determine nature of the school
our first seminar we talked about the differences between different
compatible approaches to kindergarten, and to set the stage
reviewed briefly the philosophical foundations for these approaches.
Any real understanding of an educational philosophy must go
back to very basic assumptions about the nature of humankind,
the universe, and the purpose of life as we know it. Why are
we on this earth? What is the nature of human beings? Are we
born inherently good, inherently evil, or morally neutral? What
is the relationship between human beings and the Divine? The
answers we give to these basic philosophical questions shape
the answers we give to questions about the aim and form of education.
If one believes,
as the Calvinists did, that children are born in original sin,
and have an inherent disposition to evil, then the task of education
becomes training or requiring the child to be good, against
his or her natural inclinations.
If one believes that humans are born inherently good, as Rousseau
did, then the task of education is primarily to see that the
natural inclinations of the child are not curtailed and that
the restrictions of personal freedom necessary for living in
a society are kept to a minimum.
If one believes
with Dewey that children are born neither good nor bad but learn
right and wrong from their interaction with the environment
in which they grow, then the nature of the environment, which
means also the people and the experiences of the child’s life,
are of great importance.
oversimplified statements are offered only to show that even
the most practical decisions in schools are ultimately governed
by the assumptions we make about the nature of the universe.
Having said this I hasten to add that no school is a perfect
exemplification of one philosophy, since even within the “purest”
schools there are small variations in personal beliefs, and,
yet more likely, in the way in which similar beliefs are executed.
So, for example, even though we all believe that freedom of
expression is essential for children, one person’s way of encouraging
freedom of expression for the child may look quite different
from the way it looks to another person.
In a little book
called Issues and Alternatives in Educational Philosophy
George Knight suggests one way to understand how different assumptions
may be reflected in practice. He examines each philosophical
school of education in four categories: the role of the teacher,
the role of the student, the role of the curriculum, and the
aim of education. As an example, in schools of the traditional
or Calvinist approach, operating on the assumption that children
if left to their own devices will grow up as little savages,
The Lord of the Flies is a good example of this philosophy.
The role of the teacher is to direct students in the right ways
to think and behave, and the role of the student is to be obedient,
respectful and industrious. The curriculum should be composed
of basic skills, instruction in values, and training for the
In “free schools”,
where the founders believe that children, left to themselves,
will flourish and turn naturally toward what is good and true,
the role of the teacher is to facilitate, to stand aside, and
to intervene only when necessary. A.S. Neill, head of Summerhill,
one of the most famous free schools, said that at Summerhill
there were only two rules: you could not do anything which would
hurt someone else, and you could not do anything which would
hurt yourself. Of course there is a wide space for disagreement
there over what constitutes “hurt”, but in general Neill intervened
only when the injury was likely to be physical and long lasting,
either to the person or the environment i.e. you could not burn
down a building or throw rocks at a passer-by, but you could
spend all day building a tree fort and never go to class, and
you could eat/sleep/work whenever you wanted. Neill argued that
after a period of experimentation children would naturally establish
healthy patterns of work and play. The role of the student is
to develop his or her own potential without interference.
When Sri Aurobindo
said “Mind must be consulted in its own growth”, I believe the
word “consulted” indicates that the children must participate
in decisions about their own learning, but it does not mean
they should be left to their own devices. At the kindergarten
seminar we positioned ourselves somewhere in the middle between
these extremes, though with perhaps more sympathy for the latter
than the former, and looked at three contemporary approaches
to early childhood education which seemed most likely to fit
within our own belief system and which might be instructive
for this kindergarten programme.
Three philosophically compatible approaches
The three approaches
- Montessori, Waldorf and the Progressive movement - have several
significant features in common. All three value the uniqueness
and integrity of the child as a person, and of childhood as
a state of being. All three value the child as a whole person,
one with developing abilities in the physical, the social, the
mental and the emotional realms. (One distinguishing difference
between these generally compatible approaches is the difference
in emphasis on the spiritual and intuitive faculties of the
child, a topic I will address later.) All three believe that
the child grows through active engagement with the environment,
and that the role of the adult as mentor and model can not be
Finally, all three
approaches are consistent with developmental stage theory, even
though their founders could not have been acquainted with the
explosion of research into children’s thinking which has characterized
the last sixty years. Certainly they are all one in seeing childhood
as unique, and as a period of exceptionally rapid growth in
all the domains.
was born in Italy, and after training as a teacher and psychologist
she was chosen, in 1906, to establish schools for the tenement
children in one of Italy’s worst slums. These “children’s houses”
were part of a “scientific experiment” on behalf of children.
The method and materials piloted there are now famous around
the world, and there are Montessori schools on every continent.
“the aim of education is life itself, not preparation for life”.
She felt it was imperative that a school allow a child to develop
naturally, but not with undisciplined freedom, and she saw the
role of the environment as critical in directing the natural
development of the child. In Montessori schools the role of
the teacher is that of guide, observer, coach, facilitator and
overall manager. The Montessori teacher does little explicit
teaching, but must be very observant, watching the children
as they work with the materials, guiding them when they are
confused, making sure the sequence is appropriate, preparing
and organizing the activities.
she began working initially with slum children living in squalor,
Montessori stressed the importance of cleanliness and good health
As a part of the curriculum, all children participate in cleaning
the classroom, setting out the meals, and cleaning up afterwards.
They learn to wash their hands and brush their teeth. In the
play areas there are little wash tubs, ironing boards and housekeeping
equipment for the children to learn domestic skills through
in Montessori schools is on the development of sensory awareness.
Children are taught through all the senses, with a special emphasis
on the kinesthetic, and the curriculum encourages consciousness
of the senses through the use of specially prepared materials.
Montessori materials are famous around the world, and the concept
of using materials to teach specific skills and concepts has
spread with the materials. There are graduated cylinders to
teach an understanding of shapes and graduated sizes, vials
for sniffing, closed containers for sound discrimination, sandpaper
letters to teach the form of the letters through the fingers,
and much more. The aesthetic sense of the child is nurtured
by the pleasing quality of the classroom and the materials,
which are clean, orderly, simple, and beautifully conceived.
Although the teacher may need to manage behaviour at first,
the aim and expectation is always that discipline should come
In a Montessori
school the role of the teacher is essential but discreet; the
role of the environment as an educational tool is of prime importance;
the role of the child is to be active in exploration and expression
within the educational environment, and tidy and considerate
in behaviour. Perhaps it would be helpful to note that this
description is drawn from my experience with Montessori schools
in the U.S. and through reading. Actual Montessori schools in
India and elsewhere may have evolved in directions which no
longer exactly match this description.
It is interesting
that the Waldorf school movement began in a way similar to that
of the Montessori movement. Rudolf Steiner, a German educator
and philosopher, was asked to start a school for the children
of the workers in a Waldorf factory in Stuttgart. Steiner was
born in Germany in 1861. He described a school of philosophy
known as Anthroposophy: the wisdom of the human being. Anthroposophy,
though oriented toward the Christian faith, is primarily concerned
with the acknowledgement and development of spirituality in
the person and the universe. The Waldorf movement is the fastest
growing private school movement in the world today.
One of the most
interesting features of the Waldorf School is the structure:
teachers stay with their classes from first grade through 8th.
Obviously a class becomes very much like a family; less obviously
the challenge for the teacher is to master all the subjects
in the elementary curriculum. As Torin Finser admirably illustrates
in School as a Journey, his account of teaching for eight years
in a Waldorf school, the teacher also comes to know from personal
experience the extraordinary developmental changes which take
place in children during those formative years.
In the Waldorf
schools every effort has been made to make the overall plan
for the curriculum fit the evolving interests of children. So
in the kindergarten, a time of rich fantasy life, fairies, elves
and goblins appears in the teacher’s stories and the children’s
play; at sixth grade when children are beginning to venture
out on foot and cycle to explore the world around them, explorers
become the focus of the curriculum. There are many such examples.
As with Montessori, all of the senses are cultivated and engaged,
but in Waldorf schools this is done primarily through art, ritual,
song and movement. Math is taught with rhythms and movement.
Children learn to recite chants and verses. The teacher greets
each child at the door with a handshake, and inevitably there
will be another small ritual around snack or lunch. There are
festivals at set times of the year: a Christmas pageant, a Maypole
dance. The environment is carefully structured so that it is
aesthetically pleasing, soft, harmonious, and not overly stimulating.
Pastel colours and swirling shapes are common in Waldorf drawings,
and only natural materials such as wooden toys and beeswax crayons
Unlike Montessori schools or the schools within the Progressive
tradition, Waldorf schools are teacher centred. They are not
oppressive; great care and respect is accorded the children,
but the curriculum is determined by the teacher within the prescribed
Waldorf traditions. Materials, festivals, and the sequence of
activities are teacher directed. All ten year olds will study
Norse myths; ancient cultures and attention to the Maypole dance
are essential in every fifth grade class. Each of these curricular
selections has a rationale rooted in Steiner’s understanding
of the developing interests of the child, and are often inspired,
in my opinion, but also absolute. There is little room for deviation.
believe young children need to be directed in their expressive
efforts so that later they will be better able to create their
own work. In a Montessori school the materials and the curricular
expectations guide the children, but the children have more
choice in the selection of activities and the means of expression.
In the student centred progressive schools the environment will
be “messier”; children will be presented with a wide variety
of materials to work with, particularly openhanded materials
which they may bend to their own discoveries; and they will
be encouraged to make their own choices in materials and activities.
are more difficult to describe, because “Progressive” is a general
set of characteristics, suggesting a basic orientation to the
world which extends far beyond schooling, into politics, economics,
labour relations, human rights and the arts. Montessori schools,
for example, fall within the broad definition of progressive
education. Montessori and Waldorf schools, being in the private
domain, may exercise some authority over the schools which bear
their name to keep them within the accepted practices of the
approach. Not so progressive schools. Some progressive schools
are private schools, and those like The City and Country School
in NY, or Mirrambika in Delhi, are relatively “pure” manifestations
of the philosophy, but there are progressive teachers in non-progressive
schools and non-progressive teachers in progressive schools,
and some aspects of progressive practice have changed from being
revolutionary to being common place in American and British
schools. On the political football field of American education
today, “progressive” has been misinterpreted to mean something
like the free school movement I described above in its most
chaotic and unruly manifestations, in contrast to a “back to
basics” movement with its emphasis on facts, drill and examinations.
to avoid the aversive associations with the label “progressive”,
some schools firmly within that tradition identify themselves
with other names, such as the open classroom, integrated day,
or student centred.
John Dewey, the
great American educational philosopher, and the man most closely
associated with the concept of progressivism in education, strongly
repudiated the free school interpretation of progressivism in
one of his last works, a little book called Experience and
Education. Dewey believed that children are born neutral,
that healthy development is the aim of education, that we all
learn and grow from interaction within the environment - which
includes people as well as things, that in fact all that we
learn comes from experience; but it is not experience alone,
it is the meaning we make of it which directs our perceptions
and our actions. Out of these beliefs Dewey postulated a curriculum
which must begin with what is relevant, what matters to the
child, but which continually draws us on. As Sri Aurobindo said,
teaching must be from the near to the far. Humans are curious
creatures, and through our explorations we learn more and more
about the world and about ourselves. One of the goals of education
must surely be to cultivate the spirit of enquiry so that education
Where does the
Auroville Kindergarten fit in this medley of approaches? The
kindergarten seems to me to be a true exemplification of the
It is student centred; experiences are carefully constructed
to be relevant, developmentally appropriate and educative; the
whole child is addressed; there are many opportunities for choice
but not license; and children learn from an active engagement
with the environment. On the other hand, the emphasis in observation,
concentration and the development of the senses reminds me of
a Montessori school, and the attention to the spiritual climate
of the school, with rituals and the awareness of the presence
of Sri Aurobindo and Mother remind me of the Waldorf schools
I have seen. In each of the approaches I have described there
is much of value. What we take from them depends in part on
our own philosophical inclinations and our own intuitive sense
of what is right for these children in this place.
Kindergarten resonates with the three simple but profound principles
enunciated by Sri Aurobindo: “Nothing can be taught. Work from
the near to the far. Mind must be consulted in its own growth.
“Children learn by doing, not by “being taught”. All activities
begin with the known and the concrete before moving to new forms
and structures. Children are presented with appropriate choices,
and encouraged to solve their own problems. Mother said, “To
love to learn is the most precious gift that one can make to
a child: to love to learn always and everywhere.” In this kindergarten
children love to learn.
Some of the unique features of this kindergarten, features which
may distinguish it from each of the other educational movements
with a compatible philosophy, have been described: the emphasis
on observation and concentration, the development of sensory
and body awareness, the cultivation of all five domains of the
being including a direct address to the vital, psychic and spiritual
domains, the attention to early language development, and the
integrity of the environment.
The purpose of education in Auroville is, in the words of Sri
Aurobindo, to help the growing soul draw out the best in itself:
“Everyone has in him something divine, something his own,
a chance of perfection and strength in however small a sphere
which God offers him to take or refuse. The chief aim of education
should be to help the growing soul to draw out that in itself
which is best and make it perfect for a noble use.”