Reforming Education, Reforming Society

In: Life-Practice Educology
Free access

English readers will find Life-Practice School of Educology unusual and extraordinary. It is unusual partly because Chinese thought differs from Western thought in ways that may leave cross-cultural readers slightly puzzled as if viewing a video at the wrong speed. Intellectual habits built into Chinese thought and Western thought may sometimes leave cross-cultural readers feeling a little off kilter. These feelings may be discomfiting for some and lead to loss of meaning if their critical faculties are unnecessarily aroused. Readers who gain the most from this text will quiet such critical tendencies and give themselves over to the text. English speaking readers will be familiar with the idea that to learn from the most knowledgeable and gifted a first step is to reserve judgement and give oneself up to the ways of thinking and doing of the leading practitioners of the topic being learned be it art, medicine, science or some other. Because China is inescapably part of international political and influence discourses it is common for Westerners to look for, and sometimes spontaneously judge, differences as they encounter the Chinese spirit. This is a book that strongly reflects the Chinese educational spirit and wise readers will first and foremost set out to follow the thought lines of the text. These readers will be well rewarded because this book brings profound insight into Chinese educational thought. The wisest of readers will look beyond even these profound insights as Professor Ye Lan critically explores Western thought along with historical and current Chinese thought to create an independent philosophy of education, one that she calls Life · Practice School of Educology. In her 2006 book Portraits of Influential Chinese Educators, Ruth Hayhoe (Hayhoe, 2006) referred to Professor Ye Lan as “China’s leading theorist in basic education and school reform” (p. 324). Life · Practice School of Educology demonstrates this role for English readers and, in the more than 10 years since the Hayhoe book, Professor Ye Lan’s work has, as she says in Chapter 5, become “transcendent” as she is engaged in “imparting knowledge on heaven, earth and man, and developing life-consciousness” (p. 370).

For those who give themselves over to the text, this book will be extraordinary, perhaps revolutionary with respect to their predispositions about China and Chinese education. The intellectual and historical range of the book means that different readings are possible. Several of the strongest possibilities are Chinese political/cultural history, philosophic starting points and arguments for conceptualizing education, practical educational reform initiatives and Chinese identity, particularly as expressed in education, in the context of East-West tensions. I cannot in this short Foreword begin to unpack these multiple possible readings. But it is important that interested readers know that this book has historical and cross-cultural breadth. The book is not encyclopedic. Favourite authors by English readers will likely not appear nor will many current Chinese educational theorists many of whom currently follow Western lines of thought. Both English and Chinese speaking readers will likely be disappointed if they approach the text as a source of preferred references. Rather, following her mentor Liu Fonian’s advice (Hayhoe, 2006, p. 352) Professor Ye Lan restricted her reading and analysis to a short list of distinctly important Eastern and Western thinkers. She unpacks selected powerful lines of thought beginning with Aristotle in the West and Confucius in China. These lines of thought are brought to bear on Chinese social and educational reform over time with a focus on the future. Recognizing the book’s breadth and historical sweep will richly reward readers with particular interests in cross-cultural education, Chinese cultural and educational history, educational similarities and differences between East and West, and more.

The special quality of this text might well be lost without a brief biographical account of Professor Ye Lan’s educational journey. For English readers brought up in a comparatively stable political world the practical and theoretical journey undertaken by Professor Ye Lan and represented in this book is truly extraordinary and may be difficult to fathom. It is hard to imagine the uplifting and even spiritual, messages on students, teachers and members of society found in this book coming from someone whose father was shamed in the Cultural Revolution and who herself, spent time in a Cultural Revolution reform Centre. I invite readers to slowly review her history and to give some thought as to what Ye Lan may have experienced at various points in time. For instance, I recall as a child being afraid of the sounds of airplanes fearing they might be Japanese or German World War 2 bombers. It would have been hard to be further from the war action in my home in southern Alberta, Canada. But, almost exactly at the same time, Ye Lan lived through a more crushing war, the Sino-Japanese conflict and, simultaneously, a dramatic Civil War on her home soil. What must she have felt and how did it influence her ideas on society, education and social reform?

Along with Shijing Xu, I first met Professor Ye Lan and visited Huaping Primary School, one of her New Basic Education schools in 2007. I have had continuing contact with Professor Ye Lan since that time via the Canada-China Partnership Project, Reciprocal Learning in Teacher Education and School Education between Canada and China directed by my colleague Shijing Xu at the University of Windsor (Xu and Connelly, 2013–2020). We support, and study, Sister School collaborative relationships between Canadian schools and Professor Ye Lan’s New Basic Education schools. I returned from the 2007 visit and reported to my wife, Gerry Connelly, the Director of the Toronto District School Board, that we have much to learn from the Chinese. We sensed considerable compatibility between what we experienced in our discussions with Professor Ye Lan, School Principal Yeting Wang and staff at Huaping Primary School and our developing ideas on the relationship of Canadian and Chinese education. We were warmly welcomed during our visit while, at the same time, recognizing that Professor Ye Lan and the New Basic Education Project were philosophically and culturally driven by Chinese values and narrative history. This was an important observation for us because one of the ideas driving Shijing Xu (Xu, 2017), which found its way into our work was a sense of too much openness, perhaps an over eagerness, in some Chinese circles to adopt Western educational thinking. This idea has become the notion of “reciprocal learning” in our Canada China educational work in which we search for things to teach, and to learn from, the other. Throughout the pages of this book on Life-Practice School of Educology Professor Ye Lan repeatedly turns to the question of what can be learned from the West. But she shows that these Western learnings must ultimately take second place to Chinese values and narrative history in the construction of overarching Chinese educational thought.

Shijing Xu and I also sensed a strong practical link to the Chinese work. Our work is narratively focused on intensive in-school participant observation research. We were delighted at the real world practicality evident in Professor Ye Lan’s work when she invited us to visit a school, Huaping Public School, rather than asking us to attend a campus seminar. For us, this connected our Joseph Schwab practicality (Westbury & Wilkof, 1982) with Professor Ye Lan and New Basic Education. Though we have continued to meet over the years, our conversations, or perhaps it might be better to say my interpretation of our conversations, continued over practical school matters. When I agreed to write a Foreword for Professor Ye Lan’s book, I anticipated a detailed book on the development and expansion of primary education in China. I did not anticipate the philosophical breadth and scope and the complex construction of the new school of educational thought, Life Practice School of Educology, which characterizes this book. Perhaps my dismay with abstract North American curriculum thought led me to look around and beyond Professor Ye Lan’s words to the practicalities embodied in Huaping Primary School. As I wrote this Forward, I found it challenging and exciting to explore the profound philosophical and theoretical quality of this book as I attempted to understand the connection between schools in New Basic Education and the Life · Practice School of Educology. In effect though, I am comparatively knowledgeable about the background for this book, the up-front advice I offer above for English readers includes advice to myself. My working summary of the meaning of the title is that Professor Ye Lan has developed what might be called a practical philosophy of education. This philosophy embodies what she calls life and practice and the combination of the two and it is framed around her interpretations of leading Eastern and Western thought interpreted against a backdrop of Chinese socio-political development. Professor Ye Lan has created a network of innovative, socially relevant schools and she has articulated an educational philosophy that has the potential to help shape not only Chinese education but Chinese society at large.

Overview of the Book

Because this is a complex book with special difficulties for English readers, I provide this short overview of the book’s five chapters.

In Chapter 1, readers focus on primary education reform and on the place of New Basic Education primary schools and the Life-Practice School of Educology will find five development periods beginning in 1983. The theoretical and social need for Chinese primary education reform is sketched out by way of an introduction. Readers will see the close link between the practicalities of primary education schooling, social development, and the need for a comprehensive outlook or philosophy which Professor Ye Lan calls a School of Educology. This is the chapter for readers specifically interested in the curriculum development and reform journey for China’s New Basic Education. These schools feature throughout the book but this chapter gives the crucial overview. With this chapter for reference, readers can more readily connect the philosophical, historical, and cultural discussions that feature in the account of the Life-Practice School of Educology.

Chapter 2 focuses on Western philosophic views of education beginning with Aristotle and ending with Piaget. Professor Ye Lan makes it clear that there are things to learn from Western views but that they need to be “broken” to allow Chinese thought to play the role of intellectual educational architect for Chinese education. This chapter gives a strong sense of her respect for Western thought while also showing why she believes that Chinese thinking must keep itself independent and decoupled from foreign intellectual colonizing forces. The force of her thinking supports Hall and Ames’ (1999) contention that unlike many nations and cultures, China will remain true to itself and that China and the West are moving towards a situation of mutual interaction rather than Western educational absorption of others. Professor Ye Lan’s writing is filled with hints of Hall and Ames’ idea of emerging new forms of communitarian democracy containing elements of communitarian Confucian thought and individualistic rights based on Western values.

In Chapter 3, she discusses, and criticizes, Chinese responses and argues for an independent China-based discipline. The word “discipline” is used throughout Chapters 2 and 3 to refer to established coherent lines of thought and not to curricular subject matters. Throughout this, and other chapters, she is concerned with uncritical adoption of Western views. At one point she says, “Chinese researchers pay more attention on philosophical discussion and logical deduction than emphasizing the data and fact” (p. 159). Here, I think, she is expressing concern with the predilection in some Chinese educational circles to adopt the currently predominant abstract North American post-modern curriculum thinking. This chapter is also one of the best places to see the strong intellectual direction taken by Professor Ye Lan and the passion she has for constructing the Chinese way of thinking about education. She says, “I intend to break the thought of fixed methods” (p. 180). Though Confucius was denied in China on political grounds for a period of time Professor Ye Lan argues for a Chinese perspective shaped by Confucianism. This chapter is also an excellent place to come to terms with the idea of “life-practice pedagogy” as “the principle of education”. The theoretical origin and heart of her ideas is life-practice, that is, life in all its potential connected to practice not only in schools but in life more generally. At one point she says “educology—the study of the overall growth and development of people, the formation and shaping of human may become the most important central discipline in future society”. (p. 261) She is not only arguing for an outlook or philosophy of life but of how that life connects to social development and society. In effect, for Ye Lan, education is at the center of social development.

Chapter 4 is a discussion of “what is education”. This chapter reminded me of a small book by Philip Jackson (Jackson, 2012) of the same title which won the 2012 Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers (PROSE) Education book award. That book, and this chapter, convey the same sense of trying to get at the heart and soul of something as commonplace and fundamental as education. She says, “I made the first level definition as such, Education is social activities that consciously and directly aim at influencing people’s physical and mental development” (p. 268). This quotation reveals that Ye Lan is not only working in education but is defining education. Moreover, she is autobiographically self-conscious of this. This first-person quality is one of the striking features of the book as a whole. The book is not a dispassionate account of what was, is and might be but is a strongly felt, strongly conveyed, statement based on an intensely led life, as seen in the dated outline above.

This chapter picks up on the themes in Chapters 2 and 3 as it focuses heavily on societal and scientific development. The chapter ranges over basic biological science paying particular attention to the metaphor of the gene. Ye Lan says that life-practice metaphorically functions in a genetic role for education. Life-practice is to educational thought as genes are to inheritance. This chapter returns to Western thought and brings forward, both positively and critically, foundational Western educational philosophers such as Kant, Herbart, and Dewey. This chapter shows how Professor Ye Lan invests the terms life, practice and life-practice with historically developed and validated thought. In this way Professor Ye Lan’s educational gene, Life-Practice, is invested with, but not at bottom organized by, Western philosophic thought.

Chapter 5, by far the longest chapter, reviews basic Chinese cultural thought. Here, more than anywhere else in the book, Professor Ye Lan grounds educational thought in Chinese historical narratives. Ye Lan remarks that the task is not possible comprehensively for one book but that her focus exists to address specific matters that bear directly on the Life · Practice School of Educology. This is a broad and sweeping chapter. It reviews basic Confucian works and explores detailed aspects of Chinese culture, for example, the idea of Yin and Yang and how Chinese written characters and spoken tones are important reflections of Chinese culture and need to be retained. She reviews losses and gains over the years and writes, often passionately, about the current social situation and educational needs.

The chapter moves towards school practices. Many of Professor Ye Lan’s culturally derived Chinese ideas about children’s learning, consciousness, starting with oneself as an educator, the purpose of the personal rather than social purpose of education and so forth will resonate strongly with progressive Western educators. Wise readers will make an effort to understand these apparent similarities in Ye Lan’s philosophic terms. Squeezing her ideas into pre-set western terms brought to the text by a western reader could be misleading. One may call Professor Ye Lan a Chinese progressive educator but that does not necessarily convey the same meaning westerners tend to mean by the term “progressive educator”.

Reading with a Difference: Reading for Meaning

This is a profoundly important book for English speaking readers. We are at a moment in time when it is generally agreed that China is open to the world and absorbing insights and ideas from abroad. But there are those, particularly in China, who feel that China may be losing as well as gaining from the process. Meanwhile there are those in the West who feel threatened by the increasing global influence of China and its demonstrable educational successes. This book arrives in the midst of swirling international debate over education, trade, civil rights, and all manner of political matters. The book is special because it goes beyond a profound educational statement, and a practical program of primary education. If this were all the book had to offer it would still be a magnificent accomplishment because it brings forth to an English readership a world of education poorly understood, frequently critiqued and often suspect. The book shows the human spirit at its best in practical primary school education environments. But the book is more than this. The book, ranging widely over Eastern and Western philosophy, and exploring fundamental social and biological science ideas, places education at the center of social thought about life and culture. There are many places in the book where readers will recognize their own beliefs and feelings and other places where they will feel themselves to be at cross purposes with the text. My own education at the University of Chicago taught me to read a text for meaning and understanding of an author’s perspective. The far too popular directive to read critically puts the focus on reader bias and prejudice. There is always time for thoughtful criticism based on understanding. This lesson is doubly important when reading across cultures as vastly different in thought and history as this book represents. Professor Ye Lan needs to be read in terms of Professor Ye Lan and Chinese narrative cultural and philosophical history. Such readers will be enriched educationally, culturally and, inevitably, politically. This is a book that helps us navigate our cross-cultural future.


  • Hall, D. L., & Ames, R. T. (1999). The democracy of the dead: Dewey, Confucius, and the hope of democracy in China. USA: Carus Publishing Company.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hayhoe, Ruth. (2006) Portraits of Influential Chinese Leaders. Springer Publishing. Comparative Education Research Centre, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jackson, Philip W. (2012) What is Education? Chicago, Il: The University of Chicago Press.

  • Westbury, I., & Wilkof, N. J. (Eds.). (1982). Joseph Schwab. Science, curriculum, and liberal education: Selected essays. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Xu, S. (2017) Cross-Cultural Schooling Experiences of Chinese Immigrant Families: In Search of Home in Times of Transition. Palgrave Macmillan. New York, NY.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Xu, S. & Connelly, M. (Co-Directors). (2013–2020), Reciprocal learning in teacher education and school education between Canada and China, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Partnership Grant Project 2013–2020 [Grant 895-2012-1011].