A year ago, a photo was posted online of me holding an umbrella over my son’s head to protect him from pouring rain in New York City. Little did I realize that that fleeting snapshot would go viral and change my life.
Before that rainy day, I had spent eight years working for the multinational bank JPMorgan Chase & Co., first in the U.K. and then in New York. The Wall Street life is as every bit as challenging and busy as it sounds, but I soon came to feel that it was just a numbers game — a form of gambling, really. I didn’t see how my job could have a positive impact on other people, especially children.
Yet the “Umbrella Dad” photo, as it came to be called, put me in the spotlight for a while, and the discussions it prompted about my parenting style made me think a lot about education. I am a product of the traditional Chinese school system, according to which children follow a strictly prescribed path to academic success.
My son, however, enjoys a Western education, which is more organic and innovative. The Chinese method is much more teacher-centered, and is based on memorizing facts. As one might expect, this is less than ideal for developing individuality and creativity. The American system emphasizes student participation and personality development, but to some extent it also eschews a solid foundation of knowledge. For these reasons, I always try to give my son space to think independently, while also supervising him closely to ensure that he develops good study habits.
The photo that changed my life is a testament to the formidable power of social media, and it made me wonder if it’s possible to harness that power for good. After some thought, I resigned from JPMorgan. It was time to embark on a new adventure, one that would allow me to bring progressive ideas about education to China and teach Chinese kids the value of making independent choices and accepting the consequences of their actions.
Before long, I had set up the Umbrella Dad Foundation in the U.S. Our purpose is to bridge the gap between eastern and western styles of parenting, and thereby change both the form and content of Chinese education. To me, Chinese education has lost sight of the purpose of teaching: cultivating initiative, innovation, and healthy personalities. In many cases, we see learning as a race to win social status, where the “best” students excel in life by virtue of unquestioningly memorizing everything their teachers tell them, alongside a “one question, one answer” model that severely restricts creativity and self-expression.
Reassuringly, when I set up a platform for expressing my ideas about education reform in China and started recruiting volunteers, many college students — especially those from key universities in China — gave me positive responses. There is a real desire to change the system; the problem is that current teaching methods are so entrenched that it is difficult to get people to see beyond what they’re so accustomed to.
To combat this, I encourage the students we teach to learn through experience, especially through social contact and real-life scenarios. We design all of our courses in accordance with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a set of specifications detailing what American schoolchildren are expected to know by the end of each grade. Our courses are split into four levels, moving from early role-playing and interactive activities all the way up to participation in internships, overseas study, college tours, and international student competitions. Classes are taught by top-tier college students, bankers, financial practitioners, and businesspeople.
Perhaps the best example of an Umbrella Dad class is our finance course. In 44 American states, economics is part of the compulsory education system. In China, this is not the case. In September last year, we started holding free classes in primary and middle schools to introduce key concepts in business, accounting, and finance.
We anchor these concepts to real life as much as possible: If a student learns about income and taxation, for instance, we teach them how to manage their money sensibly. Later on, we cover job applications, business plans, financial management, product design, and investment planning. Our unique interactive approach helps students develop business thinking, teamwork, and communication skills.
It’s not all been smooth sailing, however. At the outset, some parents criticized our courses for being too “flashy.” Many did not see the benefit of what we were teaching their children, and dismissed the webcast format of our classes, through which live feeds of classes taking place in one of our partner schools are simultaneously broadcast to other institutions and parents as well. But how else would it be possible to deliver courses to more than 10 schools and 2,000 students at the same time while ensuring maximum quality and efficiency? Fortunately, parental concerns have been soothed somewhat by positive student feedback. By and large, we find that they love how we make learning inclusive and fun. This, in turn, has led to interest from more schools.
Up to now, more than 30 voluntary teaching assistants from some of China’s top schools, including Tianjin and Nankai universities, have signed up for our courses. We cooperate with dozens of primary and secondary schools in Tianjin. Slowly but surely, we are convincing more and more people that there are better ways to educate our children. For the sake of the next generation, I hope more people will heed our call.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Liu Qiao holds an umbrella over his son in New York, Sept. 12, 2015. From imgur)