Sustainability and Education: an Interview with Dr. Shannon May

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Dr. Shannon May is an anthropologist and expert on education from the United States. She received her BA from Harvard, and her PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. May is the co-founder of Bridge International Academies, an educational-innovation organization working in Africa and Asia that tries to ensure that every child can gain access to a high-quality education. Prior to founding Bridge, she published extensively about ecological and economic development and about sustainable cities. Currently based in Kenya, May also has a rich experience of life and research in China. In 2005-2006 she spent a year and a half living in Huangbaiyu, a small village in Northeast China’s Liaoning Province, researching a joint Chinese-US project which was supposed to transform the place into a “model sustainable village”. While she became quite critical of the project, her experience teaching in the village’s primary school helped kindle her passion for education.

This interview was conducted in Beijing by CDB’s Gabriel Corsetti on the 5th of November, in the context of the WISE-LIFE China Education Forum, to which Dr. May was invited as a speaker.


Huangbaiyu: an attempt at rural sustainability


Gabriel Corsetti: First of all I wanted to ask you a little bit about Huangbaiyu, which is a very interesting topic for those who are interested in China’s development. How long did you spend there?

Dr. Shannon May: A year and a half, May 2005 through October 2006. And then I went back for about six weeks in 2007, like February to early April.

GC: So are you going back to Huangbaiyu?

SM: Yeah.

GC: When was the last time you were there?

SM: 2009.

GC: So are you expecting to find big changes?

SM: Yes and no. There are always big changes from a personal point of view, right? The children who you knew are seven years older, many of them will be married. I know that some of the more elderly people who I was close to have died, and their families are changing. But the fact that it is still a farming village based on maize, a tiny bit of sorghum, aquaculture with trouts, that will be the same. Everyone still sleeps on a kang bed and burns wood to heat it. It’s still the sort of place where basically every household has to fend for itself. You have to dig a well, or else you don’t have water, you have to chop down trees and burn a fire, or you do not have heat. That has not changed as far as I know.

GC: So there is no central heating?

SM: No.

GC: I have been to villages in China without central heating, but I imagined that so far north they might have it. Obviously not.

SM: Have you ever slept on a kang?

GC: I have.

SM: That is a kind of central heating. It takes a lot of personal labor to get that done, but it is an ingenious technology.

GC: So Huangbaiyu was supposed to be a model sustainable village, right?

SM: Yes.

GC: But as far as I understand, after your experience there, you became quite critical of the project.

SM: I would say not after, but during.

GC: Could you briefly tell us what went wrong with the project? What was the basic problem?

SM: I think the fundamental problem that happens in many projects is that the design of the project comes from a global point of view, a global analysis rather than from understanding that specific village and its needs. So taking a step back, why is anyone interested in eco-cities or eco-towns, or the type of work that was being experimented with in Huangbaiyu? There it was specifically fear of global warming, human-caused climate change, and really trying to see how carbon levels were affecting that, right?

And then looking at that on a global level and from an “external to China” point of view, people being concerned about the fear of what happens when these 800-900 million villagers or para-urban people in China actually want to consume at a similar level to urban Chinese, let alone to let’s say British and Americans, and so there are all these economic models of the amount of carbon that will be spewed into the atmosphere when that happens. So then you either have to prevent development, say there will be no development, because as a globe we can’t afford increased carbon emissions, or you try to come up with a way for people to consume in other ways, which may lead to higher carbon emissions unless you come up with different energy structures, different forms of consumption.

There was a premise behind Huangbaiyu, which was the question of how could you enable poor rural villagers to enjoy a higher quality of life without increasing carbon emissions. So looking at these individual households which currently dig their own wells, cut and burn their own wood for heat or cooking and create a shared system, essentially a public system, could you do that in a carbon-neutral way? So the idea makes sense mathematically looking at the models. It is an interesting idea.

Unfortunately, if you look at how the project was planned out, the idea was not fully grounded on a deep understanding of the needs of the inhabitants of those villages, their current income, their current economy, and all of those things came into conflict. It was very much a local versus global problem. Locally the problem isn’t carbon emission, in a place like Huangbaiyu what motivates people’s ambitions, what drives their basic needs isn’t thinking about carbon emissions, right? And in some ways, to ask those people to be focused on that issue and to sacrifice other things for this global issue raises some questions like what should be a priority in development and who should be giving up on what, given these larger concerns around global warming.

There were also some core economic problems, for instance part of the premise was that each of the houses that were being built should be purchased, not given. There hadn’t really been deep economic work in understanding families’ cash flows, savings, what would be an affordable house and even if anyone would want them. There had not been a lot of demand analysis to understand how to make this appealing enough. The premise was that it was supposed to be voluntary, but how could they make these new houses, these new ways of living, so appealing and affordable? You have to do both. Then people will voluntarily want to move in, which didn’t happen.

GC: I am curious whether, before the project actually started, there was any kind of consultation with the villagers themselves. It rather sounds like there wasn’t.

SM: I think there was certainly consultation. I have to tell you that some of the project started before I moved there. I got there in May 2005, while the project began the previous year, so the time of the consultations predates me. But my understanding from working both with people who live in the village, with the cunzhuren (村主任, the leader of the village), and with people from within the China-US Center for Sustainable Development is that there was consultation, but there can be different types of consultation and different types of consultation lead to different results.

I think there were some very well-meaning decisions that were made that ended up playing out differently than the China-US Center expected. One of the well intended but tragic decisions that was made was that they decided to work with the cunzhuren. So in other words they made the leader of the state structure the developer of the project. I think from the point of view of the China-US Center, they thought that was going to help enable better participation and consultation with the village. But governments are complex. Different government parties have different interests. That does not always mean there will be broad consultation with the rest of the village. They did a lot of basic soil analysis and water analysis. But a little bit less public engagement then they might have otherwise done. You know, I didn’t know anyone still thought about this village (laughs).

GC: Well, perhaps they don’t. But I still find it an interesting topic.

SM: I am interested to see what is there now. So there were supposed to be 400 houses built. When I left, 40 had been built. I am positive no more were built. I don’t know what’s happened to the 40. When I left, it had all fallen apart; the whole project had fallen apart. One family had moved into one of the houses and was squatting in it, because they had been living deep in one of the ravines. The father had been a very low level laborer for the cunzhuren, who said fine, no one needs these houses, so you can go and live there. He was kind of squatting in one of the houses. But other than that they were all empty. So I will see what has happened, if they remained empty. Did they bulldoze them? Did they turn them back into cornfields? Or had people moved in? I do not know.

GC: I would be curious to know as well. While you lived there, since you were there to do research on the project, did the local authorities mind this at all?

SM: No. In fact, how I eventually got into education rather than working for the World Bank, teaching at Harvard or something similar, was my engagement of being the resident anthropologist for this government project. Part of the project was that I became the English teacher at the village school, and so I did. That became my work unit. I was teaching English in the mornings and then doing my research in the afternoons and evenings. And it was all allowed. At the time, I was also affiliated with the institute for applied ecological science of the Chinese Association of Sciences, which is based in Shenyang. That was the Research Institute within Liaoning that was working on behalf of the Ministry of Science and Technology to take a look at the program.


Education in rural China: local and global problems


GC: Moving on to your experience of teaching English in this school, you actually taught in a very rural setting in China, which not many foreigners get to do.

SM: That opportunity might not normally be available, no. It was a very special thing.

GC: So since you’ve had this personal experience, what would you say the biggest problems with primary education in rural China are?

SM: You might think that the problems I found were only problems with education in that village, but what I learned is that these are global problems. I think the problems that were happening in rural China ten years ago, at least (and I’ll say something about what I think has changed) were global issues, and they were not necessarily specific only to rural China. Are teachers prepared to teach? Have they had the training they might need? This does not mean that they have to go to a two or three year program, but are they in anyway prepared to be in the classroom? Do they have the resources and materials they need?

I think still today there is a minor percentage of teachers who haven’t been through training at all, who are in the rural schools in China. What are known as minban (民办). And that is not a bad thing per se. I personally think it is a good thing to hire teachers from the community, since they know the children, they live with them, and they’re going to come whether it snows or not. But you do need to support them, you do need to make sure they have the training to understand how to manage a classroom and historically that hasn’t always been available. The school did not have very many teaching resources, it did not have many books, there was a book for every subject but there was not a library or access to other resources at the time.

In the village you could not access the Internet other than through your phone, if you happened to have a smart phone, which didn’t really exist back then. There was basically no internet. In 2007 the village did get connected, the commune got connected to the internet and you could then get the internet to your house if you wanted to, which I did. But looking at what happened in this school, this is a global issue. In the majority of schools all that can happen in the classroom is pretty much coming from the teacher’s own head and maybe one book, and no matter how dedicated that teacher might be there is just not that much they can do with that. They don’t have access to best practices on how to teach, they have not seen the latest research on how to structure a lesson, and they are going to teach how they may have been taught. They may not have heard anything of the last 30 years about pedagogic practice, let alone having support and knowing how their children are learning over the course of this month and this term, and then being able to change their practices or their lessons going forward.

These are global problems but I went to what were considered very good public schools as a child in America, and so then for me it was the first time being in a school with this starkness. The starkness of how much talent there was, like just the energy and excitement of the children, and yet how little opportunities there was to ensure that these children were really going to be able to read and write and be strong contributors to the family and the community. The school had a very low graduation rate. You had about 50% of children who originally enrolled in the school actually graduating. Most children left to contribute to their families through their work.

GC: At what age would they be graduating?

SC: At 12. About 50% of children left school between grades one to grades six.

GC: Which is way before the end of compulsory education in China, right?

SC: Yeah. Compulsory education is until grade 9. But there is a lot of research that shows, and this isn’t only in china, there is compulsory education in just about every country, but what keeps children from dropping out of school is the school actually being a place of learning. The Brookings Institute in the US just did a major study on how to ensure girls are learning, how to prevent female discrimination in schools, because there is all this concern about how there are more girls than boys who are out of school. And after a major multi-year study the single one most important finding for how to keep girls in school is to just run good schools.

If just you run a school where children are learning, then when the child wants to be there the parents understand why the child wants to be there, and they also understand the opportunity cost, like “I should give up my girl’s time washing clothes, fetching water, cooking, because I can see she actually is learning to read, she actually is getting better at math, she actually helped me with my business, maybe she will be more valuable to me than selling her off to a husband”. Schools have to stop being treated as daycares and more as, like, it only matters if it is a place of learning. As long as there is learning, the people will come, the children will be there, and it will be a strong centre for the community.

At the time, the school was not a centre of strength for the community, for lots of reasons, I mean it had very little access to resources, it was remote, some of our teachers were assigned to teach there from the district capital but if it snowed they did not come. Lots of both structural and resource issues made it difficult for this school to be successful. There was a policy decision that was made in 2006 that I knew was controversial in the United States at the time, and I did not know if it was controversial here, but it was very much welcomed by this village and by this whole district. So there was a policy to look at five or six rural schools and close four or five of them, consolidate them all into one and have boarding schools.

So the first academic year that started in Liaoning was in the 2006-2007 academic year, and the school I had been teaching at the previous year was one of those that were closed. I was still living there. It was closed, the children were boarding at the zhen (镇), the nearby town. There had been a primary school there that then was extended, and five or six other primary schools were closed down, like the one that I had been in. Then the children were brought in, so they boarded, they got picked up by a bus stop where the old school had been on Monday mornings, and they were dropped off on Friday afternoon or early Friday evening, and honestly that was a huge improvement for their education.

Parents were massively supportive. I went and visited this school over the next few months when I was still living there just to see, I was interested in the shift. There are always still improvements to be made, but as a basic thing it was far better, teaching was happening, and there was far better supervision of the teachers. Only one teacher from the village school I was in was brought over, and that was the right decision, there was that one person who was trying. What it enabled the government to do was to essentially dismiss ineffective teachers, because you could then take classes that were smaller, you could combine them, and so you could pick your best teachers from five/six villages. That was an interesting shift to see, and we should see how it is played out over time.

GC: So were you brought over too?

SM: No, because by then the project was ending. My official work unit was not the school. My official work was the Institute for Applied Ecological Sciences. But it was well documented, if I did not teach I would not be allowed to live there. So when they did the consolidation I no longer had that requirement.

GC: I see. But I am quite interested in all this because nowadays lots of people consider it to be a big social problem in rural China that a lot of children have to board rather than live with their parents from a younger and younger age, and this is considered to be detrimental to their psychological development because they don’t get live with their family. But in fact, you are saying that when this happened, the local people were actually very supportive.

SM: There can always be tons of hypotheses about things like this. But I think the only things that matters is doing real research on people who live through it, understanding whether from their point of view this is an improvement. I think with the best of intentions there is often a lot of scaremongering around change, right? Like, that’s different, somehow it has got to be bad, what if it hurts this or hurts that? Well those are good questions to ask. But lets actually find some answers by asking the people who have lived through it. And compare to the counterfactual, like look at villages before and after this educational policy took place and then map the learning outcomes. Map the psycho-social as well. But also map what percentage of children from that village is actually going on to junior secondary and senior secondary.

So for instance, the junior secondary for that region was in this commune. So now, you are already going to school in the place where your junior secondary is. There is no more hoop to jump to get into your junior secondary. De facto every child from that village, from Huangbaiyu, could legally go to the junior secondary in grade seven. But they just didn’t really want to, they’re like “I still did not really learn anything by grade six. Now I have to get myself, with no busing, I have to get myself by bike or by walking or somehow to that junior secondary.” It will be interesting to look at the completion rates and learning gains to see what’s shifted, pre and post this transition, and then interview around.

Just anecdotally, I think sometimes people of greater means can make assumptions about what it’s like to live in a household of different means and what that might mean for the family. Like the children I worked with, that I taught for a year, who were going to the school, one of the things they really liked about the boarding school is that now there were among all of these kids! Right? Previously they weren’t among a ton of kids. The village is somewhat spread out, so if the friend you had in class lived in 一组 and you lived in 八组, that would take you two hours to walk. So you do not get to play with that kid, except when you’re at school. But now, you are in a boarding school, you are all together, and you’ve got that encouragement, and your parents are farming the land, or your dad might be trying to get construction work somewhere in the province or in Heilongjiang. You might not see him for six or eight months a time anyway. Some of these assumptions, like are they really spending less time with your family, are they really getting less social time, I don’t know if they are true. I think you have to actually look at that and compare it to the previous situation.

GC: It’s interesting, because there are NGOs in China now that deal with this, for instance I know about an NGO whose members simply go to schools in rural areas where children board and read them bedtime stories. These NGOs provide them with educational or other activities outside of class, and they usually describe the fact that these children board as a problem, so it is interesting to hear a different perspective.

SM: What I would say as a scientist is: what is the counterfactual? What was it like before? Were their parents reading bedtime stories to these children before? I can tell you that in the households I worked in, they were not. So maybe, just to play devil’s advocate, maybe the fact that more children are in one location actually makes it easier to read them bedtime stories then when they were living across 400 or 1000 households.

So you always have to compare to what it was, because if you look at something in isolation it is not possible to judge if it is good or bad, because you cannot judge it against what otherwise might have been. What is the alternative? Is this a step forward or a step back and for whom? So I am not standing here and trying to say that move was the most amazing educational policy in China ever. I’m just saying that there is a lot of really deep scientific research that would have to happen to understand how this will play out in a given village, city or across the country. But in the short period of time where I saw that specific policy start, it definitely was an improvement for those children.


Bridges International: ensuring no child is left behind


GC: So your current organization focuses mostly on Africa?

SM: Yeah so we started in Kenya we have been there eight years. Over the past eighteen months though we have extended to four additional countries, now including India. Slowly making our way eastward again!

GC: Could you just very briefly introduce what you do for CDB’s readers?

SM: Yeah, we are an educational organization that works to make sure that all children can access a high quality education. We work with parents, and with donors and with governments, to manage schools as well as to produce the technology and learning materials that governments or other schools could use.

GC: Do you provide a lot of education for children in these countries who would otherwise be unable to go to school?

SM: Yeah. Education is always a very complex area with a lot of reasons that might lead to a child being out of school, or a child not learning how to read or do mathematics while in school. In Kenya where we currently work, in January 2016 we had 90,000 children enrolled in one of the 405 schools that we work with in Kenya. We do both nursery education, so 3 years of pre-school, then primary education however that’s defined in the country, so in Kenya that is grades one through eight.

There are lots of reasons why parents might choose a bridge school for their child. Sometimes public schools are too expensive, for instance in Nairobi you pay anywhere between 20 and 30 dollars to enrol your child in a public school. That is an illegal fee, but it is endemic and it exists across the country. It is high in the cities, like Nairobi and Mombasa. Per capita income per day in Kenya is about a dollar and 60 cents, in Uganda about a dollar and 40. Having a lump sum of 30 dollars per child is often an impediment to get into a public school. And then there are ongoing costs that you pay. And honestly, there are just not enough public schools, particularly in the urban slums. So there is an access issue, an affordability issue and a quality issue.

As the World Bank and lots of other institutes have shown over the past four years, unfortunately learning levels are not where anyone would want them to be in many places, but particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa including Kenya. So we offer support to families and to communities, and if a community wants a school or they need another option, then we will work with them to create a community school. And we have been doing that now for eight years. We’ve had our first two graduating classes, the first one was last year and the second one just happened, Thursday was their last day of school. So they’ve just finished their national examinations, and we will see how that goes. We have had years of proving that you can run really great schools, you can run world competitive schools in unbelievably difficult circumstances, and now we are working in other countries, so we have different government contracts to work in public schools, and to work on specific government programs, to try to bring the scientific research we’ve done to other places.

GC: That sounds really amazing. May I ask, do you have any plans to expand this project in China in the near future?

SM: In my heart, I would like to find how to work here. But from my mind I could say that we have not done any actual research to understand the policies that exist right now, what the regulations are, where the greatest need is, and how we could take what we do, and what we are strong at, and find the right way to participate. So I will see. I’m going back to Huangbaiyu tomorrow, so I will be able, at least from that one point of view, to see a little bit. And of course, one of the reasons I wanted to come to this conference was so that I could take the first step towards better understanding what the education ecosystem in China is like today, what the problems are today, what solutions have worked so far, what still needs to be done, and what the policies are. Maybe one day.

In Brief

American anthropologist and educational expert Shannon May talks to CDB about her experiences in rural China and her current attempts to make education more accessible for children around the world
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