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Taking a different approach to learning

DECADES ago, Judy Townsend, head of the Montessori School of Shanghai, benefited from the prestigious Montessori education in nurturing her own children, and now she is eager to provide the most authentic concepts and methods of this education possible here in Shanghai.

Townsend has been in Montessori education for more than 30 years as a teacher and as a head of school. Before she took up a career in children's education, she had many different jobs. But her first son's birth had a huge impact on her.

"I was then determined to make his years in school better than mine," Townsend says. "I was fortunate to discover Montessori education when he was two-and-a-half years old."

Created by Dr Maria Montessori, Montessori education is unique in having created a pedagogy more than 100 years ago that recognized then, as it still does today, the dual value of teachers and children contributing to the culture of learning in the classroom.

Compared with many other kinds of early childhood education in Shanghai, the Montessori approach is based on educating the "whole" child, not only the "math" child yet Montessori academics do provide children with outstanding opportunities to learn in math, science, language and other areas.

Townsend and her team teach children to be independent, to be caring, to be socially responsible, to be curious and creative, and to seek answers. They teach children to be stewards of the Earth, an idea that has been present in Montessori education for more than 100 years.

The school has many major events throughout the year. Since Montessori has always recognized the importance of the family, many of these events are family oriented.

"Parents are invited in to celebrate a child's birthday, do a presentation on the county they are from, help with the Chinese holidays," she adds. "We also celebrate holidays that are of cultural importance such as Christmas and Earth Day. Children learn at a young age that we are all the same, though we look different and have different beliefs and that people celebrate those in different ways."

Unlike many of today's children who are forced to learning not to lose at the starting line, the goal of Montessori education is to foster a child's natural inclination and impulse to learn.

When people look at an authentic Montessori classroom, all of the children are discovering, practicing or helping. The room is quiet. Townsend says that all the activities and lessons in the classroom cater for children of different ages.

For instance, a three-year-old will love the activities that involve transferring water or rice from one container to another. They will love discovering the way a paint brush moves on paper and the pictures that they can draw. The four-year-old will be fascinated by the binomial cube puzzle and the sounds the letters of the alphabet make. A five-year-old child will be moving from decoding English into fluency in reading and character recognition in Chinese, and will be doing addition and subtraction, only occasionally using the beautiful math materials to illuminate those math concepts.

A mother of two sons who are now 31 and 36 years old, Townsend says that she was so fortunate to have a world-class Montessori school in her hometown of Princeton, New Jersey in the United States. Both of her sons went through the school to the highest level available at that time.

"They have grown into considerate, generous, independent (both have their own businesses), smart people," she says proudly. "They are interested in new ideas and new people. They follow the rules and also have the ability to question and think for themselves. What I would like next for them is to have loving wives and children because I believe that those relationships are part of being fully human."

Today, many Chinese parents want their kids to excel and join the social elite in China. Over-parenting is common and some "Tiger Moms" even urge their children to spend almost all their time on study.

Townsend says that such parents confuse "loving" with "doing" for children.

"In fact children want to 'do it myself'," she explains. "They start telling parents that almost as soon as they can talk. Children want to be independent and capable."


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