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China's education plan ... from Finland's playbook

Students at Jing'an Education College Affiliated School were among the 500 Shanghai students who outperformed the rest of the world in reading, science and mathematics.
Philippe Lopez | AFP | Getty Images
Students at Jing'an Education College Affiliated School were among the 500 Shanghai students who outperformed the rest of the world in reading, science and mathematics.

If you think the business competition from China is hard now, brace yourself. It will likely get tougher in about 20 years or so. And how is China doing it? By borrowing a page from Finland.

At first blush, though, it would appear that China is simply lightening up.

"The Ministry of Education plans to lessen the heavy workload," said CCTV, China's state television network explained in a post on the English version of its website.

Under the proposed guidelines, which are still under discussion, "primary schools may no longer set any form of written homework for students in grades one to six," said CCTV, "Instead, schools should work with parents to organize extracurricular activities and after-school assignments, including museum tours and library study."

In addition, the new system would revamp scoring systems and reduce the number of mandatory exams.

Top Academic Performers

Science
PISA Score
Reading
PISA Score
Math
PISA Score
Shanghai, China 575 Shanghai, China 556 Shanghai, China 600
Finland 554 Korea 539 Singapore 562
Hong Kong, China 549 Finland 536 Hong Kong, China 555
Singapore 542 Hong Kong, China 533 Korea 546
Japan 539 Singapore 526 Taiwan 543
United States 502 United States 500 United States 487
Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

To be sure, China's current education system has produced some stellar results. In the OECD's latest Program for International Student Assessment exams, Shanghai students came out on top. Students in Hong Kong and Macau didn't fare too badly, either.

(Read more: What's missing in US job skills? The basics)

But experts argue those results don't reflect the entire country, just three of the more well-off cities. In addition, those results come at the cost of one of the highest levels of student anxiety in the world.

But the changes China is adopting may be less about making life easier on students and more about developing an education system along the lines of a consistent top performer: Finland.

"In the long run, for us to become a strong country, we need talent and great creativity," Xiong Bingqi, an education expert at Shanghai Jiao Tong University told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. "And right now, our educational system cannot accomplish this."

The Finnish education system puts less emphasis on testing and homework. Students are steered toward creative activities and teachers are given wide latitude with assignments and curricula. (Here's a neat little video detailing the system).

"Here's the big picture about China's move," said Gary J. Beach, publisher emeritus of CIO Magazine and author of "The U.S. Technology Skills Gap." "If it works—and that is a big 'IF'—China will jump in front in the global race to teach students the 'new' skills like collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. And with their already overwhelming population advantage, if China succeeds (and it will take at least two decades to determine that) it will have dramatic repercussions on the global workforce."

Other scholars, however, don't agree.

"I don't think China is trying emulate Finland," said Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Oregon and a widely cited expert on China education issues, in an email response. "It's trying to emulate the old U.S. (before all the testing, standardization put in place over the last decade or so). China has been trying to change its education since way before Finland became famous for its PISA performance in 2000."

—By CNBC's Allen Wastler. Follow him on Twitter @AWastler.

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