Why Montessori?14 Sep 2011
Order and discipline” said my old school teacher to my parents at one parent’s evening. “What children need is order and discipline”. He went on to list the benefits of structure and rigid lesson plans directly instilled by a teacher whose primary goal was academic excellence in their charges.
Sounds good, right? Who wouldn’t want their child to be academically successful, to be disciplined and learn respect for their elders? So why does Montessori education—a much more touchyfeely experience with less structure and buzzwords like “prepared environments”, “planes of development” and “sensation zones” attached to it—prove so popular with parents, particularly those here in Malaysia?
The vast majority of preschools in Malaysia operate under the founding principles of Dr Maria Montessori. That is to say they follow the “inner guidance” of the child for “self-directed learning”. With language such as this, it is unsurprising that parents often sign up for Montessori schools without any real understanding of the logic and philosophy behind it.
“Yes, to be honest, most of what the nursery told us about Montessori learning sailed right over our heads!” jokes Dominica Harmon, whose daughter Jessica is currently in her second year at a Montessori preschool in Ampang.
“We spoke to friends and they fell into two categories: one who felt that their children shouldn’t just be allowed to ‘do what they want’ and the others who actually had their children at Montessori schools and loved it. It seemed to us that the ‘bad press’ around Montessori education was undeserved.” Dominica explains that over time she has changed her view slightly. “In hindsight I’ve seen from friends that Montessori doesn’t work for every child but also that the approach of the teachers and care from the school we use is first rate. Jessica has thrived and is an intelligent, smart little girl with much better social skills than I had at her age!” However, as Dominica points out, not every parent is as enthusiastic.
One Canadian mother now living in Petaling Jaya, who wished to remain anonymous, is in the process of taking her four-years-old son out of his Montessori classes and home-schooling him until he is old enough to attend an international school.
“It’s nothing against the teachers or the principal but (my son) can’t be left to educate himself. He needs more structure than he is getting at the moment. I see a lot of happy children at his school and we’ve made some good friends but academically, he isn’t achieving anything.
“I don’t believe you can learn in that environment. Which kid wants to do work? You can see it in his art. The paintings (my son) does are not to the standard I would expect and yet the school doesn’t give him help to get better. I also don’t like that they teach the children the alphabet phonetically. It’s patronising. They call the teachers ‘Aunties’; it’s cute but maybe too cute, if you know what I mean.
”Speaking to the school that her son attends (who also wished to remain anonymous), their Principal is disappointed but not altogether surprised by the comments.
“We don’t often have children leave the school but parents have to choose what is right for them. We have a wonderful family atmosphere at the school and you only have to talk to our other parents to see how children flourish with us. We are in close contact with several international schools who remark that students who ‘graduate’ from (our school) to them are among their brightest and most motivated.”
Explaining exactly what a Montessori approach entails, she continues, “We aim to provide for the holistic growth of the child. Our purpose is to stimulate the child through an exciting, safe environment. We see children every day who are learning because they want to learn. At that age, most girls and boys are into play so we look at how we can build learning experiences around their play. We keep things creative so painting, drawing, colouring, crafts, games, etc are used… and the children love it!”
The trick here, according to this Principal, is to develop a positive attitude to learning. By enjoying lessons, which she maintains is harder under “old fashioned”, didactic methods of learning, the children “pay attention, work harder and take more pride in the work they produce.” It is hard to argue with such logic.
Returning to the subject of teachers as this is the area that most parents are concerned with, especially at such a formative age, Montessori learning places a very different emphasis on teachers than more traditional schools. Here, a teacher is trained less on how to impart specific nuggets of knowledge and more how to identify the nature of the child in their care and establish what their key interests are. From there, the teacher is then expected to deliver an “environment” rather than a teaching plan. This environment can consist of games, crafts, tools and toys that will engage and help children to expand their minds, encouraging creativity and creating a rounded individual with good social skills.
Self-confidence is an essential component of the Montessori philosophy and the work of the teachers is very much geared towards building this in their students. Meanwhile, contrary to conventional appreciation of Montessori teaching as encouraging children to “do what they want”, it actually requires a strong level of engagement and concentration.
Only by proper participation can children cultivate their imaginations, breed initiative, and grow their sense of curiosity. You could sum up the Montessori approach as trying to encourage children to “learn to learn” in a way that suits them.
The rhetoric may not be what parents are used to but the proof is in the production line. There are literally tens of thousands of Montessori schools around the world, caring for millions of children. It is one of the pre-eminent forms of preschool education in the world, especially in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, India, Japan and also now in Asia.
In order to dispel the myth that Montessori is an approach to be feared or sceptical about, parents need to understand that this is no franchise. One Montessori school can often be very different from the next. Their founding principles may be similar but such is the commitment to building their school around the child that their teachers and lessons can have entirely alternative directions. Many conduct frequent reviews to ensure they stick faithfully to the original vision of Dr Maria Montessori; such is their desire to put the children first and remain flexible.
Fittingly for a methodology that focuses on pragmatism over dogma, Montessori learning has had a profound influence far beyond the four walls of its schools. State and religious schools have also embraced elements of Dr Montessori’s ideology: bright, vibrant and modern classrooms; a move away from the impersonality of textbook-led lessons; a more empathetic approach to students’ progression and the fact that children are allowed to learn in different ways and at their own pace. Under Montessori the child moves forward and progresses when they are ready. Which is why so many parents report that their son or daughter is happier under this type of learning.
When it comes down to it,parents may not appreciate the fuzzy language or the touchyfeely approach. But there’s one thing they understand all too well: a smile on the face of their child. And that’s why Montessori is thriving in Malaysia and beyond.
Click here for a list of preschools