Some Work of Noble Note

May Yet Be Done

Alternative Education in China

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As a nation, we’re (rightly) obsessed with our mediocre educational outcomes when stacked up against most other nations of the world.  According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), we’re 30th in Math, 20th in Reading, and 23rd in Science.  Unsurprisingly, we’re losing out to the Chinese, among others.  “The math scores of students in Shanghai showed that they are ‘the equivalent of over two years of formal schooling ahead of those observed in Massachusetts, itself a strong-performing U.S. state.’”


Yet it turns out the Chinese have their own educational bogeyman – and it’s the US!  Ian Johnson in the New Yorker recently profiled an alternative education push in China, the growing presence of the German Waldorf school system in the country.

Why alternative education when you’re ranked first in PISA?  Believe it or not, China is actually worried about the stress that its school system and the infamous gaokao standardized test system are placing on students.  There was a high-profile suicide of a student last October; the boy jumped off of a thirty-story building after leaving behind a note that said, “Teacher, I can’t do it.”  Additionally, a system that is designed to be as narrow and competitive as China’s has other drawbacks, such as highly publicized incidents of high school administrators accepting bribes to allow students in to their better ranked schools. Johnson mentions other terrifying anecdotes such as students being hooked up to oxygen tanks so that they might be able to study harder and girls being given oral contraceptives, “lest their menstrual cycles compromise performance.”

Most interesting to me though is the fact that the Chinese are reconsidering what they’re “successfully” teaching in the first place. As a legacy of its imperial officer examination systems, many are worried that the current education system emphasizes rote memorization over creative thinking.  Exactly in keeping with my earlier post, they see the value of a well-rounded, liberal arts education.  Being ranked first in PISA means nothing if you’re not building minds capable of the kinds of innovation and creative thinking that have spurred the West to its successes.

The Chengdu Waldorf

This is where the Chengdu Waldorf school comes in. Admittedly, most quotes from parents suggest that their main motivation for enrolling their kids in Waldorf schools is to remove them from the hellishly competitive public school system.  Only a few reference their beliefs that Waldorf schools will make their kids better adjusted, higher functioning adults with a broader creative skillset – ostensibly the intention of the Waldorf modus operandi.

The Waldorf movement, founded by Rudolf Steiner, believes that “students should be slowly guided” out of an existential childhood (emphasis mine).  Education “should engage first the hands, then the heart, then the brain.” I’m reminded of Lucky Jim’s quote about hangovers, “not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection.”  This provides a good contrasting view of the Waldorf educational philosophy vs. standard Chinese schooling.

Chengdu Waldorf students do indeed find themselves working with their hands frequently.  Activities include learning to knit, engaging in arts and crafts, and even gardening. The school’s schedule, as described by Johnson, comes closer to what we’d understand as a summer camp – a little bit of math and reading interspersed with learning the violin and the play-with-your-hands activities.  Fascinatingly, the curriculum overemphasizes folklore and mythology because Steiner believed that an individual’s development reflects his civilizations.

Even “regular” class time itself is different.  “Class started with the desks pushed against the walls. The children formed a circle and began clapping rhythmically.  The fun segued into a math exercise to teach multiplication tables. Shi [the teacher] called out problems on the first three claps, and the students answered on the fourth.  Gradually, Shi picked up the pace, making the students think faster. Some were caught out, but none seemed embarrassed.”

As an aside, here is yet another reference to the Eastern academic system in which getting an answer wrong is not cause for public shaming or ridicule, no matter how minimal.  In fact, it is viewed positively as providing an opportunity for growth.  It seems odd that for as ruthlessly competitive a reputation that Asian society has built, individual outperformance never seems to be a focus during in-class drills.

What Works at the Chengdu Waldorf

That the Waldorf system promotes creativity is inarguable, especially given its focus on handiwork and crafts at a young age.  Multiple choice tests and short answer, especially in the earlier ages, can only be tests of recall.  Even at later ages, I’d venture that very few people when asked to multiply 11 times 11 actually go through the conceptual understanding of what eleven elevens are.  Instead we respond reflexively since we’ve all memorized the multiplication tables out to 12 times 12.

Allowing kids to build objects with sparse materials or having them plant vegetables in a space-limited system – this elevates young learning from mere memorization to the problem solving level.  Learning doesn’t become about beating an “if x, then y” pattern into one’s mind; instead it becomes a resource-constrained optimization problem.  It is literally a rudimentary form of differential equations.  Combine that with problems that engage the whole body rather than just the mind and the Waldorf system is very much to my liking.  Kids learn better when they’re making sense not just of what they’re seeing and hearing but what they feel and smell.

There are different types of learners out there – some have eidetic memories (or are merely just better visual learners); others learn better through hearing, or experiencing. Tactile learning works best for still others as well.  Allowing kids to have exposure to learning methods that cover all those bases lets teachers discover what works better for students.  It’s one of the first steps to individualizing learning pathways.

Will It Work?

For all that, I’m admittedly having a bit of trouble falling entirely in love with the system (and not just because Waldorf schooling believes students should start to learn to read until the second or third grades).  What most worries me is how these students will fare against others prepared by the demanding public school system for the rigors of the gaokao.

Societal education is effectively an arms race.  Amy Chua (the “Tiger Mom”) inadvertently makes this point in her book Triple Package. For as long as there are parents willing to prioritize a healthier emotional upbringing over a more competitive, merciless one, those parents will on average see lower outcomes.  America is lucky that Tiger Moms are few and far between.  China, with its student suicides, high school entrance bribery scandals, and oxygen tanks, is where we’d end up if the societal norm was the Tiger Mom standard.

On that note, there is a touching passage about the extent to which parents go simply to better their children’s lives.  Chengdu Waldorf charges ~$3,000 / year, approximately equivalent to the average annual salary of a Chengdu citizen.  Some parents quit their jobs to become Waldorf teachers just to take advantage of the 50% tuition discount that it allows.  Parents don’t have to be drill sergeants to show just how passionate they are for their kids’ future.

The aims of the Waldorf school are noble.  I am sincerely rooting for its students to buck their peers’ outcomes in terms of overall adulthood happiness.  Waldorf schools promote creativity and resourcefulness.  That may yet win the day.  If so, the movement may show the way for the rest of a society still slaving under the yoke of the imperial examination system of the Ming Dynasty.

Author: AJ

I'm an education enthusiast, growth equity investor, and MBA student at Wharton.

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