In the second part of this two-part interview, Zhe Zhang talks with Thomas Hatch and Zhengyang Yu about some of the opportunities and challenges for the development and expansion of innovative school models in China. In Part 1, Zhang discussed how two innovative schools he has worked with have evolved (The Recent Development of Innovative Schools 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 do innovative schools help teachers to teach innovative ways?
Z.Z.: In China, most of the institutions and teacher preparation programs don’t really teach about innovative pedagogies. Innovative schools welcome teachers who come from a variety of majors or professional backgrounds. As a result, the innovative schools do play a very important role in supporting instructors in terms of providing a platform for growth and an encouraging environment for teachers to experiment with various ways of teaching. There are definitely risks and costs involved in experimentation. That’s why during the initial phase of development, Moonshot and ETU faced challenges to scale up, since not every family can take on the burden of risks and costs of uncertainties and potential mistakes. Even though innovative schools can guarantee a level of educational quality that is actually still above most public schools in China, risks are inevitable.
With all the innovation and experimentation, schools make sure that all of their faculty members agree on the fundamental values regardless of the kinds of innovative approaches they take. These values include teaching students about kindness, seeking truth, and respecting others. On the technical side, these schools draw on many useful open tools developed through successful educational experiments and cases all around the world, but how instructors ultimately choose to adapt these tools in their daily classroom teaching depend on their own educational philosophies and what they hope to pursue.
One example of a tool that is widely used in many innovative schools today is coaching. It plays a very important role in organizational development. When it is used in a school setting, coaching helps teachers reflect and improve their pedagogical methods. Usually faculty members form groups or peer-to-peer relationships to hold each other accountable as well as to help each other grow. The coaching method accelerates the process of the school innovation by empowering faculty members and developing a more capable teaching staff.
IEN: How do innovative schools evaluate teachers?
Z.Z.: At Moonshot Academy, the evaluation method based on tests is referred to (in Chinese) as “selling piggie”, meaning one only cares about how much a pig weighs, but doesn’t look at the qualities of its hair and appearance. This metaphor applies to the traditional method of evaluating teachers and students. On many occasions, this type of evaluation ignores students’ development in social-emotional skills, communication skills, and other aspects of academic improvement, but these areas are recognized and evaluated in most of the innovative schools. In terms of teacher evaluation, innovative schools often evaluate a teacher’s curriculum design, class performance, personal development, as well as the relationship with students and parents. Some schools also encourage teachers to share and demonstrate their creative contribution and experiments at the end of every semester. The purpose of asking teachers to demonstrate each semester isn’t really about judging and evaluating them. It is rather a very transparent and effective way to share educational results with the wider community, making results visible for the public to see and helping teachers to recognize areas for future improvement.
“…asking teachers to demonstrate each semester isn’t really about judging and evaluating them. It is rather a very transparent and effective way to share educational results with the wider community, making results visible for the public to see and helping teachers to recognize areas for future improvement.”
IEN: What has been the response of parents? Has there been resistance against innovation?
Z.Z.: There is of course a lot of resistance coming from parents, but innovative schools have many ways to reduce parents’ mistrust. Parents are different from educators, since they tend to look at results first. Without a deep knowledge in the education field, it is understandable that they are likely to question why a new approach needs to be adopted and why their children would benefit from it. For innovative educators, confidence is extremely important. If educators are confident enough in their teaching approach and firmly believe that the new approach is a better fit for the students’ learning and future growth, parents will then be reassured and be willing to provide support. Parents often resist because they see a lack of confidence in teachers. Additionally, schools need to communicate frequently with parents about what they have innovated or have done for their students in a more transparent way.
ETU also says that “school is a place just a little bigger than home.” They identify a group of parents who align with the schools’ missions and are extremely supportive of what the school is trying to do for students. These parents are invited to become leaders in parent committees. Schools like this often work very closely with these parent leaders, who can help other parents build trust in their schools. I actually think this comes from ancient Chinese wisdom.
IEN: How do the innovative schools get the financial support to sustain themselves and expand?
Z.Z.: Schools are organizations that have a high cash flow. For Moonshot Academy and most of the Minban schools in China, if they are able to scale up to a level that ensures sustainable development, there can be a stable cash flow coming in every single year. For Moonshot, as long as it reaches an enrollment of 300 students, the school can get a positive balance at the end of the year. If the school can enroll even more students, then the profit can be used for the school’s operation, innovation and development. The tuition for Moonshot is about 30,000 – 40,000 USD per year for each student. The source of capital and funding for other schools may come from the government (through the form of rent), and from private donations.
IEN: What are some of the first steps in developing an innovative school?
Z.Z.: You can start small and make the initial step by looking for the first student or the first class in your school. The conceptual framework has to do with the local context. One question that you might want to ask yourself is what is your local demand? And how is your school going to differentiate itself from the other schools in the community/region? There is a very successful innovative school that started out just by introducing a small program. The school takes their students outside of the traditional classroom. The program encourages students to learn and apply knowledge in real-world contexts through playing and exploring in nature. Meanwhile the program seamlessly integrates the curriculum objectives into this new way of teaching and learning. (In most of the educational settings in China, students learn in classrooms). So this small innovation actually has made a very big difference and this school has attracted a large number of local students and parents.
“One question that you might want to ask yourself is what is your local demand? And how is your school going to differentiate itself from the other schools in the community/region?“
IEN: What other advice do you have for other school designers and education entrepreneurs?
Z.Z.: This is something that I have constantly been thinking about after participating in both ETU and Moonshot’s development from zero to one. I believe there are three important things to consider before starting a new school. First, you need to have strong determination and motivation because there will definitely be a lot of unforeseen obstacles and difficult moments throughout the entire process that will make you want to give up. Second, you need to have a small team or a platform to start experimenting. For instance, ETU actually started with one class and grew from a community of like-minded families. Lastly, you also have to think about potential sources of funding. In the beginning, you might only receive a very small amount of investment, but education is a field about impact and people. If you have strong passion and belief in what you are doing, many people will be willing to help you succeed.
“If you have strong passion and belief in what you are doing, many people will be willing to help you succeed.”
– Translated by Zhenyang Yu