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A unique educational experiment in Hangzhou

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Richard Pratt left Eton to take the headmaster role

Since its founding in 1984, Chinese International School (CIS) has emerged as one of Hong Kong’s top private schools. A particular draw is its dual-language curriculum, with pupils educated both in English and Mandarin Chinese.

In the school’s early years Putonghua was not greatly valued in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong. But after the 1997 handover and the rise of China as an economic force, the sentiment changed. Today the Mandarin component is a key reason why places at the school are highly sought after.

If it was visionary for CIS to offer Mandarin in the 1980s, the school has kept up with that tradition by taking another bold educational step: opening a campus in the historic lake city of Hangzhou.

Why bold? CIS was founded as a day school. But the Hangzhou campus, which has been set up next to a local private school, is for boarders. The idea is that CIS pupils will get to spend a year living in China and be more exposed to its culture and language.

The first batch of pupils – aged 14 – arrived in Hangzhou in August and finished their first term in December. This being a new departure – some would call it ‘experimental’ – parents were given the chance to opt out of the Hangzhou programme and keep their kids at the Hong Kong school. But 60 of the ‘Year 10’ student body of 120 relocated to Hangzhou.

WiC visited the new campus in northwest Hangzhou earlier this month and interviewed its Chinese-speaking headmaster, Richard Pratt. The Englishman – a former housemaster at Eton – does little to hide his enthusiasm for the project, which he deems “truly unique”. Here Pratt explains the benefits of studying in China and the benefits he has witnessed for his Year 10 pupils in just one term.

Why does CIS need a campus in China?

The idea predates me. I should be clear that I was hired to run something that had already been devised by the CIS governors and the school’s leadership. They had a vision. CIS was already an excellent school but they saw there was scope to deliver more in two big areas. The first relates to the Chinese experience. By definition this is something you have to take seriously if your name is Chinese International School. Even before this campus existed, the students would spend short periods on study trips to mainland China and Taiwan. So what we are doing now is a logical extension of that approach – but rather than spending just a fortnight outside Hong Kong we are extending the study period to a full year.

One expectation is that by living in Hangzhou the student’s Mandarin capabilities should greatly improve. But on top of that linguistic advantage, there’s a cultural element too. It’s also about becoming familiar with modern China. We want our students to feel more at home in Chinese society.

And finally, there is another aspect too: the personal growth element. That is why Year 10 is such a good time to do this, it being the key year of adolescence. The year away from Hong Kong helps to engender independence, self-confidence and an ability to cope with unfamiliar situations. That’s the benefit of taking a 14 year-old away from home. It’s a challenge to go away at that age and live in an alien culture.

And those challenges include doing their own laundry!?

Yes, that’s right, they do their own laundry, but hopefully they benefit from far more profound emotional and physical challenges than that! What’s on offer is an experience that is difficult and demanding. It requires stamina but it also makes the students better able to hold their own when they go on to university and the world beyond.

Of course, it is about China and speaking better Chinese, but it is also about character development. It’s about challenging the students and teaching them about truly living in a community. In the case of the latter, that means learning to live alongside other people and work with them.

It’s quite a pioneering move. Is that what attracted you here from Eton?

If I had wanted to follow convention, I would only have left Eton to take up a leadership role in another British private school. Frankly, I wasn’t interested in doing that. I wasn’t even looking to leave Eton. And if the CIS headmaster Ted Faunce hadn’t approached me, I wouldn’t have known this job existed.

But after CIS spoke to me, it soon became clear that this was a once-in-a-career opportunity. As an educator this is a chance to do something that nobody else has done. In the teaching profession you don’t often get the chance to innovate and create. That’s what drew me here.

Why was Hangzhou chosen to host the campus?

There were 20 cities shortlisted. They had to have a direct flight from Hong Kong of under two hours. Within these cities CIS then looked at partnering with 50 Chinese schools. Eventually it was this school, Greentown Yihua, that was selected as the best partner. So Hangzhou was chosen, mainly because of the school that was selected.

That being said, it is a sensationally good choice. Other cities like Shanghai were considered but there is always the anxiety that in the very large cities you get drawn into a bit of an expatriate bubble. This is a second-tier city and that means we are more able to access the authentic city. We are not swamped by a big international community, which means our activities are very much with China and Chinese students. And it’s a city that is as culturally rich as anywhere, and a very manageable size.

The first term is over. What do you think were the highlights, from your perspective?

The main highlight is the discovery that it really works! The transformation among the students has been incredible too. It’s been like watching one of those speeded-up films of a plant growing. You see them becoming more articulate and more confident and calm. I always felt this would occur based on my Eton experience. But it has happened at such a rapid rate that it has really astonished me. Partly, I think that’s because we are in China. For example, the students have not gone from a home counties prep school to a home counties public school [the ‘home counties’ in Britain are better-off counties surrounding London]. Instead they have moved into a different society – one that is sufficiently different that it has forced them to change.

What is the ratio of teachers to pupils?

This year there is one educator or adult for every two students. When we expand to full capacity that will dilute slightly. But if you include coach mentors, it will still be about one adult to every four or five children.

At a typical British private school the ratio would be more like one to 10. It’s just not as generous as we have here, which is another of the things that makes a difference. It’s the conversations that happen outside the classroom – with teachers and others adults – that often have a great impact on personal development. They build confidence and help students feel more at ease with the adults they live and work alongside. It’s one of the things I felt Eton did well, and I feel we are doing so too.

Any problems with student homesickness?

Nothing to report. I can’t be sure there hasn’t been the occasional evening when a child is sorry to be here. But nothing has been reported to me – i.e. there’s nothing that has needed to be dealt with in a significant way.

And no culture shock, i.e. that Hangzhou is so different from Hong Kong?

On the contrary, I hope there has been culture shock, although I need to qualify what I mean by that.

When you take a tour of our buildings you see that this would be a pretty high specification facility anywhere in the world, never mind in China. So students are living in relative comfort and security. Indeed, we have faced some criticism that the quality of the campus makes the experience too soft and easy – or in some ways not ‘local’ enough.

On the other hand, because the facility is secure and comfortable it makes it easier for the students to go out into the city, knowing they are coming back to a place that feels safe and homely. So you might say that the pupils have experienced culture shock, but managed via controlled doses.

What specific ‘China experiences’ will the pupils have over the course of the year, outside the campus?

The objective here is to combine academic learning with personal growth as well as China experiences. This is the bit of what we are doing that has a claim to be innovative and visionary. As an example, in the week before Christmas we took the students away to Wuzhen – an ancient town of canals and bridges. We chose Wuzhen because it is a very interesting conservation project. But in our activities we tried to weave in the philosophical theme of ‘what is true’. The question we framed: to what extent is Wuzhen an authentic experience of historical China? As a historical ‘document’ is Wuzhen reliable, or is it a sort of Disneyfied version of the Chinese past? We explored whether it was fake, or a different kind of truth. These are relevant and important questions to be addressing and the students are the right age to start exploring them.

While we were there we also went to nearby areas which were not being conserved in the same way and we used these visits to raise more questions. This is a single example of the direction we are taking.

Another example is that we did a kind of ‘Masterchef’ competition. The students went to eat in a local Hangzhou restaurant having been given a modest budget for a team dinner. While they were there, they interviewed the restaurant owner or staff – in Chinese obviously – and tried to learn more about the food they were eating and how to prepare it. The next day they had to cook dishes based on what they had learned “out in the field”. That was then presented in ‘Masterchef’ format to the school’s catering company which judged which team’s meal was best. Aside from this practical element, they also had to write a science paper exploring the chemistry or biology of the food groups in the meal. So as an integrated experience the exercise involved personal growth (organising dinner for a group), collaborative skills (the cooking of the meals) and science (analysing the food they were eating). Then, of course, there were the skills in presenting to a panel of judges, which unleashed quite a bit of competitive enthusiasm!

So the polar opposite of rote learning?

Absolutely, although any school using the international baccalaureate (IB) will say that they don’t use rote learning either.

The IB mechanism invites schools to work along these lines, encouraging critical thinking. However, for most IB schools it is very hard to take it as far as we can take it, because we have the advantage of being located in China. There is so much to question and think about – more so than if students were doing equivalent exercises within their own countries or cultures.

This gets to the heart of a bigger issue: one of the things educators have to address is that teaching facts is not as significant as it used to be. If you just pick up an iPhone you have access to more knowledge and information – via the internet – than any individual will ever possess. You can never know more than that phone! What is more important now are habits, approaches, ways of thinking. How do you train students to use these, to think, to question?

All over the education world professionals are discussing this topic, albeit primarily at a theoretical level. Many of my former colleagues in the UK would have conversations about an ideal situation in which you have exploratory, enquiry-based learning that is inter-disciplinary and integrated. But to take that from a conversation to a reality is the challenge.

What I find exciting is that we are now trying to do just that, here in Hangzhou.

My belief is that our Hangzhou students will have an advantage. When they go for university interviews or to university itself, they are going to be ahead of the pack.

We’ve talked a lot about the upsides of the experience. But what of the downsides of living in China? For example, the air pollution problem. That has to be a concern for some parents?

Air quality in Hangzhou is not good enough. We had a particularly bad period just before Christmas. I am not going to pretend Hangzhou’s air is great. Then again, most of our students come from families living in Hong Kong. I check the indices all the time and Hangzhou’s air quality is largely on a par with that of Hong Kong. So when the students move from our Hong Kong campus to this one it’s more a case of going from not good to not good.

You mentioned earlier the rapid transformation you’ve seen among your students in just one term. Is that because everything here is a totally new experience, and therefore more stimulating?

Undeniably. But I am also aware that this year’s students are in a unique situation. They are pioneers and they are aware of it. That in itself appears to have given them a certain élan.

So one thing that will be interesting next year will be to compare whether the next group makes similarly astonishing progress. Some of what I have seen this initial term may be down to the fact that all of us – teachers and students alike – are doing this for the first time.

On the other hand, I hope we have learned from our mistakes too, meaning that next year’s pupils will be better positioned to benefit too.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see but my own view is that we can replicate the experience and continue to do better.


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