Parents choosing micro schools as a way forward for their children's education

A fast-growing number of Chinese parents are sending their children into micro schools, which focus interactive learning and critical thinking.

Zhang Xiaodai was an A-level student at a public junior high school in Chengdu, southwest China, but she didn't like school much. She wondered why her PE teacher was often absent on the excuse of illness, so almost every PE class was substituted by math.
“My school life was crammed with endless memorization, drills and tests,” said Zhang, 14. It gave her nightmares.
The only relief was the fun programs run by Chi Xiao’s team at weekends and vacations. In one egg-themed summer camp, Zhang visited chicken coops, made pancakes and wrote poems about eggs.
She was so in love with this way of learning that she became the first student in Chi’s Curionesty School, which opened in 2016.
“The students and teachers are like friends here,” said Zhang.
In just six months, the one-classroom school enrolled nine students, half of them from other cities around China.
In his high school days, Chi was not a “good” student by conventional standards. Chi spent his time writing poetry, talking about love and playing video games in high school.
“People are biased against play. Play is how children learn about the world. I learned to respond quickly and think logically through video games,” says Chi, a critic of test-oriented education.
He brings his own education philosophy into running his all-day micro school. He believes study should be fun and meaningful. Curionesty has no fixed pedagogy or curricula; every teacher has a forte and they are facilitators, not lecturers.
"We aim to cultivate 12 to 18-year-old students into lifelong learners, not experts on tests,” Chi said.
Each semester is divided into 20 weeks, with two or three weeks of project-based learning (PBL) and themed study tours.
Subjects like English, living and death, drama, geography, economics and DIY are all compulsory, while others are selective and based on students’ interests and take full advantage of online resources like courses run by the Khan Academy.
One project required students to build a stove with mud and bricks and cook food in it within seven days. Students sketched plans and cooperated to build the stove and successfully baked pizzas and chicken wings. They then sold the food and planned spending their earnings at an amusement park.
“Students tapped their potential and proved they could be architects or cooks or pizzeria owners,” Chi said.
Since joining Curionesty, Zhang has been happier and feels education is more purposeful. "On the stove project, I got my hands muddy, but I liked it."
Zhang is one of a fast-growing number of Chinese children whose parents are sending them into micro schools, which focus interactive learning and critical thinking. Ding Ying, Zhang's mother, moved her family from Anhui Province to Chengdu more than a decade earlier just to send her daughter to a Waldorf kindergarten.
Micro schools have given students like Zhang more time and space to learn in her own way.
“In Curionesty, she is writing a detective story. Last month, she composed a song,” said Ding.
A report by Beijing-based consultancy iResearch this year said more than 95 percent of middle-class families wanted their children to get access to the personalized learning within public or private schools or through extracurricular classes.
Curionesty and other micro-schools demonstrate the growing interest in alternative options.
Many of the well-educated and affluent parents who remove their children from state education are themselves beneficiaries of that system, but they see its drawbacks as well.
“The gaokao (China’s college entrance exam) is not the only way for children anymore. If opting for a public school means long preparations for the final test, why should we bother?" said Ding.
Unlike High Tech High, a US-based PBL school that enables students to take the SAT and go to college, Curionesty has no government academic accreditation so its students cannot sit the gaokao.
Chi sees his education model as a work in progress and full of uncertainties. That has not discouraged parents, who appreciate his open-mindedness and vision.
“Uncertainty is the charm of education. Our definition of success is to nurture young minds to be eager to learn and create values for society with their skills and independent thinking,” said Chi.
Before a student enrolls in Curionesty, Chi's team has a detailed talk with the parents. The school offers three pathways for every family: to apply a foreign university; to start up a business; or to get a job.
“If they feel like entering the state system midway through their education, we respect that,” Chi explained. “We are not biased against those who feel hopeless and do poorly in public schools."
Curionesty provides students with start-up classes so as to make them financially independent by the time they turn 18. The school is also working with enterprises to test placements of graduates.
With fees up to 60,000 yuan (US$8,984) a year, Curionesty is run on a shoestring. Chi says the school plans further investment in an IT system to promote collaboration between teachers and communication between teachers and students.
The exact number of micro schools in China is unknown as no institution tracks them, but they are known to operate in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Chengdu.
With more micro schools springing up, education innovation is starting from the bottom-up and personalized education needs to be further explored, says Wang Feng, who studies on education system reform at the Education and Development Research Center of the Education Ministry.
For decades, China’s state education has offered students the chance to realize their ambitions through sweat and toil, but it does not satisfy every student‘s need.
For Zhang, the future is now limitless.
“I'm thinking of going abroad to study in the future. Or maybe I'll quit and form my own start-up. That sounds exciting. Anyway, I enjoy every second of school here.” 

Special Reports