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Thursday, February 16, 2012

We never went to Montessori. Why should our children go?

I met Himanshu, a software engineer of 35, in one of the seminars of 'Trends in World Education'. He challenged me by asking one very pertinent question "We never went to Montessori pre-school, why do our children need to go to Montessori'.

One liner answer to this question can be given in our former president APJ  Kalam's words 'It takes a village to develop a child'. And because village today is unavailable to our children like it was for our fathers, we need school to compensate for it. Let me explain.

In earlier days, a school was meant to 'learn' subjects of language, science or mathematics while the social environment of 'the village' was meant to 'develop' us. The social environment provided by the town or the village (we lived) provided us an ideal environment to 'develop', while the schools provided the 'learning' environment to learn. Both learning and development environments complemented each other to develop us into a complete human being. Our needs of development & learning were met by different agencies: society and school. Today the balance between learning and development has become skewed due to the social changes around us.

In earlier days social environment provided us with all the opportunities to develop. If we lived in Joint family, we had alternate adult role models to look upto, cousin brothers and sisters to interact. Even when we had no joint families, the towns in which we lived were not 'sanitised'. We became part of the society through the live experience of engaging in religious festivals, marriages, and multitude of ceremonies that happened every fortnight. We engaged with the real-world shopkeepers, electricians, plumbers and cobblers who 'performed' different work than our fathers. We engaged in charity when our parents cooked for maids and students who depended on the urban relatives to further their education. We engaged in arts when singers sang Bhajans in the temple and dancers entertained us in Ganpati, Durga or Christmas. And , because we had no TV to tie our attention, we had enough time to engage our hands with real materials like mud, water and other artifacts. In other words, our social environment provided us all the opportunities to develop us.

Today schools have improved their learning environment ( at least in many private schools), but the 'social environment' has got worsened. Families have become nuclear; due to which our parents are our only 'role models' to relate with the outside world. As most of the parents restrict to single-child family due to economic reasons, the siblings also do not exist to increase the diversity in our social interactions. The society we live also has become 'walmartised' where human relations have become transactional; we are not even aware that a shopkeeper's son also comes to our school. Reduction in religious festivals and social gatherings have further reduced the interaction with people. TV has further encouraged passive engagement creating an illusion of 'knowing without engaging'. Internet has fuelled this passive engagement by confusing data with information. In short, social  environment has worsened: it has sharply reduced diversity of options available for us to develop ourselves.

Because of these adverse changes in the social environment, we need something extra from the today's schools. Today we need schools to provide development environment to our children that the social environment is unable to offer. It has almost become imperative that we need development centric schools in contrast to learning-centric schools.

Development-centric schools like Montessori cannot substitute the full variety of social environment, but it can, for instance, simulate appropriate 'social atmosphere' to present difficult challenges for a child. A right school can provide ample chances to face conflicts with others, confront diverse views from ours, and show a sample window of social and economic realities around us. This will help our children develop several necessary qualities like patience, appreciate the distinction between effort and results, increased attention-span to concentrate on a desired activity and hone judgement to trust the right friends.

When I told this to Himanshu, he agreed with the basic proposition; but he asked me a very interesting question " If a small village ( near Bangalore) provides a better development environment than Bangalore, why does a village school child finds it difficult to compete with urban school children of Bangalore".

To compete with urban child, village schools must provide better learning environments. Development alone is not enough to make us better human beings; learning is equally important. What are the requisites of a good learning environment? How does one judge that? Old style of learning environment is not helping them; they need to do something different and better. Is it a matter of getting good teachers? or getting computer technology?

We shall discuss about the 'nature of learning environment' in our next blog.

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