Tag Archives: New Schools

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.

Beyond Fear: Yinuo Li On What It Takes To Create New Schools (Part 1)

Dr. Yinuo Li, co-founder of the ETU School, talks with Thomas Hatch about her experiences starting new schools in both China and the US. A biologist by training and a formerly a Partner at McKinsey and then Director of the China Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Li established the ETU school in Beijing in 2016. Since that time, ETU has opened campuses in Guangzhou and in Palo Alto, CA. The first part of this two-part conversation focuses on what it took to get ETU started; in the second part Li reflects on the opportunities and challenges for launching new schools and offers advice for other new school founders.

Thomas Hatch: When I talk with the founders of new schools, I often begin the conversation by asking about the initial problem or issue that motivated their work, but you’ve already written about that in Reimagining Schools in a Hyperconnected World for WISE. In that article, you highlighted concerns about unprepared students, anxious parents, stressed-out teachers and isolated schools and then you described your vision for addressing those issues. How did you develop that vision and what were the first steps you took to put it in place?

Yinuo Li: I think there was definitely a sense of naiveté when I started ETU. If you’re not ignorant or naïve enough, I don’t think you would embark on something like this, as you’ll find out later. But I think the major trigger started when I was at McKinsey. I had been there for over ten years and when we were recruiting top notch graduates I found that most of them, like many graduates, were not in a place of clarity. In fact, most graduates are in a place of complete lack of clarity, even if they’ve graduate from the most privileged programs and schools.  There seems to be a big gap where people have a lot of fantasies, and they think “well, I graduated from Harvard or Columbia or Tsinghua University in China, I’m done I’m set for life.” No, you’re not.

I think that was the initial trigger, and then later on, my experience also evolved. When I started the school, the direct reason was my own children because I was moving our family from California back to Beijing. My eldest was six, and he was starting first grade in China. I was the Founder of the school, and I could see all the problems, but I was primarily focused on how we could build a curriculum to “fix it.” Particularly at that time there was a big divide in China between international education and public education. It seemed like everybody had to be on one track or the other from very early on, and if you fall in between the tracks, you’re in no man’s land. I think that’s very toxic so I wanted to find a middle track. It shouldn’t have to be one or the other, if you focus on the right thing, it should be good enough. So creating that “middle track” was the first vision. But then the vision evolved as I started to realize that a school is much more complicated than that. It’s much more than curriculum. It’s really about how you support everybody in the system – the teachers, the staff, all your stakeholders outside the school.

Before March 2016, I would never have thought of myself as having any connection to the word ‘education’ in a professional sense…(but) Something happened that spring. On the surface, it was triggered by my eldest son’s time to start primary school, and our family’s move from California to Beijing. However, these two pivotal moments awakened something in me, helping me to see the links between many of my random and seemingly irrelevant experiences with education and making them suddenly relevant. This random list of experiences includes my own memories as a student, ten years working at McKinsey, recruiting and training college graduates, supporting career development for youth, three years as a minor social influencer (my husband and I have a WeChat blog with 700K followers), receiving multiple inquiries from young people confused about the future and, of course, my experience as a mother.

Yinuo Li, from  Reimagining Schools in a Hyperconnected World

Developing all those systems was the second stage. Now we have a lot of systems: we have a curricular system for the kids; we have the teacher professional development system; we have systems for parents and community support. The third stage, which is where I think I am now, is that I’m realizing that there are so many problems in education that are rooted in one thing and that is our inability to face our fears when faced with uncertainty. Of course, the future is all about uncertainty, and school is almost the collective reflector of all the fears in a society about the future. It’s only when you have a way of engaging with teachers, parents and all your stakeholders in a conversation to face those fears that you actually can get a real awakening.  If you have that, many things can follow. You can have a system that’s more oriented towards children rather than one focused on addressing those adult fears. If you look at most elite schools, the hidden message is “as long as you pay this much money, as long as you join my club, your kids will be fine.” I just think that’s the wrong way of approaching it. If anything, it’s creating more problems than solving them.

Instead, we have to confront those fears because they reflect the very basic nature of human beings. And schools are manifestation of those fears which is really sad. It’s all hidden though so you can talk about project-based learning or whatever, and those are innocent concepts on their own, but they are being packaged into a fear-based system, as if your kids don’t have project-based learning, they’re doomed. I think that’s the problem. if you don’t address that fundamental issue, then all the good concepts and practices will end up being another tool to exaggerate those fears.

There are so many problems in education that are rooted in one thing and that is our inability to face our fears when faced with uncertainty… It’s only when you have a way of engaging with teachers, parents and all your stakeholders in a conversation to face those fears that you actually can get a real awakening.

I think that’s where we are now. At the end of the day, as you start to understand the work of all those educational pioneers and how they were thinking about education, you realize many  of them actually go directly at that fear, to the root. Because if you don’t address it, all this fancy stuff on the surface is only exacerbating the problem. That’s where I am on a heart level. Of course, the school is still the school, but these are the different phases of how I’ve been thinking about the school.

TH: That gives a wonderful sense of the evolution of your thinking, but can you take us back to the beginning, and some of the basics? How did you get started, find other parents, and make sure that the vision wasn’t just your vision, but that it was a vision that was shared with that initial group?

YL: It really started with a WeChat blog that my husband and I started in 2014. I think by the time we want to do a school, we had about half a million followers. When we started writing, it had nothing to do with education. At that time, I was a partner at McKinsey and there were a lot of questions about typical women’s leadership problems like how do you balance everything and all that. I built up a followership, and although I didn’t really know it at the time, many of them were parents. That became an advantage as we had a big pool of potential parents when we started doing the school.

Of course, the biggest headache in China, much more than US, is the licensing, but again we we’re very lucky because there was a public school that had been asked to take over another poorly performing public school that didn’t have a lot of students. The school that was taking over was interested in renting some empty classrooms. It was almost like a godsend that they didn’t have enough students. They had three classrooms to rent and they already had the proper license. So that’s how we got started the first year. However, because it’s s public school, in Year 2 the school said that they needed the classrooms because they were expanding and we had to move.  In fact, we’ve moved five times since then. At that moment, you think “Wow, this is a huge headache. Where do I find the space?”  You have to communicate with the parents and tell them we’re moving again which is really hard because there are many families who moved so they could be near the school. And Beijing is a huge city so it’s not like you can just drive five minutes to another location. But that’s how we got things off the ground; that’s the initial phase of the story.

I still remember it was April 1, April Fools Day 2016, we put out this article. Basically, the title was “Are you also troubled by education?” I wrote down all the things I was seeing, and I said, “Hey, by the way, I wanted to start a school.”  I said, “we want to start with 30 students and five teachers. If you’re interested, here is how you apply, this is the email address.” That article, in one day, probably got 200,000 views, and it was pretty widely circulated. I still remember we got about 800 emails. I was blown away. I didn’t realize how common these concerns were and how much it would resonate with people who are reading it. We got over 100 applications for teachers and about 200 families said they were interested. So that’s how we started. We got teaches from there, and we got the first round of families from there.

TH: What aspects of your curriculum were you able to put in place in that first year?  Was it primarily the Chinese curriculum mixed with a little bit of project-based learning?  How much could you really get going?

YL: In that first year, we actually got a lot going on. As I look back, the first two or three years were excellent because we were able to integrate almost everything. I’ll give you one example, in the spring we did a garden project – planting tomatoes and cucumbers and beans and stuff. That project went through the entire semester because you can do so many things with it. Upfront, you can test the seeds; you can observe the weather; you can see the rainfall; and then there are so many things you can design. Kids were putting in different seeds in different solutions with different levels of acidity, and then they had this entire observation project, both in Chinese and English, where they could write down notes and draw. Towards the end of the semester, after the harvest, we designed a project with a student-run restaurant. Since there were not as many people looking over us, the teachers could just take the students to the supermarket or to visit restaurants to figure out why some have better business than others. The kids would come up with solutions like, ”Oh, because they have music,” or “they have uniforms,” and all that. And then, of course, they had to run the restaurant. They needed to figure out the menu.  They had to figure out how much to charge, and they ended up asking for tips and then they had to figure out how to politely ask for tips. A lot of fun things! So in the first year it was almost a fully integrated curriculum. But now, because we were licensed two years ago, there are more inspections and compliance and all that.  That includes some control at the micro level, like how much time you have to spend on math and Chinese. Still, we’re trying to do as much as we can, but compared to the first year there is much less flexibility.

TH: That gives us a good sense of how you started with the curriculum, but where did the funding come from?

YL: Well, the funding, that’s another story! There were two things. One is that original WeChat article reached some of the people who were concerned about education. One of them was an investor of herself, and she found me through the grapevine and a series of connections. And she donated 4 million RMB (about $600,000 USD). I was very thankful for that, but it’s not enough for hiring and everything else. The second thing is that for WeChat accounts like ours, typically people would put up advertisements to make some money. We never did that, but we have a pretty solid set of followers, so I said, “Okay, I’m going to create an online community,” and I charged a fee of 2000 RMB a year (about $305 USD), and said it would max out at 1000 people. I had no idea how it would go, but then it actually sold out in one day, and I said “Wow! That’s 2 million RMB right there.” We did it two more times, so I got 6 million RMB, and I remember it just felt surreal. But it meant that there were a lot of people who wanted to join, so that 6 million RMB became our startup funds.

But, to be honest, even today, we’re not making money. We’re not breaking even.  Fortunately, there are many investors who are interested in us and investing. However, I still slowly realized that the best model for us would have been something like a charter school, because right now in China, most of your spending goes to facilities. That’s why there are a lot of real estate companies who are interested in investing. For many, it’s a way for them to raise the price of their property around the school. Frankly, that might not be bad. As long as they leave me alone. But they don’t leave you alone either, because they want to package your school to attract a certain buyer. They have an agenda. So financially, things have been a struggle. We’re still afloat, but from the beginning, I turned down a lot of those so-called investors with easy money. In hindsight, that was a good choice. So, even today, although there are more restrictions, none of them are enforced by the investors.  Those come from the external public environment, and we can still get lot done. So that’s the real story. But, frankly, if you can pay for my real estate, if you can pay for the salary for the teachers and all that, I don’t have to charge anything. I would rather make the school free. But you can’t. You don’t have such a model in China.

– Part 2 to come next week…

Interview with Vicky Colbert

VIcky Colbert

VIcky Colbert

Vicky Colbert is the co-founder of Escuela Nueva in Colombia, a school with a pedagogical model known worldwide for its effectiveness in improving the quality and relevance of basic education. In this featured interview, originally published in the AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group newsletter, Colbert describes the origins, widespread adoption, and recent developments of the model.

To read the full interview, click here: Lead the Change Issue 29 Colbert