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The China Connection

In February of 1916, Teachers College Dean James Earl Russell received a letter from a man known then as Tao Wen Tsing, who wrote to acknowledge his award of a Livingston Scholarship, which was money granted primarily to foreign missionaries engaged in important educational work.

"After seeing the serious defects of the sudden birth of our Republic," Tao wrote, "I was convinced that no genuine republic could exist without a genuine public education."

With that in mind, Tao Wen Tsing, whose name meant "academic elite professional," set out to create just such an educational system for China. "I wish to assure you and the donors of the Livingston Scholarships," he wrote, "that after two more years' preparation...I shall go back to cooperate with other educators to organize an efficient system of public education for our people..."

Tao's preparation continued at Teachers College, where he took graduate studies under the tutelage of such professors as John Dewey, Paul Monroe and William Heard Kilpatrick. He returned to China in 1917 and worked as a professor and administrator at Nanjing Teachers College.

It wasn't until John Dewey journeyed to China in 1919 to present his educational philosophy to a republic in the making that Tao realized the tragic conditions of Chinese education-over 77 percent of the population was illiterate-and that he had been negligent in identifying with the needs of the ordinary working person in China.

Thereafter, Tao devoted his efforts to putting Dewey's philosophy to work in his homeland. He realized that, "what we need now is a new type of education...which will enlighten the people...and mould them into citizens for the republic and for the modern world."

Like Dewey, Tao believed that school must be closely connected to society to play a vital role in social reform and that education is an active, constructive process in real-life experiences rather than one of telling and being told. Yet, when Tao applied Dewey's methods to Chinese education, he found that Chinese students were limited by what the schools were offering them.

Expanding on Dewey's ideas, Tao did what he termed a "half somersault" with Dewey's philosophy. Instead of "school as society," Tao looked at "society as school"; instead of "education as life," he saw "life as education"; and, instead of "learning by doing," he proposed "unity of teaching, learning, and reflective acting."

Tao's most famous experiment was to create the Morning Village Normal School in Nanjing, which not only was designed to train rural teachers in his philosophy, but was also designed to become the center of all political, social and economic activity in an effort to renew the village itself. The experiment was a success, resulting in the improvement of production, living standards, education, economics and security.

Though John Dewey never visited the Morning Village Normal School, William H. Kilpatrick did in 1929. Writing in his diary, he describes a coordinated effort between the school and community where the students were taught by attacking actual life problems. He commented, "It seemed particularly good that so excellent an enterprise should succeed so well, cost so little, and be so completely Chinese."

As part of his dedication to his ideas, Tao changed his name twice to reflect his beliefs. From Tao Wen Tsing, the name his parents gave to reflect their hopes for him, he became Tao Zhixing, which means, "knowing then doing." Finally, he became Tao Xingzhi, which means, "doing then knowing," because he believed that one should do first, then one will know.

The Morning Village Normal School was shut down in 1930 by Nationalist troops, and was reopened after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 with a commitment to improving teacher education, reforming rural education and establishing Tao's principles. Today, it is one of the four normal schools in Nanjing Metropolitan for training elementary school teachers for rural and city schools.

Tao's principles of education have gone from the creation of an experimental school to a national education reform movement. There is a Tao Museum and 18 branches throughout The People's Republic of China of the Tao Research Association, which focuses on his life, his educational thoughts and practices. Today, Tao Xingzhi is still regarded as a hero for his implementation of the theories he developed through his contact with John Dewey and Teachers College.

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