Why I Choose to Let My Children Go to Chinese School When I am an Advocate of Alternative Education


I would probably be the last person you’d expect to send her children to regular school in mainland China.  Known for its rigidity and highly-pressurized environment, it is the exact opposite of the ideal education I want for my kids. I would love to send them to a progressive or democratic or even a Waldorf school, but none of those options exist where we live.  I would love to homeschool but I am ONLY for homeschooling when there is a community of homeschoolers, unschoolers or worldschoolers with whom they could have regular interaction and activities.  I would love to homeschool but ONLY if I can hire tutors for the academic portions and there are a number of non-academic options to pick.  In Manila, homeschoolers can study theater, hip hop dance, cooking, speech, football and other courses with fellow homeschoolers.

I believe strongly that education should happen within a community.  It is not ONLY the parents who should be the main teachers and it should not even be just the school teachers.  Children should be exposed to as many positive people — mentors, coaches, inspiring leaders — as possible.

We live in a town where the only option is the Chinese public school.   I taught English in a university here and my students told me horror stories about school and how it got worse and worse leading up to the gaokao in high school.  I definitely do not want my children to attend high school in China and I do not want them to take the gaokao, but I still believe that the first two or three grades in public school is useful and tolerable to get the basics of learning Chinese characters.  However, after the second or third grade, I would like my kids to switch to a progressive school in Manila.

That is my opinion.  Sadly, it goes against the opinion of the other parent in this equation.  So that is why there is an awkward stalemate that can only be mended perhaps through time or not.  In any case, school starts today.  We shall see how it goes.

There are cases of homeschoolers learning to read on their own, but that’s in English.  I wonder if that’s possible in Chinese because it is a more complicated language.  You have to know hundreds and thousands of characters to be able to read so there has to be a methodical way, not random or casual which can happen in studying English.  There are reported cases of children who learn how to read in English without any instruction.  Dr. Peter Gray wrote about it in this article: Children Teach Themselves to Read.  It would be interesting to see if there are any cases of this in the Chinese language which is quite hard to imagine since there is no Chinese alphabet.

I went to visit some Chinese homeschoolers’ houses and they had bookshelves bursting with materials that it seemed that they must be echoing what the schools teach but in less time because the student-teacher ratio is much less.  Still, homeschooling in China must take an inordinate amount of effort on the part of the parents.  It can only be done through a lot of commitment and discipline.

My friend, Susan and I want to start a library in this town.  We talked about it before we left Dagang Youtian one year ago.  I thought she would be able to start something in her house but it turned out her husband wanted to make use of the extra room and it couldn’t be allocated to the library dream.  Susan recently organized an outdoor activity for kids collecting insects in the reservoir and that’s how we started talking again about the dream.

There is no library in schools or small towns here in China.  Only the big cities have public libraries. That’s another reason why I wouldn’t want to homeschool in China. Resources like libraries are paramount.  Plus, the fact that there are so few homeschoolers, the kids won’t have anyone to interact with during the daytime when all the other kids are in school.   In the Philippines, America and other countries, there are existing wide networks of homeschoolers that one can tap into.  China also has but not in the small towns where we happen to be.  (Here’s the China Homeschooling website.)

Oh, and I forgot, the most important reason why I choose to send my kids to Chinese school:  Joshua and Jimmy both really, really love to be with other kids.  They thrive, they enjoy and I think they would learn more in an environment where they are with other children.  I don’t know if the teacher would be a clincher later on and could be a factor to discourage them eventually but as I said, we need to wait and see.

This past year, my husband, two sons and I have traveled from Tianjin to Dali to Manila to Xishuangbanna to Bali to Xishuangbanna to Manila to San Francisco driving to New York with stopovers in Canada and then back to Manila and Tianjin.  After the first few weeks in America, I already thought, I don’t think I can do long-term traveling unless it’s something work or study related.  After living off our backpacks and bags, I also sensed my children were ready to settle down and I kept promising them that we would get a house, put them in school and get a dog.  We were ready for something more stable while traveling can always be done during the holidays.

One of my close friends said that I shouldn’t worry too much about putting my kids in regular school in China because with two very unconventional, out-of-the-box parents, they would be able to balance it all out and come out of the strict Chinese system relatively unscathed.  They would still end up with an expansive view of the world.

Another friend told me I shouldn’t worry about the pressure that comes with Chinese education because if the parents don’t put added pressure on the children, then it’s more relaxed for the child.  My friend went through the same Chinese school system and her parents didn’t pressure her so she grew up very happy and relaxed from elementary all the way up to university.

Everything is a work in progress.   We should not be afraid to try different ways to achieve the goal of providing the best that we can for our children.


This is the activity my friend, Susan organized for kids to explore and enjoy the outdoors:




Dear Peter

Thank you for helping set me on a path one year ago when I emailed you my PhD proposal and you replied how flattered you were “to be seen as an inspiration along with Thoreau” since my thesis title was “Walden Meets Ken and Gray: Journey as a Search for Knowledge through Nature, Creativity and Play.”  The conceptual framework linked your book, Free to Learn with Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Ken Robinson’s Learning to Be Creative.

In your first email to me, you mentioned that you will be in Taiwan in July as a speaker at the Asia-Pacific Democratic Education Conference (APDEC).  Because of you sharing that information, my friend, Donna and I ended up attending that event and after hearing and meeting all these inspiring people, we dreamed of one day holding APDEC in China and the Philippines. We formed a small of group of interested people on Chinese social media but at the back of our minds, we want to someday have an alternative kind of school in our countries.   I thought this wouldn’t happen till further in the future when we’ve done more preparatory work on this field or when we’ve gathered more people passionate about self-directed learning.

However, as I told you during my visit to your house last week, I met Laksmi who started the Gopala Learning Haven that in my mind perfectly fit the picture of a Sudbury School set in nature with its forest and stream but it’s operating concept is more like the Macomber Center because it serves primarily homeschoolers.  You suggested that I visit the Macomber Center during my research in America which I did plus I dropped by the North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens.  Now, I have this idea that Laksmi can be the one with the younger kids and I’d be the one with the teenagers.

It’s tempting for me to go back home to the Philippines to pursue this dream project but as I told you there are too many family and personal issues that hold me back from returning.  Life in China is simpler and more affordable so it’s the easier path for me, but the opportunity of realizing this dream that has been over a year brewing is not as apparent as the one in my own country.  After talking to you last week, it seemed the only thing as usual holding me back is fear.  After talking to you, I felt courage to take the more challenging route but I don’t know if that courage will last when I step on Philippine soil and beyond.

Even if we have met briefly, you have impacted my life in more ways and for this I am very, very grateful.  You knew about this road trip across America from the start and it’s amazing that we would meet up at your house when we are near the finish line of our three-month journey.   Thank you for welcoming me into your home and for the lovely ham and peanut omelette lunch.  Thank you for listening to me blabber about the schools I visited.  I think Donna is the only other person who could listen to me talk so much about those schools and learning centers.

The PhD concept in the beginning is evolving from something academic to immediately applying research to real life which I think is a good development.  However, I still wish I can write a book about all this that will be published in English and Chinese.  It’s funny how Donna and I were so bent on holding a talk on self-directed learning in Manila but we had to cancel because we needed more time to spend on the camp for Chinese students traveling to the Philippines plus there’s the more practical matter of the learning haven.  So it’s not merely talking about self-directed learning but practicing it and seeing it in action, not just a topic of conversation.

These are my blog entries about the schools and learning centers visited throughout this trip.  There are around five more that I still need to go to in Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey.


I’m visiting AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) in New York and hope I can contribute some articles.  I was wondering if any of these articles would be useful to the websites you are involved with, Alternatives to School and Alliance for Self-Directed Learning, or if I could edit or re-write any of these articles so that it’s in a more useful format to those sites.  Please tell me as I’d love to be contribute in any way possible to the movement.

Thank you very much.


Joei : )

phd conceptual framework


Who’s In?



July 2017

Hold a seminar-workshop on self-directed education with Yaacov Hecht and Simon Robinson as speakers.  Yaacov and Simon will talk about his experience with democratic schools and the workshop after will discuss the following:

  • What are the possibilities for a self-directed school or a self-directed type of education in the Philippines?
  • How can ideas of self-directed education be practiced within existing schools in the Philippines?
  • How can a self-directed school or learning center be started in the Philippines?

August 2017

Attend the Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference (APDEC) in Tokyo and months before the event, promote this in the Philippines and in China so that more people will know about it and those who are really interested can attend.  We need to build a network of people who believe in this kind of education.

October 2017

Hold a talk-workshop with Peter Gray about the Alliance for Self-Directed Education and share examples of schools, centers and organizations which believe in and practice self-directed education such as the Sudbury Valley School.  This would be a follow-up session on the July workshop that would build on the momentum started with Yaacov and Simon.  Hopefully a core group would emerge from the people who attended in July and in October and who will eventually initiate a self-directed learning center in the Philippines.

Aside from the Sudbury model, another model that could be considered is the Macomber Center because in the Philippines, there is already a growing number of homeschoolers and unschoolers.  Members of the Macomber Center are all registered homeschoolers and they “pursue their interests in their own way, at their own pace and are free to explore the world in a way that they find meaningful.”  They have “no formal curriculum or guidelines for achievement. Instead, they trust that children will thrive (and learn!) when given time and freedom to play and explore within a community of other young people, with support from knowledgeable, helpful adults.” The “school” or “center” does not even need to have a physical space or address.  It could be a network or an alliance similar to the one set up by Peter Gray, the Alliance for Self-Directed Education.  People can come together as they choose and the whole city, the whole country, the whole world is the school.  Venues change as needed and as opportunities allow.


  1. Introduce and promote the idea of self-directed education and ensure that the talk of Yaacov and Simon will be well-attended. The target number of audience is 100 so we need to target much more than that – probably 200 or 250.
  2. Promote the Tokyo APDEC in the Philippines and in China to see if there are people who would seriously consider attending the conference. Use social media and our personal networks to reach out to as many people as we can.
  3. Promote Peter Gray’s talk about self-directed education in Manila. Coordinate dates with the conference organizers who originally invited him to Manila.


And how does all these efforts connect to China?  My friends who attended the APDEC in Taiwan, Donna and Lucy also dream of setting up a self-directed or democratic school in China but as a strategy, we could start in the Philippines where the opening is wider.  In the future, we can invite Chinese students and teachers to experience this for themselves, too.

Here’s a bit of Peter Gray’s background from his blog, Freedom to Learn, Psychology Today:

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of Free to Learn (Basic Books, 2013) and Psychology (Worth Publishers, a college textbook now in its 7th edition).  He has conducted and published research in comparative, evolutionary, developmental, and educational psychology. He did his undergraduate study at Columbia University and earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences at Rockefeller University. His current research and writing focus primarily on children’s natural ways of learning and the life-long value of play. His own play includes not only his research and writing, but also long distance bicycling, kayaking, back-woods skiing, and vegetable gardening.


At the Round Table


Lucy from mainland China asked me about the connection of democratic education, a democratic society and a democratic form of governance.  Coming from a country that experiences the pitfalls of “too much” democracy and living in a country which many outsiders believe is not democratic “enough,” it was a hard for me to answer the complex question so I said, let’s look for Simon Hulshoff because his talked touched on those bigger issues.  We didn’t have to find him because on the last day of APDEC, the round table discussion provided a lot of answers not just in words but in actual action – democracy in action.

A group of government officials from the education bureau came to discuss with the conference speakers and participants about the possibilities of improving and expanding the laws regarding experimental education which were passed in Taiwan three years ago.  The palpable excitement made it feel like history in the making.

One of the government officials explained what she wrote in her diary and reflected about democratic education, having witnessed the changes in this field in Taiwan.  “Everyone can be responsible for themselves, feel good about themselves, love themselves and other people, allow children to be responsible.  I believe this is also the objective of APDEC.  Parents and teachers can support each other and communicate with each other.  I believe nobody will oppose learner-centered education.  A responsible government will not treat people as tools and there must be responsible allocation of resources.  This (democratic education) is an unstoppable trend all over the world. . . . . Our government will continue to support the development of alternative education. . . . I fully believe that education that is beautiful teaches people to be courageous.”

Yaacov Hecht hopes that many types of schools can be built, emphasizing, “Different is beautiful.”  Peter Gray comments how fitting that this is now taking place in Taiwan where people are brave defenders of freedom and individual rights.  He then brought up the subject of testing and assessment and how he would evaluate an educational system based on two questions: 1) Are the students happy? and 2) Do they live satisfying lives and are productive in society?  None of these can be measured by tests but can only be seen in the long run.
One of the problem, points out Henry Readhead is that there is systemic pressure from the top to bottom.  The government puts pressure on the schools which pressures the teacher who then pressures the child.   How can the pressure building be reversed from bottom to top?  Simon Hulshoff suggests that one of the ways is to make the voice of the student equal to the teacher in meetings.  Another government official recommended that there should be structural reform in the government to allow for more participatory discussions.  Students should learn how to conduct democratic discussions in school and listen to each other.

Somebody who had worked as a teacher for twenty years and was now in the local education bureau said, “The challenge is whether teachers allow students to have different opinions and whether teachers can take back the right of teaching.  In public schools, teachers listen to their bosses, follow the education policies and guidelines so the teachers are very submissive to the orders from the top.”
Peter Gray said, “The most essential idea of democracy is you trust people.  I think you can trust children but for others this may be hard.  At least, we must be ready to trust families to choose how they want their children to be educated.  Denying them this is violating a fundamental right.  In the history of education, schools were built to control people, to indoctrinate people.  Hitler and Stalin were big on education.  If you can control the child’s development, you can control people.  This is the history we are stuck with as a people.  We must trust families to make their own decision.  We are still under tyranny.  Democracy means trusting people.”
One of the conference participants, a Taiwanese homeschooling parent spoke up saying that democratic schools tend to be expensive.  His question struck a chord in me and I wanted to cry, “That’s the same problem I have!  I wish alternative education was economically more accessible!”

Our friends in Taiwan must update us about what happens after APDEC.


Photos taken by Matthew Chen, a teacher at the Holistic School. 

Gray’s Groupie


In his cool dude way, Phenix’s introduction of each speaker is very brief which is ideal because people can always read the bio on the program and dispense with the formality.  A graduate of the Holistic School, Phenix confessed to the audience point blank, “I never attended classes.  If you were given the choice to attend class or this . . . . ,” he said gesturing with sweeping arms towards the lush forest surrounding us, “what would you do?” Like introducing the next set in a rock concert, Phenix intones into the mic, “Let’s give it up for Peter Gray!”

The audience cheer like groupies.  Peter speaks about “The Biology of Education: How Children Learn through Free Play and Exploration,” linking Karl Groo’s Practice Theory of Play with his own study of children in hunter-gatherer cultures.  Peter did his study by contacting the anthropologists who closely studied hunter-gatherer communities around the world and asking them about their observations of children.

Peter then went to connect this research with his survey of students who attended the Sudbury Valley, a democratic school in Massachusetts where his son chose to go and wouldn’t have it any other way after his bad experience with regular school.  Peter then enumerates what he believes is the “optimal context for self-education” through this study of Sudbury echoing certain points in hunter-gatherer societies:

  1. The social expectation (and reality) that education is children’s responsibility
  2. Unlimited freedom to play, explore and pursue own interests
  3. Opportunity to play with the tools of the culture
  4. Access to a variety of caring adults, who are helpers, not judges
  5. Free age mixing among children and adolescents
  6. Immersion in a stable, moral, democratic community

Parents may unknowingly take away from children the drive to be self-directed by exerting too much control.  “The world has become worse for young people,” Peter said.  The degree to which you feel you are in control of your life plays is important.  “People who lack this internal locus of control are prone to depression and anxiety.   How can children learn how to take control of their life if they can’t be allowed to play without adults?”

Historical evidence and social science research shows that the decline of play over the last sixty years in America is correlated with the rise of social and emotional disorders.  Peter points out, 1) five to eight-fold rise in major depression and anxiety disorders in children, 2) four-fold rise in suicide rate for children under age 15; decline in internal locus of control, 3) increased narcissism, decreased empathy.
Regarding unschoolers, Peter commented that majority who responded to his survey became responsible and self-directed adults.  It’s important that parents allow opportunities for children to play and interact with others and be immersed in community life.  “Peers play a protective psychological role from parents.  If you have good friends, you’ll be okay.”
Since I was interested in exploring Project Based Learning, I asked Peter Gray about it and he expressed some doubts as to whether some of the projects are truly undertaken out of passion or merely out of duty since they may be required by the teacher or chosen by group mates.  The problem with academia sometimes is that even people pursuing PhD’s do so out of a calculated move for career advancement rather than a pure interest in the subject or a sincere desire to solve a problem.

When he started his research work on Sudbury Valley School and on unschoolers, Peter came in skeptical but the results show the favorable potential of unschooling and that parents in democratic schools like Sudbury don’t have to worry too much.  In a similar way, my quest to visit alternative schools while driving around the world is a search for answers.  Short visits can’t take the place of in-depth studies such as those conducted by Peter Gray but talking to practitioners could still offer some degree of enlightenment.

And who knows one day, what the Gray groupie can grow up to be.


Certified fan!  I ended up in this conference because of Peter Gray.  I emailed him about my thesis proposal linking nature, creativity and play and he responded by telling me about APDEC in Taiwan. 

Check out Peter Gray’s Blog Freedom to Learn and his article about Sudbury Valley School.

Peter Gray’s study on unschoolers is available in PDF file from Other Education: The Journal of Educational Alternatives:

Grown Unschoolers’ Evaluation of Their Unschooling Experiences

Grown Unschoolers’ Experiences with Higher Education and Employment


Playing Heroes, Being Heroes


As a child, we played at being heroes.  As we grow older we admire heroes, real and imagined, and wish to be heroes ourselves.  Somewhere along the way, we may think, it’s only in the realm of make-believe and a non-existent utopia where heroes make their mark.  We struggle back to hero-hood or not depending on our courage and self-determination.

Peter Gray is my hero.  He led me to this conference by answering an email from a “nobody,” although I apologize and know that’s a democratically incorrect thing to say.  I’m even a more gushing fan after meeting and hearing him.

Excuse this short-cut enumeration, but there are simply too many ideas flying around at break-neck speed so to facilitate the capture, I’ll list points from two talks that struck me.

From Tsao-Lin Fang

  1. A hero is someone who has the courage to become himself and take the journey that he believes he must take. Eventually, the hero returns home.
  2. The ultimate mystery is within yourself.
  3. Mythology is an excellent way to imitate the unlimited imagination. Myths inspire one to be more of a hero and have the courage to follow one’s dreams.
  4. Our schools should be a school for gods and our learning journey should be like a hero’s journey.
  5. Follow the bliss of being yourself.
  6. When people dream big, they can get into a state of bliss.
  7. The holistic hero tries to encompass the individual’s circle into the circle of the whole cosmos.
  8. Find the hero in yourself, the people around you and the people you love.
  9. Have the courage to take the journey you must.

These are from the keynote speech, “The Hero’s Journey – The Holistic Education from the Perspective of Joseph Campbell.”  Tsao-Lin Fang from Taiwan is founder, President of Formosa Alternative Pedagogy Association, Professor of Education at National Chengchi University, Principal of Hsin-Chuang Community University, Chief Editor of Alternative Pedagogy, Former Chairman of National Chengchi University Graduate Institute of Early Childhood Education, Former Chair of Education Department of National Chengchi University.  (From the APDEC 2016 Program)

From Peter Gray

  1. Peter’s son hated and rebelled in school, so Peter put him in Sudbury, a radically democratic school where students are free to do what they choose. To answer his own doubts about it, Peter decided to study the school and surveyed the students who graduated from Sudbury.
  2. How could students who used no textbooks, no curriculum, who did not study in a systematic way get into college? Learning is thought to be progressive.  You need to do A before proceeding to B and C and if you don’t do it in the prescribed way, you fall behind.  Students from Sudbury show that this is not the case and it’s possible to attend college, even the elite ones without formal schooling.
  3. If they fell behind their college courses, they just caught up. They asked the professor what they had to read to catch up.  They took responsibility for their own education.
  4. Test taking is regarded as a kind of skill that needs to be practiced like there’s an art behind it, but it’s not.
  5. Why is studying in college more tolerable now when they couldn’t even tolerate formal schooling before? When they decided to go to college, it was their decision.  It was still a self-directed form of education.  Some wanted to pursue being a doctor and that requires going to college.  There are those who were drawn to a liberal arts education.
  6. They realized how refreshing it was to attend college and formal school for the first time. They never went to “school” in the traditional sense.  What was quite disappointing for them was the immaturity of their classmates who were not really interested in college but were only there because they were expected to be there.
  7. After university, they pursued careers that were also self-directed. They didn’t become assembly line workers. They were in charge of their own time and work.  Some started businesses while others pursued something that was almost in direct relationship to what they were playing at in their youth.
  8. For example, a boy flunked out of school at 13 and went to Sudbury where he developed a fascination for computers but there were no computers in Sudbury. He decided to find a way to convince companies to donate computers by saying that students would learn and buy their computers in the future.  He went on to make billions establishing a software company.
  9. A girl spent time making clothes for her doll and became a pattern maker in the fashion industry. A boy who liked building things from scrap became an inventor.  Not everyone’s career is connected with something they did in their childhood playtime but those who didn’t, attended college to find what it is they wanted to pursue.
  10. Peter then became interested in unschooling which he was skeptical of because in Sudbury, there were a lot of things going on with a number of students and staff. Unschoolers, on the other hand, are mostly only with their parents at home.
  11. For the survey on the Sudbury graduates, Peter was able to find most of them but for the survey of unschoolers, Peter only relied on an online invitation to get respondents. The people who answered the survey are most likely those who had attained some level of success in their life.  The survey may not show what is typical but it does show the potential of unschooling.
  12. Three people hated unschooling because their parents weren’t active in their education or were highly dysfunctional, but majority of the respondents were glad that they were unschooled and would choose to unschool their children or send them to an alternative school.
  13. The unschoolers who were surveyed went onto careers in the arts and creative fields but there was a percentage who ended up in STEM careers. Some built businesses around their art.
  14. A man who loved the woods led him into paragliding, photography and flying. He became an aerial photographer.  A woman who was fascinated by the circus as a girl founded her own circus company and then worked in tall ships to secure ropes up high.
  15. Peter asked unschooling parents what the hardest thing is about unschooling and it’s dealing with the judgements of other people – the grandparents who feel the parents are destroying their children’s future, the disapproving neighbors, relatives and friends. To undertake something like unschooling as a parent, you have to be very courageous and find your own support network to make you feel what you’re doing is not crazy at all.
  16. Defensive parenting is a term to describe what holds parents back like the fear of being criticized. Peter had that feeling himself.  There are some parents who believe in unschooling or in Sudbury school but do not have the courage to face the criticisms.
  17. Peter asked parents who followed his blog to answer a survey about their children learning to read. The range of age when they started reading is wide, from 3 to 13 and in the end it doesn’t matter what age they start because once they’ve caught up with one another, you can’t tell them apart.
  18. What’s important is they learn to read without any pressure so they don’t associate reading with pain. The primary thing is interest.  One child learned to read because her mother read Harry Potter to her but in a speed too slow for her and her mom would stop when she wanted to continue.  Because she was motivated, she worked harder to read herself.

These are from Friday’s Open Space session.  Peter Gray from U.S.A. is a research professor of psychology of Boston College and writes the popular “Freedom to Learn” blog in Psychology Today.  His introductory textbook, Psychology is the most commonly designated textbook in the Ivy Leagues.  Gray is frequently invited to speak on television as an expert on childhood development.  His works are also often cited in newspapers and magazines. (From the APDEC 2016 Program)


The drawing at the top of this blog entry was done by a boy whose parents attended the APDEC.  It was auctioned at the fund raiser for the conference which ran short of funds. These hand-made musical instruments were also made and auctioned off by a mother who was always carrying her one-month old baby to the sessions.