Applying Montessori Principles in China: The Impact of Being a Situational Minority in a Particularistic Jewish Heritage School

From Section:
Formal Education
Feb. 03, 2019
February, 2019

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 85:1, 27-52


The aim of the research is to investigate a Montessori pedagogic approach, enabling a Jewish school to be part of the Chinese international-school system, while fostering Jewish identity. We conducted semistructured interviews with principals (2), teachers (8), parents (12), and students (10) and recorded class observations (8) over two visits. The analysis employed a grounded theory approach using a constant comparative method. The main result was that Montessori principles enabled the school to foster a strong particularistic Jewish identity for this situational minority while also developing a broad understanding of the host (Chinese) culture.

The aim of this research was to investigate how the Montessori philosophy and pedagogic approach enables the Jewish international school in Beijing to be part of the Chinese international-school system, while fostering the school’s particular heritage culture and language. As well, this research will investigate the interrelationship between the attitude of the Jewish minority group in Beijing to their particularistic heritage language, religion, and culture and the impact of the cosmopolitan local context on their attitudes of the Jewish minority group. Beijing’s Jewish population consists of transmigrants coming from both Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. They are part of the global economy and seek a universalistic education, while fostering their own heritage culture and language. We shall focus on a case study of one elementary International School in Beijing (Heritage International School), which is run by a Chabad ultra-Orthodox Jewish group according to Montessori principles to meet the challenge of this transnational context.

This study found that the nature and context of a transmigrant, situational minority strongly influences the philosophy of a school and creates challenges and tensions for the educators. To meet these challenges, the Chabad ultra-Orthodox management of the Heritage International School in Beijing chose to utilize a modern, innovative educational philosophy, the Montessori system, to preserve its heritage.

This is an innovative approach to dealing with the challenges not only of being an expatriate Jewish situational minority in Beijing but also a minority functioning within a postmodern society. The adoption of the Montessori philosophy involved the adaptation of all the Hebrew and Jewish studies. materials with positive features. It is a student-centered system that focuses on “joy,” “respect,” “freedom,” and “responsibility” and encourages individual and experiential learning (Colgan, 2016, Frierson, 2016a), emphasizing noncognitive (Rajan, 2017), as well as cognitive skills, especially with its stress on language learning. This also assists the school in dealing with its small numbers and changing composition. Montessori schools also strive to foster confidence and independence, which are important in assisting children to “think critically and act with moral courage” (Duckworth, 2006, p. 40), helping them to understand “the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves” (Freire, 1993, p. 80) with a holistic approach. As well, the Montessori system recognizes the importance of spirituality (Carnes, 2015) and its function for human happiness (Montessori, 1972); this principle is embedded in the Montessori curriculum. Through drawing on this approach, the International Heritage School not only seeks to develop a well-rounded child but also to promote children’s spirituality, helping them to connect to their Jewish heritage.

As revealed by our interviews and class observations, through integrating the Montessori approach into all elements of the school curriculum, this philosophy is successfully implemented. In addition, the school seeks to integrate the broader Chinese environment, developing a broad, international perspective, at the same time fostering a particular Jewish identity, despite the obvious tensions between these two goals. This study also demonstrated that by drawing on Maria Montessori’s philosophy, the school has managed to combine these two goals. Thus, the Montessori system can contribute to Jewish communities as situational minorities and can assist boutique Jewish schools in adjusting to different sociocultural milieus within the international arena.

Updated: Mar. 20, 2019
Elementary schools | Montessori | Multiculturalism | Research | Day schools