The Xingwei Experiment
Xingwei College is a quiet and leafy campus near the bustle and gleam of Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. I visited the four-year private liberal arts college for a week in November, when its lawns glowed under the creamy sky of the Shanghai winter. A stream cut through the flat sprawling campus on its way to the East China Sea, and the fresh coastal air smelled of apricot. The campus was so serene and pristine it seemed like such an unlikely setting for China’s most radical experiment to teach students creativity and critical thinking.
Xingwei’s founder is Chen Weiming. When he was fourteen, he went to the United States, and after graduating from Harvard Business School he returned to Shanghai to make his fortune. When Chen started a family, he wasn’t sure he wanted his three kids to study abroad like he did. Yes, America taught him creativity and critical thinking, but the experience left him feeling alienated and rootless. Could creativity and critical thinking skills be taught within a Chinese context? To find out the answer, Chen retired, and started Xingwei in 2012.
This November, I spent five days at Xingwei observing classes and meetings. I interviewed Chen Weiming on the phone (he was out-of-town), chatted with a dozen of Xingwei’s seventy students, and had jasmine tea with Dave Stafford, the six-four 46-year-old Assistant Provost whose beard had the reddish brown of his native West Virginia hills in the autumn.
After my visit, I concluded Xingwei was a mess. It lacked a coherent vision, and a rigorous curriculum. Students and staff did whatever they wanted, and Xingwei made everything up as it went.
In other words, I was impressed. Most schools I visited in China just paid lip service to creativity, but Xingwei was actually struggling with how to teach it. And in its bumbling Xingwei may have stumbled upon the solution.
When Xingwei first started out in 2012, Chen Weiming hired experienced educators. They came with their shiny resumes and pretty mantras, and they soon left. No matter how hard Chen tried he couldn’t find the right leadership. So last year Chen came up with the sort of unconventional idea that made him such a successful entrepreneur: He let the students run the school themselves. Today, under the aegis of adult coaches, student committees control every aspect of the school, including human resources, finance, and curriculum. Students have the power to hire and fire faculty, negotiate contracts, and sign checks.
This new approach was so extreme that many of the school’s founding faculty understandably walked away. Both Chen Weiming and Dave Stafford told me that over time Xingwei would attract the right teachers and students.
I was not sure about that. Most teachers, no matter how open-minded, would be startled by the idea that their students were also their employers. There’s also the danger that over time Xingwei’s student empowerment would cause internal strife, as students divide into political factions. For the Xingwei experiment to succeed, the student committees would need to cede some authority back to the faculty, and build the fair and just management systems necessary for everyone to trust and respect each other. To the students’ credit, they themselves saw the need to temper the revolution they were leading, and were open to my criticisms.
My reservations aside, I did see a lot of promise. One of the meetings I observed was between the human resources student committee and the school’s personnel office. Students and administrative staff sat together to design a teacher evaluation rubric, and they sat on opposite sides of the table. The students wanted to hire teachers who were dynamic in the classroom, and the administrators argued that teachers had to be first and foremost good employees. To hammer out their differences, the students had to learn to appreciate the practical aspects of teacher hiring, and the administrators had to learn to consider what happened in the classroom as well as the staff room.
Chen Weiming explained that because students actively managed the school they had to learn to compromise with different stakeholders. And because student committees were democratic, students needed to learn to make arguments with logic and evidence. Real-world democratic messiness made students develop empathy, and think with nuance – two important conditions for the learning of creativity and critical thinking. It seemed to me that Xingwei students were in a much better position to read and understand The Federalist Papers and Democracy in America than I was when I studied them at Yale.
Over jasmine tea, I chatted with Dave Stafford in his office about the personnel meeting. “Students want to hire foreign teachers who are passionate and dedicated, but it’s difficult enough just to recruit foreign teachers period,” I said. Dave agreed with me, and explained that as a coach he had to let students make their own mistakes while keeping his office door always open.
Overall, I found Xingwei students and staff to be dedicated yet open-minded, bold yet humble. When I asked Chen Weiming over the phone what Xingwei might look like in five years’ time, he spoke the three scariest and bravest words in all of education: “I don’t know.”
And that’s why Xingwei might succeed, after all.
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 Pioneer Way: Emotional Scaffolding; The Secret to School Transformation: Emotional Plumbing