Students play frisbee at Curionesty School in Chengdu, Sichuan province. (Zhang Shiwen for China Daily)
When Zhang Xiaodai was an A-grade student at a junior high school in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, she found her studies dull. She wondered why her PE teacher was often sick but her math teacher was not, which meant almost every PE class was replaced by math.
"School was no fun at all. My life was crammed with endless memorization, drills and tests," the 14-year-old student said.
People are biased against playing. But children learn about the world by playing
founder of the Curionesty School
The only relief came in the form of weekend and vacation fun programs run by Chi Xiao, an independent education professional. At one egg-themed summer camp, Zhang visited chicken coops, made pancakes and wrote poems about eggs.
Zhang loved this method of learning so much that she became the first student at the Curionesty School, which Chi opened last year. "The students and teachers are like friends," she said.
In just six months, nine students enrolled at the single-classroom school, half of them from cities around China.
Learning through play
Chi recalled that as a college student he sympathized with middle school students who were burdened with endless homework and tests.
He was not a good student by traditional standards; he spent his time in high school writing poetry, talking about love and playing video games.
"People are biased against playing. But children learn about the world by playing. Through playing video games, I learned to respond quickly and think logically," said Chi, a critic of standardized test-oriented education.
Chi Xiao is an independent education professional and the founder of Curionesty School in Chengdu, Sichuan province. (Photo by Zhang Shiwen)
His own educational philosophy - that study should be fun and meaningful - is given full reign in his "micro school". Curionesty has no fixed teaching philosophy or curriculum, because every teacher has a specialty and they see themselves as facilitators, not lecturers.
"We aim to cultivate students, ages 12 to 18, to become lifelong learners, not experts on tests," Chi said.
Each semester is divided into 20 weeks, with two or three weeks of project-based learning and themed study tours.
Subjects such as English, drama, geography, economics and crafts are compulsory, while other topics are elective and based on the students' interests. The classes take full advantage of online resources, such as courses run by the Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization founded about 10 years ago by educator Salman Khan.
One project required the students to build a stove from mud and bricks in seven days, and then cook food in it.
The children sketched plans and worked together to build the stove. When it was finished, they baked pizzas and cooked chicken wings.
"The students tapped their potential and proved they can become anything, from architects to cooks to pizzeria owners," Chi said.
Children build a stove of mud and bricks for a school project. (Photo provided to China Daily)
Since joining Curionesty, Zhang has been happier and now feels education is more purposeful: "I got my hands dirty during the stove project, but I liked it. I can't imagine doing such exciting things at my old public school.
She is one of a fast-growing number of children whose parents are turning their backs on the State-run education system, which critics claim focuses on learning by rote and limits critical thinking.
Ding Ying, Zhang's mother, moved her family from Anhui province to Chengdu more than a decade ago just so her daughter could attend a Waldorf kindergarten.
"She was so overwhelmed by tests and often complained that school was a bore and torture," said Ding, in response to critics who don't understand why a top student would leave a public school.
"At Curionesty, she is writing a detective story. Last month, she composed a song."
According to a report released this year by iResearch, a consultancy in Beijing, more than 95 percent of middle-class parents want their children to receive personalized education.
Curionesty and other micro schools illustrate the growing interest in alternative options.
While many well-educated, affluent parents who remove their children from State education are themselves beneficiaries of that system, they also see its drawbacks clearly.
"The gaokao (China's national entrance exam) is not the only way for children to study. If opting for a public school simply means long preparation for a final test and individuality is suffocated, why should we bother?" Ding said.
Unlike High Tech High, a project-based school in San Diego that allows students to take the SAT and attend college, Curionesty has no academic accreditation from the government. That means its students cannot sit the gaokao.
While Chi regards his education model as a work in progress and full of uncertainty, 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 make them eager to learn and create value for society with their skills and independent thinking," he said.
Before a student enrolls at Curionesty, Chi's team has a detailed discussion with their parents. The school offers three pathways for students: apply to universities overseas; start a business; or get a job.
"If they feel like entering the State system midway through their education, we will respect that," Chi said.
Curionesty provides students with startup classes to make them financially independent by the time they turn 18, and also works with businesses to provide placements for its graduates.
With fees of about 60,000 yuan (US$8,700) a year, Curionesty is run on a shoestring. Chi said the school plans further investment in an IT system to promote collaboration between teachers and further boost communication between teachers and students.
The exact number of micro schools in China is not known because no institution tracks them, but they are known to operate in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Shenzhen and Guangzhou in Guangdong province.
With more micro schools springing up, innovation in education is starting from the bottom up, and personalized education needs to be further explored, according to Wang Feng, an expert on reform of the education system at the Education and Development Research Center of the Ministry of Education.
Zhang believes her future is now limitless: "I'm thinking of going overseas to study in the future. Or maybe I'll quit and start my own business. That sounds exciting. Anyway, I enjoy every second of my time at Curionesty."