When mother-of-three Li Yinuo returned to Beijing after living in the United States, she was flummoxed - like many Chinese parents - about how to choose the right school for her oldest son.
“There is no satisfactory option,” sighs Li, formerly a partner for management consultancy McKinsey in the U.S. and China. “Public schools stymie creativity and individuality while international schools end up nurturing Chinese as foreigners.”
Chinese families often plan their children's future from infancy. Parents used to save every penny to buy a property in a good school district, however shabby the home was.
Now many are looking for alternatives, but they have few options.
“Many still value academic excellence so they believe public schools will best prepare children for the gaokao (the national university entrance exam),” says Li.
She was a straight-A student in that system herself, but she knows its drawbacks: “Rote learning and homogenization are the last thing we want.”
In March 2016, she decided to start her own school, inspired by a visit to California's Khan Lab School, which operates under the motto “Everyone's a teacher. Everyone's a student.”
“It resonated with me. Young people are capable of far more than society currently recognizes,” says Li.
Driven by determination, Li and her team took less than six months to set up the school: the teachers, the principal, the permit, the initial capital and students.
On September 1, ETU School held its opening ceremony for children and parents in the Forbidden City. This symbolized Li's vision of grooming “truly Chinese, truly global” graduates with immersion in Chinese language and culture, as well as global competence and mindsets.
The next day, ETU started operating in three classrooms covering 120 square meters - a collaboration with Beijing's No.80 School - with just 31 pupils and seven teachers.
Hua Yijia, a venture capitalist, recalls the doubts of family members when she registered her 6-year-old daughter. “I know it's risk-taking, but any innovation starts small and since we got here, my daughter has never missed a day of school, even if she was tired or sick or had the flu. She told me she loves going to ETU.”
ETU borrows the experience of innovative education models like the U.S.-based Altschool in using IT to support education, and High Tech High in project-based learning (PBL). It also focuses on supporting each teacher's professional development, which is rooted in Li's own experience in management consulting.
In one PBL project, children are invited to hand-make a vehicle over seven weeks. Alone or in teams, they will have an idea and sketch a design before they make a model. On completing the vehicle, they write down the major functions, how it came into being and what kind of journey it will take. Children feel free to do everything through the process and their tutors will evaluate if it's workable and offer some assistance.
“Through these programs, ETU intends to empower students to realize they can shape the systems and solve problems with their own intellect and passion. Children don't learn by being told; they learn by seeing what's around them,” says principal Guo Xiaoyue.
ETU is also innovating in Chinese and math learning. In most schools, students must learn to read Chinese characters by writing them many times to remember them. At ETU, teachers discuss with students why they need to learn the characters and how they can enjoy it.
“We love to learn characters through studying inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells and knowing how a character came into use,” says student Yu Jiayi.
Chen Chu, the math teacher and a Harvard graduate, invented a bank. Students can cash 10 grams of waste paper for one ETU yuan and buy the services or products from others at a school fair. The process of selling and buying is one application of math in life. Inspired, one kid kept a journal to record every experience involving math, like buying a subway ticket.