Three stories in developing ‘Child Friendly Schools’ in China
By Yaqing Mao,
Deputy Dean, College of Education Administration, Beijing Normal University
I was pleased to have the opportunity to attend the Spirit of Humanity Forum in Reykjavik in April this year, and shared my thoughts on the topic of core values in governance. As a Chinese educator and researcher, I deeply believe that love is the source of a truly happy life, and therefore love must be at the core of the values in any schools. In my experience of leading the ‘Child Friendly Schools’ project funded by the UNICEF and the Chinese government, I have learned a great deal with regard to the importance of love and compassion in education.
Here I recall three stories.
In June 2006, for the UNICEF project, I went to spend some time at the University of Lund, Malmo, Sweden. Whilst in Malmo, I also visited some local schools, and in one of the schools, I met a Swedish teacher who had recently returned after an extended stay to China. She told me that she fell in love with Chinese culture and has been sharing her experiences in China with her students. I noticed, on the one of the boards in her classroom, the Chinese character “LOVE” written in its traditional form of which the Chinese character "heart" was a part (held with hands). In 1950s, Chinese language underwent reform and the characters taught in schools have since then been in their simplified forms. However, the traditional forms are more pictographic and more expressive of the etymology of each word. Therefore I was impressed by this teacher’s sensitivity to the deeper meaning of this Chinese word, and had been contemplating on this particular character and the notion of love since then, especially when I considered the aim of our Child Friendly Schools project. What kind of place should a school be, if not a place of love, a place built with our hearts and with care? What should be the mission of a school if not enabling each child’s flourishing?
Shortly after returning from Sweden, I went for a meeting in Shanghai. Arriving at the airport, I found a gigantic billboard showing the same Chinese character "love" in its traditional form, accompanied by a sentence saying "The character can be simplified, but love, missing a heart, cannot be." Indeed, in the contemporary version of the character of love, the part of heart (held with hands) is removed, leaving just the hands, which is the origin of the character “friend”. In changing the form, the character “love” has now missed out the heart and instead is stressing the meaning of support, camaraderie and friendship. Once again, I contemplated on the nuanced but most significant difference in the two ways of writing the same word. This had made me realise the need to persist on our greater mission: no matter how the aims and goals of our projects may vary, the heartfelt love must be undoubtedly what underpins all our educative endeavours.
At the beginning of the Child Friendly Schools project, many school Principals considered the idea of inclusion as being receptive. That is to say that the schools are open to children of all backgrounds and all abilities within the community. However I noted that in the day-to-day running of the school, there was little engagement with children with special educational needs or disabilities. Often they were permitted to stay on their own when the rest of the class participate in outdoor activities. When I enquired, I realised that this was because school leaders and teachers recognised these children’s special needs, had sympathy for them and therefore allowed different treatments for these students. Despite the good intention, the result was that these students were feeling isolated from the rest of the school.
Indeed, it took some time for school leaders to truly understand the difference between commiseration and compassion. Our commiseration/sympathy for the child with special needs can create emotional distance between us and the child. This is what happened in some schools. Although intending to be humanising, our commiseration can equally be dehumanising and belittling because by pitying the child’s physical difficulties and other educational needs, we were reducing the rich reality of his/her life. By contrast, our compassion for the child with special needs will enable us to understand his/her desire to be treated equally and as normal. This understanding would urge us to act on our deepest feeling and love for the child by providing the support he/she needs in order to participate in the school’s activities fully, and thereby to be included.
One headteacher told me that the most important thing for him was to help every student find his/her own values in life and self-worth, but to do so, a caring environment must be in place in the school. When a school shifts its approach to inclusion from commiseration to compassion, the children also change their attitudes towards special needs in themselves and in others. As our results show, children with special needs are becoming more confident and happier and feel that they can indeed do better for themselves.
Based on the three stories above, I try to response to topics of the SOH Forum.
First, heartfelt love is fundamental to children’s happiness and thriving in education. What does heartfelt love consist of? I believe that the following elements are fundamental: understanding, respect, care, compassion and responsibility. In other words, love without understanding is blindness; love without respect is arrogance; love without care is sham; love without compassion is pity; love without responsibility is indulgence. In the Child Friendly Schools project, each teacher and school leader must ask himself/herself whether he/she is offering the children truly heartfelt love, and whether his/her love is proactive, rigorous and nurturing and contains these key elements above. The Chinese sage Confucius implores us to cultivate love as a primary virtue. Therefore, as an educator, I believe that love must be at the centre of a school’s ethos.
Second, humanity is a core value of any school. This, I believe, is of great importance for contemporary Chinese society.
China is at the new historical junction where the society is gradually adopting a more “people-oriented” development strategy. During this transition, a single-minded pursuit of economic growth cannot meet the overall needs of the society or engender hope for its people. I believe that such shift must begin with transforming our educational system. In the past, education was considered as an important means to promote economic growth, and therefore education in China was focusing on the cultivation of skills for employment and market competition and basing its long-term evaluation mechanism on measuring students’ academic attainments. At present, the aim of education is being re-considered by the Chinese government and Chinese people. We recognise that the older view of education, although was once helpful in China’s contemporary history, also had detrimental effects, i.e. children’s critical thinking skills, creativity, imagination and the abilities take to responsibility for themselves and for others were hugely neglected. Therefore, we are updating our educational system aimed to help our children become knowledgeable, ethical and responsible citizens.
I am convinced that a truly happy life for a young person is more than academic achievement, but also involves his/her ability to connect with others and with the world, and above all with his/her inner values. In other words, education in China must explicitly be aimed at cultivating humanity which can encompass the cultivation of many essential attributes, such as talents, good personality, the ability to be free, rationality, moral sentiment, self-worth, and more. And equally important is that schools are places of humanity – of love, care and respect, so that children and young people educated in this way can aspire to be fully human themselves.