Life on the Edge: Kevin Jian has lived on the line separating the education systems of the East and West. Now he’s trying to erase that boundary
“In China, we say that ‘interest is your best teacher,’” says Kevin Jian. “If you are interested in something, you are probably going to be successful in learning it and doing it well.”
Kevin, who received his TC master’s degree in Developmental Psychology in May, is a case in point. After emigrating from China to Canada with his mother when he was 14, Kevin majored in statistics at the University of Toronto, with an eye toward a career in banking and finance. Then his father, Jian Jin Hong, founding Chairman and Chair of the Executive Board of the Western International School of Shanghai (WISS), asked him to attend Teachers College and pursue a different path.
“He knew about Teachers College from Cheng Davis [a WISS board member who is special advisor on China to TC President Susan Fuhrman],” Kevin says. The elder Jian – a former math teacher and university professor – is the creator of TC’s Nanzhu Endowed Scholarship for a full-time masters or doctoral student in the Educational Leadership program who has resided in China for at least a number of years and is fluent in the language. He also recently hosted a dinner in Shanghai for Ms. Davis and Suzanne Murphy, TC’s Vice President for Development and External Affairs.
“My dad needed help with communications, because his school’s director and much of the staff speak English, but he speaks only Chinese,” Kevin says. “So he asked me to get a master’s degree in education and help with the school.”
At TC, Kevin’s concentration was in Developmental Psychology, because “in order to educate kids it’s important to understand how they learn and think.” To that end, he worked closely with Herbert Ginsburg, TC’s Jacob H. Schiff Foundation Professor of Psychology & Education, who has extensively documented the ability of children as young as 18 months to do “everyday math.”
“Dr. Ginsburg is a great professor,” Kevin says. “I have always studied math, so I’m not surprised that very young kids can do it. But part of what I’ve learned from Professor Ginsburg is that each kid learns so differently. So while we have a standard that at age five a kid should be able to count to 20, there are six-year-olds who can only count to 12 and three-and-a-half-year-olds who can count to1,000.” Kevin says he also benefited from the exposure to his classmates. “They were particularly bright and collaborative, and many were already teachers, so they were very experienced,” he says. “As a result, I got to hear a lot of stories.”
En route to earning his TC degree in just a year, Kevin spoke long-distance to his father nearly every night. He earned straight A’s and then interned at a school in Korea run by a family friend, the father of 2015 TC graduate Margaret Min.
“I rotated through the administrative office, admissions, marketing, engineering, facilities, faculty support, accounting,” he says. “I learned how a school operates.”
Kevin has also developed an outlook that combines the best of East and West.
On the one hand, he says, he subscribes to Professor Ginsburg’s belief that “western education in mathematics is not strong enough” because “it does not focus on foundational knowledge” and because children are “learning math from teachers who aren’t that qualified because they themselves were not interested in learning math when they were young.” At the same time, he feels that “western education programs put more emphasis on creative thinking, versus China’s methods of practice and memorization.”
“In China, if you don’t understand, you’re told to just practice and memorize,” Kevin says. “That limits people’s potential because it make learning uninteresting Students in China, India and Singapore are good test takers. They score higher on exams but they don’t necessarily achieve better later in life.”
To bridge that divide, Kevin and his father are now trying to expand international education offerings in China.
“I have a sense of achievement in running a school, seeing students graduate and become leaders. Later you can proudly say, ‘They were once students in my school.’”-- Kevin Jian
“There are two kinds of international schools in China. One is the kind we’re running, which takes only students with foreign passports, and where the teachers are all foreigners. A lot of students are children of diplomats and people in business. We have students from 48 different countries. The biggest population is from Germany. English is the main language. But we cannot take Chinese students. My dad thinks the government should allow us to take Chinese students, too, so we’re building another school for Chinese students who want to study in the United States. He has another international school in Zhuhai and a kindergarten in Xi’an. And he might start another school in Chongqing.”
Meanwhile, Kevin has no regrets about changing his career path. “Education is very meaningful and very helpful to other people,” he says. “So I have a sense of achievement in running a school, seeing students graduate and become leaders. Later you can proudly say, ‘They were once students in my school.’” – Joe Levine
Published Tuesday, Jun 28, 2016