cannot feel involved.

There is no way for us to express our concerns about the reform to the superiors. We can’t engage with in the reform. Superficially we are involved in this reform, but actually we are not part of it! I think the chief failing is we can’t feel part of the education reform which is supposed to be our own! (S2-Teacher- Male-1)

Teachers’ facework: avoiding direct confrontation by impression management

“Being obedient” does not mean all stakeholders involved in the USS curriculum reform make identical interpretations on the implementation. When potential conflicts between the policy-makers and teachers happened, teachers need to put effort into impression management, or to use a Chinese term, “facework.” Face is “the presentation by means of which a person stages his social existence and communicates its meaningfulness” (Cheng 1986, p. 329). This means a person can manipulate his or her social existence to make it consistent with others’ expectation, and the actions taken by the person to achieve this purpose is the so-called facework. In Chinese human interactions, facework serves the function of conflict prevention and resolution (Jia 1997/8).

The USS curriculum reform adopted many practices that originated in Western education, including constructivist teaching, elective course and credit systems, and portfolio evaluation. Some teachers doubted whether it was appropriate to implement such a Western-like reform in Chinese upper secondary education which usually stresses the mastery of basic subject knowledge and students’ academic performance within the syllabus. However, directly expressing their concerns to others, especially the administrators and outside inspectors, is unwise because undesirable conflicts between teachers and superiors will be produced, and in turn teachers may possibly be labeled as “conservative” or “resistant.” So, doing facework by deliberately showing the words and behaviors in accordance with the requirements of the reform is an effective way to make the policy-makers believe that the teacher is compliant and competent for implementing the reform. In my informants’ interviews, this facework could clearly be seen when the administrators came to schools to inspect the progress of curriculum implementation.

Suppose the [government] leaders would organize a meeting to consult teachers’ opinions towards the reform, I can estimate what the participants would say. Few would say what they really feel or what the leaders might dislike. It is just too hard! Everything in China is “never out of expectation” before it is openly discussed. (S3-Teacher-Female-3)

Since there is a top-down demand for curriculum reform, I in some cases [in demonstration lessons] meet the requirement and teach in the way they want. I am just “showing” to them that “I am implementing the reform.” However, when it comes to the actual effect of classroom teaching, the knowledge impartation has to be considered… Thus, I will give a good show by making my classes lively and dynamic when there is class inspection. Will I deliver every lesson like this? Not necessarily. (S1-Teacher-Male-4)

More interestingly, the outside inspectors also knew the importance of preserving teachers’ face when they evaluated teachers’ demonstration lesson. Through avoiding too negative and pointed evaluation, the inspection sometimes turned into a tacit acknowledgement of the tensions of implementation between the inspectors and teachers.

The demonstration lessons are supposed to serve as training opportunities for teachers, but the action often turns out to be superficial. No observers will provide sharp comments and directly point out the strengths and weaknesses of the teaching. It is the same even if the experts [policy-makers’ counsellors] come to observe the classes. Everybody just plays his/her part in this boring play! (S2-Teacher-Male-2)

Although potential confrontations were avoided and the human relations were harmonized, facework became a hidden threat for the USS curriculum reform because it eliminated the different voices and created an illusion of “all in expectation.” The smooth implementation on the surface masked the undercurrents in the reform process. As described by a teacher, the facework, just like ladies’ makeup, allowed the policy-makers to only know part of the face of the reform, which is common in Chinese society.

[when there is an inspection, the school] is anyway different from what it is usually. This is as a young girl who would like to make up before going out. When the MOE officials came to inspect, the leaders from our provincial education bureaus often accompanied them. We as street-level implementers do not want to offend our superiors, particularly those from our provincial bureaus. Thus, when the inspectors come to schools, they fail to know a lot of real stories. What they hear and see are often positive and beautiful stories. This is a problem that is not confined to the field of education. Instead, it is a long-lasting problem in [different walks of life] in China. (S2-Teacher-Male-3)

Teachers’ collaboration: enjoying the collaborative teacher culture

Studies repeatedly showed that high collectivism is a significant characteristic of Chinese culture (Bush and Qiang 2000; Ribbins and Zhang 2006; Dimmock and Walker 2005). Contrary to the prevalent individualist teacher culture in Western education systems which advocates teacher autonomy and individual effectiveness, Chinese teachers believed that education or teaching is collectivist by nature because the student achievement is the result of collective effort of various subject teachers.

Education is after all a collective instead of individual endeavor. Even if you can teach the Chinese subject well, can you replace all the other [teachers]? The answer is often negative. That’s why we often emphasize the collective force, which is supported by a lot of examples. A well-collaborated subject panel often produces better results and gets higher peer and student feedbacks than an excellent teacher working on their own. (S1-Administrator-Male)

As suggested by Hargreaves (1994), the collaborative culture of teaching is a climate in which teachers are more united than divided, and the responsibilities and uncertainty are shared and discussed with a view of giving help. For a long time, mentoring the young teachers, collective lesson planning and peer teaching observation have been a popular teacher development in schools, and almost all schools establish some formal organizations and regulations such as teaching research group (jiaoyanzu; 教研組), lesson planning groups (beikezu; 備課組) and district teaching research activities (qu jiaoyan huodong; 區教研活動) to facilitate teachers’ communication and cooperation in school or across schools. During the implementation of the USS curriculum reform, the function of these teacher organizations was strengthened. The teaching research activities at city and district levels provided schools with various reform experiences and teaching materials related to new USS curriculum. Moreover, school-based teaching research (xiaoben jiaoyan; 校本教研) was put forward as a way of using teamwork and collective wisdom to overcome the difficulties in implementation.

Our municipal Teaching Research Office contributes a lot to the implementation of the new curriculum reform. The teaching research activities organized by the Office provide us with a lot of documents and other resources. It facilitates our sharing of the resources. Within schools we plan the lessons together. Colleagues belonging to the same lesson planning group can discuss together and draw on collective wisdom. (S3-Teacher-Female-2)

We conduct the teaching research activities that will benefit us. Actually the discussion between teachers is a form of teaching research. Our lesson planning groups are running well. We have a weekly meeting, sitting together and discussing how to deliver the lessons. (S2-Teacher-Female-1)

In the teachers’ eyes, collaboration and solidarity are very important for coping with the challenges brought by the reform. This feeling of “sailing in the same boat” not only relieved teachers’ workload and concerns about the reform, but also promoted harmony among colleagues.

Now we are sailing in the same boat and we share a sense of crisis. This means it is very important to work together in the face of the challenge of the new curriculum. [In our school] we have always had the culture of collaboration. Actually, facing the new curriculum, we have to collaborate. You just do not have the luxury of time if you do not collaborate with others. Now each of us only has to do our part of the job. Each of us conducts some research before putting them together. This is a way of loosening teachers’ burden as well as improving relationships among colleagues. (S3-Administrator-Male)


It is necessary to first reiterate the fundamental question of this study, namely “What is the impact of societal culture on teachers’ responses to the USS curriculum reform in China?” The findings of this study indicated that educational change is a cultural process and is consistent with the suggestions of other researchers (e.g., Cheng 1998; Daly 2008; Fink and Stoll 2005; Fullan 2001, 2007; Hallinger and Kantamara 2000, 2001). The present study goes further by indicating that the particular societal cultural context in mainland China has a notable impact on teachers’ responses to educational change. This claim raises the following two issues worthy of discussion.

The relationship among teachers’ obedience, facework and collaboration

The findings of this study identified three themes that are highly relevant to Chinese teachers’ responses to the reform, teachers’ obedience, teachers’ facework and teachers’ collaboration, and the relationship among them is explicated as follows.

Confucian tradition is one the major cultural influences on Chinese people’s lives. To understand the social behaviors of Chinese people, many researchers suggested examination of the ethical system of Confucian tradition (Hwang 2001; Li 2006). Hwang (2001) pointed out that ethics for Chinese people follows two fundamental Confucian principles, i.e., favoring the intimate and respecting the superior. Specifically, “favoring people with whom one has a close relationship is termed benevolence (ren); respecting those for whom respect is required by the relationship is called righteousness (yi)” (p. 187). The Confucian ideal of harmony (he), probably the most cherished characteristic of Chinese culture (Li 2006), is achieved through the daily practices of respecting authority and maintaining relationships.

These Confucian ethics explain the logic behind Chinese teachers’ responses to the reform. Teachers in this study practiced the principle of respecting superiors by being obedient to the national reform policy, which meant the different stakeholders involved in the reform had a common aim. One situation, teachers’ facework reduced or prevented the conflicts between them and policy-makers or other people, making the implementation process run more smoothly, at least outwardly. These efforts indirectly facilitated the climate of social harmony. Simultaneously, the collectivist teacher culture and collaboration among colleagues directly enhanced the relationship between teachers and the others. Through close collaboration, human relations were deliberately reinforced, thus softening the uncertainties and challenges brought by the reform. As a result, all the actions of various stakeholders were intrinsically regulated and harmonized to follow the common aim defined by the policy of USS curriculum reform. Figure 1 presents the relationship among the themes highlighted in the present study.
Fig. 1

The Confucian ethics behind teachers’ responses to the USS curriculum reform

Chinese teachers’ responses to the USS curriculum reform

Compared with the previous research on Chinese culture and education (Bush and Qiang 2000; Ribbins and Zhang 2006; Walker and Dimmock 2000; Tam et al. 2007), the present study found that, besides respect for the superior and collectivistic tradition, teachers’ facework is also prevalent in the implementation of the USS curriculum reform. Moreover, this study uncovered the links between teachers’ responses and the Confucian ethics. These findings are useful for us to understand the characteristics of Chinese teachers’ responses to educational change.

In previous international literature concerned with educational change in the USA and Israel, there are usually some teachers who are highly resistant to external reform initiatives, both emotionally and behaviorally. For example, in Datnow and Castellano’s (2000) study of teachers’ responses to the whole-school reform model of Success for All (SFA), they found there were some teachers who featured as “vehemently against SFA” (p. 790). They openly expressed their criticism of the materials, pedagogical practices and philosophical underpinnings of SFA in staff meetings and made major departures from the program in their classrooms, including using different materials and activities. Instead of considering the change initiatives as positive force for good, they thought the imposed reforms were destructive to their teaching, and “externals are the cause of low achievement and achievement gaps” (McKenzie and Scheurich 2008, p. 117). Under some particular circumstance, this bottom-up teacher resistance may influence the policy decisions about educational reform (Berkovich 2011).

However, in the present study, we found even if teachers disagreed with the philosophy of the reform, they were unwilling to express their dissent publicly in China. On the contrary, they were more likely to consciously show that they support the reform, especially when they were inspected by outside administrators. These findings are consistent with what Lee and Yin (2011) found in a recent study on teachers’ emotions and professional identities in curriculum reform. They identified three types of teachers, i.e., “the losing heart accommodators” who strive to adjust themselves to comply with the reform policy; “the drifting followers” who think themselves insignificant and do not engage in the reform; and “the cynical performers” who resist the reform privately but support it overtly. Interestingly, there was no “complete rejection” or “radical resistance” by teachers to the reform in China, which is notably different from what researchers found in educational change in the West (e.g., Berkovich 2011; Datnow and Castellano 2000; Gitlin and Margonis 1995; McKenzie and Scheurich 2008).

The analysis of the data collected for the present study indicated that it is the societal culture emphasizing on respecting the superior, maintaining relationship and social harmony that results in Chinese teachers’ particular emotional and behavioral responses to the curriculum reform. For teachers influenced by these traditions, almost all of them, they are inclined to follow the reform policy to the letter, and when conflicts arise, do self-adjustment and hide their concerns in public. Although teachers’ facework can harmonize human relations by reducing the negative effect of conflicts, it is worth noting that a more subtle resistance, passive resistance, in which teachers look like wholehearted acceptance but never follow through may still exist, or even be prevalent, in curriculum reform.

Implications for change leadership in mainland China

The present study indicated that when educational change is implemented, care must be taken to understand the impact of societal culture on the change process, because the educational change is likely to be effective only when it is consistent with the culture of a particular society and when it travels in the direction of ongoing cultural processes (Cheng 1998). Therefore, as some scholars argued (Dimmock and Walker 2005; Hallinger and Kantamara 2001; Walker and Dimmock 2000), when considering the differences in societal culture between China or East Asia and the Western from which most of the ideas about educational change are derived, developing a culturally sensitive approach to change leadership is likely to be more appropriate to facilitate the implementation of the USS curriculum reform.

The study may be summed up in three areas. First, the results of this study showed that societal culture is a double-edged weapon. Although teachers’ obedience in a high power distance society like China made the USS curriculum reform easily applied, it did not mean that teachers accepted the reform wholeheartedly. Teachers’ facework harmonized the tensions between the policy-makers and teachers, but the smooth and successful implementation might be only an illusion and the outward relationships might be a surface harmony. Furthermore, teachers’ collaboration in Chinese collectivist tradition buffered the challenges brought by the reform and facilitated the collegiality among teachers, but as Bush and Qiang (2000) observed, the bureaucratic and hierarchical aspects of educational administration in China may weaken the part played by teaching research groups and lesson planning groups. These findings remind the change leaders that alongside ready acceptance of the benefits of societal culture, they must also be highly aware of the potential harms. Change leaders must therefore adopt a dialectic perspective to view the influence of societal culture on Chinese teachers’ responses to the USS curriculum reform, even though the societal culture in China may indeed provide a good policy environment where the government can pursue what it believes is the best for students.

The findings of this study highlighted a second paradox, the role of teacher resistance to curriculum reform in China. Influenced by the traditions of respecting superiors and maintaining relationships, teachers’ obedience, facework and collaboration resulted in seemingly smooth implementation and apparently harmonious interpersonal relationships. As shown in the present study, although teachers held different opinions about the USS curriculum reform which sometimes dramatically conflicted with the reformers’ or superior persons’ assumptions, the conflicts of ideas and voices about change were reduced to a minimal level. This served to produce more and more like-minded innovators and reform implementers. However, as Fullan (2001, p. 74) said, “the absence of conflict can be a sign of decay.” By ignoring naysayers or eliminating teachers’ resistance to the reform, change leaders trade off early smoothness for later grief, because the dissenting teachers’ voices may imply their different ideas about authority distribution, decision-making mechanism, workload increase and neglect of teachers’ role in the reform (Gitlin and Margonis 1995). Therefore, teacher resistance should be taken as a potential source of new ideas for improvement and breakthroughs, rather than merely an obstruction to change. A wise change leader should try to make these conflicts visible, particularly early in the implementation (Hallinger and Kantamara 2000), and discover the good sense embedded in teacher resistance, which is especially applicable to the change leadership in China.

Finally, the results of this study supported the argument that change is an emotional as well as a rational process (Hallinger and Kantamara 2001; Hargreaves 2004; Lee and Yin 2011). The societal culture in China impacted teachers’ responses to the USS curriculum reform emotionally as well as behaviorally. For example, facing the imposed reform initiatives, they were unwilling to say no to the policy-makers and outside inspectors, and to express their dissent overtly. During the implementation of the reform, the feeling of “sailing in the same boat” among teachers relieved their concerns about the reform and made them enjoy the collaboration and harmonious relationships. Hence, teachers’ emotional display can be a tool of disguise and a mirror of their authentic feelings in different situations. The cultural sensitive approach to change leadership must take into consideration the differentiation of various teachers’ emotions according to the reform and cultural context. A careful examination of teacher emotion benefits the leaders by permitting them find out the real problems of change planning and implementation and find the right way forward. Hence, direct and speedy communication channels between the reformers and the frontline teachers should be established to facilitate the implementation of the USS curriculum reform (Lee and Yin 2011). In such communication, change leaders should listen to teachers’ feedback, observe their emotional changes and provide continuous on-site support for teachers to resolve the difficulties in reform implementation.

In short, the present study encouraged change leaders to carefully deal with the fusion of pressure and support in curriculum reform. As Barber and Philips (2000) pointed out, only under the condition of high pressure and high support can teachers make rapid progress and achieve satisfactory performance in reform implementation. The USS curriculum reform presented huge challenges for teachers in schools. When reform implementation meets difficulties, change leaders are suggested to first examine whether the support provided for teachers is sufficient or not. As discovered by this study, the support that teachers need in curriculum reform includes at least the following elements, a favorable sociocultural climate respecting teachers’ involvement and decision-making in the curriculum reform, an effective communication mechanism facilitating information dissemination among reformers, change facilitators and teachers, and an effective teacher collaboration system providing both professional and emotional assistance for frontline teachers.


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Copyright information

© Education Research Institute, Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Faculty of EducationThe Chinese University of Hong KongHong KongChina

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