Waldorf, Montessori, Unschooling: Alternative Education Comes to China

Middle-class parents give Western models a try.


A contingent of mostly middle-class parents is fed up with how their society approaches education. The schools are mere factories, they say: oppressive institutions charged with churning out obedient citizens. They want to try something different, something that will nurture their children's individuality rather than suppressing it.

In America, that's a familiar story. But now, Helen Gao reports in Foreign Policy, it's happening in China too:

The chairman and the kids

In the northern outskirts of Beijing, past the jungle of high-rise apartment buildings and vehicle-clogged streets that comprises the Chinese capital, sits a sprawling compound ringed by rows of hawthorn and walnut trees. It is home to Ri Ri Xin, one of several alternative schools that have sprung up around the city in recent years. Opened in 2007 by a local couple, the institution has more than 70 teachers and 300 students, and runs from kindergarten to eighth grade. "We put out no advertisements at all," said Zhang Dongqing, a co-founder of the school, whose name means "renewal from day to day" in classical Chinese. "Parents sought us out from the very beginning, and soon came their relatives, and then their friends."

Ri Ri Xin and schools like it demonstrate the growing interest among young, middle-class Chinese parents in alternative education, often based on liberal Western ideas, even as state authorities have clamped down more tightly on Western values in Chinese higher education. On Jan. 30, China's education minister demanded that universities shun "Western values," in what seems the latest move in President Xi Jinping's sweeping campaign to tighten up the ideological sphere. But Western pedagogies like Waldorf and Montessori, which a few years ago might have been mistaken for clothing brands, now adorn the fronts of elite kindergartens and elementary schools. Parents hope to spare their children the dull, stressful grind of the state education system by finding them something more laid-back that affords greater freedom for intellectual exploration.

The alternative schools tend to be expensive, their students fairly wealthy. But in China, as in the U.S., there is a tuition-free alternative: homeschooling. Gao gives an example:

Universal, apparently

Chang had enrolled his son in a top-ranked public elementary school, but it was rigid and monotonous; Chang then tried a swanky private academy, but found it too conscious of status and wealth. "The primary role of education is to produce workers and consumers," Chang said of these schools. "It is a factory."

Drawn to the philosophy behind the "unschooling movement," which grants children full autonomy in deciding what to learn in an environment free from institutional constraints, usually at home or within their local community, Chang is testing the method by degrees. His son, Felix, spends his morning memorizing German vocabulary and practicing guitar chords. ("Rote learning is still a crucial skill," Chang reiterated). In the afternoon, Felix roams the spacious apartment, thumbing through books such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the popular Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Young foreign expats stop by now and then to provide private lessons in piano, drums, and playwriting.

One difference between Chang and his American counterparts: While unschoolers here tend to argue that industrial education is bad for everyone, Chang seems to think factories are fine for filling the lower orders. "I believe the way to cultivate a general is not the same as that to train a soldier," he explains.

Read the rest here.