Montessori Society AMI (UK)
By: Lori Woellhaf
The educational charity Every Child a Chance Trust has commissioned a report prepared by KPMG, which says that 30,000 children leave primary school each year unable to do simple calculations. Furthermore, the research said that there was a significant link between poor numeracy and antisocial behavior.
As for older children, it was determined that teenagers leaving school without basic maths cost the taxpayer £1.9 billion a year due to unemployment. With this apparent failing in mind, we ask how Montessori approaches mathematics.
Dr. Montessori recognised that children are born with a particular kind of mind, one that is naturally inclined towards order. This ‘special’ mind is what gives humans the ability to make judgments and to calculate; it is how we have progressed in fields such as engineering and architecture. Dr. Montessori called this ‘the mathematical mind’ - a term borrowed from the French physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal. Montessori felt that, if we are to support development, then we must offer mathematics at an early age since this is the kind of support that is appropriate for the kind of mind that we have. She observed:
‘Great creations come from the mathematical mind, so we must always consider all that is mathematical as a means of mental development. It is certain that mathematics organises the abstract path of the mind, so we must offer it at an early age, in a clear and very accessible manner, as a stimulus to the child whose mind is yet to be organised.’
Dr. Montessori also knew that the child aged six and under learns through his senses and through movement, that is, through hands-on, manipulation. She concluded that she needed to provide mathematical concepts in a concrete form, which would be accessible to the children's senses. A prime example is the material used to introduce the concept of quantity: the Number Rods. These wooden rods are painted in sections of red and blue so that each section represents the addition of a unit. The rod for two is therefore twice as long and twice as heavy as the rod of one; that the rod for ten is ten times larger than that for one is strikingly apparent.
In traditional education, on the other hand, mathematics is taught in a less hands-on manner. The child is given the abstract symbol as a starting point. Beads on a thread may be used to practise counting to ten, but it is more often done aloud or in the form of songs. Recognising the symbol and counting up to ten does not imply an understanding of what these numbers mean; they are simply symbols and words to be said in sequence. Furthermore, counting individual objects such as beads requires the child to make the additional mental step of grouping objects together in order to come up with the quantity. Far clearer is the Montessori approach of presenting the idea of the quantities as a whole using the Number Rods. As Dr. Montessori wrote,
‘When, on the other hand, in ordinary schools, to make the calculation easier, they present the child with different objects to count, such as beans, marbles etc., and when, he takes a group of eight marbles and adds two more marbles to it, the natural impression in his mind is not that he has added 8 to 2, but that he has added 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1 to 1+1. The result is not so clear, and the child is required to make the effort of holding in his mind the idea of a group of eight objects as one united whole, corresponding to a single number, 8. This effort often puts the child back, and delays his understanding of number by months or even years.
The Montessori approach offers another concrete experience in the form of the Golden Bead material used to introduce the Decimal system. A child of four can see without being told the differences between one, ten, one hundred and one thousand: one unit is represented with one golden bead whereas one thousand is a cube made up of one thousand golden beads. As the child handles the material in a series of different activities the contrasts are enforced by the comparative weights and volumes of the items. The fact that the child has been given a vision of the whole scope of the Decimal system inspires wonder and a desire to explore further. In traditional schools the larger quantities are not introduced until the child is much older; this child is proud to say ‘I can count to 100’ whereas the Montessori child, having truly grasped the idea of the Decimal system can count on indefinitely.
Mario Montessori Jr made the following remarks on his grandmother’s method:
‘It is to her credit that she devised a means of introducing highly abstract concepts in a concrete way so that children could explore them at this early stage. A child manipulates them, performing actions and in the meantime, through this sensomotoric experience, gets acquainted with the principle or concept involved.
Numerals are generally introduced in a traditional school by giving dotted outlines of the numerals which the children trace over with a pencil. This offers the dual challenge of controlling the pencil whilst also following the outline provided; in Montessori this skill is learnt as a separate activity. The Montessori approach to introducing numerals focuses only on the symbols themselves using the Sandpaper Numerals: cut-out sandpaper numerals from zero to nine mounted on painted wooden boards. The child learns the shapes of the symbols using his senses as he feels the rough sandpaper and simultaneously absorbs its appearance and its name as he listens to the teacher saying each numeral aloud.
Although initially the child sits with the teacher to learn these numerals, he will also take part in games with them and will practise writing them on a chalkboard and on paper. Repetition is an integral part of the Montessori approach; Dr. Montessori observed that the child possesses a mind capable of effortlessly taking in unlimited information and so the more frequent his experiences, the deeper they are imprinted in his subconscious. In addition, children actually enjoy repeating these activities and will choose to do so unprompted.
But before the child even touches a piece of mathematics material he has spent lots of time preparing himself indirectly to work in a mathematical way. When, aged three years he spends time pouring water from jug to jug he observes and judges relative quantities. When he scrubs a table or polishes a mirror he learns how to set about a task in a logical way and to concentrate on a problem until it is solved. When he works with the Sensorial materials he is constantly required to sort, to look for similarities and differences and compare and contrast different series – all of these critical for his later work with mathematics.
The child is free to explore the material for mathematics material at his own pace, without pressure. The materials are designed with their own ‘control of error’ so the child is always able to assess his own progress. He is introduced to the concepts of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division in group activities where he is given an actual concrete experience of the meaning of these functions. For example, he experiences addition as the putting together of two quantities that results in the production of a larger quantity and multiplication as a special addition in that it is the putting together of quantities that are all the same. The working in groups appeals to his need to interact socially at this age in sharp contrast to the solitary approach of the traditional ‘worksheet’. The Montessori approach results in the concepts being fully understood at a time when it is easy for the child to understand as long as the ideas are presented to him through the manipulation of concrete materials. By the time the children are six years old they have a solid knowledge of mathematics that will stand them in good stead not only for further study, but also for many other aspects of everyday life.
In the early spring of 2009, several news reports proclaimed about the innovation of the ‘stand-up desk’, the desk that allows school children to stand while they work. The desks were the idea of a teacher who had observed that one boy preferred to ‘shift his weight from one foot to the other as he figured out his fractions’, and another who ‘liked to lean on a high stool and swing his right foot under a desk’.
There appears to be a recent awakening in education to the benefits of movement in the classroom. Lori Woellhaf explores.
Teachers who decided to give the desks a try were stunned at the impact on focus and improvement in classroom behaviour. There was a rush of orders and positive feedback – ‘We’ve probably been inhibiting their learning because of how we’ve organised classrooms in desks and rows’ reflects Amy Hamborg, principal of E.P Rock Elementary School in Hudson. ‘You get these 15 minutes of recess and that’s it, you have to be still. We’re realising how important it is for kids to move.’
The growing movement of teachers in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota report greater attentiveness, fewer behavioural problems and more enthusiasm in the students, with the most noted improvements in children habitually fidgety or those diagnosed with attention disorders. These observations are backed by educational researchers who believe the new desks may help children stay more alert and feel more energetic, burning off energy with a resultant reduction in behaviour problems as well as contributing to fighting childhood obesity.
Many teachers are responding as well to a research project of James Levine, M.D., Ph.D, of the Mayo Clinic, that explored the question ‘Do children really need to sit at desks to learn?’ The prototype ‘school of the future’ that he designed, inspired teachers to experiment with using children standing up at workstations in the classrooms or bouncing on stability balls instead of chairs. Dr Levine believes that the most significant advance comes from giving the children the chance to move at school. ‘Children are so amazing. They actually love to learn, we just have to let them move naturally.’
A 2009 Mt Sinai study revealed that as recess time increased, less trouble making was recorded. Dr John Ratey calls recess the body’s natural Ritalin, and attributes the results to the role of exercise and movement in fuelling and driving the mind. He noted the effects of movement in helping prepare the learner, control impulses, improve attention, lessen fatigue, lighten the mood and combat stress. He joined in the chorus for standing desks and gym balls for chairs, going so far as to suggest ‘treadmill conference tables’.
It is a little sad, though, that given the recognition of how important it is for children to be able to move, and the proven benefits on both behaviour and academic achievement, the furthest traditional classrooms are able to go is a longer recess, a bouncing ball for a chair, or a standing desk. It seems very difficult to develop a method that not only allows movement, but embraces it. The freedom of movement that is proving so important to children’s optimal functioning seems to be something very difficult to accommodate in conventional classrooms.
We are very lucky that over 100 years ago, Maria Montessori observed this need in the child. She designed a method of education that not only respected the child’s drive for movement, but used and harnessed it to aid academic learning. In the Montessori classroom we find not only freedom of movement, but children using movement to enhance their learning and understanding. In the Children’s House, we find children independently walking about, carefully avoiding floor mats that friends are working on, transitioning freely from indoor to outdoor space, choosing to go to the toilet or have a snack without needing to ask permission. One child heads into the cloakroom, pulls on his Wellington boots and goes outside to rake autumn leaves. Another child finishes off one last sum at a table, pushes in his chair and replaces the Addition Chart on the shelf, then takes a mat to begin counting the Hundred Chain on the floor. A little girl rubs out the last trace of the letters she has been writing on her chalkboard, and executes a joyful flamenco step as she goes to replace the Sandpaper Letter on the stand. A little boy breathes heavily as he with the greatest effort, heaves the lunch trolley up the step and drags it towards the scrubbing table to be cleaned – saying to all who try to help him carry it ‘No! I want to do it myself!’
But Montessori went even further than this freedom of movement. She observed that when movement was part of the learning activity, children were focused and engaged, and understanding deepened. And thus, in the Children’s House, we find a little girl reading an Action Card that says ‘jump’, and jumping energetically around the table before she returns to read the next card that instructs her to ‘gallop’. We find a boy taking ten trips back and forth from the shelf to his mat to bring each cube of the Pink Tower before attempting to grade them in sequence – and in those ten trips absorbing a clue about the workings of the decimal system. Another child listens intently to a Sound Box on one table, and walks halfway across the classroom to another table, where he listens to several before deciding on which is the pair. A couple of children count out the quantity of beads they have added together on the mat, and head off to another mat to fetch the cards to match 5,793.
Many have remarked on the spontaneous self-discipline that arises in the Montessori environments – many have remarked with wonder at how it is possible these environments are calmer and more peaceful than traditional classrooms where children are made to stay seated and immobile, and where there would seem to be less potential for noise or disturbance. It seems many are now discovering the paradoxical secret about movement.
By: Emma Wong Singh
Long before modern day research ‘discovered’ that active movement (as opposed to the passive movement of being pushed in a pram, being placed in a cot or playpen, or in a baby-walker) has a significant positive impact on the basic developmental processes the child experiences, Maria Montessori had grasped the importance of that very same relationship. From her observations of children over the first quarter of last century, she asserted that, ‘…mental development must be connected with movement and be dependent on it.’ And claimed further that, ‘(the child needs) activity concentrated on some task that requires movement of the hands guided by the intellect.’
She discovered that movement needs to be ‘…guided by the intellect’; movement not for movement’s sake, but purposeful movement.
After the initial 1963 classic study by Held and Hein many more pieces of research began to explore the impact of grasping and also crawling on babies’ brain development. These studies found that the more active the infant was in exploring the environment with their hands, the more advanced they were in their ability to perceive object boundaries. Recent research with monkeys and adult humans have also found that we respond to what we can interact with, and once babies reach for objects, we can see that they become capable of interacting with their environment; the earlier they start to reach, the earlier their cognitive abilities mature. This interaction, it was further proved, also increased their interest in and knowledge of the physical world around them and also interestingly, their mental world, i.e. being able to share other peoples’ experiences.
Furthermore, recent research suggests the importance of goal orientated movement. The assertion made by Angeline Stoll Lillard after having laid bare the evidence in her book is that, ‘Purposeful movement appears to be associated with neurological change; mere movement does not.’
Our Task: Helping the Child to Help Himself
Meaningful exercise requires the adult to prepare for the child activities that allow him to master the direction of his movements:
When he is just newly born, hang a beautiful mobile that moves gently with any passing current, so that his eyes can track the outlines of the abstract shapes and colours.
When he is a little older, provide low mobiles (a bell attached to a ribbon for example) just within his reach, and just the right size for his small hands, to grasp and to feel the incredible power of ‘I can do it by myself!’
When he develops his pincer grip at around 9 months, give him items small enough for him to hold and manipulate as this type of aid will help him use and perfect his new developmental acquisition
When he is 18 months old, give him practical life activities that are easy to prepare in the home, for example, washing tomatoes, picking the leaves off radishes, cutting bananas with a ‘butter’ knife, laying the table, watering the plants, loading the washing machine, un-stacking the dishwasher. Ensure that the challenge is commensurate with his ability; the more experience he receives, the more complex activities he will be able to perform
The joy in the child is self-evident when we watch him perform what to the adult seem like ‘chores’ around the house. Such practical, meaningful activities help him feel like [and so he becomes] a responsible and contributing member of the family; little does he know that every opportunity set, allows his intellectual life to flourish in the form of the ‘I think and then I do’ process.
‘Watching a child makes it obvious that the development of his mind comes about through his movements……Observations made on children the world over confirm that the child uses his movements to extend his understanding. Movement helps the development of mind, and this finds renewed expression in further movement and activity. It follows that we are dealing with a cycle, because mind and movement are parts of the same entity.’
Suggested further reading:
Montessori: The Science Behind The Genius by Angeline Stoll Lillard. View
How Babies Think by Alison Gopnick, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl
What’s Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Eliot, PhD
Understanding the Human Being by Silvana Montanaro MD View
The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori View
What You Should Know About Your Child by Maria Montessori View
The Child in the Family by Maria Montessori
By: Rob Gueterbock
The introduction of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) has created an opportunity for a new relationship between the Montessori movement in the UK and those academics, policy makers and local authority professionals involved in the care and education of young children. There is a strong concordance between the themes and principles that underpin the EYFS and those that guide Montessori practice.
Drawing on the Birth to Three Matters Framework, the EYFS puts a new emphasis on children as active learners throughout the foundation stage. This new emphasis has in turn increased the attention given to the environments from which children learn. Dr Montessori was one of the earliest pioneers of educational practices based on these ideas. Today, Montessori communities have a unique contribution to make to the delivery of the EYFS because of the very different way in which they function to support active learning.
At the same time the EYFS poses a difficulty, in the form of the statutory targets, to those seeking to comprehensively support active learning. Over many years children in Montessori environments have comfortably arrived at the indicators of development described through the targets. Supporting children to this level of development has come about by planning activities that follow each child’s deepest interests at any particular time. The emphasis on target-based planning within the EYFS could lead some practitioners to dictate a learning timetable to the children at the expense of following the deep interests of an active learner.
Montessori Education (UK) have written a document mapping Montessori against the guidelines given in the EYFS. The purpose of this document is to highlight how the EYFS can be delivered very effectively through Montessori environments, highlighting those areas where Montessori practice has a particular contribution to offer. Each of the Themes and Principles is comprehensively addressed, including the six areas of Learning and Development.
Montessori and the EYFS
A central idea of Montessori education is that children have within them the power they need to develop themselves. Following from this is the understanding that it is through the child's interaction with his environment that this self-construction takes place. It is the child that needs to be active in his dynamic experience with the world around him. The task we set ourselves as Montessori educators is to provide children with an environment carefully prepared to meet their particular developmental needs and, through careful observation, to connect them with that environment, so that they can build themselves through their own activity.
The parallels between the Montessori approach and some of the main themes of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) are clear. The EYFS theme of 'A Unique Child' is based on the principle that 'Every child is a competent learner from birth who can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured'. Similarly the EYFS makes the provision of 'Enabling Environments' one of four priorities. The emphasis placed on 'active learning' and 'learning through experience' within the theme of 'Learning and Development' is again very much in line with Montessori practice.
There are many sections of the EYFS that emphasize the importance of the child's own decision making, both in what they do and how they do it. Other parts of the EYFS emphasize that children are innately 'primed' to learn from the human and physical environments around them. This is a radical departure from traditional educational practice, which in general follows a curriculum decided by the adult, that determines what the children should do and learn. In the Montessori approach decision-making for the child's day-to-day activities shifts away from the adult, to the child.
Montessori environments take these principles to their natural conclusion. The child enters an environment, which both in its contents and functioning is designed to meet the particular physical, mental and spiritual needs of children aged between 2 ½ to 6 years. Within this space there are very few limits to the child's freedom and decision-making. A child is shown a variety of activities, is free to choose what to do, and for how long. Through detailed observations of his choice and use of activities, further individual lessons are offered, giving him an increasing range of materials to explore. Children are free to use an activity until they decide to put it away. They are free to choose when to be active, when to rest and watch, when to look at a book, to go outside, to have a drink or prepare some fruit. When a child is choosing freely within an environment carefully prepared to support his independence, it is relatively easy to observe his real interests unfolding – those that are driven by developmental urges - and to support and follow these.
By: Sarah Emerson
The recent claims that ‘synthetic phonics’ hold the key to transforming literacy levels in the UK is far from news to those familiar with the approach to language found in a Montessori Children’s House. Sarah Emerson looks at what is meant by this term and how far the Montessori Approach goes to fulfilling the recommendations of the recent research into literacy.
The recent claims that synthetic phonics hold the key to transforming literacy levels in the UK is far from ‘news’ to those familiar with the approach to language found in a Montessori Children’s House. Phonetic reading involves decoding words into their component sounds. To do this, the child needs a thorough knowledge of the sounds of his language and of the symbols (graphemes) for each sound. The research in support of phonics is overwhelmingly convincing. The Johnston and Watson (2005) report showed that children taught using synthetic phonics could read and spell seven months ahead of the norm, and this level of achievement was sustained by the children involved over a number of years.
The key to the success of synthetics phonics is that in learning how to recognise and blend sounds, the child acquires a skill that he will be able to use whenever he encounters a new word in the future.
By: Angeline Lillard
Angeline Lillard, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the award winning book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius writes about the preponderance of non Montessori materials that she sees in many Montessori environments and considers the effect that these materials may be having on the effective application of the Montessori approach.
Over the past five years I have visited scores of Montessori classrooms, most of them in the US and Canada. Many commonalities were observed. For example, in almost every one, children usually freely choose their activities, and engage hands-on with material objects. They take care of the environment, wiping up their own spills, and dusting and sweeping. And there are always identifiable Montessori materials, like the Pink Tower and the Metal Insets, on low shelves spread throughout the room.
Where the variety comes in most strikingly is in the preponderance of other materials that are available and in use. What might the presence and use of these alternative materials mean for the children and their education and development? We cannot know the answer short of controlled studies, but I think the issue warrants deep consideration.
The Montessori materials have an interesting history. The initial ones were developed by Seguin for working with mentally retarded children, and were adapted by Montessori in the early 1900s. From there she modified the originals and added to them. My impression, from her books and from conversations with people who have access to unpublished lectures and have spent time with people who worked directly with her, is that tremendous thought and experimentation went into the development of these materials and their use. The Pink Tower, for example, is not merely a tower of blocks of increasing size, but instead is a carefully calculated instrument to educate the senses and the motor system, and to implicitly introduce the decimal system and the notion of cubing. Each block is one centimetre longer on all sides than the one that came before, and there are ten such blocks going from one cubic centimetre to ten. The increasing size is reflected not only visually but also haptically and barically: each block is heavier by an exponentially increasing magnitude. I do not know why it is pink, rather than blue or green; perhaps it was simply the color paint the carpenter had on hand that day, but given the thought that went into the other aspects and some other materials perhaps it was not chosen randomly. The child uses the Pink Tower in a specific way: carrying each cube to a rug, and then reassembling the tower from memory, from largest to smallest cube, carefully centering each subsequent cube over the preceding one. The material is treated with great care; the teacher is to intervene when materials are handled roughly. When finished, the tower is admired then carefully dissembled [in the early days it was knocked down, but this was a rough use of the material] and returned to its original location.
Dr. Montessori watched children in the classroom and thought about their developmental needs; she developed materials that she thought would suit those needs; and she then watched the children with the materials, and revised and refined them until she thought she had a material that would meet one or more specific needs. So for example there are ten Metal Insets, not thee or fifteen, because she found that different numbers did not entice the child’s interest in the same way. To get the children to engage and stay engaged with the Metal Insets—and thereby learn concentration and to hold and handle a pencil and the names of the ten shapes and to experiment with colour and design—she found they needed ten. The Sandpaper Letters are cursive because Dr. Montessori saw it as easier for beginning writers to keep the pencil on the paper, flowing from one letter to the next, rather than stopping and beginning again for each new letter. And so on: the choice of materials was very intentional, and those who spent the most time with Dr. Montessori or her immediate contacts can offer an endless stream of the many considered and purposes for each of the materials.
Not only does each material have many purposes, but there is also little redundancy across the materials, and redundancy is highly intentional where it exists: for example, there are many small knobs to assist development of the pincer grip because it is considered so important to develop. But given a set of Metal Insets for holding and handling a pencil and following a specific line, there was no perceived need for stencils or other objects for that purpose. With Red Rods to exercise working memory (the amount of information one can hold in mind at once), by having the child walk across the room to retrieve from a pile the rod just longer or shorter than the one just placed, one did not need the game of Memory in the classroom.
In addition, each material was developed in the context of all the other materials. The Solid Cylinders [or Solid Insets] set in motion thinking about changes in dimension, leading to the Pink Tower with three dimensions changing [three being easier to perceive than two], then the Brown Stair with two, then the Red Rods with just one. And the Red Rods would lead into math in the context of what came before (just mentioned) and after (Red and Blue Rods). Mastering the pencil with the Metal Insets set the child up for writing in the context of the child having also learned how to form the letters and knowing what they represent. This knowledge was conferred through use of the Sandpaper Letters. The Metal Insets without that other supporting material would not lead to writing. And so on. By design the materials have this complex interweaving nature, so one material feeds into or plays off of another.
Dr. Montessori developed a specific set of materials to work together not only within the classroom, but also across classroom levels. The set within each classroom was intended to be about the right size set for a child to master in about three years in the classroom [or six years in Elementary for the full program]. And the materials the child would see in the next classroom not only referred to the materials in the earlier classroom [or was even the self-same material, used in a more complex way], but also required the understanding conferred by that earlier material.
In sum, then, the original set of materials, as it had evolved by her death in 1952, comprised a specific set of materials for each classroom level, carefully designed to confer specific understandings through repeated use and in the context of other materials, selected to avoid most redundancy, and quantified to allow mastery in about three years in a classroom.
As Montessori has evolved, we might say two courses have been taken. One course has been to keep very much to Dr. Montessori’s sets of materials [at each classroom level], with few changes; for lack of a better word I will call this the Traditional approach. The second approach, which I will call the Modified Montessori approach, has been to adopt modifications in a democratic fashion, with each teacher trainer and teacher making decisions about new materials to add to the set [or in cases what to take out]. Some of the added materials are readily available commercially and are not special to Montessori [puzzles]; others are presented at and sold at Montessori teacher conferences or are in Montessori catalogues. The result after some fifty years of this is a wealth of alternative materials in many Montessori classrooms, materials in whose creation Dr. Montessori did not have a hand or mind.
What are some of these materials, and what might be the consequences of their inclusion in the classroom? One common category of modified materials I see is puzzles, games, and crafts projects. Children might be on the floor with a large puzzle of different animals from all over the world, or of planets of the solar system, or just a fantasy puzzle or a tangram. Or they might be playing the game of Memory or chess, or making valentines or collages from magazines. Children are often very engaged in such activities, and in classrooms that offer a lot of them, I have seen 90% of the children doing such activities while the Montessori materials gather dust in the corners. Because of the popularity of such materials for the children, a teacher trying to ‘Follow the child’ might well decide to put in more. Why are children preferring these materials, and what is the impact?
For the why, I am not sure. Perhaps it is because they are familiar; perhaps it is because it is what they see other children doing. Something I also wonder about is whether the teachers are not conferring to the children the sense that the Montessori materials are very, very special. In classrooms where children use the Montessori materials, teachers appear to present them as if they were presenting something magic, and the teachers also take great pains to encourage the children to strive for perfection in their every movement—not only in how they handle these special objects, but also in how they walk across the room, push in a chair, and so on. There is a level of attention to detail—keeping the pencils sharp, keeping objects straight on the shelves—in the teachers that seems to be inherited by the children that inspires an attitude to the material that goes along with its use. Maybe that is a difference in classrooms where children gravitate to the materials.
What are some of the impacts on the child of using other materials instead of Montessori ones? Consider the puzzle. Puzzles engage the hand, but do so in a very different way than many of the other activities Montessori designed. They teach spatial relations, redundant with other materials, like the Puzzle Maps, which also teach geography. The child learns to trace the Puzzle Map pieces first with their finger and then with a pencil as they recreate the maps on paper. Movement is aligned with cognition. And the child learns a fixed set of relations: France is always by Spain. This is not the case with many other puzzles; for example, in a puzzle of animals, each animal’s appearance next to another animal might be arbitrary [giraffes next to polar bears, for example]. Children do not appear to be learning the animals by learning their shapes, because I never see them trace the outlines of these puzzle pieces—and besides, unlike countries, animals change shape when they move. So what children are learning from these other puzzles is more limited. And by doing those puzzles instead, children are not learning the geography they could be building on later as they advance to other materials.
Another category is materials that the Traditional group would place at different levels, the 0-3 or the Elementary classroom: colorful wooden pegs in a board with holes, or a model of the solar system. Clearly there needs to be allowance for children to have materials from a higher or lower level when needed, for example class size regulations might keep a child back. But sometimes I think teachers include materials from other levels not to meet the needs of an individual child but to enhance the Traditional set of materials. There are also cases of materials that do belong in the classroom but in which they are being used by children who are too old: for example, a 5-year-old just learning their Sandpaper Letters. Sometimes there would be good reasons for this, but in some classrooms with lots of modified materials my sense is that the children were busy doing puzzles at three and four, so the teacher is trying to get some letters in before the child leaves the classroom. But if feeling sandpaper is more engaging at three than at five (is it?), the teacher has created a challenge to interest, a problem which goes back to the presence of puzzles in the classroom earlier but is coming out in age-inappropriate targeting of materials. Sometimes changes can have consequences far down the line, consequences that might not be anticipated early on.
Yet another category of modification is alternative Practical Life materials. Practical Life is of course not set in stone: teachers are supposed to design their own Practical Life activities. But what I see very commonly is that the importance of the ‘Practical’ has been forgotten. Practical Life activities were intended by Dr. Montessori to have a practical purpose in care of the self, community, and environment. In the first Children’s House, children were taught to bathe themselves, not a doll; they then went around the classroom and really cleaned what needed cleaning. As she wrote in Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook whereas some children have a toy kitchen in which to pretend to cook (and so on), ‘This method seeks to give all this to the child in reality—making him (sic) an actor in a living scene’. Still today, the child washes a table in the classroom because the tables do need washing. The child polishes his or her own leather shoes, so they will look shiny and nice. The child arranges lovely flowers and sets them around the room for beautification, waters real plants for their sustenance, irons napkins and makes muffins for snack, and so on. Real, true purposes. The main exception to this is the Dressing Frames: we don’t normally button up cloths in wooden frames. The reason for making this exception was well-considered: it is difficult for small hands to learn to button, zip, and tie. It is often hard to reach and manipulate these objects on one’s own clothes, and another person might not willingly stand as a model for the time it might take a beginner to accomplish the task—even were their buttons and zippers easy enough to reach and work. The Dressing Frames give the child a place to analyse and practice the movements needed for actual work with clothes. But very few activities require special apparatus like the Dressing Frames.
Modified Practical Life activities are ones that do not reflect what we actually do: polishing a model shoe instead of the shoe one wears, lifting cotton balls with tongs and moving them from one jar to another [one might use tongs with ice or olives, but not cotton balls!], using a dropper to move liquids from one vessel to another for no purpose other than the movement, hammering plastic nails into clay—why? We do not know whether children of three to six years of age detect the difference between polishing their own shoes and a model shoe, or have a different sense about grating soap simply to practice grating versus grating cheese for a pizza they will make. But one would expect they do: children begin to form action plans at a very early age, and Practical Life without a further purpose is like an isolated part of an action plan, like a factory worker who is only allowed to put in one screw over and over and never see the whole. The question arises as to whether children in classrooms where Practical Life activities serve a practical purpose engage in their work with more heart than in classrooms where they reflect this modification?
Finally, there is the category of using materials for purposes for which they were not intended. For example, I have seen children combine the Brown Stair with the Knobless Cylinder to make towers, take animals from Language Boxes, ignoring the language cards, and make the animals converse and play, and use the Red Rods as guns. Is this kind of play with materials okay or not? As I discussed in Chapter 5 of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, there is research suggesting it would not be: that children who used the animals as toys, for example, would have more trouble making the symbolic link to their representation of a real animal as denoted by the language card. Seeing elements of the Brown Stair as a pillar of a building would cloud the child’s capacity to see it as one of a series of similar objects of gradually changing dimension.
Related to this are modifications that involve using the materials in non-standard ways, for example, having the Long Bead Chains go in a circle. What does it do to the child’s understanding of skip counting when the chain circles rather than extends? Does it change it? I would suspect so, based on research in cognitive psychology showing how our spatial metaphors map to our understandings. For example, if I say, ‘Let’s move the meeting back a few days’ whether you take this to mean ‘farther into the future’ or ‘nearer to the present time’ will depend on whether you have been primed to think about yourself moving. Representations of space profoundly influence thought, and it might not be the same exercise to put a bead chain in a circle as to extend it in space. Likewise, to make the Pink Tower from a picture of a Pink Tower might not be the same as remembering what the Pink Tower should look like—it surely is exercising different skills.
What do all these modifications mean for Montessori? Research is clearly needed, but the issues deserve discussion now. When one puts a new material in the classroom, has one given it the same degree of consideration that Montessori made in coming up with the Traditional set? For store-bought materials, did the designer give it the same degree of consideration as Dr. Montessori gave the materials that were in her core set by the end of her life? How does the new material fit the set already in the classroom? What other material should the child use less of, now that there is an additional material to use? How might the skills learned with the new material overlap with those gleaned from using other materials? How do these new materials fit into the sequences laid out by Montessori?
Another issue to consider is that certain of the modified materials obscure what is unique about a Montessori classroom, since most preschool classrooms offer puzzles, games, and crafts. If children mainly engage with these sorts of activities rather than the Montessori materials, then what makes Montessori unique, what makes it Montessori? Does it all come down to the free choice [which many preschools have to some degree] and the presence of the Montessori materials even if they are not used? To what degree does a Montessori education come from repeated use of the materials, and to what degree is it only about a teacher’s attitude towards and treatment of the children?
This article was previously published in Montessori Life and is printed by kind permission of the author.
by: Irene Fafalios
This is an excerpt from a lecture given by Irene Fafalios at the Montessori Society AGM in London
What do we mean by bilingualism? Simply defined a bilingual person would be one who has the ability to speak two languages. I could further qualify this initial definition, by saying that a bilingual person is one who has been exposed to two languages from birth. But a bilingual person is also one who has immigrated to, or chosen to settle in another country and has had to learn a second language later on in life. A bilingual family is one in which at least one member has a different mother tongue from the others. B in 2007. Irene explains the different forms that bilingualism takes in today’s multicultural society and how as teachers and parents we can support children who speak more than one language.
ut again there are many instances – for both parents may speak the same language which is different from the language their child is becoming proficient in at school, or, the two parents may have two different native languages, and perhaps communicate using a third language. According to Jim Cummins bilingual education exists when two languages are used as a means of instruction, in order to attain proficiency in the one language. When this proficiency is obtained, then bilingual education is stopped. However, there is also bilingual education, which is in fact instruction primarily or exclusively in one language, in order to maintain both!
Bilingualism has to do with language, of course. Language is not just something that has to do with the neural pathways that connect the linguistic centres of our brain – language touches our very identity. As Montessorians we know that we become that which we absorb in those first three years of life. The language we are exposed to as infants clearly provides us with an identity that goes well beyond images and experiences or linguistic skills. In absorbing a language we are not just absorbing a way of communicating. In absorbing a language, we become a member of our human group. Our mother tongue is laden not only with all our mother’s being and emotions, it is also our native tongue – belonging to a particular people, a particular community - and is therefore laden with all their beings, their histories, their tragedies, their triumphs. Our language not only expresses our emotions, it is our emotions. Our language is our heritage. In assuming a language, we are taking on a heritage. In continuing and developing this heritage we are continuing and developing, in fact, a language and together with that language – ourselves!
It is therefore important that as teachers and parents we are aware of one or two factors, which will explain the child’s behavior towards us, and will in turn determine our behaviour towards the child. Broadly speaking, we could say that there are two main categories of bilinguals:
The Elitist Bilingual is one who speaks English and French…. English and German - who by being bilingual attains social status and prestige, has great social advantages, opportunities and access to universities and prestigious jobs. For this person, bilingualism is a very positive factor: since two languages, exposes the individual to two cultures, two literary traditions and hence to a huge wealth of cultural and moral ideas – ideally making of the individual a far more tolerant, flexible and adaptable person. Greater interpersonal and communication skills are acquired, thereby raising the individual’s confidence and self esteem.
The Non-Elitist Bilingual is the migrant, the refugee asylum seeker, the one stricken by poverty, illness, high birth rates, poor education – people who are socially excluded precisely because of the two languages they command. Children of these families realize, that their own family and home culture serves as a handicap. They feel increasingly excluded, and negative feelings about themselves, their background and their origins, are reinforced by the wider community – the dominant society. This lack of self-esteem and confidence becomes apparent early on in their school performance and their gradual withdrawal and disinterest is reflected in their low academic achievements.
We see therefore, that it is not bilingualism per se which is the disadvantage, but it is the peripheral society’s attitude that influences our perception of specific bilingual situations. The bilingual child is seen as one who has great advantages if the two languages it speaks are French and English, but not so if it speaks Greek and Albanian. Children who speak two languages and who feel accepted by both cultures will identify with both. However, when the two cultures have unfriendly relations, then it is often the case that children are instead shunned by both cultures. This however is not a bilingual issue – it is clearly a political issue with distinct social and psychological repercussions for the bilingual individual.
Schools can play a very important role, in offering both children – but particularly the non elitist bilingual – the sort of support required to raise self esteem, provide a sense of self worth and confidence that will enable them to survive and succeed in a seemingly hostile society. As teachers, we need to confront our own experiences, feelings and prejudices on these issues, for they unconsciously creep in to the classroom and very subtly colour our interactions with various children. Our awareness and sensitivity to our own reactions and to those experienced by the children in our care, is crucial, if we are to provide each individual and his or her family with the sort of help and support that they might need.
One of the primary concerns of parents, who find themselves in a bilingual situation, is the question of whether they should continue to speak the home language to their child. The truth is that there have been many attempts in the past, to convey the message that the bilingual child is at a clear disadvantage. People felt that bilingualism caused linguistic handicaps, emotional conflicts and cognitive confusion in children. So there were many attempts to prevent children from speaking their home language either in school or at home, on the grounds that this was detrimental to their development and to the nation at large.
The first thing we need to convey to parents, is that bilingualism is not a pathology – it actually seems to do you good! So long as a supportive environment affirms a child’s identity, then research indicates that bilingualism can positively affect both intellectual and linguistic progress, and that there are distinct cognitive, communicative and cultural advantages to having access to two linguistic systems. It seems that bilingual children show a greater sensitivity to linguistic meanings, may be more flexible in their thinking and show greater analytical and problem solving skills. This conceptual development in two languages allows the transference of academic skills across two languages, and enables young children to acquire an awareness of the structure and function of language itself.
What we can do as teachers, is to encourage and help parents find a fixed pattern for language use in the home, for this makes things much easier both for the children learning the languages and for the adults in their day to day life with two (or more) languages.
One such pattern is One Parent One Language: where the two parents each speak two different native languages and each consistently speaks their own native language to the children. Emphasis must be given to the words ‘native’ and ‘consistently’. Consistency is of the utmost importance, so that children may have a clear idea who speaks which language and to whom. Bearing in mind what we know about the child and his sensitive periods for order and language in the first six years of life, this should not surprise us. For me it is the most efficient and efficacious model for all concerned.
Another pattern could be The Minority Language at Home or The Foreign Home Pattern where everyone speaks the minority (non-community) language at home and the community language outside. This also is a very good pattern to recommend to parents – it is simple, clear and functional.
In a bilingual family, the parents will certainly have to invest time in sustaining an equally strong and rich linguistic environment in terms of songs, stories, riddles, tales, jokes and tapes. It is important that the child receives the same type and degree of linguistic stimulation in both languages, where possible. Above all, however, it is important that the family enjoys its bilingualism. No child should be coerced into speaking a language when it does not wish to. Asking children to say something in a certain language for a guest to hear is humiliating and embarrassing. A bilingual family is nothing special and is increasingly less of a phenomenon. A child should see it as a natural part of his family life. It is then far more likely that children will grow up enjoying being bilingual and that both languages will be kept active.
The significance of keeping the home language alive, is apparent in recent research that shows how the development of this first home language, helps the development of a second or third language. In the past it was thought that if the child is not proficient in the language of instruction, i.e. English, then more time should be given to learning English and less time to his home language. However, research shows that in order to gain greater proficiency in the language of instruction, it is best to sustain and support the home language. This is because of cross language transfer, where skills, knowledge and cognitive strategies that a child has, are transferred between the first andsecond language - by acquiring and developing one language well, the child gains a universal understanding of language that makes it much easier for him to learn and become proficient in a second or additional languages.But what do we mean when we talk about ‘proficiency’ in a language? We have two levels of language acquisition that are relevant to bilingualism:
Rapid Language Development– Social English
In this instance the speaker learns the surface language patterns and can, within a very short period of time – usually one to two years - sound like a native speaker. This informal, superficial language skill, in which short, simple sentence structures are predominant,is what is also referred to as ‘conversational’, ‘playground’ or Social English. Social English requires a smaller vocabulary than Academic English. Children use Social English with peers and adults in relaxed, playful, informal situations. It is the first type of English that we hear our young English Learners use, and it is important for teachers to remember that each child will develop this skill at his or her own pace.
Academic Language Development– Academic English
Studies have shown that it takes school-age bilingual children five to seven years to master Academic English that requires longer, more complex sentence structures as well as a larger vocabulary than Social English. It is important for us teachers to remember this time factor, so that when we come to assess language development, we do not immediately label this child as having language difficulties or disorders.
So far we have given emphasis on the importance of supporting and maintaining the home language, throughout a child’s education, for better acquisition and proficiency in the language of instruction. However, we should make it clear that our aim should never be to have a totally balanced bilingual person – there is no such thing. There is always a dominant language, which may also be expressed by the use of different languages in different contexts.
The relationship between first and second language development and learning is never one where the two are equal. Although it seems that the key factor in the acquisition of bilingualism is the age of exposure to the two languages and the type or extent of exposure to each language, it is very difficult to develop the same skills in both languages.
There are three ways to acquire and develop a second language:
Simultaneous Bilingualism applies to children who are exposed and who develop both languages more or less, at the same time. The pattern of language acquisition that such a child follows is very similar to a child who learns each language separately i.e. it follows the usual path of language development.
In bilingual preschools, the ideal would be to have native speakers for both languages spoken, thereby reflecting and supporting what is going on at home. We need to be aware how important it is to model appropriate language for children at this stage. We need to listen patiently to attempts the child makes to express himself verbally, and be aware how sensitive bilingual children are of mistakes they make or might make.
We need to provide children with opportunities for appropriate use of specific language, both in group situations, and on a one to one basis with friends. A mixed age group is ideal for exposing children to a variety of opportunities for language use be it in conversation with one another, where they can express their feelings and explore their ideas in both languages, or be it in activities that children organise themselves. Children who are reluctant to speak are sometimes more forthcoming if we organise games where they can imitate or repeat what someone says.
Successive Bilingualism applies to children whose home language is well established and they learn the second language when they come to school. Children acquiring a second language generally go through the following four stages of language acquisition. Being aware of this model helps us have reasonable expectations of children.
1. The child who enters the preschool understanding hardly any English, will either stop talking altogether and use nonverbal ways of communicating, or he will use his home language, which may not be understood by others but which is his only means of communication. Eventually of course, children no longer use their home language with those who do not understand it. However, it appears that continued use and development of the child’s home language, will benefit children as they acquire English. For this reason we should not discourage parents from using the home language at home during this time.
2. Children then go through a Silent or nonverbal period. This stage can last from one to twelve months. If we are not aware of this stage, we might think that the child is having difficulties and consider professional intervention. This silence however, is the silence we find in the young infant, who is still absorbing his language, prior to speaking it - where an understanding of the language precedes his ability to use it. During this silence, a lot of listening is taking place, as well as acute observation of the gestures, sounds, facial expressions etc. that accompany any language. The child is trying to make sense and find meaning in this jumble of sounds and movements. If children find themselves in a safe, secure situation they will gradually start making a few attempts at speaking - combining gestures and facial expressions.
The role of the adult at this stage, is to ‘let the child be’. We need to ensure that the child finds himself in a linguistically rich environment where things are being said, exchanged, explained, sung, read, written and recounted, so that children may absorb all the sounds, structures, words, gestures etc. that they require. I have found that using images and materials to reinforce what is being said, a lot of pointing and dramatic gestures etc. all help to convey meaning to a child who is able to understand in fact, much more than what he can say. We must respect this creative silence, since we know full well that although voiceless, the child is creating his new voice, and with that will also come his identity.
3. The next phase begins when children start cracking the code of this new language, usually in a telegraphic or formulaic way i.e. they will use a few words, or phrases without understanding how they really function in order to communicate mainly action, possession or location e.g. ‘me home’ ‘I like…’ ‘Gimme…’ ‘I want… ‘. We respond to these efforts, by showing we understand and by verbalizing the complete phrase of what the child is saying. We help by repeatedly giving him these formulaic phrases, which he will quickly pick up and which will serve to communicate to others his basic needs and feelings.
4. Finally, the child comes to the Fluid Language phase, where he is able to use his second language like all surface users i.e. he becomes proficient in Social English. We find children are constantly experimenting in the use, form, sound, purpose and intent of both languages. They love to play with language and we should not worry about this trial and error phase. On the contrary we need to support and encourage the child’s attempts at speaking, accepting all the mistakes made in pronunciation, syntax and expression but ensuring that we respond using the language correctly. We help by giving all the appropriate names of objects, emphasizing key words in sentences, repeating important words in context and coordinating, where necessary, actions with language, so that we may optimize the child’s understanding capabilities, thereby enhancing his self esteem.
Receptive Bilingualism refers to children who are able to understand two languages but express themselves in only one. These are children, who have been exposed to the language prior to coming to school, through television for example, or through older siblings who may be learning English in school and may speak it amongst themselves. This is a fairly common experience for many children, although they are not considered fully bilingual.
As preschool teachers we can support parents in their work, by being aware of the different languages spoken in our environment and finding ways in which we can include these languages in our daily exchanges, without confusing our three to six year olds. We can make children aware of the languages within their school community, simply by naming them. We can encourage children to say a word – a greeting – a song – in their home language – or we can talk about a culture which a specific child can relate to - and there we often see that the child’s initial embarrassment, is coupled with a sense of pride and joy.
In all instances and across all age groups we need to show our children through our behaviour (and not through sermons) that cultural diversity enriches our interactions and enhances our existence. Bilingualism does not cause language or identity problems. The way we manage bilingualism, however, is what causes the problems. We really need to rethink and reassess the messages that our children are receiving. The microcosm of the school – the learning community - is one place where we can affect societal attitudes as regards the bilingual child, and “inferior” or “superior” cultures. We need to start talking not so much about bilingual people, but about bilingual environments.
Montessori schools can play a very important role in helping individuals and communities find their identities, and become strong. We have an educational system based on respect for all living things. One way we reflect and convey that respect to our young learners, is by encouraging them to discover the immense diversity that makes up our planet. All of life’s manifestations however great, or small reflect a diversity that is awesome. We need to cultivate and encourage in our children an attitude which does not stand in fear, but which welcomes such diversity. Such an attitude is generated, once my own little world, myself, my family, my family’s history, has found a safe place within me. Once that is secure, I can easily accommodate other little worlds, other selves, other families, other families’ histories.
By: Shannon Helfrich
Parents today are inundated with media and written materials designed to support them in their role as parents. Many of them are keen to learn the ‘right’ things to do or not do, keen to learn the techniques for raising ‘good' children. Yet, as they read they discover as much conflicting information as they do insightful information.
Often, this is no help!
Shannon Helfrich gives some insight into how we can interact with parents and what kind of things it is important to help them to understand.
As Montessori teachers it is very important that we find a way to help parents understand the developmental principles that we are using to inform our work with the children.
To make matters worse, our mobile society has left many a young parent isolated from the old network of extended family, that in the past functioned as the ‘wizened elders’ of parenting. In today’s world, young parents have typically lost this resource so they look to other avenues to replace the cultural wisdom. This is where teachers can play a greater role. We are collaborators with the parents. We can support, educate and encourage parents.
There are many opportunities to work with parents; some formal and some informal. Our contact with any family begins when they inquire about the school for their child and hopefully come to observe. For most of these parents, what they see in the classroom is very different from their own experience at school. A few minutes on the part of the teacher, some time with the administrator, and a good guide sheet for these observations can help significantly. The prospective parent can ask questions and get some insight into the uniqueness of our Montessori approach.
Once a parent has enrolled their child, the real opportunity for education begins, usually with some form of New Parent Orientation. New parents can meet experienced parents, get a sense of the school community and get their first insight into the Montessori approach to child education. This is a good time to go through the essential elements of the Parent Handbook. While this might seem like a lot of ‘nitty gritty’ at the beginning, we need to remember the basic human need for orientation which brings physical and psychological security. A new parent who feels confident in what is expected of him/her can become a part of the community and take care of their child’s needs with comfort. Now is the time to talk about pick-up and drop off procedures, lunch guidelines, clothing expectations, the box with a change of clothes etc.
Throughout the school year, parents are invited to attend a series of Parent Nights. The focus of these gatherings ought to be on parent education. This is our time to really share what we know and understand about the nature of the child, with the very people who have the greatest impact on them. Then we can rest assured that the child will have the best opportunity to grow and learn. The child who spends a few hours a day within the Montessori prepared environment will be able to go home and continue to feel supported and encouraged. While there are always practical matters to review at the parent nights, the important objective is to keep the focus on principles of good parenting. Often, the focus is on helping the parents to understand the Montessori materials or the classroom applications. This is a valuable experience for every Montessori parent, but cannot be the sole focus of Parent Nights.
For many teachers, the most intimidating part of parent communications is the formal Parent Conferences. This is the time to share with the parents the progress their child is making in learning and any ways the parents can support their child’s independence and continued growth and learning. Many schools schedule these conferences at a set time throughout the year. Other formal conferences are scheduled with the parents to deal specifically with challenges. The focus of these conferences should be exclusively the issue at hand. Remember, we are collaborators and often the challenges we experience with a child are the same challenges the parents are dealing with on a larger scale at home. Brainstorming strategies and providing community resources can all be a part of this communication.
One additional formal contact with parents occurs when the parents come to observe their child in the classroom. Anything we can do to help the parents feel comfortable, and appropriate, and to provide insight into their observations goes a long way in helping the parents understand what they are observing. Remember to tell them that the behaviours of their child are probably not the norm. Children seem to lose a bit of “normalization” when the parent comes to observe. This is heartening for both the teacher and the parents to remember.
There are also several informal opportunities for contact with parents. We see many parents on a regular basis during drop off and pick up times. Parents don’t always understand that we are not available to them during these times. Being pleasant and warm in greeting the parent is important, but we have to set the limit that this is not the time for a conversation. We see parents coming and going in the halls. Be warm, but this is also not a time to socialize or problem solve. While we set boundaries to protect our availability to the children during these two aforementioned times, we must set times when we are available. Make parents aware of when and how to contact you by phone. Parents then will be more able to respect the boundaries we set, because we have made ourselves accessible to them at other times.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether the contact with parents is in the formal or informal context, this can seem to be an overwhelming part of the teachers mission. Let’s look at how to work together with the parents and also at what aspects of our Montessori philosophy might be helpful in supporting the parent in their life with the child.
There are several things to keep in mind regarding parents. I offer some simple guidelines.
Recognize and respect one another’s knowledge and expertise: it is humbling to admit that the parents probably know this child better than you do. While the parents may look to us as the experts on the theoretical knowledge of child development, they are the ones living through it on a daily basis. We need to respect the experience and knowledge of the parent and validate them for this expertise.
Share information through two-way communication: communication between teacher and parents is no less important than communication between parents. Many parents have insights from their own experience that will be quite valuable to us as the teacher. Listening indicates to the parent that they have something important to contribute. It helps them to feel a part of the collaboration, as opposed to being dictated to by “the expert.”
Acknowledge and respect diversity: I don’t even want to count how many versions of ‘family’ exist in our current society because it really doesn’t matter. Whatever form the family takes, that is the family the child has. There are cultural influences, religious influences and familial traditions. We don’t have to personally agree or disagree with any of these, but we must respect their differences and understand them as best we can.
Create networks of support: Some times, the teacher is not the best person to offer help, or does not have the expertise necessary to be of help. In these cases, the wise teacher has a network of support that he or she can suggest. Sometimes, another parent with similar challenges is sufficient and at other times, more professional resources are needed.
The way in which we can help parents to gain the information they are seeking falls into three categories.
Category One: The Nature of Growth and Development
Parents don’t need the whole lecture and all the details of the Four Planes of Development, but an overview can be helpful, as we look at each individual plane of development and help parents to see how the manner in which the child learns changes from plane to plane. We can use the Geometric Chart of the Four Planes to explain the cyclic nature of development. This helps parents to see that growth and learning is part of a predictable whole. It is a continuum throughout early life and the needs of the child are going to change over time. It is encouraging for parents to understand that the skills they learn at earlier stages of their child’s life become the building blocks for communicating and dealing with their child later in development.
The overarching role of the basic human tendencies provides insight into the learning process and can serve to remind all of us that the dominant powers for learning in each plane are amplifications of these human tendencies. It is not necessary to look at all the human tendencies, but we can look at a couple examples that parents can relate to in their own lives and see how they can be observed in the lives of children. For instance, we can take orientation - that most basic human tendency. The newborn must orient to the physical and psychological environment. They must create landmarks of familiarity for themselves. They learn behaviours by modelling themselves after those they trust. We can look at exploration. The young child explores the limits of their own body and later the world surrounding them. They come to an intimate relationship with this world as an interesting and safe place to learn.
Most of the parents in our communities have children in the first and second planes, so a bit of depth about growth can be helpful. Looking at the powers for growth (absorbent mind, sensitive periods for first plane, and the powers of abstraction and imagination in the second plane) can be helpful.
The Sensitive Period for Language is an easy example for parents to observe. Every child, everywhere in the world creates for him/herself in a relatively short period of time a mother tongue- a spoken language. The child learns to communicate thoughts, ideas and needs with words. The vocabulary and structure of language develop side by side.
The Sensitive Period for Movement is also easily observed in children as they first master the demands of locomotion and then the refinement of the hand as the instrument of the mind. What parents often don’t understand is the role of movement in relationship to the will and as the vehicle in the brain for the building of neurological pathways needed for later learning.
The Sensitive Period for the Development and Refinement of Sensory Perceptions is virtually unknown to parents. They readily acknowledge that all humans use their five senses, but to understand the role that these senses play in the learning process is often missed. The refinement of the sense, which is in actuality the training of the brain to interpret and analyze the incoming data, leads to the creation of the basic classification system we use throughout our lives.
The Sensitive Period for Order is essential in supporting the creation of both a capacity for external order, but also mental order. It is one level of ‘knowing’ to be able to put a group of objects into a sequential progression; it is quite another level to apply that mindset to a pattern of words in a sentence or the process of addition. It is one level of order to keep the physical environment tidy, but quite another to create order when it is needed and not present.
An understanding of the nature of the Absorbent Mind is important for parents who quite easily presume that the child thinks like they do. The notion that the child’s mind works so differently from our adult mind is a difficult concept to take in.
Category Two: The Nature of Learning
We can look at what we know today about the nature of the brain. Neither we nor the parents have to be neuroscientists, to understand a few of the basic notions.
Category Three: Supporting the Child Through Control of the Environment
Home is a prepared environment, whether it is thoughtfully prepared or not. For many parents, this is a new notion. They think about their home as their place, and indeed, it is, but is it only a place for adults? Many children feel like ‘aliens’ in their own homes simply because no thought has been given to making a space for them.
As soon as the child can begin to move, s/he becomes an interactive explorer of this new world. The child who is given freedom to move and to explore builds a sense of confidence both in him/herself and in the world. From early on, the child placed on the floor with interesting things to move toward becomes stimulated. The act of moving and the freedom to respond to the interest stimulated by spotting the ‘object’ creates a sense of self-esteem. The child not only learns about the object being explored, but also is building a network of neurological pathways through the movement itself. We can make our home a safe place with interesting motives for exploration. Remember even the most mundane things to us are new to the child and worthy of exploration.
Language is a marvellous aspect of development. It also needs a rich environment from which to draw. For the very young child this simply means that they are spoken to with clear vocalizations. There is a moment in time when the child begins to replicate the sounds that they hear. The art of babbling allows the child to work out how to use their own muscles to make these sounds and he or she is soon able to put simple sounds together. Thus appears on the child’s lip their first word! A rich language environment does not start and end with being spoken to. The child must also observe the other means we use in our culture to communicate.
Research for the last thirty years has shown that children who are read to are much more easily taught to read. Our world is filled with symbols. The child sees these, innately knows that they are used to communicate and this creates a desire to learn to decode the secret of the symbols. As the parent reads the story to the child, the child can see the wonderful illustrations that support the words, but it is still the words that tell the story. It is the words that communicate the magic! Any parent who has been so audacious as to change the story knows that the child has already discerned that the symbols do not change! Beyond children’s books, do our children see us reading? Do they see the joy, the interest, the excitement that reading brings to us? This adds to the interest and motivation to learn the magic of the symbols.
As children grow in their powers of movement, they can become participants in the life of the family. The drive toward independence is great for the young child. Some of the first power struggles a parent may find themselves engaged in are with a child who wants to ‘do it myself!’ Not only are children great explorers, but as they move, they development greater powers of coordination. The first great “gymnasium” for practicing these new skills is the home. The child wants to feed himself, dress himself and do simple everyday, practical tasks that he sees others carry out for their own benefit. Any time we do something for the child that the child is capable and desirous of doing for himself; we are an obstacle to independence! It does take some forethought, planning and patience to allow the child to function and make choices, but this is critical to the development of a sense of competence. The child who can do for himself grows in self-esteem and confidence.
We can also help parents to see their child as a member of the family community. The child is often the ‘forgotten citizen’, seen, but not heard; and not acknowledged as a functional member of the social group. We can help parents see the value of allowing the child to function at their innate level of skill and competency. Children are not efficient, they are not neat and tidy, to say nothing of quick when carrying out common tasks, but they need the right to this participation to feel respected.
As Montessorians, we understand the challenges of finding child sized and child proportioned items and tools. Many parents have never thought about the different proportions of the child’s young body and how their capacity to carry out tasks is hampered by oversized tools and uncomfortable furnishings.
We have the luxury in our classrooms to prepare places specifically suited to support and stimulate the growth and learning of the child. In many ways, we the adult are the ‘foreigners’ in this environment. The home, on the other hand, has to be suited to a great variety of family members and cannot be specifically suited to one age or need. We can help parents understand that this does not need to translate into an environment that is not child friendly. We can think about each room in our homes and see little adaptations that can be made to allow the child to function as independently as possible.
Many parents may find it difficult to prepare the home environment, but they can be encouraged to think about their child from a Montessori perspective. I call this having a ‘Montessori mind set’. Let's look at what awareness we can share with parents to help create this mindset.
Respect for the child revolves around allowing them to be participants in the life of the family community. For Dr. Maria Montessori, respect for the child was critical. She saw the child as the ‘lost citizen’ who had no rights and at best was ignored. Respect comes from how and what we say to the child. Communication with clarity, focused on what we desire the child to do, as opposed to what not to do is the basis for respect. Respect comes from being spoken to, not at or about. Speaking clearly, without innuendo is essential. The child is a literal listener. The child’s vocabulary is still limited and the child can only take at face value the words they hear. Saying what we desire- no questions left to interpretation, no subtitles, and no logic! Before the age of 3, logic is beyond the capacity of the child. They have no mental construct for following logical explanations that lead to an expected conclusion. Even if the conclusion is stated for them, they can’t follow the thinking. This capacity begins to show itself between the ages 4 ½ and 6 yrs, and becomes more possible as the child moves into the second plane. Respect means allowing the child to do what s/he can do, at a level that the child is capable of. This child is still learning and perfecting everyday skills. This takes time, practice and the opportunity to make mistakes, for it is our mistakes from which we learn the most. In Montessori, we call this ‘friendliness with error.’
Not many of us, if any, can perform a new skill perfectly the first time. We practice, we get expert help, and then we practice some more until we get it as good as we can at the moment. This is self-perfection! We make mistakes and we correct those mistakes! Or life goes on and the mistake becomes nothing more than a learning experience. Often, we don’t need anyone else to point out our mistakes, they are pretty self-evident and the challenge is to problem solve the difficulty in our own novel manner while still learning. This acceptance of imperfection is so important for the young child, who is still very much under construction!
This article is edited from the transcript of a seminar given to teachers and students by Shannon Helfrich in London on 24th February 2007 and organised by the Montessori Society AMI UK,Shannon Helfrich is an AMI trainer at the 3-6 level. She has been involved in Montessori Education since 1971 and has served as the Director of Training at training centres both in the United States, Thailand, China and Australia.
We’ve all faced the seduction of the educational software advert that promises to transform our children into technically savvy adults:
‘At Leapfrog we believe that kids don’t just grow up, they think up..with Clickstart, you’re practicing computer skills, numbers, letters, shapes, the stuff you’re going to need for preschool.’
Governments everywhere are pushing computer literacy and use in classrooms. We are fed the arguments that computers improve both teaching practices and student achievement. There is an urgency to their demands that computer literacy should be taught as early as possible, to 3 year olds; in order that children are ready to become tomorrow's work force in an increasingly high-tech world.
If you find yourself succumbing to this pressure and ready to rush out and buy your child the latest Leapfrog, or his first Apple, you may want to check out first a 99-page report called ‘Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers and Childhood.’ It was written by a group called the Alliance for Childhood, which includes 75 educators, child-development specialists and physicians - many of them nationally renowned leaders in their fields - plus a handful of technology experts. The report calls into question an assumption almost universally accepted among mainstream political leaders, the education establishment and, of course, the high-tech community: that the more computers we put in our schools and homes, and the more our children get to use them, the better off they will be. We need to ask ‘Is there research that shows such computer use benefits my child?’ On the contrary, over the past few decades, the accumulation of opinion - from scientific researchers to computer professionals - actually warn of the detrimental effect of computer use on early childhood development. While an ‘impassioned argument’, the report is ‘thoroughly grounded in the scientific understanding of human development.’
Neurological research confirms Montessori’s observation that different developmental issues are primary at different ages. In preschool children, sensory and motor skills, and the neural regions most related to them, are paramount. By pushing computer use at such a crucial stage for brain development, we are depriving our child’s intelligence of the actual food it needs for optimal growth. Fool’s Gold asserts that children need to learn their way first around the real world – ‘their bodies, their communities, nature - not cyberspace; they need hands-on experience, not simulations and content delivery, however rich in multimedia flourishes.’ At the time when the child’s brain needs to be absorbing how the natural world works, and adapting to human culture of its place and time, computer use can prevent the link. The report quotes from an article published by the National Science Board,
‘Computing and cyberspace may blur children's ability to separate the living from the inanimate, contribute to escapism and emotional detachment, stunt the development of a sense of personal security, and create a hyper-fluid sense of identity.’
The educational psychologist Jane Healy spent years doing research into computer use in schools, and expected to be blown away by how children’s learning had been enhanced by computer use. She found exactly the opposite, and was dismayed by the lack of research, and how children’s use of so-called educational software showed dubious value for learning. While she remains positive about some forms of computer use for older children, Healy is upset that preschoolers are being urged to log on. She feels strongly that ‘time on the computer might interfere with development of everything from the young child's motor skills to his or ability to think logically and distinguish between reality and fantasy’. Her book Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds for Better and Worse, is an objective look at both the benefits and problems of computer use at home and in school, and their impact on children’s health, creativity, brain development, social and emotional growth.
Montessori talked about the ordering that takes place in the first 6 years, during which the child works to create the mental structures and classifications into which to sort all the impressions that he is absorbing. Computer scientist David Gelernter says that instead of bombarding children with more information through internet access, we need to help them develop the ability to intellectually manage such complex data pools. He maintains that children need less surfing, as they already have more data than they know how to handle: ‘Virtually everything the Internet is selling, our children already have too much of and are choking on. What they most need’, he says, ‘is persistence, concentration and careful analysis, none of which they will learn by surfing the Internet.
It is striking how people who have achieved immense success in the technological field – innovators and pioneers of new forms of computer use – come from a Montessori background, where they did not use computers in their early childhood experiences. Even more striking, when we look at the work of such Montessori graduates as Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon), Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia), Sergey Brin and Larry Page (founders of Google) is how their advancements seem to reflect their childhood experience of ordering, sorting, searching through and classifying information. Only now they are doing it on an immense scale, and have designed ways of helping other people to do the same. According to Google lore, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-presidents of Google, were not very fond of each other when they first met as Stanford University graduate students in computer science in 1995. They soon found a common interest: retrieving relevant information from large data sets.
Some of the most passionate arguments against computer use in early childhood come from people who are technology experts themselves. Peter Nitze, global operations director atAlliedSignal (an aerospace and automotiveproducts manufacturer), made just that point inspeaking about his own elementary education ina hands-on environment that de-emphasizedtechnology: ‘If you’ve had the experience of binding abook, knitting a sock, playing a recorder, thenyou feel that you can build a rocket ship— orlearna software program you’ve nevertouched. It’s not a bravado, just a quiet conﬁdence. There is nothing you can’t do. Whycouldn’t you? Why couldn’t anybody?’
Fool’s Gold urges parents toconsider ‘what everyexperienced technology instructor knows: all ofthese skills can be taught in a one-semestercourse for older students. Must kindergartenstudents really be trained to operate high-techmachinery to get a jump start on job skills? Isour economic outlook really so desperate andthe development of our children’s autonomy soinconsequential as that?’
Some computer experts go even further, and attribute their success in their field to their Montessori education, and not to any childhood computer classes. Mark Malsee reports in The Story of Sergey Brin: How the Moscow-born entrepreneur cofounded Google and changed the way the world searches:‘He [Sergey Brin] gravitated toward puzzles, maps and math games that taught multiplication. I really enjoyed the Montessori method, he tells me. I could grow at my own pace. Brin adds that the Montessori environment—which gives students the freedom to choose activities that suit their interests—helped foster his creativity.’
On the Barbara Walters ABC-TV Special “The Ten Most Fascinating People of 2004’ Larry Page and Sergey Brin, credited their years as Montessori students as a major factor behind their success. They said that it was going to a Montessori school where they learned to be self-directed and self-starters; that Montessori education allowed them to learn to think for themselves and gave them freedom to pursue their own interests.Will Wright, designer of the groundbreaking computer game The Sims, has said ‘Montessori taught me the joy of discovery...It showed you can become interested in pretty complex theories, like Pythagorean theory, say, by playing with blocks. It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you. SimCity comes right out of Montessori—if you give people this model for building cities, they will abstract from it principles of urban design.’It is thought-provoking that even in such a field as computer games, which have a reputation for being violent, war-oriented, and competitive, a former Montessori child instead develops a game oriented towards building a community.
Will Wright’s actual TED speech included an introduction of how his own Montessori education was ‘the high point of my education’. He reports that when he became a computer game designer he became very interested in Maria Montessori and her method, how she ‘found very valuable for kids to discover things on their own rather than being taught these things overtly. She would design these toys where kids in playing with the toys would actually come to understand these deep principles about life and nature through play. And because they had discovered these things it really stuck with them so much more. And also they would experience their own failure . . . that was very important. So the games that I do I really think of more as modern Montessori toys. And I really want them to be presented in a way more where kids explore and discover their own principles.’ To the Montessori community, that sounds pretty familiar!
By: Kristin McAlister Young
A reflection by Kristin McAlister Young on the word "Sadhana", the topic for the 26th International Montessori Conference in Chennai, India.
"The mind and body coming together to perform complex multi-level tasks, initially with awareness but eventually lived and carried out without effort. Mindful action. Good work done well with inner guidance. Being in the moment, touching the human spirit, a disciplined state of inner harmony."
Reflective practice, spontaneous living, what a beautiful description of the Montessori way, and sadhana, what a powerful topic for the 26th International Montessori Congress. I had not intended to write a reflection, but after attending the Congress in Chennai, I felt that not writing would perhaps be a missed opportunity to capture an important moment - a moment brought about by the choice of sadhana as a topic during a time in our global society when so many are talking of a new way of living life in connection with others and in contact with the deeper self that sadhana refers to. I offer this reflection in recognition of the foundational nature of sadhana in our work and as a celebration of our role in support of life and the slow evolution of a new man born from the normalised children we support. However, I also take this opportunity to issue a call to action to go beyond our work with the child to fully follow Dr. Montessori’s directive to the adult. This point was specifically mentioned by the congress organisers:
"As the child develops, the actions of the body and mind are knitted together in creating the fabric of the self. Practitioners, young and old, must engage in the thoughtful practice of central Montessori principles in everyday life. Through our every conscious action we must seek to live our theory."
Whether as a Montessori parent, administrator, teacher or trainer, we must literally ‘follow the child’ on his journey to the new consciousness of connection that human evolution is heading towards.
Sadhana’s place at the heart of the Montessori work
I am so grateful to have attended the Congress for it provided a centring point: a chance to reflect on and to evaluate what we are really doing and to understand that the common foundation of our practice is sadhana. It is the very act of repeatedly making a connection between the body, mind and a deeper universal presence that is the true power of education. Further, it is in supporting and developing that connection that the individual moves beyond action for his own benefit to action for the benefit of all, thereby truly becoming a new man.
The fundamental nature of this connection is seen in many aspects of the child’s life under six. It is felt in the rapt attention of the newborn held inches from a lovingly present parent. It is almost palpable when the toddler loses all sense of time as he works peacefully to scrub a table. It is seen in the rapture with which a child watches a first presentation and the concentration with which he repeats. Once the child experiences sadhana, it will call to him to repeat. At this point he falls in love with awareness, presence, and concentration. He has achieved a flow experience where the ‘talking mind’, the intellect, ego, and external whims, deviations, and obstacles are silent. The child experiences unity with that deep guide that leads him towards development and towards life.
However, the child under six is in constant conflict between this repeated sensorial impression of unity through moments of sadhana and the tendency towards separation inspired by the crucial development of the will and intellect. This tension between connection and opposition is a necessary process, because it is only in identifying as separate that the will takes form and it is only through individual work that the intellect grows. If this growth is balanced by repeated experiences of sadhana, the sensory impression of unity and the peace it inspires in the child takes precedence so that the will and intellect are relegated to their appropriate importance. They become tools for the child who lives in connection, rather than guiding principles leading the child to life in opposition. The end result is, in fact, the arrival of the truly normalised child- a child that lives in connection to the universal… a child who lives sadhana… with all those beautiful qualities that emerge from a life led in connection.
Connected deeply with his centre, the child then moves into the elementary plane and encounters Cosmic Education. He learns that every particle of his body was once born from a star, that the blood that runs through his body was once water in the primordial ocean and that he is in effect over 4 billion years old! In keeping with the Montessori philosophy, the Children’s House child first has the repeated sensorial experience of the deep and vital centring of self and connection to the universal through the process of normalisation. Once this connection is no longer an effort, but is lived, we give him language to name that abstract concept - a concept that would have been impossible to understand without the sensorial base. We give him the Great Lessons of Cosmic Education.
As Dr. Montessori said:
"Let us give him a vision of the whole universe. The universe is an imposing reality, and an answer to all questions.... All things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity. The idea helps the mind of the child to become focused, to stop wandering in an aimless quest for knowledge. He is satisfied having found the universal centre of himself with all things."
Though it is in the period under six that normalisation occurs, the power of sadhana is only partially developed if the child is abandoned at this stage. It is as if we have let him experience sounds, quantities of numbers, notes of music, shapes of leaves, and the feel of countries on a map, but have not then given him the language to extend this concept outside of himself. He is left with a deep and lasting connection, but the full power of his conscious mind has not been brought to bear on this organising principle of the universe or his connection with it.
In the adolescent community, the child ventures out of his family and peer group and brings this conscious understanding of connection to and responsibility for the universe into conscious action. He has felt, understood, and now acts. During this entire time of elementary and adolescent life, the child still needs repeated practical experiences of connection to a deeper self and discussion which places him in identity with the universe. The child is still vulnerable to the power of his own developing ego and intellect; necessary tools for the conscious mind, but champions of separation and competition if allowed to run wild. In the absence of these repeated moments of sadhana and engagement of the intellect in conscious understanding of connection, the ego again takes hold, strengthening itself through the concept of separateness. Also, if abandoned at this stage, the child is left swimming up current against the majority of human beings whose actions may still be informed by good intent, but intent which stems from serving the old human brain - the intellect and the ego. The elementary and adolescent communities help to protect that connection to the universe so that in his first encounters with the world, the child hears the quiet voice of the ‘we’ through the competing din of the ‘I’.
We see the effects of repeated experiences of sadhana in the adult who emerges. Interestingly Montessori educated adults seem to find themselves searching for work they feel passionate about. Work must mean something. It can be simple - a landscaper, a carpenter, a writer, but it is something that the individual can completely lose himself in. The individual is on a quest to fulfil that need for a direct link to the universal - a search for ‘flow’, for the experience of sadhana. If that child has been able to put language to this concept, he will have undergone a fundamental shift to a cosmic identity and this shift then informs all his actions. The end result of a life supported to reach its fullest potential is nothing less than a new man - a man who naturally feels connection to the universe, who finds meaning in the deepest moments of unity and who works consciously for the benefit of all. Many lives put together - what is that if not the evolution of the human being and the resulting fundamental peace that Dr. Montessori spoke of?
This is the power at the heart of the Montessori philosophy, but it is also a trap. We as Montessori parents, teachers, trainers, and administrators, feel that we are doing our part to usher in this new world by the nature of the work that we do. At the same time, we often feel that, deprived of a Montessori education ourselves, we have missed the sensitive period of connecting to the deeper self and becoming ourselves that new man. We console ourselves that at least we are supporting life from its beginning and helping the new man to emerge in others. With the greatest respect, I would say that this is not enough.
Sadhana and the adult’s ability to evolve consciously
The spiritual element of Dr. Montessori’s work is always a factor at every Montessori gathering, but to be a part of an entire Congress dedicated to this point is a signal that there is something greater going on right now in our world. We are perhaps at a parallel point in our human evolution where humanity, like the child under six, has reached the maximum tension between disconnection and connection. We have lived under the illusion of separateness because it helped to strengthen the tools of the will and the intellect and this was perhaps a necessary evolutionary stage. However, we have also experienced moments of universal connection and we are increasingly realising,both cognitively, through the new physics, and spiritually, through sadhana, that this connection is real. We are at a point where we will either allow ourselves to be guided by that deep connection, using our will and intellect as tools, or we will continue to live in opposition, under the mistaken impression that these tools are sufficient guides in and of themselves for humanity. I believe that humanity is ready to become normalised. To make that shift, we must seize the moment and participate actively in human evolution.
Dr. Montessori pointed out that we alone among living things are not locked into behaviour by instinct, but rather are endowed with the ability to consciously bring about our own evolution. Though she spoke of the child who emerges from this education as a new man, she also told us that we should ‘follow the child’. Admittedly this phrase is commonly interpreted as a comment on observation and a point of method, but I would argue that taken in context with her other writings, it is also a call to action. Dr. Montessori’s main requirement of her teachers was to ‘learn to live better’ and to do so consciously with the child as our guide.
"Our teacher therefore must also be the ‘Spirit Child’—or rather the vital urge with the cosmic laws that lead him unconsciously. Not what we call the child’s will, but the mysterious will that directs his formation, this must be our guide. In serving the child, one serves life; in helping nature one rises up to the next stage, that of super-nature, for to go upward is a law of life. And it is the children who have made this beautiful staircase that mounts even higher. The law of nature is order, and when order comes of itself, we know that we have re-entered the order of the universe. It is clear that nature includes among the missions she has entrusted to the child, the mission of arousing us adults to reach a higher level. The children take us to a higher plane of the spirit and material problems are thereby solved."
Dr. Montessori did not intend for us to stop and watch as the child mounts the staircase, but to follow and she told us how.
"Nature inspires both parents with love for their little ones, and this love is not something artificial…the love we find in infancy shows what kind of love should reign ideally in the grown-up world. A love able, of its own nature to inspire; to sacrifice the dedication of one ego to another ego, of one’s self to the service of others."
Dr. Montessori spoke of two instincts at work as the basis of motivation in the human being - that of self-preservation and that of care of the young. The beauty of children calls out the instinct of care of the young and inspires this deep selfless love. However, if we are to achieve the peace that Dr. Montessori envisioned, we must extend that love beyond the adult-child relationship. We must evolve from actions based primarily on the instinct of self-preservation to actions based on a wider concept of care for the young: simply care - care for the earth, for each other, for each and every particle that was born from the original supernova.  If we recognize our interconnectedness, is there really a difference between care for the child and care for an adult, the worm, the soil or water?
Stemming from our daily experience of sadhana which makes us uniquely sensitive to the interconnectedness of life, our cognitive understanding of our cosmic identity, and from our simple presence with and dedication to children, Montessori practitioners are often already drawn to acts based on the instinct of care of others rather than self-preservation. As I sat surrounded by such wonderful people at the Congress, I was keenly aware of how much simply living with children and being mindful in our practice brings out the best in humanity. This evolution happens spontaneously in the classroom - it is the staircase the children have built for us.
However, so often we allow ourselves to revert to the instinct of self-preservation as we exit our home or classroom doors and are assaulted with the world of adults and their own actions based primarily on self-preservation. So often, instead of extending the same understanding we do to the not-yet normalised child who is faced with obstacles, we shut out the adult he has grown into. As Montessori adults, we have learned to be patient, compassionate, responsive, loving, and non-judgmental. All of this comes fairly naturally to us as great gifts from the child and our work, but we have a unique opportunity and a responsibility to choose to be that person all of the time: not only with children, but also with adults and with the universe. We have the opportunity to choose to live like the normalised child each and every day.
What a new world we would have if it were populated both by children who had grown up living this way naturally as well as adults who make a conscious choice to recognise our identity with each particle of the universe and decide to treat each one with the same love and compassion we show for the child. What a world we would have if, by making that choice with intentionality each day, eventually we live it effortlessly.
I believe that we are at a tipping point. There are many signals that the consciousness of the world is ready for the shift from a culture based on disconnection and self-preservation to a culture based on care, connection, and unity. Montessori practitioners have a unique responsibility because, by the nature of our work, we are aware of this shift in consciousness and we met the new man. We know what she looks like.
We have seen the child who lives every moment with great peace and joy - whose main purpose seems to be to love. We have met the child who approaches conflict with interest and understanding, not judgment. We have seen the child who does strive to be a leader, but lives naturally with such great care for others that she inspires others to try just a bit harder to live better - until it becomes effortless for them as well. We know the child who will give a treasured possession to another in need without the slightest hesitation and we recognise that this act comes from a place of strength and great wisdom. We’ve seen the child who withholds help lovingly to allow others room for accomplishment, but stands ever ready should they falter. We know that child who makes comments that are wise beyond her years, so much so that we are struck by the simple beauty of their observation and the essential truth of their words - a truth that comes from a place that resonates deeply within us. We’ve met the child who finds beauty not only in the butterflies, but in the slugs and leaves and stumps of a forest floor - simply because it is part of the circle of life, part of what is right now. And we know that adult, perhaps few and far between, who refuses to let others tell them they are being idealistic or naïve, but live with great integrity simply because it is what feels right.
As Montessori adults, we dream of a world filled with the future man born from this child - it would truly be a new Earth, but to wait for the slow tides of evolution would be to ignore what we have seen and the experiences we have lived as adults privileged to do the work we do each day. We have a duty to this Earth to choose to live consciously now, to love unconditionally now, and to show great compassion for each particle of the universe in whichever form it takes and at whatever developmental point it finds itself. Billions of years have gotten us to the point that human beings can consciously decide to evolve and we Montessorians have seen the face of the new man in the light of the eyes of a five-year-old-child. I choose to follow her.
Kristin McAlister Young.
© Montessori Society AMI (UK)