Oak Grove School is a place that values relationship. It is also a place that does not follow any prescribed teaching methods. However, over the years various teachers here have been trained in the Montessori approach. When this approach is adopted in its spirit, it has often been found to complement a Krishnamurti education at Oak Grove. In this article, I look at some of the tenets of a Montessori approach, and attempt to show the ways in which it has common ground with our approach in a Krishnamurti school.
Genesis of the Montessori approach
At the turn of the twentieth century, Maria Montessori was the directress of the Orthophrenic School, a medicalpedagogical institute, where she trained groups of teachers in the care and education of children who did not function well in elementary schools and were sent to asylums for mentally challenged children. Here, she experimented with different kinds of sensory teaching materials, modifying them as she observed the reactions and needs of the children.
She spent all day, from eight in the morning till seven in the evening, with the children and teachers. At night, she would make notes, reflect and prepare new materials. She found these children’s minds deficient because their senses had never been stimulated enough. “First the education of the senses, then the education of the intellect”, became the principle that was to later form her educational method. Eventually, the children in the school were able to master skills many had thought them totally incapable of. Montessori had such success with these children that she later became interested in how to educate normal children in order to create a better society.
Her first opportunity to work with normal children came when a building society decided to undertake an urban renewal scheme in the San Lorenzo slum district of Rome and renovate buildings to house poor families. While the parents were away at work during the day, the younger children were left to themselves and they would deface and vandalize the buildings. The authorities decided to gather the children together in one large room and pay someone to look after them. That someone was Maria Montessori. In 1907, the first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) began. It was here that Montessori experimented with and developed her method of education based on observation of children and the use of didactic materials. The enjoyment, sensitivity and intelligence of children exhibited in those early days laid the foundation for Montessori Children’s Houses that later flourished all over the world.
Most educators using Montessori’s ideas and materials find them deeply relevant even today. This is because, in her framework, the role of the teacher and her relationship to students, the quality of teaching materials, the classroom environment, and the respect for the individual child, all provide a type of education that is considered valuable for humanity. The teacher’s role is not one of an authority figure, but that of a guide who helps children to help themselves. The teacher demonstrates how to use classroom materials and directs the children to a choice of activities in which they autonomously make discoveries through enquiry, concentration and observation. The teacher is expected to take her work with children seriously, observing her own behaviour and reactions in everyday life, and becoming aware of her interactions with the children. Montessori also saw the necessity for teachers to learn the art of observing nature, along with the physical and psychic needs of children.
Some principles of Montessori education
The basis of Montessori’s philosophy is that young children learn by exercising their senses. She spoke of the child from ages three to six years as having, “an absorbent mind”, which enables him to easily receive information sensorially from the environment. Therefore, the learning environment in which these children spend their days must be one in which they are free to explore and manipulate materials. The materials Montessori designed help the child develop his ability to make judgments, to compare and discriminate on the basis of size, shape, sound, weight, colour and temperature, and to organize and classify the information the brain receives. The curriculum areas include sense discrimination, reading, writing, math, nature study, science, geography, art and music. The programme begins with concrete materials for the three to six year-old child, and the materials become more abstract for the six to twelveyear- old child.
The main purpose behind the materials is to aid the child’s natural learning process. The principle to be learned is inherent in the materials, and the child, when ready, manipulates these and discovers it by himself. The children are able to correct themselves without the help of the teacher because the equipment contains ‘a control of error’. If the lesson is done incorrectly, the child is able to see and guess why, experiment, and make a correction. This process of learning encourages observation and concentration.
Montessori believed in an innate intelligence in children and felt that they are able to absorb their culture so easily because of ‘sensitive periods’ in their development. During these periods the child shows an insatiable hunger for the acquisition of some particular knowledge or skill. She discovered that children would repeat certain movements or exercises over and over again with deep concentration, until they satisfied their inner need to understand something necessary to their growth. The materials in the classroom are, therefore, designed to aid children in these sensitive periods to acquire the desired skill or knowledge.
Because young children are by nature active, a learning environment should allow children freedom of movement. In most Montessori classrooms there are no assigned desks, so the children are free to move about the room and sit where they wish. The materials are placed on low shelves, so that the children can choose their own tasks. They can access the materials, and also return them to the original place on the shelf. Children learn not only physical coordination and grace by carrying objects around the room, but also develop a sense of order about where things belong.
Such a free environment allows children to socialize with each other and learn many valuable life lessons. They learn to cultivate patience because, often, someone will be using the material they want, so they must learn to wait their turn and respect the other person’s work. Manners and social graces are exercised in group activities, for example, in serving food, and in playing group games with the teacher. A child’s sense of inner discipline is encouraged because he has the opportunity to be responsible for his own actions. Social interactions encourage children to become aware of each other in talking, sharing feelings, as well as observations. They also develop verbal and listening skills and learn from one another.
It is important to mention that Montessori’s philosophy is not limited to an indoor material-oriented classroom. She felt children’s contact with nature to be very valuable to their development because they learn observational skills, an appreciation of nature and a sense of beauty. Children are encouraged to take walks, observe nature, plant and attend to gardens, care for animals. The subject of nature study is valued to help children develop enquiry skills into themselves and the world around them. This also later aids them in the study of the natural sciences such as botany, biology, zoology and anatomy.
Another valuable aspect of Montessori’s philosophy is that each child is respected as an individual and teachers observe the child’s development and aid him in progressing according to his rhythm and temperament. Learning should interest and attract the child’s attention, and never be forced. Since every child is different, his work should not be compared with another. In order to meet the needs of many different children, Montessori designed different forms of the same lesson, so that each child could find the method of learning most comfortable for him.
Montessori ideas in a Krishnamurti School
While one cannot state that Montessori’s and Krishnamurti’s educational ideals are identical, they have enough in common so as to enable a Montessori-trained teacher to work harmoniously at a Krishnamurti school. Both Krishnamurti and Montessori felt that the role of an educator is to help create a new generation of human beings who will have insight into themselves, and into conflict in the world. “If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individuals total development lags behind.” ( The Absorbent Mind , Maria Montessori, p. 4)
Both agreed that academic knowledge is only part of a real education for life. The educational goals of Krishnamurti schools include not only excellent academic training, but also the training of enquiry— of looking into ourselves. Teachers at Krishnamurti schools are encouraged to enquire into themselves and observe their own reactions and behaviour, so that their relationships with students are of a quality that enables both students and teachers to have affection for one another and acquire insight into the workings of their own minds. The best environment for learning is one in which the child is free of fear of a strong authority figure and is not pressured psychologically by competition, so that he can develop freely at his own pace.
Hence, tests and grades are used neither in a Montessori environment nor here at the Oak Grove Elementary School. This is because tests only stress a child’s performance in absorbing factual knowledge, whereas the individual child’s whole character and attitude toward learning is of equal importance. Oak Grove School’s 150-acre campus allows students to spend a lot of time outdoors in nature. Nature classes and camping trips are an important part of the curriculum. Students learn appreciation for nature and what it means to become responsible stewards for our earth. ‘The Arts of Living and Learning’ programme guides students and teachers towards a whole education of the heart and mind. Oak Grove has ‘peace tables’ like some Montessori Schools and in addition, we offer mindfulness classes for students from kindergarten to junior high. A favourite game played by Montessori teachers and their students is the ‘Silence Game’. Here, the children practice being as quiet as they can and listen to all the movement and sounds around them. At Oak Grove, we build in silent periods at the beginning of the day during circle time, and at other times, such as when we gather together for assemblies, or pause for a moment of silence called P.A.W.S.S. (Put Attention Within for Sixty Seconds).
A good teacher will not depend completely on a single method, but intelligently adapt good educational principles and ideas from any compatible philosophy. In her attempt to study the individual child and her relation to that child, we can see that a Montessori approach can be conducive in helping create the space and quality of education that Krishnamurti writes about.