Episode 190 – The world is becoming more global in this day and age. In this episode, Cennydd John, CEO of Hatching Dragons, the first bilingual Mandarin and English early years program in the UK, shares why he started his school and the importance of creating the opportunity to start the global conversation at the early years level.
But if I can foster that intuitive, problem-solving mentality – the confidence to be able to overcome those challenges and to be able to communicate clearly, consistently and build consensus with his peers in order to secure a common goal – that has to be what we focus on.
Cenn [Cennydd], welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
We’re delighted today to have on our show Cennydd John. He is the CEO of a program called Hatching Dragons in the U.K. And [we’re] excited to learn about how he started this program, which has a bilingual immersion component to it and is a very global-minded early-years education program based out of the UK.
Cenn, let’s start off learning a little bit about you and your background and what got you so passionate about early-childhood education and bilingual immersion to start this Hatching Dragons program.
Yes, sure. I studied Chinese a long time ago. I actually first studied Japanese prior to that when I was about 14. I managed to be lucky enough to have a Japanese teacher who taught me GCSE [General Certificate of Secondary Education], which is kind of like a pre-high school level qualification into Japanese. Through that I got to know Chinese characters that kind of took me into the interest in China generally.
And in studying Chinese and living in China back in 2002 it really, I suppose, kind of changed my life in many ways. Like, I’d been kind of educated up to that point in a very… almost like looking at China as a kind of North Korean country, I suppose. I mean, you’ve got to remember that China hadn’t really emerged much from the quote-unquote international scene until maybe the mid-2000’s.
And I decided to study Chinese when it wasn’t particularly cool to do, at least not in the U.K. My class size in university was, I think, seven people. And so the textbooks we had were rather archaic.
And so I got over to China in I think it was 2003 with this kind of slightly distorted view or expectation of what the country would be like. And I was expecting a lot of padded jackets with Mao red books and whatnot. And when I got there was completely different. I mean, Shanghai joined the WTO in 2001. It was really commercial.
I mean, the energy was just electric. People were coming up with new ideas all the time, like trying to do business. It was just the vibrancy of the people on the ground. The expat community and much more the Chinese community was just like nothing I’d ever really experienced. And it came back after that year with this kind of, “I’ve got to do something with China,” view in my life.
And so I kind of ended up working, after I graduated, I worked in kind of Chinese political communications and then corporate affairs. And all the while I was trying to figure out this answer to this question, which is, ”How do I kind of get people who haven’t been to China to kind of better understand China?” It’s this big country with huge numbers of people. And just the sheer size of the population, it being the largest population in the world by some margin, obviously, closely followed by India, if not in parity.
I kind of felt that it’s going to have an impact on my life; it’s going to have an impact on my children’s lives; it’s going to have an impact on everyone’s life. And yet we don’t know anything really about the country.
I was really surprised when I came back from my first year out. My friends here kind of had… they all had views on China that were views from no firsthand experience of the country and the people. And I kind of felt this is thing that I’d like to try and work with if I could to try and help people understand from a distance the country and its people. And maybe if I can help children develop some of the skills and cultural awareness and knowledge and global curiosity that might help them when they grow up be able to kind of confidently engage with and in China and with the Chinese people.
And after a fashion I had my firstborn son in 2012. And I spent basically much of that year, his first year, going around nursery schools, looking at the nature of the provision, the type of education that they were offering. And some of them with great; some of them were really not that great. But all of them seemed to have a very – I don’t to be disparaging – but a slightly simplistic view, I think, of what early years development could be. I saw it as such an amazing age to achieve so much.
It’s these kind of formative years that children have that you really are able to imprint values, technical skill sets, executive function, that have a really lasting impact on their life. And in this day and age I kind of felt that it needed to be much more than what was being provided. And what I mean by “more” was we’re in a really global era now. There are people traveling to and from countries, trade and commerce. And people are mingling at a rate through online communications and otherwise that we’ve never really come to terms with before. And I don’t see that dissipating much in the future.
And I kind of felt that an early years provider needs to provide children obviously with all the love and the care and the attention that a child needs to develop the confidence to go further, but really to then move on from there, to move on from just care – and just maybe Anglo-centric education – to provide them with opportunities to explore the world and to explore it through language.
Because through language you develop an appreciation for different perspectives on life, different ways of viewing the world. It nurtures creativity, analytical reasoning, and so much more. And there’s wealth of evidence, obviously, now – most of which actually, funnily enough, is done over in the [United] States, both in Canada and North America – that talks to what they call, quote unquote, the bilingual advantage. And yet you haven’t really seen much of that being manifested on the ground here in the UK.
And I, being student of China and Chinese, I kind of wanted to harness that evidentiary base and develop an educational model that might, maybe, provide children with an alternative to a kind of established model. And that’s really where it started.
And I think it’s important for you to know that obviously I wasn’t trained as an educator, although I have educators in my family. I really came at this as a parent, as a linguist, as a kind of a student of China and Chinese and as a parent looking to the future as what we can do to help our children achieve more or be better prepared for a future that is changing faster and faster and faster with each passing day, right?
So, I actually think that’s fascinating. And one of the reasons we are excited to have you on the Preschool Podcast as a guest is because, as you might imagine, a lot of the people that we talk to who are leading early years programs, no matter where they are in the world, are trained in education, whether that’s early-childhood education or maybe through the school age education system.
But you’ve come from a bit of a different position where… you’ve used words like “linguist” and sort of a “global mindset” and also as a parent. And so clearly you had some vision. Now, how did you go from someone who had an idea based on some of the things you’ve just spoken to, to, “Okay, now, I actually have to practically create this early years program when I am not an early-childhood educator?” And maybe at that point you hadn’t sort of started your own organization before. How did you go about tackling that?
Well, certainly that’s a good question. I have to say, when I first started off with the idea, maybe I was slightly naïve – idealistic, certainly. The only way, really, to get it off the ground was to learn the language of the people that I needed to convince that this was both a good idea and one that was practically deliverable and that had benefits for the people that we will care most about – educators and parents, you’re doing it for the children.
So, if you can square that circle and demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the subject matter, the underlying principles of the education, the regulatory frameworks at play here in the U.K. in order to deliver it, then you’re removing any real obstacle to outright challenges to its delivery, right?
I think the good thing about the U.K. to a large extent is that we have a national framework called the Early Years Foundation Stage [EYFS], a statutory framework, which is a legal duty on the part of childcare providers to deliver both education and learning outcomes for children as well as safeguarding welfare and child protection.
And if you’re delivering an early-years methodology that sits within the confines of those regulatory requirements then it doesn’t dictate what you can or should teach outside of the other legislative points on equality and inclusion.
We have a fair amount of flexibility, even more so now, I think, that they’ve changed and reformed the EYFS again, launching again in September 2020. It focuses much more on the outcomes you achieve for children: children need to be school-ready by [age] five, obviously, and that requires us to focus on phonics, English language as primacy. And I get that because we’re in the UK – I would never want to discount English as the primary outcome for our communication and language framework.
But there is a very straightforward way in which you can couple that with Mandarin Chinese. And as long as you are still delivering on those outcomes and the OFSTED’s [Office(s) for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills] are national education regulates and they have early years inspectors who come to inspect your provisions to assess whether or not you’re good, great or a bit crap.
And as long as you are demonstrating both in your organizational culture – you start to learn ECPD [Early Childhood Professional Development] and the pedagogy, the underlying curriculum that you design and then implement for the children is delivering those same outcomes – then they can’t and indeed they don’t want to disqualify you in that sense.
So, unlike kind of the national curriculum as you move into older age groups where pedagogy becomes, here in the UK, much more defined, we in the early years have a little bit more flexibility in defining what the curriculum we need to employ to achieve those outcomes would be.
And that’s really where I kind of felt intuitively that the early years was the best place to start for, obviously, the language acquisition piece. It’s easier to achieve second language fluency in the early years than any other time in a child or adolescent’s life.
But it was also the most fertile ground in which we could devise the pedagogy that could both deliver the language, yet still deliver the expected early learning goals, the outcomes I was talking about, but also to create something that would really foster this sense of global citizenry, curiosity and capability that I really wanted to help children [achieve] this sense of the wider world, the excitement and the opportunity that it presents, the challenges it presents for climate change and what we can do together to maybe overcome some of those challenges.
I love how much of a vision you’ve had for this from the very start. And I also really like how, you’ve really done your research clearly and translated that into something practical with Hatching Dragons in terms of, just to take an example, the language piece, knowing that those foundational years are when children can learn so quickly and it’s just like a sponge. It all just adds up.
And so looking back at Hatching Dragons so far through to 2020, how do you feel things have been going in terms of delivering that vision? I’m sure there’s always challenges, as we know. Anyone who’s operating in early-childhood education, there’s always battles we’re fighting. But do you feel like you’re able to get some of those benefits in the things that you wanted to achieve with your vision?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, to me, the most rewarding part about what I do is actually getting to… well, my team might hate me for saying this, but I actually love just chilling out with the kids, seeing what they do, how they do it. It’s the same level of enjoyment I get with my own kids who are just seeing the world through their eyes. It’s just so much… so rewarding.
And when we go up to a couple of years back, we had our first cohorts of non-Chinese children graduating – inverted commas [quote-unquote] – but moving on to primary school. We had, I would say, a basic conversational fluency in Chinese. I mean, they could have conversations, basic conversations about what they wanted, how they felt; they could count up to 20 and do basic numeracy. That for me felt good, really good.
Like, I could see that despite the arguments that I had had in the past about some of the practical challenges of deploying a 50/50 immersion model – and I’ll tell you about that in a second – I actually saw that there was measurable outcomes in children being able to speak the language that their parents didn’t speak, that they had no external exposure to, save for within the confines of the four walls and the gardens of the school. It made me feel like, “We’re onto something here and we can prove it now.”
The real test becomes in the dates in the analytics of the proving thereof, long term – do we have the systems in place to actually measure, track and evaluate which child picks up language rates and at what level of frequency and why? I’ll talk about that more in a second.
The challenges, I think, were flat-out getting the right balance of the staff team with the right skill sets, who believe in the same ethos that we do. We don’t have a typical nursery provision by any means. What we’re really looking for are people who care about the world, care about what impact they can have on the children’s futures by redefining how they might perceive the world and their place and role within it and the responsibilities they have to each other, to themselves and to the planet.
And that takes a fair amount of intellectualizing, a little bit of philosophizing to really get down into the nitty-gritty as to whether or not people genuinely care about these things. If you think about what we’re trying to challenge here, we’re trying to challenge prejudice, an assumption. We’re trying to get people to think twice about who other people are and what other cultures do or think.
And that really takes a fair amount of self-analysis for the teachers, in particular, to consider how they are as adults, what they’re saying and how they’re interacting, even in their own personal and private lives.
I kind of want to achieve two things: it’s not just the imprint that we can make on the children, but also on the staff to make maybe our parents, as well, the adults in our community, think about their own lives again. “Should I be making judgments of these people in the way that I do? Why am I making judgments of these people? What evidence do I have to support what I’m saying here?”
And there have been challenges: having a Chinese team and a non-Chinese team working together, hand-in-glove as partners in a child’s future where the common language is English, because obviously the non Chinese teams don’t speak Chinese but the Chinese team do. It can be challenging.
You’ve got the same intercultural challenges from time to time that we’re trying to unpick. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of patience on everyone’s part and, like I say, a fair amount of self-reflection to think about these things and to really get your head around who you are and how you think and why you think the way you do about people in your life.
We’re getting there. And I think you look at some of our approval ratings on the websites that do these things, and we usually get 98% approval just because of the way that the staff team are with the kids, right? They are happy, they’re engaged, they’re smiling and they are communicative. They’re asking them questions about themselves and their futures.
And I like that – it’s the kind of thing that I talk to my children about, these conversations about what they want to achieve. And it doesn’t need to be kind of big, heavy-handed, grandiose subject matter. It’s just out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom a lot of the time. And sometimes these guys really, really get you to think twice about things.
I remember, just to give you an anecdote: I was walking, I went through this phase of having my son on my shoulders when I was about three [years old] and a bit. And we just kind of selfie-record the conversations that we’re having, this kind of Dad-and-Son time.
And I popped in the question, I said, “Where do you think rain comes from?” And I don’t know if this is because he was going to Hatching Dragons for the period that he was at the time. But he went, “Mm, I think there’s a water dragon that lives in the clouds!” And I just thought, “A water dragon that lives in the clouds?” I thought, “Wow, that a great, great answer!”
I mean, clearly he had been hearing some of the stories about Chinese mythology at the school. But that was a thing he came out with. I just thought, “I don’t want to say no to that. That’s an amazing answer!” I mean, how magical is that, to see the world through those eyes, to imagine dragons of water up sky in the sky, right? I love that!
And like I said, education is a changing sector to work in, I think, even within the UK it is. We have a national curriculum; we have well-established and very traditional ways of thinking about education as a system, as a pedagogy. And you’re always going to end up at some point having debates… I call them debates rather than arguments. But people have really firmly set views as to what education should mean.
And I think that what we’ve got to appreciate here is that there is a really important priority to prepare children for the future. That’s, for me, on a personal level, where education should be about. I kind of look at the Latin etymology of the word [education]: “educo” means “to lead through life”. And in preparing our children to have the skill sets to get through life and do so hopefully confidently, happily and quote-unquote successfully, however you define that to be.
And I think that in doing so, you can’t – maybe it’s not right, necessarily, and it’s my own personal view to define what education is as a kind of one-size-fits-all category. And it’s important that we ensure that everyone has the right opportunities in life.
But I think that as the world changes at a faster and faster rate you’ve just got to look to [the years] 2030, 2040: artificial intelligence, robotics, climate change, these are big, global challenges that are going to really change the way we think about the world. I mean, they’re doing that now and we haven’t even begun to see the impacts of what these changes could mean.
So, how could I teach my child anything technical that I think is going to last longer than five years without acknowledging to myself that it’s probably going to be redundant within his lifetime? So, is that technical skill set what I need to be imparting to him? Or is it that I need to give him the skills and the adaptability and the confidence to be able to adapt and to have the creativity and fluency of ideas to apply solutions to the problems that [are] presented?
Because I’m not going to know what those problems are, right? I’m not going to be able to see what the future holds. But if I can foster that intuitive, problem-solving mentality, the confidence for him or her to be able to overcome those challenges and to be able to communicate clearly and consistently and build consensus with his peers – be they children or be they adolescents will be they adults – in order to secure a common goal, that has to be what we focus on.
And I think Hatching Dragons to me is about maybe bringing some of those principles into the early years environment. We want to achieve a sense of collaboration and a sense of intercultural understanding because I genuinely believe that these problems of the future are going to… they’re going to be border agnostic, right? They don’t care if you’re an American; they don’t care if you’re a Brit. They are big, global, existential challenges that we have as a people that we need to figure out a way of addressing.
And the only way I know in my gut that we’ve got a hope of addressing them is by doing it together and by learning to understand that the different sides of the debate have value to add to the debate, that we shouldn’t shut down those voices. We should learn to listen and we should learn to act where we need to act and we should learn to draw consensus together to create meaningful solutions.
If there’s one thing that’s very clear based on our conversation today, it’s that you’re really reflective and really thoughtful about what you’re doing. And it’s so phenomenal to hear the vision that you have and, again, how you’re able to translate that into the way that you’re approaching your philosophy and some of the things that you just spoke to in terms of how we’re setting up these young children for success, not just for tomorrow or for when they go to Grade One, but for life and how they think about things and how they approach the world, which is very refreshing.
Well, thank you. But I think everyone, if they took a step out of their day today for a second and thought about these things… I mean, I have the benefit of being able to think about these things all the time, right? I set up this idea, really, for the benefit of my own child in the context of what I really cared about for his… I’ve got three children now. I’ve got a daughter and six-month-old baby as well. My daughter’s two [year’s old]; my son is seven.
And when you’re a parent, I don’t think there are any parents out there who don’t want the best future for their child. And sometimes modern life just, I think, predates upon your availability to think about what that actually means in practice toward the future.
We’re all so busy now with Facebook and Instagram updates and the such that maybe if we just took a step back for a second to consider what it is parenting actually means and what we really want for our children and how we can go about achieving that, then I think we’ll spark some kinds of really interesting conversations about educational policy, implementation, the economy, the nature of the economy and the nature of politics and whatnot in the country.
I love it. And I know in early years education, the word “reflection” is something we talk about a lot, something we say a lot and we talk about it in the context of working with children in the classroom. But I think what you’re really hitting home here for me and for our audiences, for ourselves in our own lives, being taking that time to reflect. And whether it’s about our lives or what we want for our children it’s so important. And it’s so hard to do these days, like you said. There’s so many distractions happening in our lives.
So, were quickly running out of time, unfortunately. This is a very engaging conversation, which I would love to continue. But alas, here we are talking about daily distractions in life. But for our audience, if they do want to take the time to get in touch with you or learn more, where can they go to get information?
You can get on our website: www.Hatching-Dragons.com. We have some exciting stuff that we’re doing at the moment. We’re now an accredited teacher training organization, as well. So, we offer early years teacher training up to UK standards. We’re looking to franchise over in China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East. There’s lots going on. So, just get in touch if you’d like to find out more, really. I mean, come down and see us, right? I know you guys are based over in Canada. If you’re ever in the UK and you fancy coming down to check out what we do, you’re more than welcome to catch details on the website. And I’m on LinkedIn as well.
Awesome! And I may take you up on that. I’ve got some family over there, so who knows? There might be an opportunity. Cenn, this has been really, really cool. I think you’ve given us some great things to think about – and for me, too, as a parent, to be honest. And I love how you started out saying when you thought about doing this, you were maybe a bit naive. But I think a common point of view is you have to be a little bit naive to take something like this on. And congratulations with all your success. And thank you for joining us on the Preschool Podcast. And thank you for everything that you’re doing!
Thanks so much, Ron, I appreciate the time!