The modern idea of early education dates back to the early 1900s, when Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor and educator, developed techniques that differed sharply from the regimented and harsh schooling of the day. Based on her work with mentally handicapped children, she emphasized respect and understanding for each individual child and created practical equipment to help develop sensory perception and motor skills.
By the 1910s, the Montessori approach was popular worldwide, and remains so today. “In China, the reality is complicated; lots of places claim to be Montessori schools and charge high fees as a result, but very few of them are actually authorized Montessori schools with strictly-trained teachers,”an assistant teacher from one of the authorized Beijing Montessori Institutes, who asked to be quoted anonymously told NewsChina in late December, 2016.
The source said that under the Montessori principles, school should not focus on teaching “knowledge,” but rather on observing children’s inborn talents in a peaceful and undisturbed environment, “The first three years are vital to cultivate a sense of security and concentration in kids, so the most important thing is for parents to accompany their child,” the source added, “But most domestic chains don’t follow this rule, which hurts children’s development as a result.”
Mr. Jia, a teacher with Ms. Hong Montessori Academy in Beijing told our reporter in late December that the number of genuinely qualified teachers for Montessori programs in Beijing is very limited, thus it is hard for parents to discern the qualified candidates from a large pool of what claim to be “Montessori schools.”
Apart from concepts imported from other countries, “indigenous” early education theories have also emerged inside China. With a revival of guoxue, or “national studies” in China since the late 1990s, reading and memorizing Confucian texts and other Chinese classics has become a trend (“National Studies: Back to Our Roots,” NewsChina Volume No. 086.) Ironically, this took off at the same time as Montessori schools, which are strongly opposed to rote learning.
Meng Danmei, 46, a disciple of Taiwanese educator Wang Caigui, who advocated reading classics to children, started to introduce the method into early childhood education in 2007. She launched a new series of products called “Reading Classics to Babies,” which includes MP3 programs and speakers containing Chinese classics; the Gospel of Matthew read in English, French, German, Latin, Hebrew and Greek; English classics read in English; flashcards written with Chinese characters; and pictures of world-renowned paintings. In Meng’s theory, music, readings and vocabulary of these products can be broadcast to children at ages from zero to three or even to the mother’s wombs. Meng claims that this is more likely to make children become philosophers and scientists.
The whole set is priced at 16,800 yuan (US$2,420.) A Hong Kongbased mother of a two-year-old child complained to the reporter of the side effects of having her child exposed too early to the product. “I spent most of the time having my kid listen to those classics while ignoring daily communication with him, now he is two, but could not speak properly compared to his peers.” Evidence on the value of infants learning the classics is scant to non-existent, but psychologists and educators are almost unanimous on the importance of regular communication – including “baby talk” – between parents and children for brain development.
But Meng’s product, despite being criticized as dull and rigid, is a consumer hit. In mid-November, 2016, Meng Danmei held a publicity event at the Shandong University of Technology in Zibo to promote her theory to a hundred or so young parents. Meng said she was determined to expand the market in Shandong Province – the home of Confucius – this time. At the live show, our reporter noted that mothers seemed excited about and interested in her theory.
Feng Dequan, the founder of another well-known program, “Early Education Revolution” promoted the concept of developing children’s potential through learning Chinese characters at an early age. To attract parents’ attention, he emphasized the importance of a child’s first three years in neuroscience. Feng claims that kids can recognize 2,000 characters at the age of two and 3,000 by three if they followed his program.
The boom in early childhood education started a decade earlier in the US than China. Investigative journalist Susan Gregory Thomas wrote in her book Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds as early as 2007 that “today’s babies and toddlers spend more time in preschool or day care than they ever have in the past, either because their upper-middle-class parents worry about ‘socializing’ an only child or because both have jobs. [...] Peer pressure, a prime medium for marketing to children, starts earlier than ever.”
Sara Mead, an education policy expert who works for the US Bellwether Group, pointed out the fallacies of some theories in her research paper “Million Dollar Babies: Why Infants Can’t Be Hardwired for Success”: “While neural connections in babies’ brains grow rapidly in the early years, adults can’t make newborns smarter or more successful by having them listen to Beethoven or play with Einsteininspired blocks. Nor is there any neuroscience evidence that suggests that the earliest years are a singular window for growth that slams shut once children turn three.”