Educators' Perspectives

Our world is full of diversity and culture. One of its most precious resources is still human potential.

Riad Mahmood
– Founder and Managing Trustee Head Start Educational Academy
– Founder Early Years Montessori

Our world is full of diversity and culture. One of its most precious resources is still human potential. Human beings can leave big dents on this planet; some of these can be damaging and hard to repair. But others can be mankind’s saving grace. Just like some young people who go to school or have gone to school in the past have used their education to destroy parts of the world, others have used their knowledge to help preserve it and make it liveable for others. We believe that a person who is curious, mindful, informed and discerning is an educated person.

Is our world a fearful place, full of conflict, a fierce sense of competition, with the need to dominate? Yes, it is, but it’s also a place full of wisdom and positivity. We have reached a stage wherein education is no longer only good for children; it is good for entire nations. Since our schools are in the midst of urban Bangalore, we realise that our children also come from a backdrop that is part of a narrative which is primarily to do with achieving economic success. This being said, we believe that there is still space for people who truly believe in finding harmony and fulfilment by pursuing their passions and interests and that too, by excelling in them. It is so important to be as good as one possibly can be, at something one loves to do. This requires courage, commitment and an attitude that has to develop at an early age, preparing for a way of growing up both at home and at school. The irony is that more often than not, this path too can make a person as or more economically successful, than a path that is nothing more than ‘safe’.

The responsibility of education has evolved. For us at Head Start it is not just about imparting literacy. Education has the ability to give children agency; the power to bring about waves of change and the power to build a peaceful society. How do we make this happen? Our pedagogy is at the forefront of our activity and this very pedagogy is inspired by a larger philosophy. A philosophy that drove us to being an institution. Pedagogy that facilitates equality suggests it is not sufficient to help students learn to read, write, compare and compute numbers without also learning to question assumptions, paradigms and hegemonic characteristics around us. This could merely be questioning something as simple as history, which we learn as being primarily about war and conflict, and not about peace and cooperation. Having a dialogue about such issues helps students become reflective and active citizens of a democratic society, and is the essence of our pedagogy for equality. Education that merely prepares students to fit into society and to experience social and economic mobility, is not helpful in building a democratic and just society. Education that facilitates equality on the other hand, enables students to not only acquire basic skills, but to use those skills to become effective agents of social change. This is often done through integration of content and uses examples from a variety of cultures and groups to teach key concepts, principles and theories in a subject area or discipline. Education has to therefore be continuous and multi-dimensional.

Every educator in our school is exposed to this philosophy regularly through the culture of the institution. This culture is the tangible, visible part of it. As educators live their lives in our school and engage themselves as well as their students with this culture, they slowly start to form their own interpretations of our philosophy, and incorporate their own thoughts into their teaching practices. This makes it interesting as we gradually see the diversity of the community come alive.

“Social and emotional skills” refer to the ability to regulate one’s thoughts, emotions and behaviour. These skills differ from cognitive abilities such as literacy or numeracy because they mainly concern how people manage their emotions, perceive themselves and engage with others, rather than indicating their raw ability to process information. We do realise that a curriculum or syllabus may address the intelligence of a learner but sometimes it may not have enough potential to address the intellectual aspect of a human being. What is this intellectual side that we are referring to? Intellectual people are normally those who are perceptive, curious, informed, and eventually discerning. We align our pedagogy with the natural exuberance, energy and curiosity that lies within each child.

Provoking intellectual development requires educators with great commitment, care, compassion and most of all, unbiased minds, who are willing to see each child or person without judgment based on identity, language or background. Educators that are open to begin each relationship afresh or anew. Age-appropriate, real-world, issue-centred lessons serve to engage students, giving them a deeper understanding of concepts and putting them on the path to inquiry, construction of meaning, and application to contextualised issues outside the classroom. As educators it is imperative for us to develop rationality in our pupils to help grow a socially aware citizenry. Intellectual development requires us to give them an opportunity to ask questions and for us to curate processes that can accommodate the learner’s ideas, suggestions and interests, and eventually connect and culminate in different ways. These types of processes can include mediums such as music, art and theatre to name a few. Culture to us is not just about music and dance or art and theatre but is a lot to do with thoughts and practices. We are a very diverse institution that includes people from various walks of life and we enjoy celebrating this diversity.

While we do realise that it is important to help students perform well in various examinations, a learning journey like this may also give rise to an agile mind or a mind that is always conscious and ready to absorb. A mind like this is not easily conditioned or influenced and can see anything, be it a concept, topic, theme or a relationship through a very fresh and clear lens, with almost no discolouration. We endeavour to engage students in everyday activities that require them to be thinking about how and why they are doing them. This means that even contributing to keeping the environment clean is an activity that helps develop work ethic or perseverance, because to do it well, the mind has to apply thought and not do it as a habit. Montessori spoke a lot about the importance of the usage of the hands and the senses. She recommended a series of activities involving the hands and described them as Exercises for Practical Life. The philosophy behind it was not just scientific reasoning, but also activities that nurture perseverance, excellence and respect.

Without internalising the shared struggles and ideals that have come to define us as human beings and connect us as people, education will appear superficial at best, and emotionally empty and meaningless at worse. An effective education cannot take place without introspection. Without bringing about a sense of rootedness and belonging, how can we hope for students to be invested in the idea of a peaceful future? Montessori I would say, is a complete pedagogy; one that is layered by a philosophy that traces back to the moment of conception. She refers to the baby as a spiritual embryo, first inside the womb and then outside of it. The use of the word ‘spiritual’ suggests a deep and wonderful understanding, and the possession of a special gift and power. This power gives the child the ability to absorb knowledge and experiences without being taught. It is also a power that we lose after the age of six. Children are born pure and are natural promoters of love and peace.
As Montessori says,

“Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war.”

She throws light on the role of the parent and its importance. The background the child comes from, their early exposures, do matter in the developmental stages of a person. She refers to the first six years as the stage of the Absorbent Mind and how important this phase is. Every parent has their own philosophy of life but may be unaware of how to bring it into practice. Montessori’s pedagogy begins with a philosophy and then provides a methodology that is also influenced by it. The learning of every concept is well documented and articulated and the adult facilitating it has to be mindful of this philosophy for it to be effective. It’s not just a way of learning but also one that provides great clarity on why and how.

When parents choose our school, they are also choosing to work with our culture and philosophy. The way we eat lunch, to the way we facilitate the learning of a subject, all connects to the same philosophy. Our schools are mainly spaces that provide young people as well as educators, opportunities to discover themselves over a period of time. When we are working with school going children, we are always revealing sides of our character and learning a lot about ourselves. We are working with our parents and forming a relationship of trust and belief. Disagreeing from time to time is inevitable, but losing trust is detrimental. While developing a pedagogical process we are mindful of the fact that human beings are intellectual but also emotional. This means that every child will face a sense of joy, anger, fear, a desire to be accepted, and many more emotions that make up a human being. The human mind is highly complex and thankfully so. As educators, we contribute in a small way to helping young human minds see the value of harmony and respect for themselves, and for the rest of mankind. Sometimes we forget that we could be sowing the seeds of destruction knowingly or unknowingly. Therefore, the methods and approach that are used in classrooms have to be mindful of intent; the need to connect to the larger philosophy of the institution itself. We at Head Start schools, believe that our philosophy has a lot to do with the fact that every child is different. Every child has a character; this character holds their soul. The character of a human being never really changes but evolves over a period of time. We as teachers can only throw light on it, guide it, but can’t really change it. It’s like the direction of the wind--you have to accept it and enjoy it for what it is. While changing it would be impossible, the point is to expose children to rich and diverse experiences that ignite their curiosity, and allow them to discover a way of learning that best reflects their unique character.

Education at its fullest should help children gain understanding, a positive attitude, and be reflective; to care deeply and to act thoughtfully. Pedagogy that promotes equity places the student at the centre of the learning process as it enables both students and teachers to look beyond the obvious and consider the complexities of individuals and group experiences, hence creating a more humane and caring society.