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Thursday, 16 June 2011, 19:00

The Alternative Education Movement in China and Its Challenges

By  C. H. and K. H.

Can alternative education work in China? What are the misconceptions and challenges?

The need for alternative education in China comes from a widespread concept that the current educational system is inadequate. After several thousand years, the Chinese educational system still relies solely on annual exams to test whether students are "educated." As such, a typical Chinese student is driven by extrinsic motivations, excelling mainly in test-taking skills, and grows into an adult who lacks the creativity and intrinsic drive needed to compete in today's global economy. However, the above statement is also true for Western educational systems that experience the same problems, although perhaps to a lesser extent.

Before the formation of the Carnegie Foundation in 1906, the American educational system was also based on annual "comprehension exams." The Carnegie Foundation facilitated reforms that led to the recognition of credit hours which moved the focus from exams to classroom teaching. This opened the door for the development of creative teaching methods and a richer set of curricula.

To crystallize these ideas, we can examine a popular method of education in the Western world: speech and debate competitions. In speech and debate, students are given a broad resolution, such as "The United States government should change its policy on renewable energy." They are to study, discuss, and debate with their peers on this topic in front of adult judges. Winning is based on intrinsic knowledge of the subject and the evidence that the debaters gathered outside of the debate round. There is no test the students could take to win. The round itself is a test of their communication skills, research, logic and knowledge. The goal of speech and debate is to develop skills beneficial to life and its focus is the process of education, not test-taking ability.

To develop their arguments, students research the resolution and then craft a case that can take any direction they choose; this encourages creativity. They learn that "creativity" does not consist of coming up with random thoughts but results from hard work and problem solving. There is also a strong social factor within debate. Debaters must manage relationships with their peers, teachers, parents and strangers. In fact, for many participants, this social aspect is the most motivating.

Debaters desire to establish their reputations as smart, articulate, young people. They receive credit for their participation, study and true retention of knowledge. However, skills learned from activities like speech and debate cannot be evaluated effectively using an annual examination system. In an educational system based on tests, students concentrate on test preparation. They can succeed without ever having learned any real skills.

An educational system ought to develop creativity and social skills, and it should capture children's imaginations more than video games. It should cause children to enjoy learning for the sake of their own improvement. This ideal is what makes alternative education options attractive to Chinese parents who long to give their children the best they can offer. With the current rapid rise in China's GDP, more parents now have the means to pursue alternative forms of education.

Over the past six years, the alternative education movement has undergone many new developments. I have noticed many beneficial developments in the past six years, but the needs in this movement have also become clearer than ever.

The Shape of Alternative Education in China: An Analysis

As a result of China's improved economy, education is more affordable, immigration is economically feasible and parents have significantly more educational options available to them. However, the one-child policy, combined with a thriving economy, has had an enormous impact on the development of China's society—particularly in the area of abuse. The increased pressure put on children has led to more cases of child abuse.

More frightening, however, is the occurrence of a new form of abuse: parental abuse. The second generation of the wealthy is becoming more demanding as they grow older. It is easy to satisfy the demands of young children; however, as time passes, their demands grow more extreme and become more difficult to appease. The recent stabbing of a mother at the Shanghai PuDong Airport brought attention to this pitiful situation. The son returned from Japan because his mother was unable to sustain his overseas study after five years there. When he arrived, the angry young man took out a knife from his bag and stabbed his mother nine times (GuangZhou Ri Bao, April 13, 2011).

The exodus of Chinese students to study abroad is yet another sign of the need for educational reform. Although there has always been a steady stream of Chinese students seeking to complete graduate studies abroad, recently there has been a jump in the number of younger students seeking to complete their secondary education abroad. For the Chinese government, this is an alarming sign that educational reform is urgent and inevitable.

From January 7 to February 6, 2011, Chinese Premier Wen Jia Bao hosted a series of five conferences on educational reform. The topics ranged from vocational to elementary education with educational leaders from all over China. The most significant news came in the "National Long- and Mid-term Educational Reform and Development Plan" which stated that educational reform will be the government's focus for the next twelve years. The recognition of the problems of the existing rigid system and the shortage of educational resources may open doors and opportunities for alternative education. During this time, the reforms may influence and reshape the future of Chinese education. (中央政府门户网站, www.gov.cn, 2009, 年01月07日; 来源:新华社, Xinhua News Agency)

However, even as different forms of alternative education abound, some very disturbing trends have also come to light. For instance, many new "home schools" are a series of online or onsite classes where children progress by testing to pass different levels. By eliminating teacher interactivity, socialization and all intrinsic motivations, these types of "home schools" are equivalent to—or far worse than—the current Chinese educational system they claim to replace. These "home schools" merely move children from a school-centered test-based system to a home-centered test-based system. Another phenomenon is the growth of mini, one-room school houses. These schools lack trained teachers and set curriculums. For this reason, we need to carefully examine the current needs of education in China.

The Shape of Alternative Education in China: A "Learning Community" Proposal

Right now, Chinese alternative education has several fundamental needs. First, it needs qualified teachers who have received training at a certifiable institution. Teachers are crucial to education. Without good teachers, no system of education can succeed. Second, the parents need to have good parenting models and examples. Chinese parents desperately need education and training. This can be supplemented with parents' fellowships and support groups. Once parents know that they are not alone, they will be more confident in educating their children. In today's world, it takes a village to raise a child. It is necessary for parents to find their "village." Third, there needs to be systematic teaching of alternative curriculum in Chinese. This is a major difficulty for any Chinese parents hoping to train their child in the basic precepts. Fourth, there needs to be an assessment system for both teachers and students that is objective and accredited. Finally, the public must realize that the purpose of education is to cultivate inborn talents rather than train "yes men."

The Mustard Seed Parent Co-op in Beijing is one example of successfully implemented alternative education. The co-op is based on the establishment of a fellowship of mothers. In the fellowship, mothers are trained to take control of their children's education and provide support for each other. It is the core belief of the co-op that it is every parent's responsibility and privilege to educate their own children, giving them objective grades and diplomas when they complete their course of study. At the co-op, parents are educated on child development and psychology. This helps them learn to teach according to the age and maturity of the students and adjust to individual idiosyncrasies. It focuses heavily on teaching the Truth. By doing so, students are taught critical thinking and trained to discern humanism from the Truth.

The weekly meetings provide opportunities for students to learn from each other through assigned projects, speech classes, drama, science labs and weekly assessments that train them to take ownership of their learning. Lastly, we encourage students to live out the lessons they learn. This is done by providing opportunities to serve. Some of our students volunteer as teachers at migrant schools or serve in orphanages. These are just a few of the opportunities we strive to make available for our students.

Misconceptions Regarding Alternative Education

The spread of home education has been hindered by misunderstandings about it. First, different definitions of homeschooling have created confusion within the home school community. These include definitions such as any form of education outside the current system, transforming the home into a school, staying at home for all learning, parental authority in determining the ways and contents of education and so on. In addition to creating confusion, these various definitions have created division within the home school community hindering the spread of home education.

Secondly, there is a misconception that homeschooled students are better academically. Many people blindly believe that homeschooling by itself will boost their child's academic learning. However, it is a myth that homeschoolers are all over-achievers. Some parents take their children out of the system to prove that they are better teachers. Others take their children out to prove their children are better. This misconception can create unnecessary pressure for homeschooling parents to perform and can deter parents from homeschooling their children if they are chary of such pressure.

Next is the idea that taking students out of the current school setting will resolve all learning problems. Without examining what the child's true problem is, parents will sometimes blindly believe that, by taking a child out of the system, all their problems will be resolved. For students with learning disabilities, this is not the case. Operating under this false assumption can lead to greater challenges for parents and unnecessary pressure on students.

It is harmful for parents to believe, as many do, that "alternative" education must be based on "alternative curriculum." This is a controversial issue. However, I believe that it is more important to teach the children to discern than to indoctrinate children with "alternative curriculum." No curriculum is perfect, encapsulating the truth. Any alternative curriculum is based on man's understanding and application of the truth—and we certainly can gain much from such curriculum. Unfortunately, the respect of "alternative curriculum" often causes students to believe blindly in the words of text books rather than encouraging them to research and come to their own conclusions. This, to me, is a perfect example of laziness.
Another difficulty is the misconception that homeschoolers are, or must be, isolated. This is not true. It is very difficult to home school successfully in an isolated environment. The truth is that people were made to associate with others; most of our learning comes from interaction with others. I do not believe in the mass education system where kids are placed in a chicken coop kind of setting. On the other hand, there needs to be proper interaction and stimulation from other children and adults in order to maintain interest and compensate for each parent's limitations.

Lastly, homeschooling is often confused with "no schooling." Unschooled children rarely succeed. They suffer from a lack of self-discipline, irresponsible behavior and a lack of profession knowledge and resources. Homeschooling, on the other hand, is most successful in a supportive environment where the parents continue to grow and learn along with the child.

Challenges to Alternative Education

In addition to these misconceptions that hinder the spread of homeschooling in China, there are three main challenges to Chinese home education: the lack of motivation, volunteerism and a focus on the academic rather than character development. Motivation is important because the examination of one's motives in homeschooling determines the success of a homeschooling venture. Chinese culture has created a society where people are accustomed to doing things for profit or out of forced duty. This makes volunteerism difficult, which in turn makes creating a "village" difficult. It is practically impossible to raise a child alone. The lack of volunteerism turns the process of child-rearing into a nightmare. Lastly, traditional Chinese values put much more emphasis on academics rather than character development. If the goal is to just move school home, the purpose of homeschooling is completely defeated.

Perhaps, instead of homeschooling, Chinese home education must focus on developing learning communities. Here, parents would be able to share resources and build parent support groups. These support groups would increase parental involvement and education while addressing an educational shortage. It would also provide a perfect platform for educators to reach the communities around them. This also would provide future career opportunities for family members. Full-time moms would have an opportunity to serve and work when their children are out of the house.

A learning community would also provide better programs tailored to individual needs and whole person education thanks to intense parental involvement. Older children and teenagers would be encouraged to serve, cultivate altruism and an attitude of gratitude and social concern for the poor and needy. This is the perfect way for them to develop leadership skills by serving others. The greatest result of this community would be the ability to cultivate citizens with true bilingual ability and a global world view.

Today, there are a variety of educational choices available to parents. Parents hoping to help their children succeed are increasingly turning to these alternatives. The great need in this area has led to the development of resources and training to help parents in their endeavor. Over the past several years, these aids have grown and developed into sophisticated tools. Also in response to the great need, the number of alternatives for parents to choose from has expanded exponentially.

After having tested many different options, the pros and cons of common choices are becoming clear. It is necessary to give children an environment where they can thrive. Education ought to encourage growth in all areas of life, not merely academics and test-taking. While home schooling is a popular option for many, it cannot ensure the best education for children. In contrast, the support network formed by a learning community meets the goals of education in training children's characters, encouraging academic development, providing a platform for social development and ensuring more complete development in all academic areas for children who are in the current system or out of it.

C. H. , BA, MA, has been in education for almost 30 years and taught in both public and private schools in the US. She has been working and training English teachers, involving in English curriculum development, working with students from preschool to high school, and conducting parenting seminars in various cities in China.

K. H. will graduate in August with a BA in history and has taught in various capacities since 2001. Currently, she is living in Beijing writing curriculum for high school students preparing to study in the United States.

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