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Philosophical assumptions
determine nature of the school

In 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.

These greatly 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 mind.

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 overstated.

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.

Montessori Schools

Maria Montessori 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.

Montessori said “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 the classroom,
and organizing the activities.

Perhaps because she began working initially with slum children living in squalor, Montessori stressed the importance of cleanliness and good health habits.
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 play.

Another emphasis 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 from within.

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.

Waldorf Schools

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 are used.
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.

Waldorf teachers 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.

Progressive Schools

Progressive schools 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.

Consequently, 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, constructivist,
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 never ends.

Auroville Schools/Education

Where does the Auroville Kindergarten fit in this medley of approaches? The kindergarten seems to me to be a true exemplification of the progressive approach.
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.

The Auroville 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.

Introduction  |   Chapter 1   |   Chapter 2  |   Chapter 3  |   Conclusion

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