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The Evolution of Christian Education in China

Our family lived in a tier one city in China for over five years, and during that time I homeschooled our children of various ages. While there I had the opportunity to mentor some Chinese homeschooling mothers, both one-on-one and in workshop settings. I also enjoyed teaching a session to Chinese Christian teacher-trainees on how to develop picture books into unit studies, and my older daughters and I had some experience teaching English at a bilingual Christian pre-school.

Over time I realized that the concept of homeschooling in China encompasses a broader definition than in the West. Since children in China generally attend full day kindergarten from the age of two and a half or three, parents who stay home with their little ones refer to pre-school education as homeschooling. They tend to treat this as formal school, creating a routine with subjects like math, Chinese and English scheduled in. I encouraged them to relax and enjoy learning with activities like reading picture books, playing with blocks, dolls, trucks and games, teaching their children Bible stories and songs, experiencing nature together, and letting their little ones help with household tasks.

Some families continue homeschooling past the pre-school years. Since most home-schooled children come from one-child families, parents often experiment with different types of co-ops, recognizing the need for their children to mix with others. I saw various models of co-ops. Some met weekly for shared classes in subjects like art and English. One model had the families come together for two and a half days a week. Parents contributed in different ways, some teaching classes in which they had expertise while others supported as teaching assistants or administrators. Children were grouped according to age bands and on their days at home, they did the homework assigned by the parent teachers. While this provided structure and focus, some parents found it did not provide the freedom to individualize the learning to their children's needs. Some parents even go together to hire a teacher who teaches several families together, creating more of a house-school model than a traditional home-school.

Lack of indigenous educational curriculum is an issue for both homeschoolers and Christian schools. As John Cheng's article, "China's Christian Education Today," pointed out, many church schools opt to use ACE materials which are in English and have a very Western perspective. To balance that, some schools use ACE material in the mornings and teach Chinese and cultural electives in the afternoons. Since China has such a rich language and history, it is encouraging that some educators are working to create localized curriculum. I see huge potential for the ideas of Charlotte Mason, a British Christian educator from the turn of the 20th century to be implemented easily without the need for translation. Her ideas about nature study, art appreciation and music study, could all be applied directly to Chinese content. The way she taught composition through copying and dictation could also be adapted to teaching Chinese language to children. Her ideas about having children narrate back after hearing or reading the best literature and well-written books on other subjects like history and science, rather than being tied to textbooks, could all be applied readily to Chinese material.

Several years ago, I attended a national conference in Guangzhou where a wide range of providers of different forms of Christian education came together to discuss issues and strategies. This included church leaders who had Christian schools associated with their churches, Christians running private kindergartens where, while not overtly Christian, they sought to only hire Christian teachers and create a Christian environment, some Christians leading schools for children of migrant workers, and others running a teacher training college for Christian Chinese teachers. I represented parents who were homeschooling their children. While all were united in wanting to provide Christian education for Chinese children, the method and goals differed. One leader was passionate that the goal was discipleship, and felt that churches should move forward urgently even when other issues like curriculum and full teacher training had not been hammered out. Others felt that quality was also crucial and that matters like scope and sequence and providing well-trained teachers needed to precede starting schools lest students be disadvantaged. One conclusion of that conference was that teacher training was the biggest need.

Regardless of which method of Christian education is pursued, parents share a common concern about their children's future. Unless students go through traditional public schools or registered private schools, they are not permitted to take the gaokao, the national university entrance exam. Thus students either have to go overseas to study or hope to enter private universities which might be more flexible, or pursue other career paths which do not require a university education. However, the face of education is changing with MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) being offered free or very cheaply from many top universities around the world. As authentication and verification for these courses develops, it could open up new possibilities for Chinese students whose education has not followed traditional paths.

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