Pros and Cons of Unschooling in China

There’s unschooling.

And then there’s unschooling in China.

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In the city where I live, it is common to have upwards of 45 kids in one class. Children are not allowed to play outside for recess. They are only given a short break to use the bathroom. Lunchtime is spent at their desks where they sit through a movie or are expected to rest quietly with their heads on the table. Grades are posted publicly for all to see and compare. Teachers take pictures of misbehaving students and send it to the parent WeChat group in order to shame both child and parents.

Chinese schooling is pretty much the polar opposite unschooling.

Obviously, unschooling in a land that is known for its rigid education system and its ability to churn out “Little Soldiers” has its challenges.


  • Cultural pressure. Education is held in high esteem in Chinese culture. High grades and acceptance into prestigious universities are considered badges of success. As a parent, you’re viewed as naïve and irresponsible for not pushing your child to run the academic rat-race. There’s constant talk about competition and the need to give your kid an edge—whether it’s through badminton lessons, emcee classes, or English tutors.
  • Lack of nature. A lot of unschoolers post pictures of their children frolicking at the beach or strolling through a forest. But “learning through life” can be limited when you live in a concrete jungle of over 11 million people. The guards in our apartment complex yell at my kids if they climb the trees. They get shooed off the manicured grassy lawn if they dare to tread on it. We do not have a backyard to run around in, or a garden to plant our own flowers or vegetables. On top of that, the hazardous air pollution often makes outdoor activities less appealing.

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  • Lack of affordable resources. In the States, there are a lot of free or inexpensive resources—libraries, play areas, parks, community centers. Here, because resources are limited and parents are willing to fork over the money for their only child, many classes, clubs, and places of recreation are overpriced.
  • Lack of easy access to information. Without a virtual private network, you cannot access a host of internet resources that are considered a lifeline to the average American. Google, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are all banned. The availability of English reading materials and educational resources is also limited. We can’t subscribe to kids’ magazines, don’t watch English television programs, and probably miss out on a lot of opportunities and resources because we’re not native Chinese speakers.

Still, unschooling in China is not without its advantages.


  • Outsider identity. In China, I am an alien. Literally. I’m an alien living in a foreign country, and this identity offers me certain privileges. I am not required to abide by all the rules that apply to citizens, like a compulsory public education. I can opt out of the system. I’m already considered strange, so it’s more socially acceptable for me to do things outside the box. As an outsider, I’m less influenced by the stresses and pressures of the society around me. I feel no need to keep up with the Zhangs.
  • Chinese schooling as a contrast. The extreme nature of Chinese schooling actually makes the benefits of unschooling more obvious, not only to me but to other Chinese parents as well. Unlike in America where the problems of schooling can be downplayed and the positive aspects highlighted, here the harmful effects of the educational system are widely acknowledged. When set against this background, the need for a radical response like unschooling becomes more apparent. Even my local friends—who find unschooling too unconventional and risky for themselves—are sympathetic and supportive of my decision. They too can affirm the need for a more child-led and wholistic education.
  • Cross-cultural exposure: Some unschoolers are “world schoolers” who travel the world and learn through interaction with local people and contact with the local culture. Since we are Americans living in China, our learning environment is naturally cross-cultural and multi-lingual. We have a host of opportunities to become more globally-minded and socially adaptable.
K.K. and friends at Temple of Heaven


No matter what country you live in, unschooling can be challenging.

Wherever you live, you will likely face

societal pressures,

cultural opposition,

lack of support,

or limited resources.

But a difficult environment can also provide the very conditions needed for success.

If unschooling can be done in a country where the educational system and cultural values are in total conflict with it, I truly believe that unschooling can be done anywhere.

I can’t prove it yet.

But I’m willing to try.

What are some advantages and/or disadvantages of unschooling in your unique situation? Share in the comments below!






  1. Vanessa Gregoria

    November 4, 2017 at 12:54 am

    Really interesting post Iris! I knew China education system was very strict but I had no idea.

    1. Iris

      November 4, 2017 at 8:03 am

      Thanks for reading, Vanessa! My description of Chinese schooling is anecdotal, so it can look different from city to city, but I think it’s a fairly accurate depiction. What does school look like where you live?

  2. Jackie

    January 15, 2018 at 9:07 am

    Hi Vanessa,
    Are you in Beijing, too? I’m Jackie, I’m a mom blogger in Beijing. If you’re here too I’d love to connect! I’m writing a post on unschooling my daughter this semester and came across your blog! 🙂

    1. Iris

      January 15, 2018 at 2:17 pm

      So glad you found the blog! Email me at! I’d love to connect. Iris

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    January 16, 2018 at 9:06 am

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