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Nothing is as vital as the right learning during the formative years. Here's a weekly series to help you choose the right 'school of thought' for your child. We begin with the Montessori way.
My nearly-three-year-old-daughter, Maya, has just started going to a Montessori school. On her first day at school, as I watched, Maya began to explore the space. She spotted butterflies in the garden and was fascinated by the little fish pond. She then discovered a child-sized wash basin and her joy knew no bounds. She went straight up, asked me to stay away and began to wash her hands. When her facilitator called out in a calm, confident and loving tone, "Hi Maya, shall we go inside and do some work?", she happily went inside the classroom without even looking back. Thus began my little girl's world of independence.
As Maya returns home every day from school, her grandparents ask her, "What did they teach you today?" She simply dances around and tells them, "I was working". Intrigued by this, my father-in-law asked me with genuine interest, "What do they actually teach her there?"
I recalled a favourite quote, "A child learns best by play. And a child's play is work to her". I told him what Montessori does. That it respects the nature of children and facilitates learning in a joyful, rewarding manner. And in the process, it focuses on a child's overall development - physical, social, emotional and cognitive. Curious to learn more? Read on.
The Montessori environment
The brainchild of the acclaimed Italian educator, Maria Montessori, this method is all about children learning in the most natural manner. Classrooms are called environments in Montessori. The teachers take great care to 'prepare the environment', keeping in mind the age and interests of children. Each environment has different areas for different subjects or concepts - Maths, literacy, practical life, culture, art, etc. During a school visit, I observe the Montessori environment. Inside a room abundantly blessed with natural light, there are low-lying shelves along the sides of the walls. Beautiful learning material is carefully arranged on the shelves. There is a basket with mats in a corner of the classroom.
Unlike conventional schools, each Montessori classroom or environment has children of mixed age groups learning together, and from each other. While the younger child learns from her older peer, the latter's knowledge is strengthened by teaching. Each school has its own way of dividing its children. Commonly, children of two-and-a-half to six years of age fall under primary and six to 12 years fall under elementary environments.
Based on the numbers, the children may be split into various groups or sections within these environments. Most Montessori schools in India are for primary children alone. Such schools either function purely as a preschool or have children between the age group of two-and-a-half to six years or up to 12 years. The schools that continue beyond class 6 (12 years) will have higher secondary (for classes 7 to 10) and senior secondary (for classes 11 and 12) environments.
Teaching and learning method
The Montessori method is all about learning through experience. Here, a child is a learner and the adult (teacher) is a facilitator or guide. "We don't want the child to feel the weight of our help. We show the child how (to do something) and leave him with the materials. Learning is done by the child," says Uma Shanker, Director of Indian Montessori Training Courses (IMTC), Chennai.
Children in Montessori classrooms learn using their senses. For instance, they don't start off writing numbers; instead they learn to count using pulses and beads. They learn place values and multiplication using unique materials that familiarise them with the concept of numbers. Although Montessori schools that have classes beyond primary subscribe to one of the recognised boards (CBSE, ICSE, etc.), their method of education will be based on experiential learning. For instance, you will see a seven-year-old filling up water in a mug and placing it under the sun to understand evaporation. This will be a part of his classroom routine and not a separate 'lab' period!
Beautifully crafted material fill the Montessori environment and make it look inviting. These vary from wooden blocks, cylindrical cubes, sandpaper letters, moveable alphabets, coloured charts, puzzles of animal life cycles and maps, textured fabric, bottles filled with coloured liquids and much more. There is a variation in size, texture and purpose. Each material teaches the child one particular concept at one time.
The learning material is designed to naturally control errors i.e., a child will know if he has done it right. Montessori material may look like child's play, but they are built to teach numerous concepts. For instance, Math beads can be used to convert even abstract concepts like decimals into concrete forms. Similarly, each material can grow with the child as it has multiple levels. It can also be used for different purposes including stacking, arranging in order, understanding difference in size, colour, sound or it can be used for counting numbers.
Inside a Montessori environment, you may find a three-year-old wiping his table or cutting an apple and another four-year-old gardening. Children also have cookery, carpentry and fabric dyeing workshops and classes. In all of these, the facilitator shows or introduces a concept to the child, who, in turn, learns through experience. Older children serve food for the younger ones, they clean their own plates and tidy up their space.
A Montessori child can choose what she'd like to do every day. The facilitator decides the agenda at the beginning, but practising or exploring it is up to the child. For instance, within the same environment, there will be several material or inviting activities for individuals and groups. Children have the freedom to pick their work and carry on within the quiet and calm of their space.
Everything in a classroom, right from the shelf sizes to the learning material, is designed to serve the child. The approach of education considers that each child develops at a different pace. So, a child is allowed to work with a material for as long as she likes and until she masters it. Montessori also understands a young child's need for movement. She is not required to be in the same spot. If a child feels like moving, going out and playing, she can. If she wants to watch the fish or water the garden, that's allowed too.
"This environment is full of freedom, which comes with its own rules. A child can move around, but cannot step on a mat or dance and distract the class. He cannot grab a material that is being used by another child. Children learn not to disturb and not be disturbed. They can work with a material of their choice, but it must have been introduced to them by the teacher. If a three-year-old wants to do Maths, a four-year-old tells him that he needs to grow a little older for that. Sometimes, the younger child sits adoringly and watches the older child." adds Uma.
Children do learn the various subjects that are taught in mainstream schools. However, they learn it in correlation with their application in real life. Here, learning involves field-trips, hands-on opportunities, discussions and debates that help children receive deeper understanding. Children also perform activities that teach them mindfulness
Most authentic Montessori schools have long a uninterrupted work cycle of about three hours. This allows the child to get deeper into what she is learning. Instead of snapping the child from a 30-min Maths session to quickly start off with an intense Science class, the teacher weaves in different subjects within the three hours.
In Montessori, you will see children using knives, glass bottles and porcelain plates. It might shock you as a parent, but you'll be amazed at how confidently and carefully your child uses them. This is because Montessori teachers handle materials with respect and care. The children obviously sense this and take after their teachers. Children have activities that teach them mindfulness. You'll see four-year-olds walking along a circle on the ground with a cup filled with water in their hands - not spilling the water, not stepping out of the line!
Expert Speak: Anantha Padmanabha, Executive Director, IMTC, Bengaluru, addresses major concerns parents have.
Most Montessori schools are only for primary school children. Will my child not have difficulty transitioning to other streams?
Authentic Montessori schools offer transition sessions to help the child get used to the rules that a conventional school follows (rules like raise your hands before speaking or sitting in one place through the class and listening, to name a few). Besides, we are all blessed with the innate skill of adaptability, so children naturally adapt. When it comes to knowledge, Montessori children are far ahead. A first standard child at Montessori can not only do addition and subtraction, but also multiplication and division. Same goes with language or any other skill.
How will the child be assessed if there are no exams? Will he be able to write competitive exams in the future?
Montessori education has more assessments than the conventional methods. The adult (teacher) assesses every child every day to understand where they stand with regards to several aspects including physical, intellectual, linguistic, botanical, zoological, mathematical, social and emotional development. All these have different parameters. In fact, every learning session for a Montessori child happens only when he has conquered what he needs to conquer previously. There is no teaching en masse. If I'm teaching addition today, he must know what numbers are and what the decimal system is. So, I do that assessment every day to know the child and his progress.
Will the child be able give competitive exams?
Of course, yes. From birth to six years of age is when a child forms his blueprint for the rest of his life. That's when a child develops competence or realises his capacity as a human being. At Montessori, we tap this potential. Here, a child learns to be calm, confident, and is keen to explore and understand. He will master skills he is exposed to and strives to give his best irrespective of rewards (marks) or failure. I believe competence is more important than competition. So, ask yourself what you want for your child. What is the educational outcome you are expecting. We at Montessori don't promise to give you state toppers (although we may), but promise to help your child develop into a complete human being who is aware of himself and his potential.
If you believe Montessori education will do your child a world of good, why not visit a nearby Montessori school and ask for a walk-in. After all, the right learning environment is essential to bring out the best in your child.