In the Fall of 2014, Ryan Campeau and I came on to help start Armada’s first after-school project: the Wonder Ship. The original concept was an after-school arts program for kids in Beijing mainly focused on drama and creative writing.
We had high hopes for reaching dozens of kids with our innovative arts-based curriculum, but, to be honest, in the end the project was kind of a failure. We only found two kids after weeks of marketing and recruitment efforts.
Ultimately, the Wonder Ship was the best kind of failure, though. We learned a lot about the ecosystem of learners in Beijing as well as gained insanely valuable experience about trying to do something that a lot of Chinese parents and families have never seen before. I’d like to share some of our experiences in hope to give you a better insight into what it’s like to work in education in China as well as give you an opportunity to learn from our mistakes.
- The first hurdle we ran into was getting parents to understand that there are more ways to learn English than the formal environment of a traditional English training center. Our kids learn English by using it daily in new and surprising ways that mimic the development of primary language skills. It was difficult to get parents on board that English can be learned in ways that nurture creativity and emotional intelligence like the arts.
- We couldn’t sell ourselves as a creative, arts and English immersion. The only way we got parents to find what we were doing as valuable was by billing ourselves as “English lessons” which wasn’t even really what we wanted to be doing. Another obstacle we faced was trying to find times that Chinese kids would be free. Most kids in Beijing have school and lessons that occupy all of their time. We ended up having our programs in the late evening on Saturday and Sunday because that is the only time Chinese kids weren’t in some sort of lessons.
- The traditional culture of Chinese schools doesn’t give much space for creativity. Although there has been significant effort in the past few years to allow for more creative pedagogy in Chinese schools, the academic principles have been based on tests and rote memorization for centuries. For this reason, many parents don’t see the intrinsic value of creative education.
- Language barriers made it tough for the kids to build confident creativity. From the beginning of our program, we hoped to build language skills in tandem with creativity, but it was difficult for kids to have confidence to make themselves and put themselves out there. In China, spoken English is the least practiced area of English, falling secondary to reading and writing, so the kids had extreme shyness about speaking in a dramatic setting.
- Beijing is a huge city and traffic makes it hard to recruit kids from far away. After school kids spend hours stuck in traffic making their way across the city. It was hard to find kids who could make it to our location from different parts of the city.
All this to say is that we’ve learned a lot since then. Trying to change the culture around education in China is a monumental task because it has been entrenched for centuries. It’s going to take a lot of experimentation (and useful failures) to get us where we need to go, but we’re optimistic and driven to reach our goals. All kids deserve to have their learning help them build a rich and flourishing life