Gao Yue is an eighteen-year old from Yinchuan, an oasis town of two million in the northwest deserts of China. He has a large build, and a soft pensive face. He likes to wear black clothes, which contrasts with his pale skin. He can sit hunched in a dark corner somewhere for hours, but when he talks he becomes so animated his hands dance in the air.
Everyday, he plays “League of Legends”, a video game in which two teams of five players assume avatars with magical powers, and try to destroy each other’s base (basically, “Capture the Flag” for millennials). China considers excessive online gaming a clinical addiction, and gamers like Gao Yue can have their love of “League of Legends” beaten out of them at an Internet addiction camp. But at the progressive Chengdu Pioneer Education School, the game is now Gao Yue’s independent project. Pioneer knows that the Ivy League isn’t shopping for League of Legends stars the way it shops for squash champions, but it is the school’s hope that by encouraging Gao Yue to master his on-screen avatar he can re-build the emotional self that the traditional Chinese school system had shattered.
We know what are the best tools and techniques to teach logical reasoning and creativity. For thousands of years, we have sculpted the mind by having students wrestle with the nuances of a classical text under the guidance of a bearded old guy dressed in a toga or tweed. Project-based learning teaches creativity by having students work together in a continuous process of experimentation, reflection, and adaptation.
But both teaching methods assume that students can get up from bed, which was something that Gao Yue struggled with in his first year at Pioneer.
China’s traditional school system is a hotbed of stress and stigmatization, and when Gao Yue’s businessman father paid for him to enter an elite junior high school back in Yinchuan his teacher would not let him forget that. She decided he wasn’t as worthy as the students who had tested in, and sat him in the back corner in a cramped classroom of fifty students. Her contempt gnawed at Gao Yue, and he was determined to test into an elite high school to prove her wrong. He so badly flunked the high school test that his father had to bribe Gao Yue’s entry into Yinchuan’s worst school. In high school, Gao Yue smoked with the bad kids, and spent his lunch money playing “League of Legends” at an Internet café.
Like millions of others, Gao Yue’s imagination had been strait-jacketed in China’s exam hell of a school system, and in “League of Legends” he found a safe harbor from his teachers’ scorn. He could have been sent to an Internet addiction camp, but his father had the money to send him to a private progressive school instead. When Gao Yue learned he was going to Pioneer, he snuck into his classroom at lunch hour, sat on his teacher’s chair, and lit up a cigarette. Today, he still relishes that moment as his happiest in school.
In March 2014, Gao Yue arrived at Pioneer, where in the school rotunda students played Beethoven on the piano as others skateboarded. At Pioneer, the goal is to give students the autonomy and space to build a coherent emotional self. Students design their own curriculum, plan week-long trips around China, and are responsible for building the school’s library and IT infrastructure. The lynchpin of the Pioneer way is the mentor system, in which staff members burn the midnight oil to leave students alone and keep anxious parents at bay. Mentors encourage students to discover their individuality by making their own mistakes, and when students ask for help they offer suggestions and feedback instead of instruction and judgment. The Pioneer mentoring system is a process of emotional scaffolding.
It’s a slow and messy process that produces long-term benefits at the cost of short-term consequences. Freed from his contemptuous teachers yet still shackled by his self-doubts, Gao Yue chose to sleep all the time. “Sleeping makes me feel safe,” Gao Yue tells me.
Gao Yue’s mentor is Pioneer vice-principal Cui Tao, who is in his early thirties and has a tanned round face. Ever patient and understanding, Cui Tao tried to nudge Gao Yue out of bed with activities that he might excel at. But after giving basketball and student government a short try Gao Yue went back to bed. Cui Tao noticed that Gao Yue would only wake up in the late afternoon to play “League of Legends,” the one thing that had offered him solace back in Yinchuan. And Gao Yue wasn’t the only student like that. So this September Cui Tao had a thought: Why not organize an e-sports team?
In mid-November I followed Cui Tao, Gao Yue, and the four other members of their “League of Legends” team from Chengdu to Shanghai to compete against professional e-sports teams. I tried to be open-minded, but soon enough I couldn’t help but nickname their team “The Bad News Bears.” During that week Cui Tao and his team spent most of their time struggling with one of the universe’s most perplexing puzzles – how to get out teenage boys out of bed in the morning. The Pioneer way insisted on letting the students resolve problems on their own, so every night the boys discussed how to be punctual until midnight, which made them oversleep the next morning. Cui Tao, who never lost his temper with the boys, soon had rings around his eyes, and he followed the boys around with the weary devotion of a social worker.
I was ready to write off the Pioneer way as another bad hippie idea when on the last day of the trip I sat and observed the team’s evening meeting. In the warmly-lit beige hotel room, as both Cui Tao and I sat quiet in the corner, Gao Yue and his four teammates talked from 9:30pm until 12:30am. The boys talked about how they now owed ten thousand yuan in self-imposed fines for being late, and how long it would take them to pay that off (a very long time). That topic was depressing, so Gao Yue directed the conversation to gaming strategy, and how the avatars’ on-screen actions were a manifestation of the boys’ inner psyches. That broke the emotional dam, and the boys each took turns relating the insecurities, failures, and fears that had molded and shaped them, and brought them to “League of Legends.”
For three hours I observed how the intimate bonding was helping the boys re-create the sense of self they had lost in the traditional Chinese school system. There and then, I finally saw the significance of “League of Legends” in the inner lives of Gao Yue and his teammates. I didn’t understand “League of Legends” (watching the boys practice made my head hurt), but when I was a teenager my parents and teachers didn’t understand how Isaac Asimov novels and X-Men comics brought solace to my alienation, and provided me with a safe space to think through my own teenage angst.
That evening, I was most impressed with Gao Yue, who by listening actively to the other boys became the emotional bedrock of the team. He had felt useless and helpless in the Chinese school system, and in response he disassociated. But “League of Legends” armored him with a sense of purpose, self-respect, and belonging, and that evening he could at long last reveal just how sensitive, empathic, and thoughtful he truly was.
The boys taught me so much that evening in Shanghai. Perhaps we adults fail to see how students are so trapped in their self-doubts because we are so trapped in our prejudices. Our students may grow up in a world beyond our comprehension (I will never get social media), but their struggle – the search for purpose and belonging in a cold and harsh world – is timeless, and it is a struggle that allows for the gradual accumulation of self. The Pioneer way understands this, and that is how it has helped Gao Yue find his way out of bed.
Read the other articles in the series: Are Creativity and Innovation Possible in Chinese Schools; How Chengdu Schools Do Innovation; The China Education Debate: Equity Versus Excellence; The Xingwei Experiment; The Secret to School Transformation: Emotional Plumbing