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Monday, August 29, 2011

Parenting in a Montessori way

Montessori's view of child is so refreshingly simple and insightful that if you could practice those principles at home it will hugely benefit your child. So here are seven ideas that can be used to develop your child ( if he or she is less than 6 years).

1. Help the child to do his own activities.
Before this can be done, it is important to arrange important artifacts, which the child uses, to suit the child's size. For instance, keep the child's toothpaste and toothbrush at the height where he can easily reach. Keep her clothes in a 'separate shelf' which is compatible to her height. ( You will be surprised to see that the child loves order, especially at 3) Use child's commode seat in the bathroom. Get him tools that match with his size, such as spoon and fork.

Once the infrastructure is set in, let the child do activities by herself. If the child is willing to dress himself, let him do. If the child is willing to eat by herself, that is a better option. Although these activities take too long a time, and often create lot of mess, the trouble is worth the effort.

This is helpful in two ways. One, it allows the child to co-ordinate his hands and body easily. Mastering this coordination of body is an important milestone in the child's development. ( if you watch a mentally handicapped child, you will realise the importance of promoting child's body-coordination). Two, it makes the child independent.

2. Engage child in actual physical games,not virtual games:
Engage in activities where his body coordination is important, for instance climbing the slide. As coming down the steps is more difficult than climbing the stairs, coach the child to do on her own. Let the child commit mistakes infront of you, rather than behind you. In the same way, help the child to engage in difficult games, such as rope climbing. This hastens the body coordination of the child.

4. Use toys that compel child to engage with it actively.
Engaging a child in a 'purposeful' activity ( that makes the child understand the end of the activity) helps the child to focus his wandering attention and apply his intelligence and 'body coordination' together, which is another Montessori principle of developing your child.
For instance, use picture puzzles of animals so that the child can 'make the animal' by fitting different pieces.Even while taking a balloon, take 'empty' balloon and teach child to fill 'air' by mouth. Children typically like to 'color'. Provide him all the material to colour and paint. If you observe your child really 'concentrating' in painting ( or any of his activity), leave him alone for as long as he wishes.
Because of the above principle, there are many 'do nots'. For instance, avoid using passive toys like cars, because they are not 'purposeful'; they can be dropped at any moment by the child. Even TV watching is very passive and should be discouraged by using innovative tricks. Cartoons, by the way, needs to be avoided because it tends to promote imagination, before the mind is 'developed'. This in turn introduces child in a new pattern of engaging in 'fantasies'.

5. Respect the child's identity:
Listen to the child by being in child's shoes. For instance, do not feed child until she says she is 'hungry'. Force feeding at a fixed time prevents the child to 'sense' her hunger.
If you have promised something, please keep the promise until a pattern is set in. If you can't bring him something due to lack of money, be sure to 'explain' it. Children surprisingly understand the constraint of money better than we think, i have found.
Because of the choice given to child in Montessori to do ( or not to do) an activity, child's identity gets created slowly in Montessori House of children. I have heard of a child in a Montessori, who refused to do any activity in a school for one year. And yet after 3 years, he was a normal child.

6. Use every instance to enrich child's vocabulary:
Child at the age of 3 is fascinated with language. Child however understands word through sounds ( i.e phonetically), not through alphabets. Therefore do not hasten to teach child to 'spell' the word; instead offer her the 'sound of words' whenever practical. Try to categorise words in sections, because that helps child. For instance, introduce 'kitchen' words separately than 'bathroom words'. Words help child to classify objects and make sense of the chaotic impressions that are bombarding him.
Montessori method introduces language phonetically. Only after the child can replicate the sound of words, alphabets are introduced. And then grammar is introduced.

7. Introduce numbers when child shows inclination:
Below 5, the absorbent mind of child absorbs concepts as 'concretes'. Numbers are concepts. Therefore always introduce numbers through concrete instances, like 1 marble or 2 marble. Both marbles should look same. Child cannot 'understand' that the same number is applicable to chocolate, kilometer, or money. Even when additions have to be shown, add 1 marble+ 2 marble and show it as 3 marbles. Montessori uses spindle rods to introduce the concept of counting and uses 'beads' to help counting.

Every child is distinct, and therefore you will have to adapt the above ideas accordingly for your child. If you have a good Montessori House of Children near your house, it is a good idea to take help of a Montessorian in devising specific strategies for developing your child. For children who are above-average curious or active, or who tend to listen to adults meekly, a Montessorian is required to adopt a different style and method.

Please remember that these ideas are not to make your child more intelligent. Intelligence definitely assists development, but at this young age, it may also bypass it. Rewards and punishments are powerful tools of development, but which require large space to set the context. We have therefore not dealt with it here.

Friday, August 12, 2011

You are unlucky if you have cognitive talents

In a research findings@ of 120 talented individuals sampled from six fields comprising aesthetic fields like music and sculpting, psychomotor sports fields like tennis and swimming, and cognitive fields like mathematics and medicine, 20 most talented individuals from each of these field were asked questions about acquiring their extraordinary talents over a period of 20 odd years. Their parents and teachers were also interviewed to corroborate the answers.

The research findings brought out many interesting, and sometimes counter-intuitive conclusions, such as 'extraordinary talents are not spotted at an early age to succeed'.Infact, none of the 120 talented individuals, not even the musicians and sportsman, in the sample were child prodigies or were discovered due to their 'extraordinary' talent.

But more than the generic findings, the 3 observations on nurturing cognitive talent versus other talents clearly brings out the huge challenges that you knowledge workers - programmers, engineers, managers, chartered accountants, lawyers, medical consultants - have to surmount in 'identifying and nurturing your cognitive talent'.

1. While development of aesthetic and psychomotor talents is visible, development of cognitive talent is invisible: If you are good in Music,dance or sports, your ability is visible to all, even to a layman. This helps friends and family members to automatically recognise these talented children as 'fast learners' and use the surrounding eco-system of teachers, competitions and social recognition to initiate the cycle of learning at an early age.

In contrast to this, for cognitive performers such as in mathematics and medicine, almost all of the action takes place in their minds. Nothing is visible to others. Until some expert teacher in that specific subject recognises the huge talent, say after solving a 'mathematical problem', the talent remains 'unrecognised' and therefore 'not encouraged'. The virtuous cycle of learning starts late.

2. While aesthetic and psychomotor talents, due to their nature, are identified at an early age, cognitive talents are identified very late: Because their talents depend on 'senses' and coordination of muscles, the musicians in the above sample began their formal studies in music by the age of 6 and the sportsman by the age of 7. This helps the individuals with aesthetic and psychomotor talents to explore and engage early in lives and produce demonstrable and objectively verifiable 'work' by the age of 11-12. This in turn provides them the necessary confidence to 'choose' their talent area, which in turn helps them invest huge time and energy on one 'talent', further increasing the probability of success.

In contrast, the mathematicians in the above sample began their formal studies in mathematics by the age of 13. Because they start late they cannot produce any demonstrable and verifiable work quickly. This delay in 'focusing' on one talent path splinters their time and attention, which further delays their learning on their talent area.

You may think that students with high IQ ( IQ above 160) can choose their talent field easily. But that is not true. A book by Ruth Feldman on these high IQ 'Quiz Kids' spells out the difficulties these cognitive performers face in 'choosing their talent path'.

3. Trajectory of cognitive talent development makes it difficult for cognitive performers to nurture their talent:

Because the talent of musicians and sportsman is recognised early, by the age of 20, they are spending 4-6 years per day on nurturing their talent in the second phase of their learning, perfecting their talent. Their parents provide the monetary support for talent development, while different type of teachers and coaches actively help them to sharpen their talents.

In contrast, trajectory of cognitive performers starts late. This means that even when cognitive performers have identified their talent area, they cannot get the required time to practice, because other responsibilities - such as earning for oneself - come in the forefront. The hormones of adolescence further derails their talent development journey by distracting their mind and time.

Parental support, by that age, is practically absent due to societal factors. Teacher support is available for 'researchers' who are doing Phds in universities, but for other cognitive performers, even this support is non-existent. Even the companies, who stand to gain the maximum from their talent, do not actively support the development of their cognitive talent, because it does not benefit them directly.
Isn't this surprising? In aesthetic and psychomotor fields, talent development is understood well enough and one can use also the eco-system to sharpen one's talent.

But if you are a cognitive performer ( such as programmers, managers, sales individuals, consultants, advertising professionals, lawyers and practicing medical consultants) which perhaps constitute 70-80% of the performers in a population, you are simply unlucky. Neither you have the knowledge ( of training methods and processes required to identify and nurture the talent), nor do you have the supporting eco-system ( competitions, coaches and training time) to help you identify and sharpen your talent.

But if you are working in cognitive domains, what can you do? At least, you could start at the beginning. Removing the confusion around the word 'talent' could be the first step. In this blog, we shall describe the knowledge and the eco-system that you could use to develop your cognitive talents.

@ Benjamin Bloom: Developing talent in young people