A Chat with a Montessori Educator: Vismaya Montessori House of Children

A chat with Mr Prem Kumar Aparanji - he himself is in a senior leadership role at Cognizant and his family runs a montessori school: Vismaya Montessori House of Children, Hosur (Tamil Nadu).

My wife runs our Vismaya Montessori House of Children (Hosur). And she trains others on the Montessori methodology. Indian Montessori Training Courses, started by Dr. Montessori herself are now run under the aegis of Indian Montessori Centre and are a 600 hours course that includes 150 hours of practical, and ~4 weeks of observations in a live enviornment. Writing files on almost the entirety of the course, written & practical exams, and a grand viva at the end, all contribute towards the awarding of the certificate that gives the adults the permission to work with children. They need to be spiritually ready too.

Montessori pedagogy is to provide the child what he needs, not what we think he needs, to be able to help himself and take care of himself, his environment and others around him. It is split as per the developmental stages of the child, roughly 0-6, 6-12, 12-18 years. Because the developmental needs at each stage is completely different. Since each child is unique, these ages are not set in stone. It is where the child is that's more important. 

Since the focus is on the learning of the child, which is basically building upon something that's innate and has to satisfy that urge, there is no set "curriculum" or "syllabus" either, but there are broad areas that are covered under each stage. In the preschool (less than 6 years) level you'll see: 
• sensorial (immerses the child in various sensory activities that help them learn concepts of shape & dimensions, colour & gradation, weight, taste, smell, rough/smooth, etc. A great opportunity to learn vocabulary too, and gain respect by being able to precisely describe)

• exercises of practical life (that uses things that are familiar to them in their homes and yet help them in developing their senses, gross & fine motor coordination, take care of themselves, their environment)

• social interactions (how to get attention of others politely, without interrupting adults in conversation or anybody deeply engrossed, how to cough/sneeze/wipe the nose, serve/offer anything—cut food, liquids, sharp objects, etc.) 

• language (this is a living subject, the child is immersed in new words in almost everything, right from materials specifically prepared for that to the other materials in the enviornment, the social interactions, everything gears the child for better communication. Reading/writing is phonetic and sensorial. You might have seen a few special instances of this used for children with sensorial and cognitive challenges in the movies Black & Taare Zameen Par. Caveat: even normal children learn much better using sensorial methods, the challenged children have specialised materials & methods built on top of this.) 

• mathematics (again this is given in a sensorial manner using materials designed scientifically by Dr. Montessori, and her ingenuity clearly shines through in these materials that bring an artificial & abstract concept to the hands of the child in a concrete form that makes it far easier for the child to understand the concept behind 7, rather than the mere shape of it, or any other number. They not only do addition, subtraction, multiplication & division of numbers up to thousands, but also do fractions. And geometry of solids in 3d & 2d, but again it is sensorial plus names, rather than definitions and formulae.) 

• geography, botany & zoology (part of the environment again, the outer one mostly, but indoor plants and terrariums are not unheard of in other houses of children. Again, names are introduced a lot here—leaf shapes, land forms, parts of body/animal/plant, lifecycle, weather, etc.) 

YouTube Video

What you cannot probably see in the "curriculum" that I shared, if that's even an apt term, what's learnt by the children—the subjects—are not really "taught" by teachers from a dias, with a blackboard and chalk, or even a projector and PPT slide deck, to highlight/illustrate. In fact, there is very minimal talking in the preschool enviornment while demonstrating, and even while working. The child learns by seeing how the adult does, many times from an older child working with a material they are interested in. Many of the materials have something called a "control of error" in it. It an aspect of the material that helps the child to know that something's gone wrong, and they keep trying again & again until they get it right. Imagine no child being chided on not getting it right, or the material being snatched away as the child is no good and is instead given to a "better deserving" child. And instead the child being allowed to repeat to their hearts fill. All while another child who might also want to work with that material has to respectfully and patiently wait until that material is put back in its proper place in the display area by the first child. You can all these aspects—freedom to repeat as many times as the child wishes, the control of error inherent in the material, and the joy of having "achieved" it—in the video above this paragraph.

Parents ... Have been a journey.
A very few know about the benefits that they have seen in children of their neighbours/relatives/friends/colleagues and come searching for us. A few know vaguely that Montessori is different/better somehow, not exactly sure how, for their child, whom they don't want to put through the wringer in traditional schools. Most think that it's just another playschool, and initially start comparing with other children who have learnt the alphabet till F, or the numbers till 5. (I'll need to explain what's called explosion into reading & writing later, to explain why it's something that should not be forced early on, and it'll come naturally after 4.5 years of age, as an emergent property, if the right learnings are happening) A few take their child away midway, after a year or two, because they want to secure a seat in a normal school. This is largest challenge. Helping the child stay on in the Montessori method for as long as possible. At least till six years of age, if not till 12. Even 9 is good. This is why I'm so hopeful of the new foundational stage for 3-8 years as per the draft NEP.

The Indian Montessori Centre has worked closely with the Chennai corporation schools, and then the Tamil Nadu govt schools to create the Activity Based Learning, which was then copied by Karnataka, and a few other states too. So there does seem to be an interest in this model of education in India. Hope to see it proliferate a lot more; at least till age 6 or so. 

Let us hope the new NEP makes it easier for such models to bloom.