Everyone is a volcano: Yinuo Li On What It Takes To Create A New School (Part 2)

In the second part of this conversation between Yinuo Li, founder of the ETU School, and Thomas Hatch, Li reflects on the challenges and opportunities she encountered in launching a new school in China. Li, a biologist by training and formerly a Partner at McKinsey and then Director of the China Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, established the first ETU school in Beijing in 2016. In part one of this conversation she talks about what it took to create ETU initially.

Thomas Hatch: Was there one thing that was part of your initial vision that you really wanted to see in the ETU school that you couldn’t make work for some reason?

Yinuo Li:  That’s a difficult question. I think what the school has done has already gone far beyond where I thought we could do. Although there have been lots of difficulties, if you talk to anybody who is paying attention to education today in China, a lot of them have heard about ETU. They would see us as a pioneer and trailblazer, so I’m actually very thankful for that. As I said at the beginning of this interview, I realized that a lot of the problems you have to run a school are not within the school or within your own effort. I think education is the place where social anxieties and social issues are concentrated. They are all reflected in the school, because school is where the future of the society lies. Every parent who sends their kids here has this huge vision of where the kids could be. That’s why even though we’re doing, quote unquote, a “private school,” you have to recognize your work takes place in the context of the larger public system. As a result, you have to be an advocate; you have to talk about what you are doing and why, without expecting any revenue from it. If anything, those activities take a toll on your resources, but you have to have your teachers talk about your school to people who are not your parents. I think that’s absolutely necessary.   

A lot of the problems you have running a school are not within the school or within your own effort. I think education is the place where social anxieties and social issues are concentrated. They are all reflected in the school, because school is where the future of the society lies.

My deepest envy is of Finland. In 2018 I went to Finland three times — three times – it was like I was just intoxicated. But if you go there, you realize there isn’t magic there. You think, “Okay, this is how things should be.” Their teacher’s colleges have an 8% admission rate, so you get the best students to be a teacher to begin with. And teachers make a good living because the entire state is a welfare state so you don’t have to be an investment banker to be successful. You can be a teacher and have a higher level of respect. Then there’s so much equity in the system that the best school is the school next door, so you don’t have to spend that much money.

ETU students and parents at the school’s opening ceremony at the Forbidden City

When I went to Finland, the image I had is that we’re gardeners, that teachers are responsible for growing these little plants. But then I realized that the most important thing for a plant to grow is the sunshine; it’s the water; it’s the soil; it’s not my gardening skill. Of course, my gardening skills have to be okay — you can’t go around messing things up – but that’s not the essential part of it. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. And, oftentimes, when the sunshine, soil and air isn’t there, you have to find different ways of growing. If you’re in the desert, and all you see all around you are cactus, you think “Oh I’ve got to grow cactus too, otherwise I can’t win.” It becomes this vicious cycle. But if you don’t want your kids to be a cactus, what do you do? Instead of saying, “Okay, this is a desert. I’m just going to grow a cactus,” the only thing you can do is try to create this oasis in the desert. Then you’ll realize making this oasis is a huge task. You have to get water from thousands of miles away. You have to deal with sand storms, all that. But once you have this tiny little oasis, things will just grow. You don’t have to spend time picking the seeds and then massaging the seeds. The seed will just grow. I think that’s the problem right now. Most people are trying to at least pretend there’s been a lot of effort massaging the seed. But I realized that’s just completely wrong. That’s how I came to the point I mentioned in the beginning about fear. We’re growing cactus because everybody is fearful. It seems like the best way is to grow another cactus, but that doesn’t make you happy. It doesn’t make the world better. It just seems to be the easiest and best way to deal with it.

In China, basically, I’m trying to do a little mini-Finland, and I do a lot of parent education because if there are more people who are awakened then they will see you are not their enemy. Of course, as a school, you will have a lot of operational issues. For example, if you move, parents will complain. “I just signed my lease. You have to pay me back for the lease.” But what I said when that happened is “I feel bad; but you have to realize this is not my fault. It’s the collective cost we are paying because this is a desert.”  One year we had to move, and we’d spent 5 million RMB renovating it, and we were only able to use it for a year because all these other issues and we had to give it up. I was like, “where do I go to ask for the money back?” You collectively have to shoulder a lot of the social costs. You have to have an ecosystem view.  You have to understand that although this is a hard path you take, this is the only path. Otherwise, the only winning strategy is to become a spiky cactus. I think that’s the path that most people have taken which makes the environment so much worse. So you have to have a view of putting yourself in the public domain although you’re not in a public role, and you have to understand that can be hard and painful, but I think it’s the right way to do things.

In China, basically, I’m trying to do a little mini-Finland, and I do a lot of parent education because if there are more people who are awakened then they will see you are not their enemy.

TH:  With the growth in new schools and the private and international school sector in China how do you both stand out from those other schools and make sure that there are middle schools and high schools that your students can go to? And relatedly, given this attention to the wider environment and conditions, how do you deal with things like the Gaokao (the high stakes National College Entrance Examination exam system in China) that may help to contribute to the fears that you’ve been talking about?  (For more on the Gaokao and recent efforts to reform it see IEN’s “New Gaokao in Zhejiang China: Carrying on with Challenges”)

YL: On a practical level, we have a middle school now as well that we started this year.  We have grade six and seven, and we’ll probably have grade eight soon. High school, it’s on the horizon, but we’ll decide later if we want to do it or not. In terms of test prep, I think it is important. You have to prepare; you have to do drills; it’s a part of education that is about hard work. That’s why even in China, I don’t call ETU an innovative school. It’s not an innovation. It’s a normal school going back to what kids need at a certain age. But for college prep, I think the interesting example is from the Affiliated High School of Peking University. It’s a four-year public high school in China and they’re actually quite liberal. I know the head of school, and he’s been there for more than thirty years. His philosophy is that for the first three years, we do the right thing, and the last year, if we need to go to the Gaokao, we’ll take the last year and do a test prep year, and we’ll prep the hell out of it. And then they do pretty well. His whole point is that just because test prep is important, it doesn’t mean you have to start doing it since grade one. It’s all about how you balance it, and it doesn’t mean you drop it either. I really agree with that. Even in the US, you prepare for the SAT’s. In your professional life, if you want to be a CPA or go to business school or whatever, there’s a test you have to take. The test itself isn’t bad, but that shouldn’t dominate or guide your education. That’s the problem. I’m not against test prep, but I think it should be a confined time when you know where you’re going.

On the other hand, the other narrative in China is “how do you compete with somebody who’s been test prepping for 12 years and you only do one year?” I think this narrative is based on a false understanding of education. I graduated from a top high school, and if I were to test prep, nobody could compete with me. I was the first in my class in high school from the most competitive province. But I became good not because I did twelve years of test prep, but because at the end of the day, I don’t hate learning. I like learning.  As I look back I realize maybe the biggest gift got from my family is a growth or development mindset, but, of course, back then, there was no theory to describe that. If you look at people who are successful in history, there are some common traits, and it’s not because they have done twelve years of test prep. I think this is the biggest misunderstanding. It’s reducing education to something very superficial and tactical. The reason there is a huge market for it is because when you are talking about something tactical you can sell things. I can sell you things to help you prep for math or whatever. The more granular you become, the easier it is to make products.  Then you have to prep for fifth grade math and for seventh grade English, and you end up buying 10 products.  There is a market logic behind it. But you have to understand how learning happens. Learning doesn’t happen through this granular collection of credits. Learning happens because you’re intrinsically motivated, and you have the ability to learn; you have cognitive ability; you have been protected; you have the psychological security, and all those very basic things. But those things don’t make money. I can’t say “Hey, you buy this course, you’ll have psychological security and health.” No, it’s much easier to pay for fifth-grade math. There are all kinds of things that are being sold, but at the end of day, is anybody getting happier or better, or becoming a better learner because of that?  Very few. I think testing is fine, but the most important thing is to keep your passion and curiosity for learning.  

There are all kinds of things that are being sold, but at the end of day, is anybody getting happier or better, or becoming a better learner because of that?  Very few. I think testing is fine, but the most important thing is to keep your passion and curiosity for learning.

TH: What’s one piece of advice you have for other people who might like to start a school?

YL: This is probably true for starting anything, but I think the most important things for starting a school are your vision and belief. Visions and beliefs inspire people, and once people get inspired everybody can become dynamite; everybody is a volcano. ETU became sort of an icon and oftentimes people would come and say, “Hey, I want to have an ETU in our city. What do you need? Do you need money?  Do you need a license? Do you need people? I said, “I don’t need any of that. I just need somebody who’s committed to do it.” If you have somebody who’s committed to it, you should not underestimate the level of resources they can come up with from nothing. That’s how I feel because I really started with nothing. People would say you have to work with an investor or you have to have a real-estate company behind you. But sometimes when you have all those things it actually becomes a barrier, a burden, rather than a resource. Again, if you explore the underlying psychology, it’s because of fear. You’re thinking, “Okay, this is something so difficult I need to hold on to something that’s certain, like if you give me money, I can start.” But that could just vanish. The money can be taken away. The investor could walk away. But if you’re committed to something, different things will show up to help you, from nowhere. Money can show up from places you don’t expect. But belief and vision are hard to come by because the toughest negotiation you have is not with your partners, it’s with yourself. 

I think the most important things for starting a school are your vision and belief. Visions and beliefs inspire people, and once people get inspired everybody can become dynamite; everybody is a volcano.

Sometimes I’m jealous of this generation. You have a lot of dreams that might seem crazy but you hold on to them. Don’t give up easily. Many of them will fail, but you will learn from them. Our school has gone through so many crises. We had to move, there were parents who wanted to boycott because we had to move again, and I remember we had this debate one time when we were looking for a different venue for the school. We felt that the new venue could be much better, but there was a risk in communicating this to parents. The debate was about what was more important the venue or the parents? We came to a point where we realized, if the parents still want to follow what we do, it really doesn’t matter where we are. But if we give up our beliefs for the venue, the venue might look nice today, but it might look like nothing tomorrow. You have to continue to negotiate with yourself or you will forget. You will get captured by different things, and you are faced with those things on a daily basis. So you have to keep negotiating, and you can’t give up.

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