Although rather belated, there’s increasing awareness within society and even within the Central and state governments of the vital importance of early childhood care and education (ECCE) to give children a good start in life and enable them to grow into healthy and mentally alert citizens, capable of contributing to the common good. In the twilight of its unlamented ten-year term in office (2004-14), the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre approved a National Early Childhood Care and Education (NECCE) policy draft. One hopes the new BJP/NDA government in New Delhi will bolster and implement the policy for the benefit of India’s 158 million children below age five.
It’s regrettable but true. Successive governments at the Centre and in the states have grossly neglected ECCE, resulting in 48 percent infants in the age group 0-5 countrywide being severely undernourished and in danger of suffering stunting and brain damage. The country’s 1.6 million anganwadis — early childhood nutrition centres for newborns and lactating mothers which also provide a modicum of education — accommodate only half the children in this age group.
I don’t believe the Central and/or state governments need to make extensive budgetary outlays to provide good quality ECCE to the country’s vulnerable infants. The early childhood experiential pedagogy carefully developed by Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952) is an enabling and empowering process which gives all children the opportunity to advance, regardless of their socio-economic background. Its salient features and huge potential for developing India’s abundant human capital are outlined below.
• In traditional classrooms, every student reads the same book at the same time. A Mont child learns to explore, browse, select and read a book of her choice, softly or loudly, at her own pace.
• While traditional ECCE schools group children in classrooms by age, Montessori classes host children of different ages with older children encouraged to teach younger ones (peer learning). It’s inexpensive, effective and should be incorporated into the NECCE policy.
• Inducted into the Montessori system at age four, I believe my early childhood education was formatively more valuable than my IIT degree.
• A Mont child is always “hands-on”. Alphabets are ‘felt’ in three dimensions; numbers are represented by rods of different lengths; all toys are purposeful rather than abstract. A mug, mat, napkin, knife, etc, not only help children to use their hands and fingers (which in turn help improve writing), but introduces them to real life skills and experiences.
• Montessori is a child-centred system whereby children are allowed to choose activities based around their interests, which motivates them to learn. For example, math sums are not thrust on a child, instead she is encouraged to calculate how much she needs if she wants to buy chocolates.
• Infants in Mont classes are never given homework. Nor are they shamed or punished. Encouragement and assisted learning opportunities are the dominant mantras with every child given free rein to learn spontaneously through exploration.
• Lack of concentration is often a problem encountered by teachers and parents. Therefore, classroom environments are designed to improve focus, concentration and self-motivation. Since there’s no compulsion, children concentrate naturally. Surprisingly, voluntary focus actually reduces stress and fatigue as every child enjoys the learning process.
• In Mont classes, grading, stars and red or other marks are strictly forbidden. Whatever a child writes is for her own personal satisfaction. Peer learning is encouraged with children helping other children without competing or putting each other down.
Home-work, drudgery and compulsion — factors which could turn children off from learning — are strictly taboo in real Montessori schools.
• Essential to the Mont process is a free classroom environment — children are neither embarrassed by nor need to hide mistakes. Errors are accepted as inevitable, freely discussed and regarded as an opportunity to correct and improve. Another great advantage of the Montessori early childhood education system is that teachers can be easily trained in a short time with minimal monetary inputs. Other than basic educational toys, no significant expenditure is necessary and Montessori schools can be quickly established in rural and urban habitats, and can use any language as the medium of instruction.
With the NECCE policy under consideration of the BJP/NDA government, if even one Montessori preschool is established per taluka, it can become a popular model worthy of emulation. Montessories can easily be set up and run by edupreneurs and/or NGOs relieving state governments with high overheads and complex administrative processes and procedures, from becoming involved. Within a generation, Montessorians will grow up to become contributing and cooperative citizens committed to quality education for all. That’s my confident prediction.
Also Read: New learning paradigms
(Dr. Ali Khwaja is founder-chairman of Banjara Academy, Bangalore)