Voices in Education

Global Adaptation: Montessori in India
The Montessori method has crossed international boundaries since it began in the early 1900s, and it continues to be a global educational method.

Originally developed in Italy, but popular around the world from the early nineteenth century, the Montessori method has retained its focus on developing children’s independence, building collaborative relationships with teachers, and using hands-on materials. At the same time, one of the surprising things that I discovered while researching my book, Diverse Families Desirable Schools: Public Montessori in the Era of School Choice, is how educators and families have continually reimagined the Montessori method to suit their educational needs.

For example, in 1950s America, Montessori attracted middle-class Catholics seeking a child-centered alternative to Catholic schools, but it also appealed to Civil Rights–era Black activists who were looking for an anti-racist education for their children. More recently, the method has been adopted by Native American educators using Montessori for tribal language preservation, and tech entrepreneurs seeking an education that teaches their children to be innovative leaders. In each of these cases, Montessori education has maintained its essential elements while continuously being reframed by different groups to meet the educational aspirations for their children and communities.

This summer, as a scholar in residence in India, I started examining the global reach of Montessori, and in particular Montessori’s reception in India. Montessori education has a long history in India bolstered in part by the eight years Maria Montessori and her son Mario spent in India between 1939 and 1947. Restricted from traveling due to the outbreak of World War II, the Montessoris educated a generation of educators around the Indian subcontinent who then continued to spread the method (Srinavasan et al. 2007). She also inspired Indian independence leaders like Mahatma Gandhi who saw her method as compatible with creating a new system of culturally responsive schools teaching Indian languages and culture and abandoning English medium schools (Wilson 1987).

This wholesale transformation largely did not happen, and the Indian educational system is still dominated by English language instruction and overwhelmingly directed towards high stakes exams. The competition for Indian university slots is fierce, and the photographs of high scoring “toppers” are displayed on billboards, newspapers and rickshaws around the country.

Still, Montessori educators in India are part of a movement working to break out of this traditional mold. In many cases, they are teaching in elite private preschools, some of which require an application as early as when the child is one year old. But there are also educators working to bring Montessori to a wider audience of Indian children.

Similar to Montessori’s use in Native American indigenous language preservation, it is used by the seventy-three Tibetan refugee schools around India and Nepal and is the official preschool curriculum of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala (Central Tibetan Administration 2004). In Mussoorie, a hill station in the Himalayas, I visited the Tibetan Homes School, a free-tuition boarding school of 1,000 students designed to preserve Tibetan language and culture. The primary school adopted the curriculum in 1999 when they wanted to focus on the individual needs of each child in the early years. This complements the school’s emphasis on cultivating independence: children as young as four are in boarding, and have an older “sibling” who helps them with bathing, laundry and cooking so that they will be self-sufficient by the time they graduate from high school.

Further south in Chennai, one of India’s tech capital cities, Montessori is in demand from affluent parents who hope to offer their children a more creative education than they themselves experienced. But it’s also on the rise as the public sector works to develop early childhood education and hands-on learning. In Chennai, thirty free-tuition city government “Corporation” schools operate Montessori preschool programs as part of a public-private partnership with the Sri Ramacharan Charitable Trust.

When I visited the Chennai Middle School this June, the preschool children—most of them the children of domestic workers—were already hard at work, using Montessori practical life materials including rolling chapatis and pouring water. In the past four years, the Montessori program at the school has expanded from three to eight classrooms as a result of parent demand. Teachers also reported an increase in children successfully transitioning to first grade.  Due in part to this success, the government of Tamil Nadu recently announced plans to expand Montessori preschool education to 52,000 students across the entire state starting this fall.

Across India, the educational aspirations of over a billion people are palpable. A growing constituency is embracing Montessori to address a number of educational challenges, to preserve the languages of refugee populations, to expand preschool education to the poorest children, and to offer a child-centered model of education. Ultimately, Montessori’s endurance as an educational model seems tightly linked to its continued adaptability and relevance to a global population.


Basic Education Policy for Tibetans in Exile, Central Tibetan Administration (Tibet: Department of Education, 2004), http://sherig.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Basic-Education-Policy.pdf.

Prasanna Srinavasan et al., Montessori in India: 70 Years (Chennai: Indian Montessori Foundation, 2007).

Carolie Elizabeth Wilson, “Montessori in India: A Study of the Application of Her Method in a Developing Country” (PhD diss., University of Sydney: 1987), https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/12044.

About the Author: Mira Debs is the executive director of Yale University’s Education Studies Program and a lecturer in the Sociology Department. She is the author of Diverse Families, Desirable Schools: Public Montessori in the Era of School Choice.