In an experiment exploring how I say what I say, I created a "wordle" all of the text of this blog to date. Certainly an interesting reflection of my priorities and sensibilities; at least, in how I express them. Try it out with your own work: www.wordle.net
Saturday, November 19, 2011
We are mathematical beings. Our very survival as animals on the planet has depended upon us being able to think logically, to recognize patterns, to make educated guesses, and to imagine. These are mathematical ways of knowing that come from a deep understanding of one’s surroundings and its rhythms.
In a Montessori classroom we develop keen mathematical minds through specialized equipment that allows the brain to make profound connections. We surround children with math and geometry. Much like an immersion language experience, math is taught in a Montessori environment in a manner that allows for deep and conscious work. One has to pay attention.
The concrete materials that we employ resonate with children because they are meaningful, and the work that involves them is purposeful. When a child uses a Montessori math material they activate a multi-sensory battery of skills that demand that child does not merely calculate. Rather, a child has to think.
It is fairly easy to produce functionally literate mathematicians in a school setting. Students can memorize facts and can be shown formulae; they can be taught how to think linearly, and move from one concept to the next. What we do here, however, is to teach with the whole brain in mind – to develop an understanding of math and geometry that allows children to know and understand.
As parents, it is natural and right for us to want to be sure that our child is prepared for the next stage of her learning, as well as life beyond school – where the skills developed in the classroom can be readily applied to real world issues.
Where many parents get hung up, however, is confusing their own traditional educational history and path with what lies before their own children. The reason why you’re here at a Montessori school is because you wanted more. What we do in a Montessori environment is guide children to realizing the deeper meanings beneath abstract math and geometry concepts so that the knowledge is internalized. Then, when faced with larger more abstract challenges in math and geometry children can rely on their ability to think and problem solve to come to reasonable solutions – answers that require much more than just being able to calculate.
Math Text Books and Math Fact Sheets are natural extensions to the Montessori approach to mathematics education, but need to be used sparingly with great intention paid to when and why they are being used. Abstract, pencil and paper math works used for memorization and automaticity alone serve to undermine the entire philosophy of teaching in a Montessori environment; that is, learning to understand, to go deep, and to develop the skills of critical thinking.
(image courtesy of Montessori Madmen @ http://montessorimadmen.com/)
A Montessori education offers children the world. Through presenting great, impressionistic lessons that ignite curiosity and inspire questions, students learn to make connections and to see how the entirety of a concept relates to its parts, and back again.
The Montessori classroom is a lively workshop. Here, students delve deeply into studies inspired by teacher-led lessons and ones of their own choosing. Projects generated from these engaged explorations are commonplace and enliven the classroom community.
One of the many beauties of a Montessori education is the time afforded the children to truly “know”. Rushing from one topic to the next is patently avoided. As such, the space for profound understanding is fostered. Children stay with a work because they feel its significance. They form an intimate connection; that relationship resonates within them. This relationship is love.
This way of knowing comes from being genuinely part of what you are trying to understand. Through slowing down and learning to take their time, looking at the familiar from different perspectives, children deeply explore the questions and concepts before them. They are engaged with their studies, working with purpose.
We are all part of the Montessori movement because we want something different for children –something beyond a model of education that values dissemination of knowledge over understanding, that confuses sameness with strength, and one that measures achievement only through solitary gains on yearly assessments.
In a Montessori school, we believe that children are spirit-filed beings yearning to be believed in, that education is about freeing children to explore a learning environment prepared with intention, where they can partner with teachers to set goals for their leaning, and “where trained adults relate to them in a guiding, helpful, positive way around the love of learning” (Schaefer, n.d.). In this relationship students develop a powerful personal understanding, and build meaningful connections with one’s community, and the world.
A Montessori approach to education in the 21st century provides children with an environment that meets timeless needs: a child’s need for respect, honor, time, purpose, choice, challenge, practice, feedback, extension, more practice, mastery, and the chance to contribute.
Montessori students are curious, self-confident, eager and energetic; that is, full of interest and intention. They are partners in directing their learning, engaging with curricula that are novel and meaningful and relevant – all with the support of compassionate and knowledgeable educators.
In The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori wrote the following call to action: "If education is always to be conceived [as] a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of [our] future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual's total development lags behind?... The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities"(Montessori, 1949).
In a Montessori school, we aim to do more; indeed, change the system – re-frame and re-create the world as we want it to be. Montessori saw education as “the bright new hope for mankind”(Montessori, 1949). Help us in our endeavor to empower children of to seek out knowledge, to ask questions, to challenge themselves, to love living – in short to see before them an unobstructed, free horizon with nothing but possibility ahead.
1. Montessori, M. (1949). The absorbent mind. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
2. Schaefer, L. (n.d.). Authentic Montessori. MediaSite Recording. St. Paul, MN: St. Catherine University
One of the many beauties of a Montessori education is the time afforded the children to truly 'know'. Rushing from one topic to the next is patently avoided. As such, time for profound understanding is fostered. Children stay with a work because they can feel its significance. They form an intimate connection, and that relationship resonates within them. This relationship is ‘love’.
This way of knowing comes from being genuinely part of what you are attempting to understand. Through slowing down and learning to take their time, looking at the familiar from different perspectives, the children deeply explore the questions and concepts before them.
One of the frustrations that sometimes surfaces for parents of Montessori students is the lack of paper products that come home – in traditional school settings often seen as evidence of learning and growth happening during the school day. Indeed, without such documentation, trusting that the school and classroom teachers are doing best by the children can feel like a great act of faith.
Becoming focused on the completed products generated during the school day, however, may not be the best measure of a child’s success. If we instead examine the conversations about a subject of interest, plans made and projects initiated, material explored - sensorially rooting a major curricular concept, maps built, timelines made, posters developed, stories written, etc. Each of these examples highlights the tenor of the work environment in a Montessori classroom.
The challenge for teachers and parents alike is to reach farther and to look deeper. It is not enough to concern ourselves with dittos and worksheets, contracts and quantities of works accomplished. We all chose to be part of this school for what rests at its core: facilitating the fundamental unfurling of a child’s self.
Recently, I have been reminded of how important is it to let children stumble into their mistakes. What I mean by this is that so often parents, guardians and teachers rush to prevent the children within our care from experiencing discomfort or dis-ease.
I’m not speaking of life-endangering mistakes such as crossing thin ice or going too close to the edge of a precipice; such risks are objective and profound and worthy of immediate adult intervention. I am speaking, rather, of those subjective moments of intense thought and wonder that follow more benign transgressions – moments that surprise and confuse, spellbind and trouble - moments that cause a young person to reorganize what s/he thought was real and true, to integrate new ideas based on the uncomfortable experience.
This shift in perspective might follow a complete reverse layout of a work and time spent attempting the process, or the sorting out the complex dynamics of a close group of friends. Each of these moments offers an entire spectrum of possible reactions, each with its own set of consequences and future focused meanings.
All of us have taken a photograph with our finger in the way, or without the lens cap off. It wasn’t bad or wrong; it just happened. The “mis-takes” we experience throughout our lives shape our view of the world and our place in it. They also account for much of the joy we feel after reflecting upon and integrating such experiences. If we, as adults, sit on our hands - wait and watch - we give children the chance to discover the certainty that follows the discovery of a mistake and the plans made to make a change for the better.
Maria Montessori spoke early and often of children being 'spiritual beings within a material body.' Our mandate, as teachers and parents alike, is to free this spirit and allow for its full expression. This is accomplished through the creation of environments and opportunities organized to promote one's freedom and celebrate one's independence within the context of the liberty tolerated by the whole community. So it is that we can help facilitate the construction of a child's personality.
Let us speak of freedom as that inevitable, internal and intrinsic capacity to be free, whereas liberty is the right and power to act in a manner of one's own choosing. The latter is something that is external, given, and proportional to the independence that one is acquiring: the sense of power to act alone, based upon a series of prior successes.
In a community that provides for individual expression there is a balance separating freedom and license. To be sure, the classroom is a wonderful example of just this: the children have the freedom to make choices that are safe and kind (for themselves and others), but not the license to do whatever they please.
The liberty that a child may take, then, is based upon her successful use of her inherent, organic freedom coupled with her demonstrated independence. This necessarily involves planning, careful choices and the conscious decision to take her learning to the next level.
The challenge for children in a Montessori environment is to look between the scaffold of follow-up work that the teacher has provided, such that they allow themselves the time and space to follow their bliss – for that is what so much of living is all about.
One of the most delicate pieces of work for a Montessori teacher is the pacing of instruction and work time in a class. It is an artful balance that is constantly undergoing evaluation and dips slightly from side to side as student involvement and time direct.
There are many pieces at play here. The teacher greets each student first and foremost as unique and capable, possessing her/his personal set of strengths and needs. The companion filter to this is the scope and sequence of the Montessori curricula, all within the greater framework of state-established content standards. Using both of these ways of knowing, the teacher then embarks on a remarkable journey of attempting to meet each student where s/he is – every student, within the spectrum of abilities and across the curriculum for each area of study.
This seems, at times, a precarious balance indeed as the needs of students, teachers, parents, administrators and governing educational bodies each stake their claim in the process. It is a dynamic system, one that requires patience on the part of all stakeholders and a willingness to first consider and then stretch to test ideas beyond one’s own comfort zones.
It should be said that teachers in a Montessori environment strive towards “life enriching education”; that is, time spent in school that inspires, awakens and enlivens a love of learning. With an understanding of individual readiness, drive and need for support the teacher forges a plan for the class and individual students that works – one that is flexible and may change over time.
Many students do exceedingly well with independence and personal responsibility. Others require more guidance, scaffolding and structure. This simplified spectrum of learning styles can, naturally, be time and place dependent. Sometimes those self-motivated students may resist being told what to do (given their past independent successes) and those children who often require the most assistance want to be left to their own devices to plan for and figure out work on their own.
Each classroom is different and each year is different, given the turnover of roughly one-third of the class in our multi-age classrooms. The culture that is created within a class is a mixture of teacher personality, skill and expectations; student experience, sense of self, tendency towards academic rigor and social responsibility; and, parent involvement, personal schooling experience, understanding of and faith in the Montessori process, view of their child, and view of their child within the context her/his future.
One of the pieces of learned wisdom that gets lost in the process, is the teacher’s experience with children in an educational atmosphere where freedom, choice and directive instruction combine to make a workable whole. Some students and parents, for example, may cry out at a perceived lack of prescriptive lessons, while others claim that there’s too much. What isn’t seen (or shared, perhaps) is the learned sense of what works for children of many stripes over time.
A Montessori teacher sees in three-year cycles. While s/he is very much aware of established performance expectations and exit criteria, s/he also has the hindsight of knowing what resonates for children – through the years, for students of varying interests and abilities. As such, it is across the three-year flow that the teacher plots the arc of a child’s growth and development. Along this curve s/he supports the needs and extends the strengths to new levels as is appropriate - given the balance of a wide and rich set of curricula.
We all have a part to play in the process of a child’s social and academic development. Given measured modeling from each of the stakeholders we can trust the child to arrive at the sweet balance point when it’s time. If we take our cues first from the child, while listening critically to those voices in our head, we stand to create remarkable possibilities.
In my family’s spiritual tradition of Quakerism, queries are often used to help frame a particular session of corporate worship. In stillness and silence members wait for ministry from God relating to the questions at hand. Like the koans of Zen Buddhism, these queries are statements used to help focus one’s attention rather than questions to be answered. And so it is that I begin this discussion of Montessori pedagogy and the life of the teacher.
- Are we aware of what it is that calls us to attend to the needs of the child?
- Have we spent the time necessary to
internalize the core of Montessori’s vision?
- Have we examined our own spiritual practice so to encourage it in others?
- Are we mindful of our limits to affect change?
I am drawn to this topic as I have wrestled with feeling unsettled in my teaching practice of late. We each chose this profession because the work resonated deeply within us. For me, it has been a passion-filled existence, one of great creativity and learning. I have embraced Montessori’s philosophy and continually work to clarify what her original intensions were. Recently, however, I have often have asked myself how long such dedication is sustainable. With competing priorities from multiple stakeholders pulling me in directions, at times, at odds to my understanding of child development and Montessori’s calling, how does one keep up with the internal and external demands of a teaching life?
Years distant from the potency of my own Montessori training, I sometimes struggle to find that spiritual center that was so present for me then, through my work. Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach (1998), offers a suggestion on how we might reconnect with the younger version of ourselves as teachers that first committed to a career in education. He says:
Remembering ourselves and our power can lead to revolution, but it requires more than recalling a few facts. Re-membering involves putting ourselves back together, recovering identity and integrity, reclaiming the wholeness of our lives (p. 20).
I am deeply moved by Palmer’s acknowledgment of the grief a teacher might feel as he sees his beliefs and his life’s work grow apart, and am likewise inspired by his call to action through caring for one’s soul. Our great work today is to listen deeply to the entirely of who we are now, without attachment or alarm.
At present I feel my self divided, seeking an inner calm that will come from balancing my inner commitment to Montessori’s pedagogy and its outward, realized expression. It is the peace that comes through joining the many forces in one’s life to create one’s true identity (Ibid.).
Walt Whitman, in his “A Noiseless Patient Spider”, points to this quest to find the connections that resolve in the formation of one’s spiritual self.
A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to con-
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul. (Miller, J., p. 314).
This deep journey of self-understanding is what brings teachers closer to their work’s original mission. It is“[t]hrough maintaining awareness of our spiritual natures, we can facilitate the children’s expressions of their spiritual natures” (McFarland, p. 3). Allowing for our and the child’s spiritual self to be actualized is how we connect in deep meaningful ways. The “[o]ne thing that will forge true human unity is love” (Montessori, p. 22).
The Potential of Spirituality to Transform
Because of the intimate nature of our work, teachers often tightly wrap our own identities into how our students perform: if the child does well, we do well; if the child struggles and falls down, we sink too. If not done mindfully, we can lose ourselves in our work – confusing the work for living fully. To deepen our teaching practices means to transcend educational pedagogy to a place beyond curriculum, assessment and instruction. This is an inward journey that can prepare us for our very outward lives. Living mindfully, we can then better connect with the children, families and colleagues with whom we work. Little will change in education until teachers face these inner conflicts and proceed with humility (Standing, p. 300).
Reframing the Essence of Montessori Education
I contend that in placing major emphasis on the unique equipment present in Montessori classrooms we run the risk of creating the image that Montessori education is all about curricular content, rigor and mastery. In fact, it is the process by which concepts are learned in the Montessori environment that truly sets it apart. The specific tools that Montessori developed are, indeed, critical components: they provide sensorial pathways to learning, as well as control of error promoting independence. What is normalization if not living authentically as a supported spiritual being? Through honoring the developmental needs of each child, knowing when to support and when to extend, we realign each student with their spiritual centers. The materials are the mantras, the walking meditations that bring the child to peace.
The crossover between the spiritual underpinnings of Montessori’s pedagogy and that of Quaker education is remarkable. Whereas Montessori spoke of the “spiritual embryo” (Montessori, 1995, p. 70), of a child’s unfolding potentialities, Quakers too believe that a “divine seed animates every human soul, and they understand their primary mission to be nourishing it so that all people may reach their intellectual, social, moral and spiritual potential” (Miller, R., 2002, p.4). Quaker philosophy, as a religious practice, may serve as a potent backdrop to this discussion as we look to find again and articulate the spiritual underpinnings of Montessori’s movement.
The spiritual practice of Quakerism grew out of the religious autocracy of seventeenth century England. Faced with an imperious and dogmatic Church, Christians, led by George Fox, left to discover a more personal connection with the Divine. Quakers believed that there was that of God in everyone, and that it was that through listening in silence for this presence that an authentic communion might be formed. So moved were some of the early Quakers that they were seen to quake when receiving ministry from the Spirit, creating the name Quaker. Though initially a derogatory term, the followers of this practice later reclaimed the title as their own. Early followers of Fox referred to their growing religious organization as the Children of the Light, Friends of Truth, and later the Society of Friends. In modern parlance to be a Quaker is to be a member of the Religious Society of Friends.
What set Quakerism apart from the prominent religious practices of the time was its placement of the individual in direct contact with the Divine. Ministers and other intermediaries were not necessary. Quakers believed that because we were of God, we had God within us. They called this the Inner Light. As such, everyone had the ability to communicate directly with the Divine. This empowerment is what gave Quakerism is particular mystical quality, that through significant “contemplation and self-surrender”(Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005) spiritual enlightenment could be attained. “Progress in this mystic quest is indicated as time and space and matter recede and then disappear. In the void, God may have a chance to speak” (Sibley, 1985, p. 5).
Quaker practice wasn’t then, nor is it today, a solitary one. That is, it is not an ascetic meditation that one does alone. Quakers meet to worship together in silence. Fox believed that Quakerism was a “religion of experience”(Ibid., p. 7), that it was the Divine communication itself that legitimized the practice, not just a reliance of Christian scripture. Where “the genius of Quakerism…is to be found [is] in the notion that authority arises out of the Light Within reflected in the religious consciousness of each individual soul in the Meeting of Souls”(Ibid., p. 10). It is through “the promotion of the personal experience of God within the individual as he/she interacts with and within the group”(Thorne, 2006, p. 16) that the mystical dimension of Quakerism can be realized.
Social Activism: Education as a Spiritual Practice
The history of Quakerism is one intimately linked to service in the care of others. Friends believe that “the sacred is always within us as potentiality, waiting to be addressed, answered, called into fuller being” (Lacey, 1998, p. 3).
When this inner light is found, recognized, and kindled it not only shines forth, but it is reflected in the people and communities in which we live. It is “the bond linking all human beings”(Miller, R., 2002a, p. 3). When you care for others, Quakers believe, you are identifying with the Light, that of God, in them.
When Quakers speak of education it is necessarily “spiritually rooted…concerned with the creative evolution of new consciousness” (Miller, R., 2000, p. 6) and not simply driven towards individual academic success. Much like the mystical relationship an individual in Quaker worship can have with God, Friends schools are designed with great deference to the will and desires of the learner. “[T] hey maintain that first-hand, experiential knowledge, refined by the exercise of judgment and reason, enables people to discern deeper truths”(Ibid., p. 5). Ones’ education is not, however, accomplished in a vacuum; rather, “it is an encounter between an active, aspiring, evolving being and the larger world with which we are co-evolving” (Ibid., p. 9). So is it that Quaker education embraces the fellowship of scholarship. The deep knowledge attained in such an educational practice comes not from the mere transmission of information flowing from the teacher to the child; instead, profound learning occurs because the student is first trusted and nourished as a spiritual being, and then is led towards truth.
Montessori, too, believed that “we are created in order to evolve the cosmos” (Montessori, 2007, p. 22). In fact, “she was a tireless crusader for the spiritual renewal of humanity, which she believed could only occur by nourishing the divine creative power within the children of the world” (Miller, R., 2002b, p. 3). In worship, Quakers speak of centering down to find that place of deep attention and receptivity. In a similar way “Montessori sought, above all, to cultivate [such] inner discipline through purposeful activity [after which] the child becomes ‘normalized’ – capable of acting responsibly, independently – through concentration” (Miller, R., 2002b, p. 11). The role of the Montessori teacher is to guide the child to aspects of the prepared environment to allow for said immersion.
Reverent Work: How Schools Can Help
It is time to radicalize Montessori education, to return to its spiritual core (Wolf, 1996). I believe that an unhurried corporate practice of philosophical and spiritual searching can bring profound transformation to both teachers as individuals and to a school’s staff. This is of paramount importance. Paul Lacey (1993) speaks to the spiritual role of the teacher:
We have natural aptitudes for the spiritual life, just as we have for walking and talking, but in each case the natural aptitudes and longings can only be fully realized with the caring support of others. That process of encouragement and nurture is the teaching-learning process, education. Our work, as educators, as parents, as humans, is to help nourish the spiritual life in ourselves and in others (p. 2).
The psychotherapist Erik Erikson “divided lifelong psychosocial development into eight stages, each characterized by a psychosocial crisis that represents a conflict between the individual and society” (D. F. Webb, Jr., personal communication, February 2010). Erikson’s last two stages, specifically the aspects of generativity and integrity, touch on the two key aspects of this discussion: our role in aiding the spiritual development of children, and the alignment of our core pedagogical values and their outer manifestation. Parker Palmer describes generativity in the following way:
On the one hand, it suggests creativity, the ongoing possibility that no matter our age, we can help co-create the world. On the other hand, it suggests the endless emergence of generations, with its implied imperative that the elders look back toward the young and help them find a future that the elders will not see. Put these two images together, and generativity becomes “creativity in the service of the young” – a way in which the elders serve not only the young but also their own well-being (p. 49).
We have before focused on the idea of integrity - that intimate and deliberate coupling of our inner and outer lives such that dissonance is diminished, or at least less frequent. Perhaps the “way of renewal” (Ibid.) lies in having the ability to view our work as part of a greater story – that of building and reshaping humanity.
1. Lacey, P. (1993). Running on empty. Philadelphia, PA: Friends Council on Education.
2. Lacey, P. (1998). Growing into goodness: Essays on Quaker education. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill.
3. McFarland, S. (2009). Shining through: A teacher’s handbook of transformation. Buena Vista: Shining Mountain Press.
4. Miller, Jr., J. (Ed.). (1959). Complete Poetry and Selected Prose by Walt Whitman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
5. Miller, R. (2000). Education and evolution of the cosmos. In R. Miller Caring for new life: Essays on holistic education. Brandon, VT: Foundation for Educational Renewal.
6. Miller, R. (2002a). “That of God in everyone”: The spiritual basis of Quaker education. In J. Miller and Y. Nakagawa (Eds.), Nurturing our wholeness: Perspectives on spirituality in education. Brandon, VT: Foundation for Educational Renewal.
7. Miller, R. (2002b). Nourishing the spiritual embryo: The educational vision of Maria Montessori. In J. Miller and Y. Nakagawa (Eds.), Nurturing our wholeness: Perspectives on spirituality in education. Brandon, VT: Foundation for Educational Renewal.
8. Montessori, M. (1992). Education and Peace. Oxford, England: Clio Press.
9. Montessori, M. (1995). The absorbent mind. New York, New York: Henry Holt.
10. Montessori, M. (2007). Education for a new world. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Montessori-Pierson.
11. Oxford american dictionaries. (2005). Dictionary [computer software}. Apple Computer, Inc.
12. Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
13. Sibley, M. Q. (2005). What canst thou say? Quakerism and religious authority. Retrieved March 6, 2010. From http://www.universalistfriends.org./printable/quf1998a_printable.html
14. Standing, E.M. (1998). Maria Montessori: Her life and work. New York: Plume.
15. Thorne, A. (2006). Rufus Jones (1863-1948): Quaker mystic and social activist. Retrieved March 6, 2010. From www.la.edu/PDFfiles/humanities/rufus_jones.pdf
16. Wolf, A. (1996) Nurturing the spirit in non-sectarian classrooms. Holidaysburg, PA: Parent Child Press.
There are approximately 4,434 public, charter and private Montessori schools in the United States (Public School Montessorian, n.d.), with tens of thousands estimated worldwide (Seldin, 2007). As the number of Montessori schools continues to grow, a clarification of the components essential to an authentic Montessori education is important in order to preserve and maintain Montessori’s vision of education.
I first became interested in Montessori education while observing children in a Montessori charter school in Arizona. While the instructional styles used by the teachers were, perhaps, novel to me in a classroom setting I was most impressed by the children themselves. They appeared curious, self-confident, eager and energetic; that is, full of interest and intention.
My own background at the time was one of outdoor experiential education. As a child I had been steeped in the notion that there was wonderful learning to be had in the forests, prairies, mountains and streams around me - and not just as a casual tourist, either. Rather, through immersing myself in these natural places I got to know them fundamentally – an experience I had rarely felt in elementary school. I spent my summers at nature camps. Later, following graduating from high school, I worked as a counselor at these same camps and then, during college and after, worked as a back country guide and educator throughout the American west.
I was a child for whom doing was my entrance to learning. While I grew to develop the more academic skills required for secondary and higher education, my instincts for getting my hands on and in what I was attempting to understand as a child has continued to be my preferred method of interaction with new ideas. Montessori, herself, believed that “the hands were the instruments of a man’s intelligence” (Montessori, 1949, p. 27). So it had been for me. In my youth, getting to know what was new through my senses first allowed me build a relationship between myself and what was novel. I wasn’t able to intellectualize it right away; I had to feel it first. As an adult, I can see the deeply significant role that manipulatives play, that “the materials are the means to personal formation for each child. … [They] lead the children to exploration beyond the classroom walls, out into the community and world beyond” (Lillard, 1996, pp. 57-58).
What I saw on this first day of observing multiple primary, lower and upper elementary classrooms was exactly what I had done as a child and then taught as a young adult: using the senses to lead the mind. In addition, what I also observed was the control the students had of their learning. The teachers were not instructing so much as they were leading the children toward an experience and observing their responses. When the offer came to assist in one of these same upper elementary classrooms I eagerly accepted.
I have been working with 9-12 year-olds in Montessori classrooms for ten years, now, in charter Montessori schools in the United States and New Zealand. In that time, I have refined what I think are some of the core principles of an authentic Montessori education. I believe that Montessori teachers must necessarily believe in the child as a spirit-filled being; that children first interact sensorially with their environment to understand it, and then grow to explore the relationship between themselves and the world around them; that impressionistic stories need to be employed to ignite children’s curiosity, matched by hands-on materials for them to explore and experience for themselves; that teacher’s observations can guide instruction; and that we, too, can experience the universe anew as the children do for the first time. Indeed, Montessori education “is about freeing the child in a prepared learning environment where they can act independently and set their own goals in learning, and where trained adults relate to them in a guiding, helpful, positive way around the love of learning” (Schaefer, n.d.).
The issue of authenticity in Montessori comes to me in those moments when I am teaching or proctoring an activity that seems antithetical to these fundamental concepts. It is that nagging feeling that something isn’t right; that, we appear to be surrounded by some of the atmospheric components of Montessori education, but the children aren’t yet truly normalized and the deep work has come to a halt.
The metaphor that keeps returning to me is the image of a clear white line, pictured vertically on a monitor: that’s the core of Montessori’s vision. Then, repeatedly, as distractions enter into the school and classroom this line buckles and folds, dancing back and forth – occasionally returning to that initial vertical line, but only just long enough to catch a glimpse of what was there before.
When we speak of authenticity, we are focusing in on being faithful to an original. Regarding authentic Montessori education, we are therefore looking at the translations and interpretations performed in the spirit of Montessori’s own practices. Montessori knew what indigenous peoples have known for millennia: that “how we teach is as important as what we teach” (Schonleber, 2008). She understood that all humans are endowed with tendencies that instinctively direct our actions (Volkman, 2008): orientation, order, exploration, communication, activity, manipulation, work, repetition, exactness, abstraction, and perfection. When and how we meet the need-filled expressions of these tendencies in the children whom we serve is a measure of how closely we are following Montessori’s tested and refined scientific approach to education. It is through paying attention to these tendencies that teachers can authentically teach as Montessori intended : they are real to us and to them.
I believe that authenticity in Montessori matters. If we are to fulfill Montessori’s vision of education as “the bright new hope for mankind” (Montessori, 1949, p. 17) then we are duty-bound to follow her core principles and practices, and to carry them forward in the face of new challenges.
The Public Montessorian. (n.d.). Jola database. Retrieved August 21, 2009, from http://www.jola-montessori.com
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