Whole Child Education

We found the 2 fundamental keys for cultivating outstanding students after the conversation with 2 well-known principals in China and the United States | Interview

There are plenty of observations about the distinction between Chinese and Western education. When thinking about it, some comparisons are quite meaningless. For instance, some people would compare top independent schools in the West with those at Chinese countryside. It’s like asking which is more prosperous: Upper East Manhattan, or a small town.

There’s no point for comparing if the targets are not on the same level. In order to make more valuable explorations, we visited two famous educators from China and the West:

Mr. SHEN Maode, the former Headmaster of Jiangsu Tianyi High School; Ms. Carol Santos, who has served as Headmistress or Deputy Head at several top private schools in America, like Groton School, Miss Porter’s School, Westover School, and so on.

On one hand, American top private schools such as Groton have good reputation around the country for its high-quality education and have produced famous alumni such as President Roosevelt. On the other hand, a star among Chinese public schools, Tianyi High School is regarded by renowned higher education institutions such as Tsinghua University and Peking University as the cradle for top quality graduates, and it has produced a number of Ivy League alumni as well.

It’s fair to say that these schools all have state-of-the-art facilities, faculty and students, and of course, first-rate Heads as well: both Carol and Mr. Shen are senior educators with years of teaching and management experiences and have received numerous awards and honors.

How do top talents come into being? We had a conversation with the two Heads in depth and both of them have contributed great insights and witty remarks. The two educators sometimes share the same wisdom, but also demonstrate their own logical thinking and cultural traits at other times. The secrets of educating excellent people may be hidden in the sparkles of the clashes between the two great minds.

What do “excellent students” look like?

What make us curious are the differences and special traits of those excellent students at Groton and Tianyi, two great schools in two different countries.

1. Both schools use standardized test results, but what’s the difference?

In order to answer this question, we’d better start from the admissions process, as the method and standards for student selection often decide the overall profile of the student community at a particular school.

Carol told us that there are a number of procedures contained in the admissions process of top independent schools in the U.S. First is the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT), which is designed by an external provider and set to assess students’ abilities in English, Maths and Reading. Students also need to provide the transcript from their current schools and an essay.

The more important part is actually the interview—not only the students, but also their parents need to attend it as well. The school thinks that only through interviews could a student’s intrinsic motivations be observed, and whether he/she could adapt to the rigorous learning process that the school puts them through.

There are also other details worth noticing during the admissions process. For instance, Groton provide options for students and parents to have a whole tour around campus and to attend taste classes, where teachers would observe students’ performances attentively.

Carol believes that each school is unique. There’re no the “best” school per se, but only the most suitable ones.

Meanwhile Tianyi is similar to most public schools in China, who selects students through exams which assess students’ knowledge levels.

Though they use standardized tests as well but the distinction is that: for Groton, the standardized test result only serves as a reference and wouldn’t be used strictly as a rule for selecting students. If a student shows certain traits the school is looking for, even if his/her transcript is not that impressive, he/she may also get a chance to enter that school. And according to Carol, this is not a rare situation.

2. Recruiting “untypical” students

A set of twin sisters made an impression on Carol.

During the interview, both sisters were very intellectual and articulative, able to express higher level concepts and raised good questions. Carol said, “We could see that they had good character and good character is also a really important aspect that we’re looking for in students.”

However, one of the twins did not do that well at standardized tests, and was even below average. The school management hesitated but after overall consideration, decided to admit both sisters at the same time.

On one hand, the school management takes one factor into consideration: research shows normally one of twins would have poorer performance at standardized tests. More importantly, both sisters are similar in terms of their characters, which is summarized by Carol as two key aspects: motivation and curiosity.

These two words are repeatedly mentioned and emphasized by Carol. In her eyes, motivation and curiosity is more important than a flashing transcript.

Turns out the school does have a sharp eye: both sisters performed very well after entering the school and went onto great universities including Yale, and subsequently made great contribution to improve minorities’ education levels.

According to Carol, the school wouldn’t expect students to “have mastered everything” during enrollment, “In fact, it does not matter you can get an A at tests. It only matters when you can do something with what you know.”

“An excellent student would not stop at the test and would not satisfy with just an ‘A’. They would explore new approaches, new discoveries and new ways of thinking – they would never satisfy.”

That also explains why top independent school in the U.S. often recruit “untypical” students.

3. Both Heads share the same view regarding the characters of an excellent student

Although having different admissions processes, Mr. Shen and Carol share the same view regarding the criterion of excellent students in their eyes.

Mr. Shen expressed his views. Selection by standardized tests has its advantages, and the students who succeed at these tests have solid knowledge base, good attitudes and study routines. But the downside is very obvious as well: too much emphasis on scores and knowledge points would result in oversight in students’ personalities and narrowness of students’ knowledge scope.

Having been the Headmaster at a key high school for over twenty years, Mr. Shen witnessed and accompanied numerous students’ growth. In the past ten years, he tracked, investigated, and research around 500 students’ lives, and came to two important conclusions:

First, the best performers at high school/university entrance exams are not necessarily winners in life. Many students who have achieved extremely good results at exams and tests in fact did not show excellence in a certain area after they started working.

Secondly, truly excellent students, despite their different family background and growth pathways, all possess two common characters: aspirations (i.e. self-motivation) and resilience (i.e. endurance).

Aspirations and resilience are the key qualities Mr. Shen sees in excellent students. The top graduates from Tianyi that have left impression on the Headmaster all show these two essential traits.

He talked about DU Jiangfeng, the Tianyi graduate who is now a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Du comes from a farmer’s family. His father wanted him to enter a vocational high school but he insisted on pursuing his aspiration of science and entered university after finishing high school. Eventually, he made great contribution to China’s quantum science studies.

Mr. Shen also remembers the Tianyi student ZHENG Kaiwen who got offers from twelve top universities like Harvard and MIT. She often spent hours in laboratories and got scars of wounds on her arms left by electric irons. In order to shoot a photo of the stars, she travelled to the freezing Inner-Mongolia prairie in a temperature of over minus 10 degrees Celsius.

Looking back on the two key words “motivation” and “curiosity” mentioned by Carol, we could find that “motivation” is similar to “aspirations”, which indicates a kind of inner drive; and “curiosity” vs. “resilience” reflects the different cultural backgrounds of the East and the West.

If we see “curiosity” as the endless exploration in the vast ocean, then “resilience” would be the plum blossoms that show their beauty alone in the deepest winter. For a child, these two qualities are in fact both complementary and essential.

Two key words that support a child’s pathway to excellence

After learning about the two Heads’ views on excellence, we could see that the education concepts from both the East and the West are quite similar, or, using Mr. Shen’s words, convergent. Then what’re the different focuses during the education process in both worlds?

Answers to this question could be found in the catch phrases and “famous remarks” of the two educators.

1. “At-all-times: education is life itself.”

Carol is very fond of a saying “education is life itself”. The phrase that often comes from her mouth actually was taken from a famous remark by the renowned educator John Dewey, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. “

Carol not only says it but also practices it daily. Take Groton as an example, education there is truly holistic “which never ends”.

Education could happen in any moment during the 24 hours of a day, seven days of a week, and certainly not only in the classroom. “All students actually grow up on campus and the school truly participates in a child’s complete growth pathway as well.”

Groton is famous for being “small” and the total student number does not exceed 400. Carol says that the campus could hold more students but the small-size student community makes the school a big family, where all teachers know all students’ names and establish bonds with students. Teachers understand each child’s advantages and are able to plan the best growth trajectories for their students.

The support system and communication channel are also well-operated here – when students come across any problems, the school is able to respond in real-time and provide the highest level of support possible.

Carol refers to this kind of model as “all-time education.” The stories she told about Groton teachers give us a more vivid picture of this kind of education.

Carol told us that there are teachers that are quite special at Groton. For instance, there was a female teacher who not only acts as the Maths teachers at the school but also an excellent fire fighter for the town. This teacher sometimes has to perform her firefighting duties in town, and the school is well-prepared for when that happens and even has a backup teacher in place.

Carol could see the confusion and surprise in our eyes and explained to us with a smile. This case actually reflects an important value upheld by Groton: when Groton recruits teachers, it does not look for people who treat education as work, but those who see education as life itself.

This firefighting teacher not only teaches Maths well, but also constantly brings experiences she gained from the real world to her students.

She is a much-admired hero in town, and also helps her students understand the daily life of first responders, as well as develop students’ practical skills such as CPR and crisis management, which is a valuable asset for Groton.

That is to say, the school recruits teachers not only for their professional competencies, but also their “overall state of life”. In such an education environment, students would be fully affected by their enthusiastic and fun teachers and therefore develop curiosity of the real world.

2. “Personality”: more and more important with a child’s growth

As someone who has spent over 40 years in education, Mr. Shen often refers to himself as a “farmer” and education as “agriculture.”

In his eyes, industrial lines could only produce standardized products, and the cultivation of an excellent person is more like farming, which contains colors of life, the four superseding seasons, and the encompassing and richness of the nature.

Therefore, he particularly emphasized the word “personality” – the older the kid, the more important personality is. “At kindergarten and primary school, we would focus more on the fundamentals. But from junior high school on, we would pay special attention to a student’s personality, and more so when he/she enters senior high school and university.”

How could a student’s personality be developed then? Mr. Shen points out that the grounds for development should be returned to students themselves. Take Tianyi as an example, it is not all about learning in the classroom, the stage and space for personal development are also provided to students.

Tianyi has nearly 100 student clubs every semester and students are given plenty of time every week for self-organized extracurricular activities according to their interests. The school also tries its best to invite scholars and celebrities, like Nobel Prize winners and members of the Academy of Sciences, to share with students their past experiences and research findings.

Mr. Shen candidly says, “In the past we thought the textbook is the world, but with in-depth teaching practices, it becomes more and more obvious to us that the world is actually our textbook.”

3. A “partial” talent vs. an all-rounder

Both Heads agree that kids are excellent in their own ways: there are partial talents, but there are all-rounders as well.

Both educators expressed the same view in terms of how to educate partial talents, which combines passing the basic requirements and developing his/her advantages.

They pointed out that it’s totally fine to only have talents in a certain area, and that is in fact the advantage of this student. But the school would not stop at this, but would make their advantages even stronger, and help students pass the basic requirements in other areas. This coincides with what Mr. Shen said, “The Eastern and Western education philosophies are becoming convergent on holistic education.“

We then asked the two Heads how they view the all-rounders like Eileen Gu. This time, the answers are somehow different.

Mr. Shen told us that he has come across many all-rounded talents in his education life and there are two main factors contributing to the excellence of these people:

First, family education sets the foundation for kids’ good characters and habits, which are hard to reverse once formulated.

Secondly, school education develops their core competences and abilities, such as aspirations, personalities, resilience, creative and critical thinking etc.

However Carol gave a negative answer: she has never come across such “all-rounded” talent.

In her eyes, the learning process is long and challenging, during which students face all kinds of difficulties every day. They often doubt themselves and would get frustrated upon failures and would question themselves “why should I carry on”…

And the school knows about all these challenges, and this is exactly why teachers are there to accompany the students “at all time”, to help them tackle the difficulties and move forward after failures.

We could see that, though different, these two answers are not contradictory: Mr. Shen did source-tracing research of excellent students and explained from two perspectives: the family and the school. Carol would not regard any child as perfect, but as individuals who long for care and support when confronted challenges and failures.

In terms of educating talented students, the answers from both heads are identical again: to allow sufficient space for development, or rather, using Mr. Shen’s words of Eastern philosophy, to provide the right “temperature, humidity and earth” for students’ healthy development.

Top Heads from China and the U.S. coming together

It is a big world, yet a small village. Surprisingly, we found that these two renowned school heads from the East and the West have become close partners at the same frontline.

Carol has shifted her focus to China and is now the Head of the Dipont Huayao Collegiate School Kunshan (hereinafter as “Dipont Huayao”).

And after withdrawing from the Tianyi School, Mr. Shen dived into international education and now acts as the Chief Inspector at Dipont Education Group (and also the Chinese Principal at Wuxi Dipont School of Arts and Science).

Against this background, Dipont Huayao fuses the essence of education systems from both the East and the West ever since its founding day.

Mr. Shen remarked, “We’ve been talking about integration of the East and the West, but we could see from practices that true integration is very difficult, so I use a different term now, which is extraction.” Extracting the essence of both worlds and forming the unique school culture in China: Mr. Shen humorously refers to this approach as “to have tea as well as coffee”.

At Dipont Huayao, we could absolutely witness the “extraction” process, which could be reflected by the coming together of the essence from both educators’ minds.

1. Only “all-time” education could educate “all-rounded persons”

Dipont Huayao plans students’ academic pathway right from the start:

Kindergarten kids would get the design of their development plan for 15 years; and from Grade 7 on, students would receive tailor-made university counseling services. All the contents of education are designed based on a 15-year educational goal, which is taken apart into goals for different phases. The barriers between school divisions no longer exist, which makes learning at different stages consistent and continuous.

Same as Groton, Dipont Huayao has a huge campus but a relatively small student community, and the staff-student ratio is as high as 1:6. Teachers here are also given roles outside their subjects and specialties: strict yet fun educators in the classroom would become mentors for deep conversations for students after class.

From Grade One on, every child entering Dipont Huayao would have their designated Advisor, who acts as a mentor, a parent, and more often, a friend for students. No matter what problems students come across, be it difficulty in learning, selection of subjects, or daily life and emotions, Advisors would be the first contact point that understands and helps the students.

Moreover, there is no separation between academics and daily life. The design of the Student Life Program covers all time periods on campus during and after classes, which includes activities in areas of academics, arts, sports, leadership and community services, one-on-one tutoring, and the “parent university” that supports the collaborative growth of families and the school.

Based on the design concept of American boarding schools, the education experience for students extends from 8 hours to the whole day. Students would get prepared for the future not only academically but also as an individual person.

Be it the 15-year education cycle, or the 24-hour all-time perspective, Dipont Huayao practices the “all-time” education that Carol firmly believes in. The school is confident that through “all-time” education, the holistic education philosophy would be very well implemented at Dipont Huayao.

2. The perfect linkage between “personality” and “all-time”

The “personality” stressed by Mr. Shen could be strongly identified at Dipont Huayao as well. We were astonished upon seeing the list of Life Block courses provided to students at Dipont Huayao.

There are numerous courses of different categories, and the number of choices is no less than the electives at universities! From horse-riding to fencing, from environmental protection to the art of ecology, from 3D printing to baking, from handicraft to film production…we were truly amazed. It’s no exaggeration that any student could find their own interests when facing such a rich course list.

Though the number of courses is impressive, almost 100 in the first year, and 200 in the second year, they are all clearly and scientifically categorized into one of the four themes: “Wellbeing of Mind and Body”, “Morals and Self-Identity”, “Teamwork and Communities”, and “Communication and Creative Expressions”, which all aim to develop students’ competences in different aspects.

The Life Block courses complements the “all-time education” and sets different education goals at different stages of students’ development.

In lower Elementary School, students are encouraged to explore different activities and areas, in order to gauge their interests and potentials.

As students grow older, the Life Block courses would be linked up with their academic courses. In combination with the college counseling and career planning system, students’ interests would have more depth than width, which would help students start a personalized interest development pathway.

We cannot help but exclaim: what an intricate design! After all, the concepts of “all-time” and “personality” are complementary and interweaved.

Towards the end of the interview, we asked Carol about her future plan: how to make this school perfect. Her answer added another layer of richness to the “all-time” concept.

She answered as follows: “I don’t think any school is perfect. Why do I think that? I think if a school ever thinks it’s perfect, that’s the time at which it’s not. Schools have to keep up with society. Schools have to be future oriented, because they’re developing young people to participate in the future world.

All day and all-time, Dipont Huayao constantly seeks development and improvement.