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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Xueqin Jiang


Xueqin Jiang & Edwin Rutsch: How to Build a Culture of Empathy in Chinese Education System 
Xueqin Jiang has been designing and implementing a specialized curriculum for Chinese students planning to study in American colleges and universities. He is deputy principle of the Peking High International Division, which aims to educate China's next generation of educators, writers, and thinkers by teaching them empathy and creativity.

Xueqin Jiang & Edwin Rutsch: How to Build a Culture of Empathy in Chinese Education System 

Transcripts:: Thanks so much to Alicia Lui for doing the Transcripts!


 Xueqin Jiang & Edwin Rutsch: How to Build a Culture of Empathy in Chinese Education System

Time 00:00 Introductions

·     Mr. Jiang is the deputy principal of the International Division of the Peking University Affiliated High School in Beijing

·    He was born in China but grew up in Toronto, Canada and graduated from Yale College in 1999. Since then he has worked in China under different capacities first as a high school teacher, then as a journalist, and a documentary film maker and for the past for years in the study abroad education market in China


Time 00:52: What is Peking University High School (PUHS)

·         Peking University High School was founded in 1960 as a lab school for Peking University so many of the university’s professors received their training from this high school and many professors sent their children to attend this school.

·         Since the 60s this school has been considered an innovative and progressive high school in China. Many top scientists, thinkers and entrepreneurs such as the founder of Sina have graduated from this school. What makes the school interesting is the community and the interactions between teachers and students. The school has a very nurturing environment. In 2010 they started the International Division.

·         Since 2005 / 2006 many more Chinese students have started to apply to study in the US even though study abroad has been occurring since the mid 90s but this was primarily for students who didn’t do very well in the Chinese system and opted to go to school in Australia, Britain, Canada. In 2005 / 2006 the US started to relax it’s visa restrictions against Chinese students so what we started seeing was a lot of top students who could have attended Peking University or Tsinghua University choosing to go to the US instead.

·         This trend has only accelerated since then and right now (2012) there were over 160,000 Chinese students studying on US campuses and you see entire classes opting out of the Chinese system to go study in the US instead. This has become a huge trend.

·         In 2010 they started the International Division to meet student demand but more as an experiment to see what is possible in terms of education reform in China.


Time 03:18 Proposal for Competition

·         ER and JXQ were connected because JXQ entered the Ashoka Competition to activating and promoting empathy in schools.

·         Empathy is not a well-known concept in China; in fact there is no good translation for the word. There is a translation for sympathy but not empathy.

·         There’s been debate in recent years that the Chinese education system doesn't work and the question has been “Why does China not produce Nobel prize winning scientists?” “Why doesn’t China produce innovative entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerburg?”

·         JXQ: the key reason is empathy. Empathy and creativity are directly linked and empathy leads to creativity. So at his school they are trying to cultivate China’s next generation of thinkers: the entrepreneurs, the writers, the scientists, and the educators that are going to lead China in the 21st Century. For them the fundamental essence has to be empathy because it’s the foundation for collaboration, understanding group dynamics and the need to work with others but also communication. Effective communication requires the understanding of the other person, but also JXQ is a strong believer in creativity. It’s the constant negotiation of knowing who you are and what the world demands that will lead to new ideas.

Time 05:40 Implement empathy in China nationwide?

·         JXQ: Right now in China there’s a fundamental shift in society. For the past 20 / 30 years China was very much a manufacturing base economy so all the innovation was happening elsewhere. But as China shifts from an agricultural society towards and industrial society with GDP growth of 8 / 9 % a year then you also see a massive accumulation of wealth.

·         But when you’re a manufacturing society you need literate workers who can do simple tasks. That’s what Chinese education is very good at doing – producing disciplined, focused individuals who can read and write and the way they do this is by using standardized examinations to filter out who succeeds and fails and this motivation system works fine.

·         What we’re finding now is China is shifting from a manufacturing base economy to a knowledge base society. But because of this education system students are not required to think for themselves and they have no motivation to study outside of this school system

·         About 10 years ago Richard Florida wrote a booked called “Rise of the Creative Class” about individuals who are constantly learning, challenging themselves and who learn for the sake of learning. Daniel Pink wrote “Drive” which talks about motivation 3.0 (intrinsic drive) and these are pretty much what China lacks right now. Because of this China cannot progress as a society and its economy so there’s a fundamental debate about how China can transition from this manufacturing base economy to knowledge base economy.

·         The school’s solution is empathy. It has to be the fundamental essence of China. And the shift from standardized tests to a more progressive education system. For the past two years the school has been focusing on empathy


Time 08:50 is empathy a word that the school uses? What about teachers, staff?

·         JXQ: because empathy is a word that is difficult to translate directly, they use different ideas to express the same meaning: such as communication, collaboration, group dynamics, self-learning, self-understanding, self-control.


Time 09:42 How to build a culture of empathy?

·         JXQ: humans through evolution have been programmed and designed to be individuals through empathy. Empathy is a natural state. We all have families, we have friends, and we have colleagues. In order to effectively communicate with them we need empathy. So really, empathy fundamentally is about being a human being. So the question is: “What is happening in this world that is reducing the level of empathy?” For example, China’s not a society built on empathy and in the US you have the Wall Street scandals.

·         The answer is probably that society is increasingly focused on material ends like money and tests. PUHS is an example of this. When the students entered they were products of the Chinese system, standardized tests and incentive based learning and at their school they have eliminated that culture and said, “here you’re come in to learn to be individuals and to be thinkers.” They don’t want short-term goals since learning is a life long process. Yet their students come in and think their goal is to do well on the SAT or the TOEFL or to be accepted by a top American school.  So they tell their students, “if you think that way then there’s no difference to being in the Chinese system where your goal is to get into those top Chinese universities” and that is the reason why many students lack empathy.

·         Science shows that humans have two centers: the altruistic, creative center and the other utilitarian short-term center. These two centers are mutually exclusive. You can choose to tell the students that “you’re in school to be better individuals” or you can choose to tell students that they’re in school to do well in standardized exams so you can get into a top college.” You can choose one or the other or choose both. And what happens often is that if you use the same message it's the short-term utilitarian center that overrides the altruistic morale creative center. And that’s what they have discovered in their program. That by constantly engaging the utilitarian drive, students have become more creative, more empathic, more moral individuals and this is something that their school is proud of.

·         They constantly reinforce this with group dynamic in classes, having the students do group work, and constantly reminding students that just because they do well in tests it doesn’t mean they are smart. Being smart includes the ability to work with different people and to be able to recognize the strengths of other people and to match your strengths with the strengths of other people to build something great, creative and long lasting.

·         Last month (Feb 2012) the school sent students to Botswana to do service learning to work with AIDS children and disabled children. That was intellectually very challenging, to shift from one culture to another culture and to adapt that requires empathy. The students were able to do that, they had two teachers who constantly worked with them and helped them process the experience.

·         Their students came back transformed and [empathy plays about 90% of it].  The other fundamental point is why they go – to meet new people and to expand horizons. If you frame it as something they should do to improve their college applications then they go in with different motivations, their experience will be different and they’ll come back not as transformed as they could have been.So it’s very fundamental to tell students, and to both American and Chinese society to move away from seeking short-term materialistic rewards and goals and move towards a more holistic thinking, altruistic based society thinking.

·   US and China at the moment are too focused on the individual, on short term goals like test scores and money


Time 16:10 Definition of empathy 

·         JXQ: Thinks empathy is related to many things. Empathy, morality, altruism and creativity are all linked together somehow (even though there is no science behind it). One reinforces the other.

·         Empathy is the ability to be able to adapt the viewpoints of others. It’s very easy for us to know what we think but the ability to sympathize or understand what they think and to articulate their viewpoint.

·         From an intellectual perspective, the ability to articulate and read another person’s mind is the most intellectual ability.

·         ER also shared his definitions of empathy: the 4 parts of empathy: Self empathy (self awareness, mindfulness – sensory awareness of what you personally feel); mirrored empathy (your body mirrors whoever you’re interacting with); theory of mind / imaginative empathy / cognitive empathy (being able to take the position of someone else and see the world from their perspective); empathic action (as we connect we create action together that is an empathic type of action).

·         JXQ shared the individualization and socialization process that educators use. You first go through the individualization process before you can socialize. Individualization is similar to ER’s definition of self-empathy.

Time 20:40 on requiring a big cultural shift towards empathy in China

·         China’s model (more authoritarian, patriarchal, hierarchal, you always follow the leader) and that is very different from the definition of empathy, which is feeling everyone for their humanity and how we see each other’s humanity. So it seems to be a huge cultural change and shift

·         There is a problem in China and that’s the hierarchy where power is distributed unevenly, so the ones with power feel it is their right to bully the ones who are powerless and that’s why China lacks a culture of empathy

·         But that’s also a problem for communication and creativity as well. For communication you need equality; you need to respect and trust that people you are communicating with and China lacks communication as well. With creativity you need a culture of innovation where you’re not afraid to lose face, to make mistakes or to offend your superiors. 

·         China is very much in need of these three aspects: creativity, communication and empathy to progress as a society and civilization. Fundamentally it’s a question of power distribution. If China wants to progress it needs to fundamentally reexamine its political system and look at its effectiveness in the 21st century global economy.


Time 23:20 How to create that empathy within society? What’s the picture in China for the development of empathy?

·         JXQ: believes strongly that empathy is about being an effective school, business and society. Which is the ability to channel the creativity, the energy of everyone involved to create something great. You look at companies that treat their employees with respect like Google or Apple or Facebook, which encourages their employees to be creative individuals and remove something called scientific management from the equation, where people aren’t treated like animals anymore. These are creative companies that have shown they can grow and any company that employs a culture of empathy can show growth. And it’s because of the way Americans have been educated. They do go into the workplace expecting to be treated as equals, to be given autonomy and freedom to pursue what they love. The companies that do this seem to [fry] and the companies that go against that they suffer.

·         In China the issue is there is no word for empathy; there is no understanding of the word empathy in this culture. The closest word is sympathy (same feeling in Chinese) and the word for compassion.

·         What China needs is to be first shown the concept of empathy and that’s what their school tries to show. If you remove pressure and hierarchy and standardized testing from the Chinese system and focus more on a culture of empathy students become happier and become more motivated and creative and more driven to learn; they’re become better at collaborating together. That’s what they have seen in their students and they feel quite strongly that they need a showcase to inform people of the possibilities of what empathy can lead to.

·         JXQ: At the moment businesses are willing to discuss empathy because of what companies like Apple, Google were able to accomplish and if you didn’t have these companies then you’d might not have as many companies talking about empathy. So they feel strongly that their school is a lab, a showcase for what is possible. And even if empathy is not explicitly articulated it is in the blood and culture of the school.


Time 27:00 How to maximize empathy? It seems very important to first have a word for empathy …

·         JXQ: China is very different from America; an example is driving in China. It seems like drivers in China don’t have awareness for other drivers or pedestrians. It’s like they feel that because they have a car then they can do whatever they want. The culture of mutual respect doesn’t seem to exist here. It seems more a culture of power, face and shame and less about empathy. When Americans are together there seems to be a culture of empathy at the fundamental level; even strangers can do that. But in China strangers do not express empathy with each other; families can though. Families are very tight knit and connected so there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the world about China. China as a nation is quite fragile and weak and that’s because there is no empathy, there is no social glue to glue everyone together and to think nationally.

·         China is still very clan based / family based society.


Time 30:30 Connecting with other schools to share experiences or lesson plans or learning activities …

·         What the school does is very special in China; it’s quite distinctive and their students enjoy it. They feel better as individuals and as students; they feel respected and they feel empowered in our culture. However the parents themselves are under tremendous pressure because they have different social circles, which tell them, “What is your kid doing? Your child wants to go to America? Why is he not studying for the SAT right now? Why’s he not memorizing words? Why’s he reading books and going to Africa to do volunteer work? What’s the point of that?” So what’s important for the school is to connect with other schools and to share the philosophy. They do want to be part of a global network because what they do in China is so challenging, so it’s good for the students and it can reinforce the values that they are trying to teach and at the same time can broaden their horizons which leads to greater empathy.

·         JXQ: hopes in the future that ER can arrange for their students to discuss with other students from other schools.

·         Mutual benefits to talk to students who are not Western educated


Time 33:00 what is Jiang Xueqin’s personal metaphor on empathy

·         JXQ: dolphin is the first image that comes to his mind because they are considered to have empathy. Empathy is like water and it’s like ear. It’s fundamental to life and society cannot function without it. Empathy nourishes us and it’s fundamental to who we are; and it’s fundamentally what we are actually; it’s the source of life. If water is to the individual then empathy is to the society. If society lacks empathy then it slowly starts to degenerate (slowly dehydrate).


Time 35:20 what was the actual Ashoka proposal

·         What PUHS tries to do is called “Empathy in Practice” so even if they don’t explicitly articulate it nor do they indoctrinate their students with it, empathy is fundamental to everything they do and their focus. They have students focus on this program that is fundamental to their identity.

·         The first is on reading literature. JXQ wants his students to be lifelong readers and traditionally literature was used to teach empathy in schools because literature is about seeing the world through someone’s perspectives or through their characters. And writers themselves are people with tremendous empathy for themselves and for the community.  So reading is fundamental to what they do. And it’s unfortunate that reading has been increasingly irrelevant in schools.

·         So the proposal to Ashoka was showcasing the school and what they are doing.

·         Empathy cannot be done half-heartedly and it can’t be a class on empathy only; it’s like water and it needs to prevail everything.

·         The second is on group dynamics and that prevails every class and they try to get the students to learn to work together. It’s not that easy to get students to work together and there are things that need to be emphasized, such as self-understanding, appreciation of other’s strengths and weaknesses, appreciating that different people bring different things to the table.

·         The third is to emphasize evidence and logic and for them it’s been via debate. Also to offer specific feedback during discussions. For students and even for adults it’s quite easy for discussions to degenerate into insults so the ability to hold yourself back and offer specific feedback requires empathy.

·         What’s important therefore is also to offer feedback to students for what they do. For reading the feedback is reflected in that the difficulty is higher as they read more so they feel a sense of accomplishment. Group work is also important because at the end of the day there’s also something concrete from it.

·         The school is trying to move away from tests to papers, presentations, and experiments. They read many books to train themselves on neuroscience and many books that discuss the importance of empathy. So empathy is very fundamental to their culture and their practices.


Time 39:25 Student is invited to participate in discussion; her name is Rebecca and a grade 11 student

·         Rebecca has been in the PUHS program since the first day

·         Rebecca: there hasn’t been a good translation for the word empathy because in Chinese there isn’t a word that is as broad as empathy. There are smaller words that mean “thinking for others”

·         If you use the German derivatives of the word which mean feeling and thinking, you can translate feeling as “感觉,思考 (gan3 jue2, si1 kao3) 

·         It’s been so difficult to translate in Chinese because unlike in western culture where the word has been used for so long that use of the word brings up specific connotations or ideas, they don’t exist in China. So even if you created a word to capture the essence of the empathy it still wouldn’t have the same impact.

·         Rebecca has learnt about empathy from her trip to Botswana, which for her and many classmates was their first time to Africa. They went in with many stereotypes but Botswana turned out to be very different from what they expected. The people were very nice, they always greeted each other on the streets, and they were very nice to the students. And they did service learning in Botswana. Because most of them are single children at home they’re not accustomed to always thinking about someone else like when you have a brother or sister.

·         Rebecca stayed with a home stay family and her counterpart had brothers and sisters, including younger siblings. So when they ate her friend would say things like “don’t get too close to the television” or “you can’t eat with your hands like that” or “have you washed your hands?” and she was constantly thinking about them. For Rebecca she’s never had that experience where she’s always worrying about someone else all the time.

·         During the service learning they worked with children who had Down syndrome, some of who had difficulties expressing themselves and she was sitting with one girl who couldn’t speak. This girl was supposed to draw something but she had problems holding the pen so they just say there for half and hour and for Rebecca that half an hour was a long time to be thinking about what the girl wants and what she was thinking about and it was probably the longest time she had spent just trying to get into someone’s head to feel what they’re feeling right now. The girl would always look at a group of people who were eating so Rebecca thought she was thirsty and through the teachers communicated with the girl to get her some water. It was a very different experience for Rebecca. She realizes after this trip that she was lacking this sense that there are constantly people around you. When she’s home there’s only her so it’s easy to only think of herself and forget the rest of the world.

·         JXQ: Chinese students have very little experiences growing up, they pretty much go to school and they go home. They don’t really date, they don’t really work and have very few interests outside of school. Because their experiences are limited their emotional range is also limited and that hinders empathy.


Time 48:00 Empathy is also about the feeling of others experiences. @Rebecca – who did she feel the closest to during her trip to Botswana?

·         Rebecca: probably the girl she stayed with for the home stay family even though she only stayed for 1 night. But it gave them sufficient time to talk to each other and they talked till very late at night so got to know each other.

Ends around 49:00

(The rest is chitchat about connecting with other schools)