A Lesson from Rural China: Not One Student Less

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

In Zhang Yimou’s 1999 film, Not One Less, Wei is a 13-year-old girl who is called upon to serve as a substitute teacher in a one-room primary school. The setting is a small rural village in Hebei province, in present day China. Her qualification is that she’s a primary school graduate, which places her a step ahead of the 27 students.

Technology is reduced to the bare minimum: the shabby schoolhouse, tables and chairs, chalkboard, chalk, teacher, a single textbook for the teacher, and a tablet and pencil for each student. Teaching is the copying of passages from the textbook to the chalkboard. Learning is the copying of passages from the chalkboard to the tablets.

By today’s standards in developed countries, this scene appears primitive. In contrast, the vast majority of students have access to many textbooks, and an increasing number have access to web-based learning resources. Teachers have access to a wide range of instructional resources, including the web.

However, despite these stark contrasts, I couldn’t help but notice that the basic structures remain the same: students gather in a classroom for a period of time to receive instruction from a teacher.

Interestingly, the only time learning becomes active is when it leaves the classroom. One of the 27, Zhang, drops out to work in the provincial city, Jiangjiakou. To fulfill her task of keeping the class intact (“not one less”), she and the students take on the project of finding Zhang and bringing him back to the school. Together, they determine how much money Wei will need to undertake the “rescue.” They work together to earn the funds. And Wei sets out to find Zhang.

In the end, the message isn’t the primitive technology and pedagogy. Neither is it about poverty and wealth. Instead, it’s about the value of a single student, of every student. For Wei, the 13-year-old teacher, giving up is simply not an option. “Not one less” predates “no child left behind” by a couple of years, but the intents are the same. Every child is precious, and the ultimate test of a society is the effort it’s willing to make to see that not a single child is ignored or forgotten.

Ironically, the tragedy of Not One Less is universal, cutting across national and economic boundaries. The embodiment of the ideal is Wei, an innocent and naive 13-year-old whose character serves as a foil to the impersonal bureaucracy of red tape (no pun intended). The message is clear: As a society, we cannot legislate the kind of determination and caring that Wei symbolizes. In fact, we seem to tacitly accept the fact that only a child such as Wei would be so naive as to believe in and act on the ideal.

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