The Recent Development of Innovative Schools in China – An Interview with Zhe Zhang (Part 1)

Following the Chinese New Year last week, Zhe Zhang talks with Thomas Hatch and Zhenyang Yu talks about the growth of new schools in China. In the first part of this two-part interview, Zhang discusses how two innovative schools he has worked with have evolved.  In part two next week, Zhang shares his perspective on some of the opportunities and challenges for the development and expansion of innovative school models in China. Zhang began his journey with innovative education at Beijing ETU School after completing his engineering degree in Germany. At ETU, he was a teacher and participant in its initial development. He later joined Beijing Moonshot Academy, where he now serves as an administration officer and where he is developing Moonshot Academy’s teacher training program. For previous discussions on innovative schools in China, see IEN’s previous interviews with ETU Founder Yinuo Li (see Beyond Fear & Everyone’s a Volcano) and Moonshot Academy’s Head of Research Wen Chen (see Launching a New School in China).

IEN: How did you get started with ETU? 

Zhe Zhang: I got to know the ETU School in 2016 when I was still an engineering student in Germany. I learned about this school through the blog Slaves Society (奴隶社会) that ETU’s founders (see bio of Yinuo Li & Huazhang Shen) created on Wechat Official Channel. Their mission and values perfectly resonate with what I have always pictured an ideal school and learning environment to be. After I graduated from the engineering program in Germany, I returned to China and immediately joined ETU school as a teacher.

IEN: How has the innovative schools sector grown since 2016? How have schools like Moonshot Academy and ETU evolved?  

Z.Z.: ETU and Moonshot both began as private (Minban) schools, but ETU incorporates national curriculum standards and teaches mostly in Chinese language K-9, even as it draws on standards and approaches from outside China. As such, it aims to be a Minban school that provides a choice for students to either study abroad or participate in the National High School Entrance Test while learning and growing in “an encouraging and nurturing environment.” Moonshot is a private school, that draws on and aims to “localize” foreign curricula such as those from the College Board’s (US) Advanced Placement program. Most of Moonshot’s graduates choose to attend colleges outside of China.These two schools represent two major directions of school innovation in China, one that aspires to work within China’s national education sector and one that operates largely outside the national sector. 

“These two schools represent two major directions of school innovation in China, one that aspires to work within China’s national education sector and one that operates largely outside the national sector.”

A year after ETU elementary school was founded, the National Center for Schooling Development Programme (学校规划建设中心) of the Chinese Ministry of Education launched a project called “Future School Research & Experiment” (未来学校实验). ETU was one of 39 experimental projects that received funding from the government. At that time ETU operated without an official license, but that’s a common starting point for many of the innovative schools in China. At the time, as long as the educational activities weren’t in conflict with the core direction of the educational policies in China, these types of schools were permitted to innovate and pursue their educational activities.

Moonshot has developed into a K-12 school from a 9th -12th grade school. It is also growing and multiplying. The current plan is to establish three K-12 schools in total. Moonshot has also recently partnered with another local school in Beijing called Qingsen School (清森学校), which was previously the TsingHua University Affiliated School’s international branch (清华附中国际部). This branch grew out of the TsingHua University Affiliated School and joined Moonshot Academy. Now the new K-12 School is called Qingsen Tanyue (清森探月).

The challenges facing both Moonshot Academy and ETU, as well as all other Minban Schools, include, therefore, how to progress towards providing K-12 education for their students. 

IEN: Has there been any pushback from the government?

Z.Z.: Just last year, the Ministry of Education released a new set of data showing that in the K-12 educational sector, there are in total 221,800 public schools and 185,700 Minban (private) schools, but as I mentioned previously, so far the MOE’s “Future School Research & Experiment” project only consists of 39 schools. Innovative education therefore only serves a very small population and hence cannot be considered as mainstream education. However, in the past 3 years, I have seen a growing number of public schools and Minban schools that are applying the education models of the existing innovative schools to their own developmental trajectory.

IEN: What other kinds of innovative schools are there in China?

Z.Z.: There is a very interesting innovative school in Fuzhou, a province close to Taiwan. Fuzhou Inkai Primary School (福州云开学校) started from the pre-school level for 2-year-old young children. The founder built up the school‘s levels as her own child grew in age. Now it has developed into a K-9 school. The founding team from this school consists of educational experts from Fuzhou Teachers College. This school is a good representation of innovative educational experiments in a less developed context (in contrast to Moonshot and ETU, which are both in Beijing, one of the major cities in China). The school in Fuzhou has incorporated local culture and traditions into their innovative educational model. Compared to innovative schools in highly developed urban districts, Inkai Primary Schools, especially during its early phase, recruited college graduates with only 3-5 years of experience. The average professional experience of teachers therefore might not be as rich as those who are from urban schools. Additionally, its curriculum is more aligned with the Chinese public educational curriculum, however, Inkai has adopted many innovative pedagogies and concepts such as Project-Based Learning (PBL) and Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

IEN: How do you develop a curriculum that reflects local values but is also innovative?

Z.Z.: Many schools in China actually operate international education branches for students who have foreign nationalities and those who plan to study abroad. Moonshot Academy’s student body mostly comes from these groups. Moonshot draws on Western curricula and localizes and innovates by designing courses that help their students develop cognitive abilities and learn about Chinese culture within the global context. Even though teaching and learning might be slightly different from students’ previous educational experiences, all students have the opportunity to follow these curricula and discover and develop their identities through these courses. Some students might be conservative in their approach to learning, but I believe they will eventually be empowered to discover their potential and to open to new ways of learning.

IEN: Are there goals or plans that Moonshot has not been able to implement?

Z.Z.: The founder of Moonshot Academy had a vision of expanding the school at a global scale, but this remains to be a big challenge at least in the present stage. Moonshot has just developed a K-12 model earlier this year, and I believe as the model continues to operate and reaches a half or a full cycle, Moonshot will be able to scale and expand abroad. I can see that Moonshot will play a role in bridging communication between China and other countries in the world. 

Translated by Zhenyang Yu

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