Inspirational Woman Interview: Diane Geng

Diane Geng is the Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs at New York University (NYU) Shanghai. Diane is the co-founder of the Rural China Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting quality education for children in rural China by supporting teachers in rural regions to provide practical, inclusive and socially responsible education to students. Previously, she undertook research on rural education and NGOs in China as a Fulbright Scholar, was a Kroc Fellow at National Public Radio (NPR) in Washington, DC, and was an Echoing Green Fellow. Diane holds a EdM in Human Development and Psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Bachelor’s Degrees in Economics, International Relations, and Chinese from the University of California at Davis.

How did you come to found the Rural China Education Foundation (RCEF) and what sets RCEF apart from organizations with a similar mission?

Diane Geng: RCEF’s mission is to empower people from rural China to improve their own lives and communities. My co-founders Weiji Ma and Sara Lam and I visited rural villages across the country and interviewed parents, children, educators, and officials. At that time, most rural education projects focused on improving the hardware of rural schooling—constructing facilities and donating equipment. However, we observed a crucial need to also improve the “software” of education – the teaching methods and the content – so that learning could be more relevant and engaging to rural students.

What are the biggest challenges you face in when founding RCEF and how did you strive to overcome them?

Diane Geng: We were informed and inspired by the philosophies and work of educators like Tao Xingzhi, James Yan, John Dewey, and Paulo Friere. Our challenge was finding sustainable ways to apply vision and values to practice within the context of rural China and the contemporary education system. How might goals for holistic student development be pursued in an overwhelming test-centered system? Where were the opportunities for experimentation and innovation? We spent a lot of time visiting and talking with other people all over China who shared similar values and were engaged in alternative educational experiments. Through this process, we eventually identified test sites where we could partner full-time and develop long-term relationships with local educators to engage in experimentation.

Can you tell us about the situation facing education opportunities in the communities RCEF serves?

Diane Geng: The education system in China is test-centered and only very few who can get the highest scores advance to high school, much less university. Studies show more than half of rural students “fail” or drop out during junior high. As basic incomes in rural areas have risen, the reason for dropping out is usually not poverty but more a lack of real-world relevance and positive school experiences that could cultivate their interest and self-confidence as learners. The sense of hopelessness and disengagement often begins in the elementary grades when students can be marginalized for poor test performance, confined for long hours in the classroom, and forced to memorize material without application to the real world. Their natural curiosity and interests are seldom harnessed. Rural students lack an understanding of the circumstances of their own hometowns, and often cannot even identify the crops in their family’s fields much less understand local history, culture, and society.

How does RCEF seek to support both teachers and students?

Diane Geng: In response to the above, RCEF tries to create opportunities for children to go beyond tests and textbooks to ask their own questions, to apply their curiosity, skills and existing knowledge to finding out new information, and to trying their hand at problem-solving and taking small actions to make a positive difference. The way we do this is through place-based education and Service Learning classes as well as Reading Discussion classes.

In place-based education and Service Learning, the teachers facilitate students to pursue inquiry into their surrounding environment. Topics could range from studying the life cycle and uses of local flora and fauna to investigating local health issues like the prevalence of smoking or of junk food in village diets. The teachers and students generate their own questions, find answers through primary interviews and secondary research, and find ways to share their learnings with others, in some cases taking action to help improve on the situation.

In Reading Discussion class, teachers guide students to read stories and discuss the meaning and implications for their own lives as a way of exercising empathy, independent thought, and communication skills.

RCEF’s role is to train and support the teachers who design and facilitate these lessons, providing ongoing professional development, moral support, and funding.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Diane Geng: Sun Laoshi is one of the village teachers RCEF has worked with for ten years. She has been a tremendous inspiration and influence on me in my journey of learning about rural development and rural education in China. She is working in a resource-limited context, showing that one doesn’t need to have formal credentials or a lot of money in order to engage in this kind of education work. She is also pioneering these methods with little precedent to follow and scant understanding from her local community. As a rural woman who has experienced discrimination and prejudice, she has had the humility, courage, curiosity, and will to continuously try and make improvements, resulting in transformative personal growth but also ever-increasing ability to be a force for positive development in her community.

What career advice do you have for prospective social entrepreneurs?

Diane Geng: I often hear an assumption that scaling or replicating a model is the main or ultimate measure of success. I understand the impulse to see the change you desire manifest ever more widely, but what about also seeing it manifest deeply and sustainably? I’ve found in the course of doing social change work that, particularly when the “change” pursued is inextricably tied to human thinking and behavior, attempts to engineer replication and scale ahead of deeply figuring out the conditions needed for quality and sustainability can strip a “model” of its essential values and original animating power.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and/or resources?

Diane Geng: I love the power of some documentary films to provide a direct observation of the lives and perceptions of others who may live in very different circumstances, but whose experiences and thoughts can provoke empathy and self-reflection in viewers. Here are a few of my recent favorites:

“Education, Education” by Weijun Chen shows the tremendous efforts and desperation of rural students and their families as they navigate an unequal and competitive education system, economy, and society.

“The Beekeeper and his Son” by Diedie Weng follows an elderly beekeeper in rural China and his millennial son as they struggle to work together in an industrial and urbanizing age. Diedie is a wonderful filmmaker who also made a short documentary for RCEF on a teaching project called “Snail Investigation.”

“Restoring the Light” by Carol Liu introduces the lives of visually-impaired people and their families in rural China, and efforts by a local doctor to help.

“If You Build It” by Patrick Creadon focuses on an innovative educational project in an American high school.

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