Sat. Sep 24th, 2022

“To aid life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself, that is the basic task of the educator”. Maria Montessori.

It was a normal school class – noisy, a little chaotic. A few students paid attention to the teacher standing over them. But most of the kids pushed and shoved and screamed at each other. Two or three just stared off into space.

Next door, in the Montessori classroom, it was a different story. No pushing. No shoving. It was quiet and orderly. Children picked up materials and worked on their own, with minimal assistance from the specially-trained teacher. When finished, the kids put the materials back where they had found them. A four-year-old cut carrots by herself. The children exuded a quiet confidence and a natural eagerness to learn.

My encounter with the Montessori method of education grew out of an article on education that I wrote as part of my “Resurgent India” series a few years back. I was invited to visit the Sri Ramacharan Trust in Chennai, a local NGO that had introduced the Montessori method in Corporation schools in the region. When I visited a range of classrooms – some traditional, some Montessori – in a government school in Saidapet, I was truly amazed by the stark contrast.

The spirit behind this endeavor was a feisty lady – Mrs. Padmini Gopalan – and her colleagues. An inspiring leader, Mrs. Gopalan took it upon herself to convince the government to allow her to try this experiment. She claimed existing classrooms, installed her own Montessori-trained teachers and assistants, and began running classes in a whole new way. Under her able leadership, the Trust now runs almost 20 Montessori programs in schools and Balwadis in Chennai.

Having studied different education models over the last eight months, my wife Girija and I are yet to find a better system than the Montessori method. I have devoted the last month reading up on Montessori methods. The more I learn, the more I am amazed by the depth of insight that Maria Montessori has generated in the area of children’s education.

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A medical doctor by training, she first applied scientific learning principles to the education of disabled and mentally challenged children in her native Italy. She found that she could get these children to be on par with normal children in their reading and writing abilities within a few years. That set her thinking about how normal children could do much better, too.

Montessori tried to get the government to apply her scientific education principles in public elementary schools. Not surprisingly, the governing bodies in Rome would not give her access to these schools. Montessori, however, got the opportunity to set up a day- care center and school in a poorer district in Rome, where the parents were quite happy to have their pre-school children taken care of during the day. This allowed her to experiment with all aspects of the education system, starting with the classroom design and the furniture. She spent the close to 50 years defining and refining the Montessori method – a dedication and commitment that is difficult to find in any other system.

We can see the philosophical essence of the Montessori method in one particular story. In a public park in Rome, Maria saw a baby of about a year and a half, a beautiful smiling child, trying to fill a little pail by shoveling gravel into it. There was a smart and loving nurse next to him. Since it was time to go home, the nurse was exhorting the child to finish his work. When that had no impact, she herself filled the pail with gravel and set the pail and the baby into the carriage with the fixed conviction that she had given the child what he wanted.

Maria was struck by the loud cries from the child and by his expression of on his little face. She realized that the little boy didn’t want the pail of gravel; he wanted to fill it himself. It was part of his self-development. This is what happens to children all their lives, Maria thought. They are not understood because adults judge them by their own adult measures; and the adult, trying to help, lovingly helps him do this; but the child normally is looking for the learning opportunity and not the object itself.

I am puzzled why the Montessori method, the most scientific system of education that mankind has developed, remains largely ignored. With its ability to handle large class sizes and mixed-age classrooms, this system seem ideally suited for the Indian context. Please share your own insights of why the Montessori system has not found more widespread appeal.

By rahul