Learning Curves: Alternative Education in China

Learning Curves: Alternative Education in China
Mar 25, 2015 By Elaine Pang , eChinacities.com

The stereotype that all Chinese are good at math is not entirely without basis! Chinese students ranked first on the 2013 PISA Survey (Programme for International Student Assessment) in mathematics, science and reading. So why do some many Chinese parents push for alternative education if Chinese students consistently outperform children from other countries?

Academic excellence comes at a price – long hours at school, copious amounts of homework and standardized testing. Likened to pressure cookers, the Chinese education system has been accused of suppressing critical thinking, self-esteem and contributing to high student suicide rates.

While problems with the mainstream education system are widely recognized, only the wealthy can afford to go down the alternative education avenues available in China today. One solutions for parents is to send their children overseas to study, however other alternatives are becoming more popular as well.

1) Flee the Country

Now an open secret, much of the offspring of the wealthy and political elite escape the pressures of public Chinese education through overseas education. Even local schools have joined in the fray by establishing in-house international departments and preparatory programs for a high fee.

According to the UNESCO institute of statistics, almost 700,000 Chinese students are educated abroad. The majority head for the US and Canada, although Western Europe (the UK, France and Germany) and Australia are popular education destinations as well. The annual China Education Expo has more than 600 foreign learning institutions vying for Chinese students who can afford overseas study. However, children have to be of a certain age to be independent (usually in middle school or above), so parents hoping to give children an early start have to look domestically for a solution.

2) Pay Thousands for International Schools

International schools are usually prohibited by law from taking in local students. However, some provinces have relaxed rules allowing locals to join kindergartens run by international schools. This does not come cheap: the kindergarten tuition at Yew Chung International School of Beijing is a whopping 72,500 Yuan per year. This does not even include 16,000 Yuan worth of application and placement fees. Such high fees are not unusual; Shanghai American school, for example, charges 148,000 Yuan per year.

This enables a taste of foreign education in a child’s formative years and a chance to acquire basic English or foreign language skills. However, it only takes care of pre-primary education and parents have to find other solutions as soon as the child reaches elementary school age.

3) Go Private at Waldorf

Waldorf was founded by Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner. The objective of his first school for the children of workers in the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory was to bring social renewal to post-war Germany in 1919. Steiner believed children should be guided out of the “the etheric world,” where they existed prior to birth, giving rise to an experiential education method that engages first the hands, followed by the heart and the brain. The goal of this education system is to create spiritually strong individuals with a sense of freedom and purpose, running counter-culture to mainstream educational objectives.

According to Waldorf’s website, there are 36 official Waldorf schools in China. China has been one of the fastest growing adopters of Waldorf education. The schools are found in Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hancheng, and Zhuhai. However, this doesn’t exclude the possibility of unregistered schools that use the Waldorf curriculum – there are now at least 200 kindergartens and 30 such elementary schools.

Although Waldorf-educated children spend much of their time playing and do not learn to read until second or third grade, this education doesn’t come cheap. In the Chengdu Waldorf school, the pioneer of Waldorf education in China, school fees cost 24,000 Yuan per annum. The high price tag does not deter the large number of parents who eagerly join the 5 year waiting lists. Some even choose to become teachers at the school so their children can attend at half the cost.

4) Enroll in a Montessori School

Like Waldorf, the Montessori system similarly embraces humanistic pedagogy. Founded by Maria Montessori during a time in Italy where education for girls was discouraged, her main philosophy is to “follow the child.” This translates into independence and freedom within limits, and respect for the child’s natural physical, social, psychological development. Students are allowed to choose from different learning materials presented by the teacher.

Montessori schools are certainly not difficult to find, having been in China since the early 20th century. In Beijing alone, there are nine of them, from a search on the Montessori Connections website. Fees are comparable to Waldorf kindergartens, though owing to the large number of providers available, there are cheaper options available. For example, Greentree Montessori in Beijing charges around 16,000 Yuan per year.

5) Learn From Home

Previously employed by missionaries and foreigners who could not afford or were unsatisfied with expensive international schooling options, home schooling is now an option for locals too as more and more foreigners enter China. Some local parents  receive materials from foreign friends or join home schooling communities. School of Tomorrow is one such home schooling system available in China. Because home-schooling is not legal in China, no official figures or regulations exist. One survey estimated that there are about 18,000 students receiving their education at home in China.

Potential Pitfalls of Alternative Education

Alternative education is not without its own set of problems. Often unlicensed, such establishments create an unregulated industry. Barriers to entry are low with online courses offered by the U.S.-based Montessori Foundation and the Association of Waldorf Schools. As with all services, quality standards vary with the provider or even the educator. Besides, tuition for alternative education doesn’t come cheap and wait lists are long (although the same can be said for mainstream kindergartens and schools).

While children educated under alternative systems are said to have an advantage in the “softer” skills, such systems have been accused of creating good thinkers who are uncompetitive in society. All this culminates in producing children who find it difficult to switch back to the mainstream education system. Also, students who are not in public schools may have difficulty gaining entry to national examinations.

As it is not entirely inconceivable that a child educated under alternative systems would never fit back into the mainstream education system or even into the Chinese society, parents have to be prepared – both financially and mentally – that they may have sent their child on the path of no return. The inevitably that the child will chose to complete his or her education or even life overseas requires substantial capital and emotional investment.

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Keywords: China alternative education China international school


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I just returned from teaching my second graduate class at a Chinese run-of-the mill university. I also got to read drafts of their research publications. Comparing American and Chinese education from this end-point view, I have to agree that the Chinese are better at math (but not at statistics). However, this does not help them when it comes to two crucial ingredients of good research: big-picture thinking and creativity. The Chinese publications in my field tend to be bland and uninteresting. In addition, the lack of honesty throws up another hurdle. I had several Chinese students cheat on their final exam in my class. Stories like mine spread among my peers. I told my students that the lack of honesty has the effect that I can't quite believe the data they report. I will cite their research less and I am less likely to base any of my research on Chinese findings. The chickens come home to roost at that point.

Mar 31, 2015 20:34 Report Abuse



I looked into Waldorf School when my son was staying with me in Germany for half a year. It looks alright for primary grades, but the curriculum does contain some mystic, quasi-religious non-sense. It is not a cult, though. Your kids will be safe.

Mar 31, 2015 20:24 Report Abuse



The ones that survive the chinese edu system with hard work alone and no connections are superhuman.

Mar 29, 2015 07:29 Report Abuse



The PISA scores show how education in the West is slipping, rather than how good it is in Asia. Too much PC theoretical gobbletygook and not enough focus on the 3 Rs.

Mar 26, 2015 09:09 Report Abuse



For me the possible option now is the no.1 = flee the country. Our son have to go next year to primary school. My employer is not happy about my push to help pay bigger part of international school fee for him, if they want me to work for them more. the option of getting him into Chinese edu system, is nono way for me. It is trap, all the education here. If you want better school, you have to pay more. so you need to make more money. to make more money, you have to work harder, longer and get ayi or another means of help to pick your kid from school, clean house and cook for you, because there will be simple no time to do that. that is also costly, so you need to reduce significantly the living standards, lower the food quality and qty, living in shitty place. and the result is, that you are in a trap for a decade at least, where you barely save any money for another education and another life. so circle will continue.

Mar 25, 2015 14:55 Report Abuse



If you're Christian, join a homeschool group.

Mar 26, 2015 09:00 Report Abuse



aren't they illegal ? i have done some sh1t in my young time, and sure as hell not willing to do illegal things in another country

Mar 26, 2015 09:40 Report Abuse



If it's foreigners nobody cares. Only Chinese kids are forced into the system.

Mar 26, 2015 14:36 Report Abuse



constantly outperform students from around the world. Lets not forget all that blatent cheating now. Im suprised I havent seen parents handing the answers through windows a la India....why bother when the teacher helps you :p

Mar 25, 2015 12:54 Report Abuse



Good article. Elaine nailed it with her first point, flee the country. Be it Steiner's spiritual + science or china's soul-less, face, money, war approach, at the end of the day the goal of many of these $rich parents and their kids is to flee China with tons of money earned regardless of means, a country where people defecating in public is not an uncommon sight. With this kind of motivation, whatever educational methodogy is used, what kind of people gets out? To their target countries what kind of people gets in?

Mar 25, 2015 12:05 Report Abuse



Although i like some of the ideas of the alternative education systems, all of the students i've met from the Steiner education systems are "off": arrogant, disobedient, wilfull, and just downright unpleasant. Giving children too much freedom too early has, from my observations, lead to very undesirable results, and from an early age, too. Nothing like talking to a 7 year old who treats you like an inferior just because they've been told that they are like their own god. nice one, Steiner...

Mar 25, 2015 08:34 Report Abuse



Then add that to the little emperor syndrome here and it is going to have bad results.

Mar 25, 2015 09:00 Report Abuse



I've met Steiner kids and almost enrolled in their high school myself, but did not have the same opinion. They're mostly artsy hipsters where I'm from. I think the attitude is the combination of Chinese society and one child policy.

Mar 28, 2015 12:23 Report Abuse



Chinese purchases of overseas education have ruined Australian higher ed, caused the UK to overhaul its system, and America's presently so blinded by greed its universities, overflowing with unqualified Chinese students, will be useless soon

Mar 25, 2015 07:49 Report Abuse



Totally agree

Mar 25, 2015 08:55 Report Abuse



US universities already useless

Mar 26, 2015 08:56 Report Abuse



Spot on

Mar 28, 2015 20:34 Report Abuse



Some of those schools sound like creepy cults.

Mar 25, 2015 07:11 Report Abuse



they are

Mar 25, 2015 07:49 Report Abuse