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What can Western Education Learn from the China's History?

Sitting travelling at 307km an hour travelling from Beijing to Suzhou for 5 hours with a group of 80 gives me time to reflect on some of the engineering, architectural, fashion and acrobatic feats of China. This trip our group have been give the privilege of walking on the Great Wall, cruising through the canals of Suzhou and riding on the high speed train. What I have noticed is all of these engineering marvels were completed with amazing efficiency, are structurally sound and have aesthetic appeal. Our tour guides said this is because of the time taken to plan and execute, taking into consideration the natural beauty of the region and working with it. They suggested the public only sees the rate in which something is built; however, highlighted that it took long term vision to create something that was radically new for their culture. This idea resounds with me!

As educational change agents and leaders we need to see the budding talent encompassed within our students and support them to create answers to significant global problems. How do we do this? By following the example of our Chinese engineering and architectural friends through crafting a long term vision for what education could be and how this can transform humanity. In fashioning this, we allow buy-in of others, encouraging collaboration and creative problem solving that provides benefits universally. As students see that school leaders are acting in their interest they begin to engage more with the learning. Since parents observe the students focus they reach out to support. A byproduct of strengthening this type of understanding is other teachers discover they can innovate because even if the initiative fails they will be buoyed by the encouragement of the leadership to iterate and experiment again. The old saying “Rome was not built in a day” or more appropriately, “the Great Wall was not built in a day!”; however, we must remember that it was built, it didn’t get stuck in the planning stages never to move beyond a creative idea. Behind any great innovation in education and beyond there is vision, plus planning, plus action. If we allow ourselves to get bogged down in just a singular area, traction and momentum cannot be created. At this point, the innovation is endangered like the Chinese Panda as critical mass is not established.

As my students travelled the streets of China, they could see and experience the history of the regions influencing the development and direction of the future. It was visible that each of the leaders who took a stand and became the catalyst of change saw the need well in advance ensuring they had time to implement. An example of this was the Great Wall of China. Built by Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. He knew his country after many years of battle from the north strategically needed to form a protective barrier. This barrier was built along the mountain tops to protect them from the Mongolian attackers and has stood the test of time forming the basis for further future developments. The Great Wall concept was revived again under the Ming density in the 14th century when further attacks from the north took place. During both of these periods the emperors took steps to lead their country in something new by building on the past to shape the future. In doing so, they stepped out and took a risk, one that they knew would take a long time to achieve; however, if successful would have significant payoffs for life within their community. Initially, they may have been questioned about what the benefits were but with clear vision they were able to translate this into action.

The Grand Canal that was constructed in 700BC by Emperor Sui Yang Di over a seven-year period. It stretched 1974 km from Beijing to Hang Zeou south of Suzhou. In building the canals, it was obvious they embraced the technologies available of the time as they carved and cut the new waterways. Using what previously was there naturally and redirecting this into the bigger universal vision the architects and engineers shaped what was to become. This level of future thought is regimented and time consuming; however, shows highly creative and artistic thinking as it forms the blueprint and foundation for what was to come. As we embrace and take ownership of the vision we become like the bullet train. We know the design and direction in which we are heading as we have passed through the visioning and planning stages. Consequently, we have the opportunity to focus on the action, the building up of momentum and traction. Allowing us to travel at a high speed and smoothly navigate the joys of the ups and downs of education.

Another realization came from the story of Silk. Xiling a concubine of Emperor Xuanyaun in 3000BC discovered by accident an innovation that would change textiles. During an afternoon rest a cocoon fell into her tea. As she fished this cocoon out it separated and became strands of silk that has strength and could be threaded. She made the connection that the silk need to be boiled for the amino acids to bond with the proteins to create a usable material. Using her understanding and influence she taught the people how to breed the silkworms and reel the silk thread off cocoons. Though this was an accidental find her implementation was not, she intentionally engaged her influence and empowered others with her vision of what could be created. Through her insight she shaped an industry know world over for its beauty and innovation. She led a revolution as a change agent from within, similar to a teacher-leader who is passionate about a specific area of education, taking the responsibility of nurturing and championing it to see greater development and growth from within it.

Coming from a gymnastics background the performance of the Golden Mask Destiny by Beijing Theatre and ERA by the Shanghai Acrobatics troupe was awe dropping. They were spectacles that could only be described as mesmerising. Seeing the precision and desire for excellence these athletes have and their uncompromising desire to perform highlights the countless hours that have gone on behind the scenes to prepare. Speaking with one of the performers after she informed me that they train in preparation more than five hours a day, six days a week and perform at least once a day. This devotion to strength, teamwork, consistency and high level performance can only be described as leadership as the motivation to do so is not being imposed on them but comes from within them. As leaders and change agents when we have this same intentional focus we too experience success and high level performance but like the acrobats we cannot do this alone, we must collaborate and build a strong team around us that will support during challenges and celebrate during successes. 

Throughout my journey to China, I have been awoken to the great beauty, diversity and culture this great country has. Likewise, I have discovered as a change agent there are links that I can take from this trip and apply to leadership roles. Like one of my mentor’s used to say “plan your work and work your plan”, begin with the vision, plan a path then step out and move!

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