As China was opening up to the world in the late 1980s, Mr Wanmao Xu – businessman, philanthropist and educator – was trying to open some minds in the educational establishment in his province of Zhejiang, South China. It wasn’t proving easy.

“For years I travelled around schools in my province trying to persuade people in the education system to make changes to the curriculum,” says Mr Xu. “I could see from the reaction of students in my school that my philosophy of ‘learning by doing’ was bringing out the best in them and I knew this was something worth spreading. I even went up to Beijing several times to petition government officials – and for eight years we made no profit!”

Mr Xu is a dedicated and determined man, however, and his persistence paid off. His vision for more active learning in Chinese schools slowly took root around his province and then spread around the country. Early official recognition came with a UNESCO award for innovation in 1993. By 1996 his signature “Rainbow Flower” pedagogical philosophy was “beginning to bloom all over China”, as one prominent Chinese newspaper wrote. “Never before had China had a textbook which offered learning through arts and crafts,” says Mr Xu. “This was knowledge which was outside the drilled content of the traditional classroom.”



Sowing those seeds of change was arduous work. In China, tradition runs deep, particularly in education, and there is a firm emphasis on deference to authority. The wise teacher teaches and the good students listen and learn. Mr Xu, the owner and chairman of Ningbo Huamao International School in Zhejiang province, is steeped in Chinese tradition and, sitting in his beautiful tearoom surrounded by Chinese art, he makes frequent use of Chinese proverbs. But his vision for teaching and learning upends traditional Chinese pedagogy.

He introduces the problem this way: “The word for education in Chinese is composed of two characters, ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’, but because the character for ‘teaching’ comes first, the ‘learning’, that comes second, or next, is often understood by Chinese to be not just the result of the teaching but inextricably linked to it. If you follow the order of these characters then you can’t have learning without teaching!”

For Mr Xu, rigidly following the order of those characters is not the way forward, but persuading people to think afresh about long-established values is never easy. His philosophy of ‘learning through doing’ involves children getting up from their desks, moving around the learning space, and interacting with the teachers and with each other. This can be profoundly unsettling to those used to classrooms as ranks of desks filled with quiet children bent over books, and it’s not only traditionally minded Chinese who are unsettled. The struggle to introduce active learning into classrooms is a global struggle.



The province of Zhejiang, near Shanghai, is now one of the most prosperous in China and has recently attracted beacons of educational excellence such as the University of Nottingham Ningbo. At Huamao Foreign Language school, Mr Xu continues to push the innovation envelope, as he establishes bi-lingual education as the future for Chinese schools. Similarly, Ningbo Huamao International School is already an established success and is serving as an inspiration for schools across the region.

For Mr Xu, however, this is just a first step. As globalisation continues apace, he would like China to not only participate but to lead the way in active learning. To this end he has invested a substantial amount of time and money into his new ambition to establish an educational think tank and hub. Known as the Dongqian Lake Education Forum, it is situated on Ningbo’s picturesque East Lake. When this institute is ready, in a couple of years from now, it will start life as a centre for those working in education in China. China-based scholars, intellectuals and artists from all over the country will come for weekends, weeks or perhaps even months, to discuss, reflect, work with students and ultimately spread nationwide the word of progressive education.

The longer-term goal is to make the Dongqian Lake Education Forum an international study institute and to attract scholars and thinkers from all over the world. “My dream is to make it a kind of Davos for the international education community,” says Mr Xu.

It isn’t hard to see why people would be attracted to the Dongquian Lake Education Forum. World-class architects – including contemporary Japanese architect Kazunari Sakamoto, MIT architecture professor Zhang Yonghe and Portugal’s 1992 Pritzer Prize-winner Alvaro Siza – have created a landscape of lakeside villas congregating around a conference centre. It looks impressive and utopian – more like a meeting place for the super-rich and powerful rather than an education centre. If it realises its potential and fulfils Mr Xu’s dreams, then this is a place that could really put Ningbo on the map. It must have cost a small fortune.



Fortunately, Mr Xu has a small fortune. He started out running a Yunzhou factory, a large textile mill that expanded to become the centre of the giant Huamao Group. He is now Director and President of the Huamao Group and Director of the Bank of Ningbo, as well as leading Huamao’s educational institutions. Perhaps it is his background as a businessman that led him to his hands-on educational philosophy – the connections he built through his successful business were surely crucial in enabling him to make it all work.

In a country as vast and as populous as China, the temptation for businesses is often to focus on sheer scale and on growth. The Chinese “statistics on steroids” have become a common feature in global news media, but Mr Xu remains serenely unfazed by this. Instead he constantly emphasises that, in education, the need is to focus on quality over quantity.

“Small can be powerful,” he says, “and I believe that – when it comes to education – it’s a waste of precious time to worry whether your competition is getting bigger than you. The important thing is to follow your own vision and to see it through. Then others will see your value, and perhaps it will even help them see the true worth of education.”

Given what Mr Xu has achieved already, it would seem unwise to doubt that he will be able to further his vision. And, given the noble and global aims he has, it seems only right to wish his version of the Chinese dream the very best of success.