Since its economic reform in 1978, China’s social, economic, and political environment has greatly improved. However, it is still challenged by polarized development. Urban citizens enjoy a higher standard of living while people living in rural areas have less access to stable employment, medical care, environmental protection, and a high standard of education. To pursue a better life, more and more peasants have left their hometowns and joined the army of migrant workers that contribute to urban construction. As a result, many children and elderly people have been left behind in villages where schools lack qualified teachers and other educational infrastructure.
This trend of migrant workers fractures the rural family’s structure. Children lack parental guidance as they grow and develop an understanding of the world around them. These challenges have a great impact on the lives of rural children from the beginning of their life, as rural students face competition with their urban peers in the national exams. The majority of them will fail and they will lose the opportunity to go on to higher education in the cities. In the end, these children will be forced to struggle to make a living in the world, perpetuating this unsustainable cycle.
The Rural China Education Foundation (RCEF) is an international non-profit organization that is dedicated to promoting education for people in rural China. They help empower people to improve their lives and communities. It was founded in 2005 by three young researchers of Chinese descent from Holland, Hong Kong, and the United States who believe that education is core to bridging the gap between rural areas and urban cities.
We were fortunate to speak to RCEF to gain a better understanding of their work.
Catalyst: Why was RCEF founded?
RCEF: The co-founders were all researching rural education in China and why rural children were dropping out of school. While money and opportunity were factors for some children, a deep disengagement with schooling and a lack of trust in its usefulness was a major reason for the rural dropout rate. Many of the efforts to improve rural education were focused on upgrading hardware and providing access to schooling. We saw a need to complement these by also strengthening the quality and relevance of education. We set out to develop teaching goals and methods that are relevant to the real world needs of students and their communities.
Catalyst: What’s the mission of RCEF?
RCEF: RCEF’s mission is to promote education for people in rural China that prepares them to improve their own lives and communities. We believe that it is not enough just to increase the number of year’s students spend in school or to improve the equipment and hardware available to them. Instead, we support teachers in rural areas to develop ways to make their teaching more relevant and engaging to rural students. For example, at one of the schools we supported, fourth to sixth graders conducted research on smoking in three villages around their school. They conducted interviews with villagers and analyzed statistical and qualitative data that they had collected themselves. The students then formulated and implemented an anti-smoking campaign, and gave a presentation to the residents of the villages. Students reported feeling greatly empowered by this project.
In another project, students raised chickens at the school. This involved many activities that developed children’s analytical, decision-making, lateral-thinking, and communication skills: students interviewed chicken farmers about their techniques, designed the coop, calculated the amount of material needed to build it, and discussed whether to use chemical or organic feed (the students unanimously chose organic). The students eventually sold their chickens’ eggs at a local market.
These projects stand out in China for two reasons. First, RCEF lets students decide what topics they want to research—the students, not just the teachers, chose the projects described above. Second, RCEF’s projects integrate skills from different subjects (language, math, science, art, social studies) so that children can learn to pull together and apply academic skills or knowledge to solve real-world problems.
Catalyst: How has RCEF run so far?
RCEF: We started out as an all-volunteer organization and now we support full-time educators working year-round with teachers and children. We are using the experience accumulated over the years to create a platform that can support innovative teachers to grow and support each other in improving their teaching methods.
Catalyst: From the RCEF website , we saw the members of RCEF come from various backgrounds (Education, IT, Psychology, Engineering, Business…) What’s the main reason for them to join your team?
RCEF: Everyone has different reasons for working with RCEF but we share a common belief that education means more than learning the content in a textbook and taking tests.
Education should prepare students with knowledge, skills, and values useful to improving their own lives and helping improve the communities that they are a part of.
Catalyst: What is the biggest challenge you have met?
RCEF: Teachers are primarily trained and evaluated on how to increase students’ test scores. Since RCEF works to foster more well-rounded skills in students, we must develop new teacher training and support methods to help rural teachers learn how to cultivate such skills.
Catalyst: What is your plan for next 3-5 years?
RCEF: Our strategy is to support those teachers who are already passionate and motivated and to assist them in mastering and developing service learning methods. They can then share their expertise through presentations and trainings that inspire others. We are hoping to spark bottom-up, teacher-led change, which we believe has the most promise for having a substantial, long-term impact on education.
RCEF is working to become a platform for teachers and principals from all over China to develop their own ideas on quality education. We are developing teacher training methods and written documentation to provide support to practitioners in other schools. We hope that, by using specific case studies and practical, proven methods of teaching service learning in rural China, we can inspire more educators to think critically about the goals and potential of education.
Rural China Education Foundation
Harvard Asia Business Conference