China has a long tradition of rote learning in its schools, memorization based on repetition geared toward high exam scores. However, many educators and a new generation of parents have acknowledged that this method is outdated.
To counterbalance that, many schools are adopting an educational philosophy that encourages problem-solving skills and collaborative creativity.
One of those involved in driving such changes is the Danish toy company Lego, which now has a wide presence in middle schools in China in the form of robots that are made from its building blocks.
"Some schools in China are using the robots in classes, but they are mainly for middle schools," said Chen Zhiqing, president of Lego Education China.
Big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have run courses using the robots for the past 15 years, and about 10,000 schools across the country now have the courses.
The company has developed a series of brick sets and curricula that match those of primary schools and it says it wants to set up innovative centers or laboratories in schools.
"Under a five-year plan, we expect to build 100 laboratories a year," Chen said.
In addition, it wants to make its bricks part of curricula in more primary schools for important subjects such as literature and maths.
The Lego curricula, designed on the educational idea of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math), aims to break down the barriers between art, hard science and math.
"A teacher teaches across subjects, which means that teachers have to be more fluent in many different targets," Ethan Danahy, an engineering education specialist at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said.
"Teachers can often be the biggest challenge in the expansion and transition."
In November, Shanghai began a pilot program to introduce a curriculum in 12 primary schools and kindergartens that covers science, technology, engineering and maths, and more schools in the city are expected to join the program later this year.
Ren Hui, a science teacher at the primary school affiliated with Peking University, the first school in China to introduce Lego's education systems, said that at the time, she had no idea the methods were so hands-on.
"It was a brand-new teaching resource. I had to play and learn it myself from scratch. But the more difficult part was to adopt a teaching approach," he said.
In May, Lego Education conducted two workshops, in Beijing and Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, for more than 300 teachers from primary schools on how to use Lego bricks in the new model.
"These are our first workshops dedicated to primary school teachers," Chen said. "We will have more in the future if it helps teachers to get better acquainted with the bricks and education idea."
In September, Lego Education signed a second five-year agreement with the Chinese Ministry of Education under which the company would provide its products and equipment to more Chinese schools the ministry nominates. It is meant to enable Chinese students to "learn by playing" and improve their innovative ability.
Under the agreement, the company would provide training for teachers to help them play a better role in guiding and inspiring students to innovate.
Educators say students benefit from hands-on tools that help engage them in class and make abstract knowledge tangible.
"When students work with their hands they are engaged and are inventing, creating and building new solutions to problems," Danahy said. "Students can better understand knowledge acquired in courses like mathematics."
Danahy said he has found that in China and other Asian countries teachers are preoccupied with standard tests and rigid, structured teaching that make it difficult to introduce new methods
"Transition is very difficult because it is not one switch, one thing that allows you to move. You have to change many variables simultaneously. It is about the students' and the parents' perceptions of schools, education environments and administration," said Danahy.
Li Yatong, a math teacher with an international primary school, said that unlike teachers in Europe and the United States, teachers in Chinese primary schools teach a single subject with separate syllabuses.
"It is difficult to integrate these subjects with all other sorts of topics," she said.
The aim is to use Lego's methods to supplement regular courses in primary schools.
"We hope primary schools can use it for major subjects once a week to review the knowledge taught over the week," she said.
China's coastal areas, such as Shanghai and Zhejiang province, will be the key markets "as people there are more open to education innovation and transition", she said.
The expansion would be helped by the new generation of parents. Young Chinese parents are more concerned about their children's ability to survive in society and are keen to adopt more innovative learning techniques.
Ma Hongyan has sent her 11-year-old son to different kinds of special interest classes to foster the skills of dynamic problem solving and innovative thinking.
"I hope my son can be a critical and creative thinker," she said.
Lego sees China as a key driver for growth. Last year the company's revenue rose 13 percent to 28.6 billion Danish kroner ($4.2 billion) from 25.3 billion kroner the year before. Growth of the brand's sales in China was in the double digits, the company said, adding that it cannot provide more precise figures.
Roborobo, South Korea's largest provider of educational robots, is also expanding in China by leaps and bounds. Its bricks were first introduced to China in 2009, and the company has since worked with kindergartens, primary schools and other educational institutions to have them used routinely in classes.