M is for Montessori

It’s one thing to not know the name of Montessori. Most of the people we interact with, may not, and are none the worse for it. What is inexcusable, however, is when educators do not know Montessori. That is to say, they claim to be familiar with the philosophy of Montessori, and even to swear by it, but do not practice any part of it. The chasm between theoretical knowledge and hands-on practice that characterizes many projects in India yawns stupendously in the case of pre-school education.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was a notable educationist who started life as a medical doctor. She observed children and took on the project of developing a system of teaching for them, first with children with learning disabilities, then with non-disabled children. So successful was the system she developed that it was adopted by thousands of schools all over the world and became a brand name. She spent seven years in India, holding courses and lectures. The main points of her philosophy deserve days and weeks of study, but we can highlight a few. About children she had this to say:

Remember that people do not start at the age of twenty, at ten or at six, but at birth. In your efforts at solving problems, do not forget that children and young people make up a vast population, a population without rights which is being crucified on school-benches everywhere, which – for all that we talk about democracy, freedom and human rights – is enslaved by a school order, by intellectual rules, which we impose on it. We define the rules which are to be learnt, how they should be learnt and at what age. The child population is the only population without rights. The child is the neglected citizen. Think of this and fear the revenge of this populace. For it is his soul that we are suffocating. It is the lively powers of the mind that we are oppressing, powers which cannot be destroyed without killing the individual….

According to India’s New Educational Policy 2022 also, and according to us at Vidyashram—the Southpoint School in Varanasi from 1990, Pre-school or Early Childhood Education is crucial for the well-being of the individual. What the NEP does not spell out, but what we have been working on for thirty two years is precisely the How  of the work. How do we  apply the most popular and scientific of preschool philosophies, that of Montessori? The problems are huge.

At St Mary’s, one of the two old convent schools of Banaras, all the Montessori apparatus is securely packed up in shelves tucked away below eye level behind curtains. To my question, “Is Montessori not a suitable system for India then?” I am told, “It is very suitable. But the guardians have to be ready.”

This is the most circular argument of all. The school cannot improve and the teachers cannot be innovative because “the guardians” are not ready. This complaint ranges from “they will spit everywhere so we can never invite them to interact,” and “We can’t have child-sized furniture because guardians want full-size chairs and tables,” to “We can’t do more theatre because guardians want us to focus on the exams.” The argument is not only circular, it is in bad faith.

What Montessori proposed is disarmingly simple. Create a space for children where they can be free to pursue their own learning. Give them the right materials. Give them time. Give them the freedom to make mistakes, experiment, and learn. Make the spaces and materials like the real world. Make the spaces and materials aesthetic, that is, artistic and attractive in every way possible.  

There are certainly some beautiful schools with spaces like that. Old missionary and public schools, especially those in the mountains, are astounding in their beauty. But other schools that would like to be similarly good, such as Delhi Public School or Sunbeam or the many schools whose founders are ready to spend whatever is needed to do whatever is required in the name of excellence—all err in being “nouveau riche,” with air conditioners, smart classrooms, jacketed staff members, artificial plants and grass, surveillance, and commercial art.

And what of schools such as our own, the little model Vidyashram—the Southpoint School, with its small budget and large heart? The first thing we do is to have all the teachers on board with the Montessorian idea of childhood. Teachers go through some 100 hours of training in a year, and they learn, bless their hearts, about age-appropriate practices until they cannot forget it ever.

Second, we make our own materials that approximate Montessori equipment. Most of it is mathematical, language-related, housekeeping, or to do with the arts. Without going into details, we can share the report that laborious as it is, making pre-school materials is certainly possible.

And third, the most difficult of all, is to create an atmosphere of self-guided learning. In a good Montessori classroom, every child helps themselves to the equipment they need to learn their Maths, Languages, or Social Studies. Of course the teacher is present, ever available and watching. But it has to be seen to be believed how children can actually guide their own learning. I say it is “the most difficult” because the average adult just cannot let go of the idea imbibed via their own schooling that  a child, because small, is a lesser human being, and therefore must take in passively what is being poured into them by their superiors. Most adults in India also do not know how to make rules and then have them observed by themselves and others. While you can always have too much emphasis on discipline, Montessori argued persuasively on the basis of her research, from which she cites throughout, that children long for structure, enjoy clear rules, and are actually looking for order.

We can succeed if we have faith in Management. With the right management techniques, and the will, we can approximate the amazing vision of Montessori about the rights of children.


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