I returned in April from a 10-day whirlwind trip to China. During that time, I visited six cities, each of which has a population greater than New York, and visited eight schools. The trip was fascinating for many number of reasons - some of which I will elucidate.
I will start on the macro level. China is indeed a country on the move. The old joke that China’s national bird is the crane – rings true. There were cranes everywhere, building increasingly taller and taller office and apartment buildings. However, the joke does not capture the entrepreneurial energy of China. While I admit that I mainly met with the business elite, the commitment to grow China’s economy was palpable. Refreshingly, the commitment was motivated in part by helping the country, not just in helping themselves.
Business people in China have a strong infrastructure to help them innovate. Bullet trains crisscross the country. The train trip from Beijing to Shanghai, a distance of 1300 km (or 800 miles), takes 5 ½ hours at an average speed of 150 mph with a top speed of over 200 mph. Wireless connections are everywhere, and everyone pays for everything electronically. The only credit card I saw the entire trip was mine. The cities were modern looking, if congested, and safe. Rental bikes were parked neatly all over cities.
Chinese business people are sure of where they want to go, are going, and they have the energy to get there. I’d describe them at brash. Like all brash people, they will make mistakes, but they will also get many things accomplished.
Education is and has been a major focus in China. The pressure to excel at the Gaokao, the test given to all high schools, is intense. The score on that test determines which college you may attend. In order to prepare for the test, students memorize facts – most, without deeper understanding. Even in middle and elementary school, most students are asked to recite in class. Discussion is rare as are hands-on activities. What made my trip interesting from a micro perspective is the educators in China who realize that the traditional way of educating is not appropriate for today’s world.
China now allows private schools—non and for profit. I visited mostly private schools and each school leader talked about the need for students to be creative, collaborative, innovative and tenacious. They know that if China is to invent things, and not just make things, then its education program has to change. The educators I met knew what they wanted their education to achieve, but they were uncertain about how to get there. Amazingly, schools throughout China recognized that Duke School does understand how to teach so students can thrive in today’s world.
That was another surprise about the trip. Many of China’s elite are not only interested in education, they are interested in starting the schools they feel their country needs. They treat educators (even from America) who can help them achieve their goals as honored guests. One school leader flew from Hong Kong to Beijing to meet me for lunch, and then flew back to Hong Kong. Education is taken seriously.
There are some things that Chinese schools are doing better than we are. They realize the importance of understanding cultures other than their own (though do not want to lose their historical identity). We need to think more globally in our work.
While next steps are unclear, the trip gave me and the board much to consider. The exploration of potential global partners and relationships is intriguing. As always, we are excited to continue what is indeed a promising future for Duke School.
Enjoy your summer!