The Practice and Vision of Alternative Education in Contemporary China

9:00 am–12:00 pm
University of Chicago Center in Beijing
20th Floor, Culture Plaza
59A Zhong Guan Cun Street
Haidian District, Beijing


On the morning of Saturday, January 12, 2018, over 30 students, parents, and practitioners gathered at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing to discuss the development and status of alternative education in contemporary China.

The first presenter, Ms. ZHANG Yi, is the Deputy Director of Child Friendly Communities of China (CFCC). CFCC is an NGO that works with the National Working Committee on Children and Women (国务院妇女儿童工作委员会), China Community Development Association (中国社区发展协会), and China Children and Teenagers’ Fund (中国儿童少年基金会). In her remarks, Ms. Zhang discussed how CFCC identifies and executes areas of collaboration with local authorities to create often-unexpected public works projects in the realm of childhood development and education, providing a case example of their work to increase the availability of child-friendly public activity spaces.

The second speaker, Ms. LIU Yan (Ph.D., Education, University of Maryland) teaches at Beijing’s Waldorf School. Ms. Liu shared her journey from being a mother to a school teacher, and explained how her experience working with her own children led her to consider alternative models of education. For Ms. Liu, the holistic approach that the Waldorf model espouses seemed to fit the need for emotional and cognitive subjectivity that she observed in her parenting and education studies. In the Waldorf model, facilitators rely on a tri-faceted understanding of childhood development and education, which includes: incorporating that which is above thinking and rationality; emphasizing process and emotion; and understanding the necessity of willpower.

Next, Ms. CUI Wei, Head of Yifang “Traditional School” (sishu), and the Traditional School Association of Liaoning province, began with the remark that she is squarely in the business of alternative education. By that, Ms. Cui meant that the educational philosophy and aim of her school is fundamentally different than that of mainstream schools. Where mainstream school curricula attempt to impart “knowledge” by proceeding through many curricular subjects of increasing difficulty, traditional schools focus exclusively on unleashing children’s inherent “wisdom” (“智慧”) through reading, reciting, and memorizing classical Chinese texts (and some western classics in English). Her rationale for backing this often-criticized approach, she explained, is that learning traditional Chinese classics is not an idiosyncratic choice (“个性的”), but a common need (“共性的”) because classical texts offer answers to “what it is to be a human (“如何做人”).

Finally, Ms. XUE Ni, founder and CEO of the study abroad consulting company Shang Learning, gave a comprehensive overview and detailed analysis of another type of alternative learning: study abroad at private high schools and universities. Ms. Xue detailed the rationale behind elite Chinese families’ desire for education abroad, including its development in the past few decades. Although she acknowledged the declining growth rate in Chinese students abroad (a trend which dates back to 2012), Ms. Xue forecasted that the “golden age” for the study abroad industry will likely continue for another five to eight years.

The presentations were followed by a roundtable discussion. Discussants included LAI Lili, Associate Professor, Peking University; YI Li, Professor, School of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, Peking University; LI Rongrong, Associate Researcher, Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; XIAO Suowei, Associate Professor, School of Sociology, Beijing Normal University.

The group received questions from the audience on a variety of topics including uncertainty about the movement’s trajectory; the role of institutional versus pedagogical innovation; emphasis on the moral or ethical dimension of education; and the need to understand the socio-political dimension of alternative education in China. One major topic that emerged during discussion was how alternative education could offer evaluative standards to communities, parents and teachers. Speakers and discussants debated the degree to which such standards be objectively implemented, though all were in agreement that some form of evaluation is essential for the continued advancement of alternative education models.

CHEN Huaiyuan, a PhD Candidate in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, initiated this conference with support from Professor Judith Farquhar, Faculty Director of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing.