Source - Bangkok Post (Eng)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008  09:03

          Bangkok--Jan 29--Bangkok Post

After the 1999 National Education Act was passed, there was an increased emphasis within the Thai education sector on student-centered teaching, as the act placed the child at the center of learning and required teachers to value the individuality of each student.

The Montessori method, a century-old teaching philosophy developed by an Italian educator and female physician, Maria Montessori, is one of many teaching methods that places learners at the center on the premise that children are capable of self-directed learning.

The method gives importance to preparing the learning environment with largely hands-on activities to suit the child's developmental level, while giving the child the freedom to choose his or her interests.

Montessori in Thailand

The Thailand Association of Montessori Schools (Tams) was established in 2003, comprised of eight member schools in Bangkok, Chon Buri, Ayutthaya, Phuket, Roi Et and Chiang Rai. All apply the Montessori method in their teaching.

The association serves as a center for Montessori schools. Its aim is to share research, exchange knowledge and experience, as well as give training opportunities to those interested in learning this method through school visits.

The method is largely used in preschool levels up to age six, as Maria Montessori defined the early years as vital to the child's intellectual development.

While some preschools, such as Kornkaew Montessori School, apply the method to all their teaching and learning, other schools, such as Sombunwit School, offer Montessori as one class within their regular program.

The Montessori method places great importance on the abilities of each individual. Each child has different potentials and interests and comes from a different family background, such as being an only child or having older siblings, says Kamkaew Kraisoraphong, director of Kornkaew Montessori School and president of Tams.

They do not start off the same way, so we cannot expect them to learn the same way, she says.

Chontinate Nimsomboon, Sombunwit School principal, adds that the method also aims to develop a child holistically -  whether it is physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually or socially.

Silent presence

Learners become their own teachers in a Montessori classroom, says Chontinate. The role of the teacher is to prepare a supportive environment for the learners and provide equipment.

The Montessori teacher, or commonly referred to as directress, demonstrates how each learning tool is used and allows students the freedom to explore and learn before deciding to move on to another activity.

The teacher remains a silent presence in class, but is readily available for assistance. Teachers mainly observe the children to understand their natural abilities, then they make necessary adjustments, such as gradually introducing a higher level of mathematical concepts.

The ambience of a Montessori classroom is rather quiet.  Each child is concentrated and focused on each task with students speaking to each other or to their teacher in subtle voices, in order not to disrupt the concentration of other students.

Preparing the environment

Montessori believes that children learn best when the environment is prepared for a certain purpose. Therefore, each learning tool is chosen with a specific learning goal in mind. Shelves containing various learning implements are arranged throughout the classroom, and divided into academic, sensorial and practical sections.

A child makes his or her own decision to do a certain activity and learns to return equipment to its respective place once the task is completed.

Equipment for the academic section is designed for students to learn language, mathematics, science, history, geography, reading and writing -  starting from a simple level and gradually moving toward a more complicated level, says Chontinate.

For example, a young student first learns about numbers without seeing the written numbers at Kornkaew Montessori School.  They learn what numbers physically represent by holding one wooden red stick, called a number rod, and they learn that this stick signifies the number one. They learn what number "two" means by holding a second stick, which has a red and a blue section connected to each other. Additional sticks of various colors are used too represent subsequent numbers.

Eventually, students will learn how the numbers are actually written by seeing and feeling the cut out numbers on sandpaper.  They initially learn one or two numbers at a time and slowly absorb their lesson on numbers.

Later, depending on how fast a child learns, coins are placed next to the written number. For example, four coins may be placed next to the number four. By placing the coins in two rows, pupils automatically learn about odd and even numbers, explains Kamkaew.

Besides these hands-on activities, some students opt to do worksheet exercises which, for example, may require them to mark the highest number in a given group.

The sensorial section is designed to help sensory and brain development. To refine their five senses, they learn to distinguish different sizes, shapes, colors, smells, sounds and textures. For example, students may shake different bottles, containing unidentified objects and match bottles that make the same or similar sounds.

This helps when they have to later distinguish different sounds in  words, such as cat, mat, fat, rat and hat, says Kamkaew.

In the practical life corner, activities help to development motor skills. Students perform activities similar to ones they are expected to do at home, such as pour water from a jug into a basin, pound string beans with a mortar and pistil, sweep leaves into a dustpan and give a doll a bath.

Spooning red beans into water glasses requires hand and eye coordination and also helps refine their hand muscles. This is later needed when they learn to write.

Unique classrooms

The Montessori teacher allows students to direct their own learning, and to choose what they want to learn, and who they want to work with. Students are engaged in different tasks on different subject matters in a Montessori class, according to their own pace and interests.

While a regular classroom usually contains students of the same age group who learn the same subject simultaneously, a Montessori classroom combines different age groups, such as ages one to three, or ages four to six.

Most of the learning materials are "self-correcting," meaning students will find out themselves if they made a mistake in calculating, without the teacher having to point it out to them.  For example, while spooning the number of red beans into the numbered holes, they would know that they made a mistake if there are leftover beans or an insufficient number of beans at the end of the activity.

As there is no competition in the Montessori classroom, a mutually helpful environment develops. As a result, older students willingly assist younger students with various learning tasks.

We want to create a helping society and to do so, it should start during the first six years of a student's life, says Kamkaew.

Concern

Some Thai parents are concerned that the Montessori method will not prepare students to take the national examination for Prathom 1 level at government schools. Parents are anxious that the method might not prepare them for academic lessons, says Kamkaew. However, we are preparing students for life and not merely for one examination, she adds.

觷/ Bangkok Post (Eng)