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Picture this: 3.
What is ‘3?’ You may respond it is the number 3. Then I ask, what is the number 3? You will probably have difficulty describing that one. The first thing to mind will probably be that this is a symbol but that will probably be as far as you go. What does this symbol represent? How do you define 3 without saying it represents three things?
This is a problem presented by how we learn. Our learning is abstract, we learn just these random things and then we are told to connect these random things to the physical world. Let me illustrate: I was in a room with family and my nephew was the centre of attention in this room. He started reciting a cute little song he had been taught in creche: “I can count up to 20…” and indeed he counted from 1 up to 20 in a defined rhythm. We clapped hands.
My excitement did not last long though, it waned when I realised that my nephew could not count up to 20 without first singing ‘I can count up to 20…” neither could he do it without following the prescribed rhythm. I realised my nephew actually couldn’t count up to 20. He could sing a song. A song with so many words but that really mean nothing to him. To him there was no difference whatsoever between 1 and 5 or between 19 and gtldzkx. These were all meaningless to him, they were just pieces of a song, or not so in the case of gtldzkx.
The song was completely abstract. The teacher obviously thought, or more precisely was taught, that this is how to teach toddlers the building blocks for mathematics. No wonder so many people struggled with the subject. Our foundational teaching of mathematics is so abstract that we fail to see the connection between what we are taught and the real world. That is why even in adult life you hear someone say ‘why the hell did we learn circle geometry?’ or someone else state that 90% of what they learned in school or college was never applied.
Obviously, the next step in my nephew’s education is to then teach him that 1 represents a single object, showing him pictures and teaching him a song called 10 green pawpaws on the tree top, along came the wind and one went drop, 9 green pawpaws… The problem with this method of first introducing the abstract symbol 3 before the physical object like a pawpaw is that the connection between the abstract and the real will not be fully and accurately made. School will be associated with meaninglessness at a very early age.
This observation is what made me quite impressed by the Troutbeck School in particular and the Montessori approach in general. The Montessori education process follows the natural education process: experience the physical then interpret this experience into abstract if you want. In actual fact, the abstract is presented as a system that is nothing but an invention for convenience. Let me attempt to illustrate using my nephew:
If my nephew was first given objects to play with and organise them whichever way he likes, he was going to play with these objects continuously until he figures out arrangements by quantities. This is actually done in the Montessori method. This fun activity will keep being altered until he is then introduced to the concept of numbers as a convenience for him to keep track of his stuff etc.
What this means is that for him, 3 is not a syllable in a song but it is a symbol that informs him of the specific quantity of his stuff. For him, this system and eventually mathematics is not an intimidating concept but rather a tool for his convenience. I think this is why we realise that both the founders of Google were Montessori educated, and Jeff Bezos the founder of Amazon was too.
By design the Montessori approach is deliberate and focused on the learner tapping into their own internal resources and figuring things out. The learners are not taught Math or whatever other subject so that these become impressive pieces of knowledge. Montessori learners are not impressd or surprised by new knowledge in fact they have the belief that they can organise and reorganise the pieces of information to build whatever they want because after all, all this knowledge and information is merely a convenient way of interpreting basic everyday things.
This may be difficult to understand dear reader and I assure you it is even more difficult to explain. I know there will be a debate on this and I may even called names for saying the rhymes don’t work. That antagonism only emphasises my point: we were taught to have a reverence for the system and not to question it because the order is set and there is nothing you can do about it. Who said you should always say 3 before 4? It’s worse for us who were taught these rhymes in a foreign language we could hardly understand. Essentially we learnt how to make specific sounds to make the teachers happy.
I understand though that this is not so easy to comprehend. However, if you have a child I challenge you to make an investment and visit the Troutbeck School in Nyanga. Not to enrol your child but to see what I saw and experience what I experienced. I am sure you will come back without words to describe this concept of teaching/learning the physical first before abstract. I guess we cannot explain it because we were never taught that way. If you are interested in making the trip, please fill in this form and the Troutbeck School will be in touch with you.
I will however try to pick this up in the next article in this series maybe I will have better words then. I will leave all of you who learnt Shona at O Level with a question, what is Mupanda? We sang songs and recited that thing but I realised that most did not even understand what Mupanda was. That is why you heard people say Shona yakaoma (Shona is difficult subject). I loved mipanda because I love languages and mipanda made sense to me as a convenient way of explaining the structure of the Shona nouns and how they are used etc. I understand however those who have no clue what that catchy song was all about because in many cases even our teachers didn’t know.
This is an invitation for you to look at education systems and to question why things are done the way they are. When you start doing this yourself you are already setting up your kids to possibly build the Googles and Amazons in their time. And who says their time is not now?
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