City Weekend

Former Hong Kong banker who opened Montessori schools in China hopes to inspire change in city

Eric Mak founded two branches of JJB International Montessori AMI Centre for children aged three months to four years old in Guangzhou in 2014

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 April, 2017, 11:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 February, 2018, 1:58pm

A former banker from Hong Kong who has founded two Montessori schools in mainland China hopes the innovative approach to education will further inspire educators in his home city.

Eric Mak founded two branches of JJB International Montessori AMI Centre for children aged three months to four years old in Guangzhou in 2014, where students are encouraged to embrace independent thinking.

The approach contrasts sharply with the traditional public school system in Hong Kong, where pupils are often subjected to a more regimented, examination-based education.

Mak, who attended public school in Hong Kong until form four before moving to Canada, said Hong Kong educators and parents needed to adopt a more “open mind” to education.

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“We introduce activities according to the children’s interests,” he said. “It is different to Hong Kong, in that schools often just give children a lot of maths and reading. My memory of high school is not that good — I felt I could expand more in Canada.

“In Montessori schools to an extent, the child can do whatever he wants — you have to give them more freedom. There is too much pressure on children in Hong Kong at the moment; some parents are too caring and they want to do everything for the child. They should have the chance to do it themselves.”

The Montessori approach to education was the brainchild of Italian educator Maria Montessori in the late 19th century. She outlined an education system which emphasised that children, particularly those aged under six, should be allowed to freely attempt certain educational tasks during their school day, in order to enhance their cognitive development.

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There are currently a handful of Montessori schools in Hong Kong, most notably the International Montessori School, which has four campuses in the city offering education for children aged two to 12.

Mak said he considered his centres, which are 60 per cent ethnic Chinese pupils and 40 per cent expatriate, to be “feeder schools” for international schools because they generally have a more flexible approach to education.

He quit his high-paid job in finance after 15 years to open his schools after becoming increasingly disillusioned to the corporate environment. He then used his savings to set up the two Montessori centres with his business partner.

“I wanted to do something that had more of a spiritual place in the world,” he said. “The first six years in a child’s life are very important. You can shape their character.”

Mak, who also wants to incorporate more elements of artificial intelligence technology into his schools, said he and his staff spend significant amounts of time teaching their pupils’ families about the benefits of the Montessori system.

“The whole landscape of education is changing right now,” he said. “We have to spend a lot of time educating the parents and grandparents. I think for a child, if you can combine a good character with a strong academic background, then you can succeed.”