Chinese Reflections: Tao Xingzhi.

We spent our final day in China in the district of Beibei, outside the main city of Chongqing, where we saw what happens when you combine the private equity of a real estate company with excellent architecture and educational rigour. The new Chongqing Hechan Bashu Primary School, completed last year, is immense and has facilities more akin to a British public school; swimming pool, dance studio, theatre etc. I was elated to see they had All Saints literature pride of place in their display cabinets; this is a twin school for us, in addition to the main Bashu campus.

From a personal point of view, the highlight of the day was the visit to an old temple up in the hills, near the Yahlong River. Here, the Chinese educationalist Tao Xingzhi spent several years founding a Middle School for ‘nourishing talent’.

Over the summer, I’d read about this gentleman, and now by a strange coincidence was here at the site of his work. Fuelled by a desire to see teaching and learning as a lifelong, active process, Tao brought education to hundreds, maybe thousands, of rural areas during the first part of the 20th century. He developed the ‘action-knowledge’ philosophy, leading to initiatives such as the ‘little teacher’ method where pupils would use their knowledge to then teach their parents or wider family. This was a man with an overwhelming sense of his own fortune and responsibility; having been educated in the USA, he was determined that his studies would benefit those less fortunate than himself.

He advocated the learning of knowledge alongside its application to life skills. Dr Tao saw education as rooted in its community and that teachers should ‘teach each other’ – I suppose a forerunner of our ‘Teaching School’ development in the UK.

For me, it’s music to my ears. Was it only on Friday that Mr Rossi, from FICEA, was showing us how Finnish students use their freshly-discovered scientific knowledge to present their findings to younger students? It seems to me that such educational principles, so consensual in Finland, are seamlessly aligned to those of Tao Xingzhi. It is no wonder, therefore, that the two countries have teamed up together to discuss the needs of our 21st century pupils, just as Dr Tao did in the 20th century.

We visited the room within the temple where music lessons were conducted, and gave a terrible rendition of the ubiquitous Chinese song which had been played throughout the course of the conference. Tao must have turned in his grave.

Political events forced Tao to move from Chongqing in 1946, and he died from exhaustion soon after. China’s history from that point onwards is well known, and it is interesting to postulate how he would have developed his work during the Mao era.

We left Beibei and returned to the city through intense traffic; I will never complain about the M6 again. Our hosts have treated us royally, their hospitality unstinting throughout. The professionalism of the staff at Bashu is truly outstanding and it is a privilege to be twinned with them.

From an educational point of view,  the conference highlighted the fact that we are addressing a particularly difficult conundrum. On the one hand, a number of parents, governments and school administrations want results, data, and hard evidence of outcomes; this can only be realised through a top-down system with knowledge-based, standardised examinations. The PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS tables are an expression of this thirst.

On the other hand, many parents and teachers, and a small number of governments (like Finland’s), see pupils’ good application of knowledge as the ultimate aim. Learning skills, or ‘soft’ skills, are increasingly important. Knowledge without context is rather useless.  It has to be placed carefully into the future communities into which these children will be catapulted, and we don’t really know what these communities will look like.

I think Tao Xingzhi had it spot on, certainly for the context in which he worked.

And if that makes me a Taoist, then I’m delighted.

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