When teachers read that a government minister had said in 1992 that China would be pollution-free by the end of the century, they all laughed.
Hao Bing, a lecturer in the environmental education centre at Beijing Normal University, was pleased with that. The text the teachers were given as part of a distance-learning project has helped to develop their critical thinking, she explained.
Environmental education is a relatively new concept in this vast country. Since the United Nations' conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the government has given it more credence.
However environmental educators are in short supply and teachers are not familiar with cross-curricular work.
In order to overcome these problems, a project - supported by the British Council - has been set up to develop a tele-teaching network between the university and four schools in the south-east of China, several thousand miles away.
Apart from improving skills in educational technology, the scheme will produce a multi-media training package to show teachers ways of bringing environmental education into the classroom.
Distance learning, using public telephone lines, personal computers and electronic whiteboards, will provide the in-service training needed by thousands of teachers if they are to carry out the government's major educational reforms.
Education minister Chen Zhili wants the next generation of children to be liberated from the highly competitive examination system and learn to think for themselves.
Pupils were taught by rote to pass exams and not to question teachers or find out for themselves.
Beijing Normal set up the environmental centre two years ago with professors from a wide variety of departments offering courses, including geology, history, biology, maths and education.
Hao Bing believes a cross-curricular approach is essential as environmental education involves not only science and technology, but values and social issues.