Education in other countries is often held up as a model for U.S. schools to follow. But for the next five years, early-childhood educators will be visiting preschools in Chicago, to find out how the U.S. provides high-quality preschool.
RYB, China’s largest private preschool provider, and the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, a graduate school focusing on child development, have just started what will be a five-year partnership that will include online and in-person training opportunities for the Chinese educators. Faculty from Erikson will also be traveling to China to provide training.
The first weeklong Chicago visit just wrapped up May 15. A group of educators visited different preschools each day, then used the afternoon to discuss what they saw and compare it to their own practice.
Early-childhood education in China is going through a dramatic expansion, according to Erikson—more families are moving to the cities and away from the grandparents who would have cared
for children in past generations. Also, China’s one-child policy has made daycare and preschool more attractive for families looking for social opportunities for their children. And in smaller towns and cities, families are sending their children to preschool, emulating the practices of those in the cities. The Chinese government has invested the equivalent of $16 billion dollars in public early-childhood education in the past three years, but the demand is still high.
That’s where private providers like RYB, founded in 1998, come in. The company serves about 200,000 families in 300 cities, and has 20,000 employees, according to a fact sheet from Erikson. The partnership with Erikson is intended to make RYB stand out as an organization that is interested in providing up-to-date training for its staff members.
The structure of all-day child care and preschool in China is not much different from what one would see in the United States, said Jie-Qi Chen, a professor of child development at Erikson, whose connections in China helped create the partnership. Class sizes may be larger, with 40 to 50 children with a teacher. But children arrive around 8:30 a.m., leave at 5:30 or 6 p.m., and have activities, lunch, naptime, and sometimes dinner during their time in care.
But the Chinese educators observed some less-obvious differences, Chen said. At one preschool, for example, a Chinese visitor noticed a young child putting her shoes on the wrong feet. The American teacher didn’t fix the shoes.
“The teacher said, we want children to dress correctly. But this child is just learning how to dress. The most important thing is to honor her accomplishment,” Chen said. “That response really shocked the Chinese team, and really deeply touched them. What they saw was attention to an individual child.”
Another “teachable moment” came up when the visitors observed an art class. The children were told to draw something about happiness, and so many of them had different pictures, Chen said. In Chinese preschools, art activities focus more on mastering the actual skills.
Chinese teachers tend to believe that it’s important to lead a child’s activities. In contrast, American education places a premium on teachers who can observe children and use their play to create natural learning opportunities. The visitors “were impressed with the qualities of teachers we have here,” Chen said.
At the end of the visit, the chairman of RYB, Chimin Cao, said the visit was “very intensive and very fruitful.” He continued: “Our visit wasn’t just to see schools but to see the communication within schools. This will really help us to engage in our own reflective practice and share what we’ve learned with our colleagues in China.”
Photos: Xihui Hou, above, and Weiwei Zhao, right, visit Christopher House in Chicago, a Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool. Both are directors at preschools run by RYB, China’s largest private preschool provider. (Shawn O’Malley/Erikson Institute)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.