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Waldorf Schools in China

Evaluating an Alternative to Chinese Schools

Waldorf Schools are popping up in first, second, and third tier cities of China. The schools are beautiful inside and out and often located slightly outside of the city, where they can acquire more land and be in more natural surroundings. The Chinese see them as international schools with a Scandinavian feel to them with natural, wooden interiors. The schools are outfitted with soft rugs, warmly painted walls, wooden toys, music rooms, private gardens, and beautiful dining halls overseen by on-site chefs.

Waldorf schools have a gentle learning style. Sometimes they are compared to Montessori schools with their hands-on and child-centered approaches. But they are different. They were developed by Rudolf Steiner, an occultist who taught about reincarnation and how to connect to greater spirituality.  He focused on teaching methods to engage the whole child: spirit, physical body, and soul. Steiner founded the first Waldorf School in 1919.  

Today, his philosophies are still central to how the schools are run. They focus on connecting with nature–whimsical art painted in the hallways is an example of this emphasis.  In some countries Waldorf Schools are called Steiner schools. Sometimes they are refused public funding because of their religious basis. Parents in those places are perhaps more aware of the intention for children to connect with nature and the spiritual world. Those things don't seem to effect parents here in China. Waldorf schools are seen as an attractive education alternative for the upper class–or those who can afford it.  The humanistic teachings are a small price to pay for all that they get: small class sizes, an international style, and an encouraging environment. 

Chinese education is high pressure. Everyone wants to get ahead. There may be 80 kids in one middle school class and many who aren't engaging in the lessons. In a small-class-size Waldorf school everyone participates. The teachers are gentle and loving, and the children are involved. German teachers come to train the school staff and teachers. The training includes courses to help them to understand the anthroposophy philosophy and how to teach children.

Is it better to be immersed in a place with a gentle teaching style, but where there is an intentional desire to have a child's spirit connect to the spiritual world and worship Mother Nature or go to the public schools and be in a communist system that is atheistic and rules out a presence of God?

Some question how pure the Chinese Waldorf schools are–I would say they often follow the heartbeat of the philosophy fully, with a bit of extra emphasis on English. Since the local teachers are are directly trained by Germans, they are indoctrinated and adhere to what they are taught.

The influence of Waldorf schools is spreading. On Chinese microblogging sites mothers share Waldorf information. People are copying the schools (I'm not sure to what standard or whether or not the philosophy is followed. I don't imagine they really last). There is considerable interest in these schools.

The schools offer free parenting classes–which interest many people since Chinese parents often feel that they need more tools to be better parents–and then they introduce the school to them. The parenting advice comes from a humanistic perspective–teaching that we are inherently good and that with freedom and self-discovery, a child will blossom. In other words, the child isn't sinful and that there is no need for Christ or a Savior. I believe most people don't understand the underlying philosophy and many seem to not mind the sect-like ways of the school. In the West, some may be critical of Waldorf schools since reading and general education is all quite delayed (until around the age of nine) but in China it is an alternative to the rat race of the local schools. Parents see this as a great option for their only child. Once a child enters a Waldorf School, I believe it would be hard to pull the child out and go back to the local school because he/she would be so far behind. The students don't prepare for the Gaokao (National College Entrance Exam); they mostly connect with nature, do dramas and acting, and the children are encouraged to develop his or her intelligence.

Waldorf schools are elite, expensive, and are very different in their approach. Western thought and ways are often idolized in Chinese society and this is a way for a child to be in China around family, but out of the high pressure of the Chinese education system. A general trend in China among the middle to upper class, is to send their child to the west for high school and university. Children going through these schools will more than likely follow this trend and go west once they graduate.

The question is, are Waldorf schools a positive alternative or are they another humanistic way of teaching based on mystical, occultist theory?

 Image Credit: Next City

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Rebecca Norman

Rebecca Norman has lived in China for five years, taught English in three cities, and enjoys Chinese culture, traveling around China, and learning Chinese.View Full Bio

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