By: Maxine Lu, Shanghai Xiehe Education Center (Group) General Principal
“The COVID-19 epidemic has had a profound impact on internationalized private bilingual schools. Reopening schools after the epidemic does not just literally mean ‘returning to school’, but also thinking about, and discussing, the impact of the epidemic and discovering common countermeasures. ”
I. The COVID-19 epidemic is not just a crisis, but also an opportunity, for internationalized bilingual schools and the industry
The COVID-19 epidemic has had a profound impact on us and, recently, we have had discussions about the following challenges:
1. A large number of underage international students are facing difficulties over their places of study, due to temporary closures of borders and the cancellation of flights. This has to some degree, undermined parental confidence in international education.
2. The availability of enough foreign teachers entering China before the start of the new school year this September remains uncertain, due to the needs of epidemic prevention and control and tightened entry policies for foreigners. It is currently recruitment season and, during this period, there is a certain degree of unhealthy competition among schools for the existing foreign teachers in China.
3. The decline in the economy caused by the epidemic has had a negative impact on the ability of parents to pay tuition fees and on expected payment capacity in future.
Apart from the three external factors mentioned above, there are also some additional effects on teaching management in schools.
Regular epidemic prevention and control requires social distancing, which, when disrupting the organization of education and teaching activities, also affects campus culture. Internationalized schools pay more attention to interpersonal interaction, with greater interaction among teachers, students, families, schools and communities, and classroom teaching and work organization involving more teamwork. If a social distance of more than one meter has to be maintained for one semester, or even one school year, teaching one student at a desk, and having one diner per table, will become an inevitable trend and will impact on school activities and campus culture.
The traditional advantages of internationalized schools do not lie in online education in primary and secondary schools, but in interpersonal interaction, teacher-student communication, and project-based collaborative learning, as mentioned above. We lack theory and practice in the long-term online education adopted in response to the epidemic. For this, we need to learn from training institutions and public schools.
An opportunity often comes after a crisis – it is not all bad news.
Firstly, due to the unusual conditions of the epidemic, and other factors, more returnees, including underage students, hope to return to China for study and further development. This year, many young students who had completed their undergraduate and graduate education overseas even those who have gone abroad for their high school studies chose to come back to China for development. Many of these have chosen to enter the international education field and some teenage students who studied in Hong Kong (China), or overseas, also considered receiving international education back at home after returning. Recently, there has been a rising trend of returnees applying for employment as a teacher, or being enrolled as students to join classes in the middle of a course.
Additionally, some parents saw risks in studying abroad and had some doubts about it, allowing them to think deeper about why they wanted their children to study abroad, rather than just following the crowd as they might usually do. Consequently, the number of students choosing internationalized schools may decrease, but the “value” of students will increase.
Before the epidemic many people, some of high quality, some less so, flocked into this industry; believing that there was great demand for international education and bilingual schools. The epidemic will help those who are better organized, and who stay true to their original aspirations, to stay in the industry. Therefore, a major event such as this may increase the ‘gold content’ of the industry.
II. Facing an uncertain future with hard power and soft skills
Temporary technical barriers, such as the epidemic, do not affect the overall assessment of future trends.
The initiative of “building a community with a shared future for mankind”, put forward by Chinese President Xi Jinping, indicates the direction of human civilization and, no matter how the world changes, there are always some people who want to take up the cause of making a better world. Students trained by internationalized and bilingual schools are undoubtedly part of this cause, which has a definite future.
The decline of globalization we see now is a temporary decline of the sort we used to be familiar with globalization is an irreversible trend. Of course, it will find its own balance across countries and continents in different ways. What kind of young people are needed for the future of globalization, and for communities with a shared future for mankind? Or, in other words, what kind of young people can adapt to globalization in the future?
When facing the future, our young people will need wider vision, a fuller set of qualities and a more tenacious will. Moreover, they are expected to become a future generation of thinkers, good cooperators and problem-solvers. For young students living an extravagant life, if the biggest difficulty is whether they can get better examination results and I am afraid it will be hard for them to become leaders of this country, or the world, in adulthood. There is a sup- posed consensus between parents and educators that, the more uncertain the future is, the more important it is for us to develop young peoples’ hard power and soft skills.
The problem is: how to achieve this? From the perspective of daily school activities, it is “evaluation guiding practice”. How to evaluate skills and qualities when taking the high school and college entrance examinations? What kind of teaching and training methods will be employed?
When compared to the national unified examination system used by Chinese junior and senior high schools, where the result is the only deciding factor for admission, the application system is more commonly found in high schools, colleges and universities around the world. In this system, although the applicant’s examination result is also required, more stress is laid on the evaluation process of students in the school.
The scope of evaluation covers all types of activities the applicant has taken part in, fields the applicant is interested in, or enthusiastic about, social welfare, or other activities, which the applicant thinks of value and worthy of time and effort, as well as personal statements and teacher recommendations. Whilst it is a comprehensive method to evaluate whether they are the right stu- dent for a college, university, or high school, the application system can only be implemented on the premise of abundant high-quality resources.
We cannot definitively state which is the better of the two systems; one should make a choice depending on individual and family, situations, as well as the external environment. It is also a choice of which learning style is wanted in future, and we cannot expect to get the result of Option B from Option A. For now, children and parents need to select the most suitable method for the child’s development.
III. The current solution for schools: people-oriented, opti- mizing courses and making up for shortcomings
What can schools do to cope with the current situation, in terms of curriculum and teaching? In general, the strategy is to “develop strengths and rectify weaknesses”! More specifically, it is to explore the advantages of internationalized bilingual schools and to have a clear position, so as to satisfy the demands of children and their parents.
1. We should focus more on student experience.
In the context of epidemic prevention and control, we are opposed to just praising school in the formalistic manner. Instead, we favor paying more attention as to whether children feel safer, warmer, happier and in an environment more conducive to learning in school, or at home. With the epidemic situation improving, schools should gradually restore, adjust and optimize teaching, especially physical education, with experimental and project-based learning and, from their years of experience, schools should find more appropriate resources for each student. The advantage of our school is that we pay attention to the allround development of student bodies and minds and provide alternative and differentiated resources. We should fully leverage our strengths to make up for shortcomings caused by epidemic prevention and control.
2. Curriculums should be broader and more experiential.
The curriculum should be broader and more experiential, so that the school can provide advanced and safe simulations for children before they go out into the world. With knowledge learned only from textbooks, can students face future uncertainties and challenges after they graduate? Obviously not! To solve this problem, a school needs a broader curriculum, in that content is not limited to examination subjects and methods that are not just imparting knowledge in a uniform manner, but are extended, through classes based on concrete experience, to allow students to know about the variety of things, people and challenges they may face, or encounter, in the future. The reality of life is the experience of setbacks and failures; can the school curriculum provide students with opportunities to experience this?
3. Curriculums should be offered in a more personalized form, with flexible options, in order to match the varing potential of individual students.
Respectable social status and career success for adults is generally attributed to their personal merits and what they are passionate about. From comparison, the unified examination is not a good choice to stimulate such enthusiasm, so, when students choose the application-based enrolling route, schools like ours must offer optional and personalized courses, and we must relentlessly adhere to this practice.
4. We should address existing weaknesses and focus on fostering student in- formation literacy and critical thinking.
Anyone could have been confused by the mass of information available during the COVID-19 epidemic. Some people did not develop the habit of tracing back reliable, or unreliable, sources, were controlled by poorly managed emotions, failed to be able to tell truths from falsehoods, and performed no basic logical reasoning. Others did not express their opinions correctly: giving improper criticism, or judging others irresponsibly. Although school education cannot be liable for all these faults, it is time for us to further strengthen in- formation retrieval, logical reasoning and appropriate expression through our curriculum.
5. We should place more stress on children’s physical and mental health, and strengthen their perseverance and resilience.
We hope that graduates from a bilingual school, with both Chinese and Western characteristics, will be more physically and mentally robust, and more firmly determined and tenacious. In the course of curriculum development we should attach great importance to these areas, to develop children’s soft skills, not just “subject construction”, and should involve all subjects. To enhance our teaching resources, it is necessary for us to recruit, from teachers returning from abroad (because they are particularly competitive in these fields), those majoring in science and engineering for middle schools, or talent experts in music, art, drama, sports, and other subjects, for primary and secondary schools.
6. We should upgrade information technology at the school, with consideration of both forward planning and practical value.
As a private bilingual school, we outperform our public peers in terms of the development and upgrade of information technology. On the one hand, we should be aware of the advanced educational information technology, and be decisive and financially capable of using it for our benefit. On the other hand, we should not be too dependent on cutting edge programs, particularly those from other countries, as they may be less practical to help develop students.
Therefore, we should make improvements and innovations based on our own inherent conditions, including storing screened sources into the database in an appropriate order for long-term use; looking for a technical platform most suitable for the school, or region, and making use of it in a sustainable way which drives the development of the school; and trying to use, or create, more tools as standbys for the evaluation of online teaching and learning results.
IV. Increasingly intense challenges due to multiple factors
In addition to COVID-19, some factors in the educational environment also have made people disillusioned.
Firstly, the practice of parallel recruitment between public and private schools, and the random allocation of excessive numbers of applicants, does not coincide with the expectation of the parents of prospective students for internationalized schools.
It is understood that this policy is intended to give equality to students and reach the required balance for compulsory education. However, parents who otherwise might otherwise apply to a private bilingual school may avoid the risk of the online lottery because of uncertainty over the result. Therefore, all schools like us should try all possible measures to have more indepth communications with our target groups during enrollment or marketing campaigns, in order to retain prospective applicants, despite a possible decline in expectations.
Secondly, the government has tightened controls over the curriculum, teaching materials, academic calendar, and examination policies in the compulsory education, which has affected the expectations of Chinese, and foreign, teachers in internationalized bilingual schools.
As principals, administrators, and organizers, we are well aware of the original intention of these policies and the educational direction from their guidance, but they have had, nonetheless, an impact on the anticipations of Chinese and foreign teachers.
In the past, in international education, we had flexible choices for teaching materials, provided that we adhered to the curriculum standard, and teachers had more right to make decisions. Similarly, the academic calendar could be adjusted in consideration of the teaching needs of Chinese and foreign teachers, and exams were organized oriented solely to international enrollment channels. However, students currently have to participate in joint graduation examination (Huikao) and entrance examinations for high schools in the compulsory education stage, with these factors affecting the expectations of Chinese and foreign teachers over their jobs, or even the industry’s development. Therefore, we should actively give positive guidance and make practical arrangements to allow all of us to adapt to the new policies.
（Hong Qiao campus）
Finally, the inclusive policy for preschool education has had some impacts.
The inclusive policy for preschool education has also had a certain impact on the source of students for schools like ours. In the past, internationalized bilingual schools were highly geared to the requirements of high-end private kindergarten graduates, but now, if private kindergartens become more inclusive, possible sources of students for internationalized bilingual schools will be lost.
Challenges will undoubtedly exist in future, and managers of internationalized bilingual schools should be further assured that our education is in line with the social development trend and global mission of building a “community with a shared future for mankind” in the long term. At the same time, we should also appropriately change our strategies to actively guide parents and employees to establish realistic expectations, so that all activities of the schools may continue in a strong and orderly manner.
Undoubtedly, the most important thing is to strengthen educational content! We will only clearly see who is incapable, or half-hearted, in the competition when everything is exposed to sunlight. The internationally-focused bilingual education is an indispensable part of fundamental education and those schools which dwarf others in terms of quality, have wide recognition by teachers, stu- dents, and counterparts and which stay true to their original running objectives, will surely survive better.
Let us remain united and resolute, adjust strategy, strengthen service content, and work together to tide over this hard Winter! When Winter comes, Spring will not be too far away. When Spring comes, we can gather together offline and make a blueprint for business and industrial development.