Asia’s Social Changemakers: Diane Geng, Founder: Rural China Education Foundation

Approximately 60 percent of China’s population, 800 million people, live in rural areas. In these villages today, between 80 to 90 percent of youth drop out during or right after middle school with few life-relevant skills and a sense of apathy or disdain towards their communities. This is due to a combination of factors, such as the irrelevance of traditional curriculum to daily rural life, discouraging teaching methods, financial obstacles, and a severe shortage of quality teachers.

Diane Geng co-founded the Rural China Education Foundation to promote education for people in rural China that prepares them to improve their own lives and communities.  Underlying this mission is the foundations commitment to affect the essence of education for rural students – the curriculum and teaching methods.

Hope schools and many NGOs in China focus on building more schools and improving the “hardware” or infrastructure in education. Your venture, RCEF focuses on the “software”, including teacher training. How did you get your idea for RCEF and how did you get started?
I was on a Fulbright fellowship researching rural education in China from 2004-2005. The dominant view I heard in my interviews with academics and NGO or government project managers working on rural education was that increased financing to build more rural schools, lower tuition, and upgrade equipment was the solution to improving rural education. However, when I traveled to villages and spent time in rural schools, a more complex picture emerged. “Disgust with school” (??) was common among rural students. Teachers estimated that around two thirds of the starting seventh-grade class would have dropped out by ninth grade. Even in villages close to cities where parents made enough money through migrant labor to afford tuition, families held out little hope for concrete rewards from the traditional education system. Crowded classes, rote teaching methods, high-pressure tests, and prison-like school environments drove students–and their often scarce, overworked, and underpaid teachers–to distraction. I wondered what good it was to build new classrooms if what was happening inside them didn’t change.

Furthermore, there is a huge disconnect between rural schools and the surrounding rural community. The most successful students can use the school system as an escape route out of their villages, most never to return. The rest — the vast majority — are left behind or drop out early, heads filled with test material but little in the way of thinking and communication skills or values that prepare them to solve problems in the real world. Instead of just being a brain drain from rural communities, how can rural education prepare all students to improve their own lives and communities, wherever they will go in life?

These questions obsessed me and my RCEF co-founders, two other overseas Chinese whom I met as we were all independently researching rural education in China. We shared a common belief in going directly to villages to learn about the realities of local people, and experimented with teaching methods and curriculum development. In our first project in the summer of 2005, we recruited 16 volunteers from inside and outside of China to put on summer camps for rural children in four villages. The lessons learned from that and other models over the last six years have helped RCEF to accumulate a lot of firsthand experience in the complex process of rural education change, and helped us evolve to our current focus on rural educators’ professional development and support.

There are still many inequalities in Rural China. What opportunities do you see for social entrepreneurs to make a sustainable and high-impact difference?
Healthcare and housing have interesting problems that affect the lives of all rural people. How can quality healthcare–especially preventative healthcare–be delivered more widely and affordably? Disabled and elderly people are a significant segment of the rural population whose needs are grossly under-served. Many parts of rural China are rapidly urbanizing and rural residents will have to prepare for new living styles. How will housing and design play a role?

What was your hardest lesson learned so far?
Focus in on what we have the capacity to do best right now rather than spread ourselves thin trying to develop many (albeit related) projects simultaneously. We started out for several years working on many educational subjects ranging from social studies to science to reading to theater. While the underlying principles and philosophy were the same, each subject required an intense amount of time and energy. We ended up consolidating from working with multiple schools and teachers across multiple subjects to focusing on a core group of the most self-motivated educators working on just a couple of subject areas – reading and service learning.

What is a unique advice to starting a venture in China that you could give to an aspiring entrepreneur?
If you are an outsider to the community you want to serve, find partner(s) who are from that community to help you learn about the problems and design and implement solutions (especially as they may take a long time to take root).

What is the best advise you have ever received as social entrepreneur?
Strive to solve the underlying problem. Keep asking the simple question “Why?” when you see problems and peel back the layers until you come to the most elemental foundation for the problem you are trying to solve and assess what you can do about it.

What are the 3 best tools, websites, books etc that helped you start and manage your business?
www.echoinggreen.org
Leadership Effectiveness Training by Dr.Thomas Gordon
China Development Brief