MMS Around the World: In Japan, Ayano Ohmi Injects Montessori Methods into Arts Education

Ayano Ohmi spent nearly 20 years at MMS, beginning in 1996 teaching ceramics, drawing, painting, and sculpture, and wrapping up as the director of the Art Department by the end of 2015.

Given the amount of time spent there, it’s perhaps not a surprise that she focuses on Montessori methods in her role as a professor and director of the Department of Art and Child Studies at Kyoto University of Art and Design.

“We don’t memorize facts, it’s about feeling,” explained Ohmi. “We use our hands and our senses. Our curriculum is practice-based, inquiry-based, and nature-based. The Montessori experience helps me with that. Asian culture is more structured. If we focus on discipline, we lose flexibility and how we think to think.”

Ohmi explained how she tries to impart the importance of understanding all parts of her subject, not just its facts.

“For example, we use paper to draw or to do origami, but we also talk about what paper is,” said Ohmi. “We fold the paper, we smell it, we cut it, we tear it. We think about why the paper is the way it is. Then, weeks later, we go through how to make the paper and learn about materials. We try to investigate how things move and are made in our daily life.”

Ohmi’s department partners with an on-campus nursery school. She enjoys guiding the teachers of young children and spends time in their early childhood classes as well.

COVID has impacted her department. Rather than large, full classrooms, the university’s students come in staggered shifts, social distancing in smaller groups. And students further away from the school receive remote learning. Ohmi also worries about her family in Tokyo on the other side of the country, but they’ve recently received their first vaccines.  

When it’s safe, Ohmi plans to return to New York for a visit.

“I miss MMS and my students,” she says, before adding with a laugh, “and Whole Foods, and Zabar’s!”

Ohmi continues her own artistic practice by regularly working with clay and she urges her former students to do the same.

“I hope they can still do some work with their hands,” said Ohmi. “It’s so important to keep your fingers moving, to keep your brain stimulated.”

-Dan Kricke