August 31 marks the birth anniversary of Maria Montessori, whose name of course is synonymous with the education system all of us wish our children to undergo. But even if she had not pioneered this revolutionary system of education, Ms. Montessori would still be in annals of history as a path-breaker. In 1883-84, at the age of 13, she enrolled in classes at an all-boys technical school. Not only did she choose technical subjects, but she did it with the hope of becoming an engineer, an almost unheard of choice for a girl. By the time she graduated in 1890, she had changed her mind and decided to become a doctor instead. This was not an easier choice though! She was strongly discouraged from taking up medicine in the University of Rome. So she enrolled for a degree in natural sciences, earning her diploma di licenza in 1892. This along with her studies in Italian and Latin, qualified her for entrance into the medical program at the University in 1893. This was only the first step though. She was met with hostility and harassment from students and professors. Her attending classes with men in the presence of a naked body was considered inappropriate, and she was required to perform her cadaver dissections alone, after college hours. Nothing deterred her, and she graduated from the University of Rome in 1896. The mores of the times also brought unhappiness in her personal life. She loved a colleague, Giuseppe Montesano, and even had a son with him. But she could not marry him because if she married, she would have to give up her professional work.
She specialized in pediatrics and was involved in the education of mentally challenged children. In 1906, she was invited to set up a childcare centre in San Lorenzo , a poor, inner-city district of Rome, working with the most disadvantaged children of the area, who had no previous exposure to school. She called the center the Casa dei Bambini—Italian for “Children’s House. It was a quality educational environment for youngsters whom many had thought were unable to learn. About 50-60 children were enrolled to being with, and the building porter’s daughter was the first teacher, under Dr. Montessori’s guidance.
The school showed amazing results. Soon the children exhibited great interest in working with puzzles, learning to prepare meals and clean their environment, were calm, orderly, self-regulating, and engaging in hands-on learning experiences—essentially teaching themselves.
Montessori’s experiments began to be widely studied and replicated, not only in Italy but across the world, till today it is a household name. India too has a long history of Montessori education, going back to the 1920s.
This system of education is undoubtedly what is needed for our young children today. Every Anganwadi and primary school should be a Montessori school. Considering that the whole experiment began with the aim of catering to under-privileged children who were first generation learners, and with a not very educated daughter of a building porter as the teacher, it is the most obvious model for adoption.
But alas somewhere, this system of education has become identified with exclusive schools for the children of the rich and famous. The fees are out of reach of even the middle class.
Is it that we have, in the pursuit of the letter of Montessori’s methods, completely missed the spirit, and have become inflexible and unable to adapt to make it workable at low cost?
At a time with the new National Education Policy has recognized the importance of education for ages below 5 for the first time, it is time for introspection, creativity and a re-think on how this pedagogy can be the basis of learning in every educational institution.