By Hutokshi Rustomfram
The term ‘Montessori’ conjures up images of ‘kiddie’ work: nursery rhymes, clay modeling and A-B-C-D. This could not be further from reality. The Montessori approach is simple: the child occupies centre-stage. S/He is not taught but aided by a prepared environment and an unobtrusive trained adult who offers different activities as the child demonstrates her/his readiness to move from one stage to the next.
The Montessori Method demands a fierce dedication from the adult who continues the process of self-education long after the initial training is complete. But, it has its immense rewards as the adult observes each child flowering into a bright and curious explorer eager to scale the next peak in his/her development. Says Zarin Malva from her 30-plus years in the field, “The Montessori method has been evolved after years of experience and its reliance on the prepared environment is its immense strength.”
In the present day scenario where toddlers are forced to write long before their little fingers are meant to hold a pencil are mouth inane rhymes and the letters to the alphabet, the Montessori approach to the child is perhaps alone, sane voice in the chaos. Here the child works at his/her own pace choosing from a variety of activities with a trained adult ready at hand to give that little input of encouragement and guidance that helps the child to achieve. The method rests on the principle of voluntary repetition leading to concentration and ultimately to normalization.
Enter a Montessori environment and you will witness a group of children between ages of two and a half to six performing an amazing variety of tasks. Some you will find working in groups, some singly, yet others will be helping a younger child to excel. A two year old may be matching color tablets and four year old may be grading fabrics, a five year old making sentence on the mat with the moveable alphabet; a group of five children with trays and beads may be engrossed in a division exercise. As the child moves from the concrete to the abstract neither language nor math depend on learning by rote. Each endeavor occurs through a planned process where the child actually physically handles a quantity (say a cube of a thousand beads) before abstracting to the number and then dealing independently with that abstraction.
Apart from the sheer variety of activities you may see, one fact never escapes the most unpracticed eye; the atmosphere of competition is conspicuously absent. The method rests on the dictum of co-operation where the younger child in a mixed age group is eager and ready to learn from a slightly older one who is in turn eager to reinforce his/her knowledge by aiding the younger child. This is no by-product of the system, it is integral to it.
Co-operation and a congenial atmosphere is one aspect, a low noise level is another. Since there is no desk-chair person, no lack board, no teacher’s desk and certainly no teacher’s rod, there is no teacher’s yelling to make herself heard. Sounds too good to be true? It is and it works.
So where is the hitch? Why isn’t the Indian landscape dotted with Montessori environments? Why is mass education not done the Montessori way? There isn’t enough awareness of the method, there is a deluge of mis-information and let’s face it, there aren’t enough trained adults. And finally, the pressure on space in most Indian cities ensures that children are packed into tiny class rooms and taught in masses; never mind if they have to carry the equivalent of their body weight on their shoulders and as much heavier mental and emotional burden of meeting targets unsuited to their bodies and minds thereby nurturing a distaste and fear for anything connected with learning and academics. Not only has the present educational system driven youngsters to suicide and trauma, it has also put an unbearable strain on the parent-child relationship with each evening devoted to goading the child to complete homework or prepare for the omniscient test.
Education is best imparted in the child’s own language. Maria Montessori was an ardent educationist whose method has been adapted to a variety of languages the world over. Enthusiastic Montessorians in India like Mr. Joosten and Mr. Swamy who carried on the Montessori tradition after Ms. Montessori’s departure from India have accepted the program into Hindi and Telugu. The moveable alphabet and its numerous exercises work beautifully in Indian languages which are phonetic and therefore simpler in structure. There is a very strong case for adopting a universal system, for our very own needs at the pre-primary level in our villages and towns in the regional language. It needs very little input, that is, once the trained adult is in place to set up the basic environment and begin. As in many fields of so-called ‘development’ issues, the know-how is right there waiting to be used. The infrastructure is no big deal, it can be set up in a matter of weeks. The will and awareness seem lacking.
A few months into the program., parents notice a small transformation in their children who are eager to explore their immediate environment with a sense of quiet purpose, who actually take work off their hands at home and display a sense of self-assurance and independence.