Erikson in China

This article appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of Erikson On Children.

When Lisa Ginet traveled to Beijing last summer to lead intensive professional development workshops for early childhood educators, she was concerned that her ideas might not translate.

Ginet, the assistant director of instruction for Erikson Institute’s Early Math Collaborative, centers her teaching on interactive activities that encourage children to become mathematical thinkers, as opposed to relying on drilling and memorization.

“If math is about thinking, you can’t give teachers a set route to teaching it. You have to get adults thinking about math,” she says.

But how would these ideas be accepted in China, a country with an educational system that emphasizes a pathway of adults delivering knowledge to children?

“A lot of people warned me that this would be a very unusual idea for the Chinese teachers,” she recalls.

Ginet traveled to China as part of the groundbreaking partnership between Erikson and one of China’s largest private early childhood education and care providers, the Red Yellow Blue Education Technology Development Company (RYB).

Erikson’s unique partnership with RYB includes in-person and online programs, here and in China.

Erikson’s unique partnership with RYB includes in-person and online programs, here and in China.

Launched in May of 2015, the five-year partnership offers more than 1,000 RYB professionals the opportunity to join with Erikson to learn about early childhood teacher training practices and theory in the United States. Erikson staff are able to share best practices and learn from RYB partners as well. Through a combination of online and in-person programs in both Chicago and China, the partnership will make it possible for RYB educators to earn graduate certificates in infant studies or preschool teacher development. The online training certificate program in infant studies with RYB launched in November, making this Erikson’s first international online program.

Investing in early childhood

Early childhood education has become a priority in China as, over the past few years, the Chinese government has invested 100 billion yuan ($157 billion) in public preschool education and professional development for teachers.

But that amount is still not enough to meet the growing needs of educated, upwardly mobile young families who have settled in urban centers, away from the grandparents who traditionally provide early childcare. Add to that the recent relaxation of the one child per family policy, and experts predict an urgent need for more quality preschools and well-trained teachers.

“Many of these young parents living in cities far from their hometowns are not as confident about child rearing,” says Yinna Zhang, Ph.D. ’15, director of the China Initiative at Erikson. “They realize the first three years are very important for children and want to invest in them, but they want to know more about how to do this.”

The Chinese government does not have the capacity to provide formal programs for all children, leaving individual families to pursue options such as RYB, which serves children up to age six in 800 learning centers and 200 preschools in more than 300 cities across the country.

“RYB partnered with us because, even though there is a huge need, many early childhood professionals lack a basic understanding about child development due to how training programs are designed in China,” Zhang says.

Chimin Cao, chairman of RYB’s board, agrees.

“This is a win-win partnership,” he says. “Erikson represents the highest quality of teacher training and development.”

Translating the big ideas

Ginet was greeted with a sense of openness from the 60 educators who took part in her course in Beijing.

“They were very receptive to the possibilities and very responsive to the kinds of activities I was offering them as adult learners,” she says.

Zhang, who also traveled to China for the project, saw the same willingness.

“We brought something very new to early childhood educators in China. They were expecting us as the ‘experts’ to give more lectures and tell them the right thing to do so they could follow it,” she says. “But when we design programs, they are more about parallel learning.”

Erikson’s programs are interactive, offering participants basic facts but asking them to give their own opinions and solutions.

“It’s something very new to them,” Zhang says. “For the first three days, they were shocked. But between the third and fourth day they loved it. They really got it.”

Changing traditions

Jie-Qi Chen, executive director of the China Initiative and now Erikson’s Senior Vice President and Dean of Faculty, recognizes the power of teachers learning from one another.

“I think people who have worked with children long enough have a sense of what good education looks like,” she says. “These educators have worked with young children for years, sometimes in a tradition that they don’t know how to change or even know that there is another way. But as soon as they see it, they get it.”

That doesn’t mean change will happen quickly, Chen says.

“Teacher professional development is a long, ongoing process. You can’t expect people to change their practice by going to one workshop,” she explains. “Teachers learn, try things out in their practice, then come back and say, ‘That didn’t quite work. Let’s think about it again.’ It’s reflection and revision and learning it again.”

Cultural exchanges

“The world has become flatter and flatter,” Chen observes. “America and China are both major players in world affairs, so this is an opportunity for a cross-cultural exchange and a chance to understand child development in different cultures.”

One example is the teacher-student ratio, which is closely monitored in America.

“Student-teacher ratio is an important issue, but in China it will always be much larger than what American teachers are accustomed to. The challenges teachers face in China are different than they are here,” Zhang says. “We won’t necessarily have all the answers, but it will better facilitate our understanding and thinking. We’re not the only ones delivering the knowledge—early childhood educators from China can teach us something new and help us to reflect.”

From Chicago to Beijing

When the first group of RYB educators visited early childhood programs in Chicago earlier this year, one of their stops was at Christopher House in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood.

“The visit gave us the chance to see what we’re doing really well and the areas where we need to grow,” says Elizabeth Tertell, former associate director of Christopher House. “It was also a chance for our teachers to have their wonderful work cemented. We have been developing collaborative planning and teaching for a long time, but I’ve never had a group be more thankful and respectful as the RYB visitors. It was such a gift for the staff at Christopher House to be part of it, and it was very much a two-way street.”

For Yu Diao, a teacher from RYB, each day was a learning experience.

“This is exactly the type of inspiring and magical teaching that we should provide for our students,” she says.

Erikson faculty are quick to point out that the biggest gift will be to children and families.

“As one of the largest early childhood providers in one of the most populous countries in the world, RYB impacts the lives of so many,” Zhang says.

“Because Erikson is working with their educators, we’re going to further impact the next generation, and their parents—which is enormous.”