How will Chinese schools improve?

The last 2 days I’ve been blogging about:

How do organizations (like schools) improve?

How do professionals (like teachers) improve?

I took some thoughts from Alex Tabarrok, an economist writing about psychology and group behavior.

Today it’s on to Joe Henrich. He’s an evolutionary biologist.

My friend Sarah sends this gem. It’s a Harvard lecture.

I’m busy! But glad I took the time to click.

Key point:

We’re actually not that smart as humans. We don’t reason things out very well as individuals. (Kahneman says that too).

Instead, we inherit solutions that were really hard to figure out. We’re really good at that process.

Good at noticing who has created unique solutions, good at copying those, good at adapting those copies. For this to happen, requires a large group of humans that communicate well.

More sociability raises skill level.


Let me apply that idea to my observations.

1. Leaders of American traditional public schools rarely visit other schools to obsessively study the details of what happens in classrooms and hallways.


Leaders of High-performing charters do this constantly.
They’re social. They’re curious. Once they observe, they sit with key staff at the school, and try to figure out why X works better there than at their own school.

2. Teachers in American traditional public schools figure it out for themselves.


Teachers in High-performing charters are “handed down” very specific cultural knowledge on complex problems that are hard to solve. Often it’s Lemov type moves applied to that particular schools context (their kids, ages, professional culture, curriculum).

3. Most graduate schools of education teach ideas. Lots and lots of ideas and theories. Teachers are supposed to first pick and choose which ideas they like (based on intellectual appeal), then translate their “personal” amalgam of theory into “moves”…day-to-day actions and decisions once there are 20 little kids in the room. So: 2 types of thinking that humans are not good at.


The innovative grad schools, like Relay and (ahem) Match, teach teachers a single, cohesive mental framework – they ask prospective teachers to decide in advance if they want this particular framework. If yes, great. Then they teach the framework (with supporting theories that underlie the framework), and some basic “teacher moves” (so they need not reinvent the wheel).

The high-performing charters seem to vastly prefer teachers from the innovative grad schools to the prestigious ones, like Harvard or Stanford.


What will this mean for the wave of new private schools opening in China?

My sense:

Currently they are like traditional public schools here in USA.

Their leaders don’t visit classrooms/hallways in other schools and obsess about how to transmit cultural knowledge.

Their teachers are given “curriculum” – but must figure out for themselves how to succeed with kids who are bored, behind, struggling, etc.

Their universities focus more on intellectual theory than cultural transmission of practical stuff.

Will any emerging Chinese school networks copy the practices of high-performing charters?

2 thoughts on “How will Chinese schools improve?

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