How children learn

MARIA Montessori, the best educationist the world has ever produced, based her philosophy on her understanding of the human mind. She was Italy’s first woman physician, and derived her knowledge from her study of medicine and more so from her observation of the young children whose education was entrusted to her. In her opinion, children have an inborn capacity to learn from their environment and develop their own cognitive and mental skills. Hence Montessori’s use of the term the ‘absorbent mind’ to describe a young child’s mental growth process.

According to Montessori, the educationist is just required to provide the right environment and a little guidance to the child to allow her to grow at her own pace.

People generally fail to understand this philosophy, mainly because in our competitive times we are trapped in a race to push the child to expedite her growth. But the fact is that the growth process of a human child resembles the growth of a seedling — you can give it the right soil, light and temperature but you cannot force it to grow at the pace at which you want it to. One seedling will grow faster than the other. Nature doesn’t like uniformity.

Attempts to control a child’s mind are futile.

Against the backdrop of my sketchy knowledge of Maria Montessori, I was disturbed when I read a news item that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa education authorities have conducted tests to assess pre-primary children. More shocking was the report that less than half could pass.

I wondered how the learning outcome of a child from three to five years can be tested. But that is what our schools are doing, and parents are complicit in this crime. To test a young child amounts to inflicting torture on her.

When I talked to Mrs Farida Akbar, a trainer of Montessori directresses who has over 55 years’ experience in the field, she was equally shocked.

Mrs Akbar feels our system seeks to provide external motivation to very young children and control their growth process. This goes against the law of nature because at this age a child’s development is internally motivated unlike as in adults. The need is to allow space to the child’s natural ‘tendencies’ by providing her diverse choices and experiences to enable the optimum development of her mind. Mrs Akbar strongly opposes uniformity and adds that Montessori stood for diversity. Hence in her system, children of different ages are grouped together.

This natural growth process should not be artificially restricted or expedited. Similarly, attempts to control a child’s mind are futile. No authentic method has been devised to test a child’s development at this early stage. Every child has her own pace of growth — children grow in spurts and there is no continuity in their mental development or their physical growth.

Hence tests do not give a true picture of how the child is developing, Mrs Akbar remarks. What would be more helpful would be a system to train teachers to observe the young child and record her progress on a weekly basis.

For this, you do not require multiple choice questions to test a child’s knowledge as the KP tests were reported to have contained. Until the age of six, it is important to keep an eye on the child’s control and coordination of body movements, which are a clear measure of the development of the mind in the early years.

Another aspect to be observed, Farida Akbar suggests, is the child’s social development. How does she interact with adults and other children? If this is not normal, some adjustments are needed in her environment. In this the teacher may be required to be closely in touch with the parents as well. Also to be observed are the communication and language abilities of a child.

It would be more meaningful to emphasise these aspects by training teachers to focus on the child’s cognitive growth rather than her knowledge of the world, which will inevitably follow in due course. The aim of education should be to equip a child with the ability to cope with diverse situations in life. The requisite mental and emotional capability develops at this stage — up to age nine — which our education system neglects. The focus is on giving the child an overload of bookish knowledge.

For instance, forcing a child to hold a pencil and write with it before she has control over her hands’ coordination is counterproductive. A child left to explore her own inclinations will take to all activities the tools for which are available to her — such as writing with a pencil and reading from a book — when her mind, eyes and hands are ready for it.

Why subject a child in the initial few years of her life to the agony of tests and then declare her a failure, which she may not actually be?

Source: Dawn