Print Edition - 2014-06-14  |  On Saturday

The new preschool paradigm

  • Most of the private preschools in the nation’s urban centres have moved away from using older pedagogical methods, and the public schools are adopting their methods too.
- Shibani Pandey
The new preschool paradigm

Jun 13, 2014-Nilam Barun Shrestha, the principal at Heartland Montessori, Shankhamul, pours out multi-coloured balls onto the playmat, prompting 15 restless kids into action. "Can I get three red balls and two green balls from each of you," she chirps, which is met with a flurry of motion, as the youngsters gravitate toward the floor, eager to have their pick. As far as the kids are concerned, this is just another opportunity to amuse themselves. Shrestha, however, intends the exercise to be educational. “Kids learn colours, shapes and numbers through this simple game. We want to teach concepts to them in ways that make learning fun,” says Shrestha.  Preschools around Nepal, whether privately run, government-owned or community-operated, have over the years been steering away from purely textbook-based instruction to more child-friendly teaching that involve games, audio-visuals and role-playing, among others.

What’s the best model of pre-primary education for a child’s personal development and learning? Not only is this a question that many young parents ask themselves, it is one that education-sector policymakers are engaging themselves in, as they strategise and devise policies to optimise returns on education. After all, many studies have shown that a child’s early-development years can prove crucial in shaping their intellectual and social competencies later in life.

There is no shortage of options as far as preschool education in Nepal is concerned. Key factors that set one apart from the other include emphasis on textbook learning, diversified teaching methods and costs of attendance. Government and community run pre-primary classes, known as Early Childhood Development (ECD) classes, are either one- or two- year programmes, and are offered free of cost to children.

Meanwhile, many private schools offer up to three years of classes at the pre-primary level. What’s more, Montessori preschools, based on a teaching method pioneered by Italian educator Dr Maria Montessori are increasingly becoming a popular choice among parents in Kathmandu and other urban areas around the country.

Montessori education is focused on encouraging independent thinking, assertive communication and inquisitiveness among children.  It is a departure from conventional textbook-centric pedagogy; the children learn concepts by engaging with objects and multimedia rather than through direct instruction. The focus is on facilitating their psychological, emotional, cognitive and physical development by allowing them to exercise personal freedoms in these areas responsibly. Classrooms and play areas are equipped with audio-visual materials and objects that help appeal to children’s different ways of learning. Anju Bhattarai, founder principal of Eurokids Montessori in Kathmandu’s Pepsicola, says, “Students are encouraged to learn through games and role-playing here.” She says the curriculum is designed keeping in mind learners of all kinds–visual, spatial, kinesthetic, tactile and audio. The preschool also has a ‘gym’ for students for physical education classes.

Many private schools with pre-primary sections have also begun adopting elements of the Montessori model, by diversifying their teaching method beyond textbook learning. Others offer exclusive kindergarten classes affiliated with curricula such as the International Baccalaureate (IB). Likewise, government- and community -operated early development classes are shifting their focus to child-friendly teaching, through the use of games, colourful posters and objects.

Bishnu Karki, an education expert and consultant involved in school-sector reform projects in Nepal, considers the Montessori schooling system to be ideal given its focus on promoting critical thinking, self-directed learning and independent thought.  However, he notes that it needs to be adapted to the Nepali context. “Montessori preschools must show an appreciation for Nepali norms and value systems. Kids should not lose their orientation on societal values and norms," he says.  While many children who attend Montessori preschools come from liberal-minded families that value education and independence, Karki explains that some students find that the values they imbibe in school are not consistent with those they find at home. “Many families are not used to assertiveness and independent decision-making on the part of their children and may not encourage such behaviour at home and in other settings,” he says.

 There may be quite a few parents who echo such sentiments, but others like Samjhana Dhungel have differing views. Samjhana–who sends her daughter, Niwesa Neupane, to Heartland Montessori–attributes her child’s outgoing and expressive character to the positive and supportive learning environment in her preschool. “My daughter is eager to share what she learns in school with us. She has a curious mind and some interesting perspectives on many topics that I think are beyond her years,” she says.  

Dr Maria Montessori first introduced her method of teaching at low-income schools in Italy.  However, Montessori education in Nepal is costlier than most other pre-primary programmes and hence primarily popular among relatively well-off parents in Kathmandu. Bidhya Nath Koirala, a Professor of Education Philosophy at the Tribhuvan University, asserts that different preschool programmes can share their best practices and learn from one another to optimise learning for children. “There has been no concrete effort so far to investigate the meeting points of different preschool teaching methods in use. And while there is oversight over government-and community-run programs, private preschools and Montessori programmes are rather self-contained, and are not monitored by the government,” says Koirala. The absence of mechanisms to evaluate the performance of privately run preschool classes, coupled with the relative ease with which one can open preschools in Nepal, give grounds for raising questions on the quality of education they deliver.

And on the flipside are the perennial questions pertaining to knowledge and performance gaps that are a product of a family’s being in a certain economic class. Is Montessori education likely to produce a new breed of children who will academically outperform their counterparts who come from other preschool backgrounds?  Are these schools so much more effective than the government-initiated, resource-constrained ECD classes that the gap between the private and government students will only grow more?

 According to Karki, both systems have their own strengths. He says that children who go through a Montessori education receive an all-rounded experience, and in this sense, are globally competitive in their age groups. But he adds that these kids may find it difficult to adjust to a more text-book based curriculum, which they are likely to encounter beyond their preschool years.

Maybe the way forward would be to allow the different systems to borrow from each other. “We are planning to institute private-public partnerships of preschool programmes that enable best practices across these programmes to be shared and replicated so that a child’s holistic development can be promoted,” says Dibya Dawadi, Deputy Director of the Department of Education. She also says that inter-ministerial efforts have already been made at the National Planning Commission to strengthen the quality of preschool programmes across Nepal through coordinated interventions. 

Published: 14-06-2014 09:10

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