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The gift of Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori  

As I write about one of the greatest educators of our times, Maria Montessori, my first question to myself is: “Why is a Waldorf teacher writing about Montessori”. Then I ask myself - why not? I think the first question comes from my conventional education and dogmatic beliefs. The second - from my unlearning over the years and becoming a free human being. To belong in one ideology or school of thought does not mean you can not see beauty in the other. So here is a Waldorf teacher from a completely different tradition, writing about Maria Montessori, not as a Montessorian but as someone deeply interested in learning how different educators used different lenses to view children and in doing so, how each one had a gift to give to them.

In early 1900, there existed in Rome a slum known as the San Lorenzo Quarter. Two buildings there housed the poorest class. During the day, the adults living at San Lorenzo would go off to work, the older children would be sent to school and the younger children between the ages of three and six began to vandalise the buildings, with no one to care for them. The governing body decided it would be less expensive to set aside one room for these kids and an adult as a caregiver than to continue to repair and repaint the whole building being damaged by these children. And, as history would have it, that caregiver was Dr. Maria Montessori. It was here in this Roman slum with those 60 children where she made discoveries that would direct her life’s work.

The news of her unprecedented success in Casa Dei Bambini or House of Children in San Lorenzo soon spread. Soon, Montessori was invited by several countries to set up centres for children. Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison invited her to USA to give talks about her methods that gained immense popularity all over the world.

So what was it that was so special about her methods? Maria Montessori strongly believed that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment. She writes about it: “Supposing I said there was a planet without schools or teachers, study was unknown, and yet the inhabitants - doing nothing but living and walking about - came to know all things, to carry in their minds the whole of learning , would you not think I was romancing? Well, just this, which seems so fanciful, is a reality. It is the child’s way of learning. This is the path he follows. He learns everything without knowing he is learning it, and in doing so passes little from the unconscious to the conscious, treading always in the paths of joy and love.’

Maria Montessori received a doctor of Medicine degree in 1896, the first woman in Italy to achieve this status. She campaigned vigorously on women’s rights. She wrote and spoke on the need for greater opportunities for women and was recognised in Italy and beyond as a leading feminist voice. It was this outspokenness and leadership in thinking that landed her in trouble. She was also vociferous about her anti-fascist views and was forced to go into exile.

And, the country that became her home in exile was India. The Theosophical Society invited her to in 1939 and she made Adyar, Chennai her home for eight years. It was here that she developed her work ‘Education for peace’. And she was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Today, most Montessori teachers use the materials used in Montessori classrooms - called the Didactic Apparatus, which was her discovery. But it would be a shame to reduce Montessori and her teachings to the mere apparatus. She and the children whom she crusaded for are much larger than that.

(Santhya is an educator and founder of Yellow Train)

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2020 6:50:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-gift-of-maria-montessori/article6929074.ece

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