Promise for the Future

Everyone has a different idea of what Montessori is. For some, Montessori is a radical new approach to learning, to following the interests of the child, knowing that everyone learns independently and at their own pace. For others, Montessori is one of the few educational systems that adopts the importance of social success, where children are encouraged to collaborate, instead of compete. When you combine these two notions, the idea of individually improving yourself based on your own needs within an environment that lovingly supports and guides your development, the power of Montessori truly starts to take shape.

Here's an example, one that helps to highlight the brilliance of Montessori:

A few months ago, one of our older students in the toddler classroom spontaneously, which is to say of her own volition, decided to help one of our younger students with his shoe. He was having a bit of trouble getting them on and needed a little help. As he sat down on the stool, she carefully, and with a compassion all her own, helped him adjust it just so. She was kind, patient and assertive, remembering what it was like to need help. More than anything, she was mindful of not taking away any latent confidence.

For this soon to be three year old student, it wasn't about doing the "right thing", as if there was some sort of a prescriptive social norm, where nothing less would be acceptable. She wasn't looking for a compliment from her teacher. Or, praise from her fellow students, as if she'd just outsmarted them in some sort of underlying, existential competition to win affection. On the contrary, it was a natural, generous, unrehearsed act. The sort of measures that make you think hard about academic and social dynamics. 

Fast forward a few months. Immediately, you'll notice a similar scenario. This time, however, the one-time recipient of the help now assumes the position of the helper. Observing a younger student struggling to get on her shoe, this two year old boy now exerts the same goodness to his younger peer, as was once exerted towards him. As we warm heartedly watch on, we can't help but wager a guess at a definition of Montessori: it's exactly what's depicted in these photos.

Then we remember an inspiring quote from Maria Montessori. In a lecture presented in San Remo, Italy in 1949, she extols, "The child who owns nothing and promises all, who is to be found everywhere - in the homes of the rich and the poor, in all races and all nationalities; the child who knows nothing of political parties or of any other social distinctions and discrepancies; who, wherever he is born, appears with the same characteristics; who comes from we know not where, and is always a miracle, so complex in its promise for the future."

Perseverance

Everyday we witness something that just blows us away. Today, as we were observing the classroom in action, we happened upon a three year old student, working on a sewing exercise. Immediately, we were struck by her concentration, and this seemingly inherent sense of drive, purpose, and determination.

As we watched, she carefully, methodically, and with a tender sense of care and patience, proceeded to tackle the activity, despite any perceived difficulties. You'll notice how she struggles to remove the needle, but instead of turning to her teachers or friends for help, she refocuses her abilities and manages to accomplish the task on her own.

Imagine the feeling of confidence that she just earned from herself. Next time she chooses to work with this activity, she'll feel that much more prepared, assured of her movements and her achievements. She'll get that much better. Mastering a new work, of course, takes practice and perseverance, something that was demonstrated here, with remarkable ease and agility. 

Upon reflection, only having the opportunity to re-watch the final moments of the exercise on video, we notice the preparation and hard work that allowed this to happen. Notice the tray, for instance. It's positioned just so, right in front of her. The scissors are neatly aligned. She's sitting at the table, with her chair tucked-in. The cut threads are properly placed, waiting to be disposed upon completion. And, the needle, yes a needle!, had already been threaded.

Her perseverance is an inspiration.

Everything Matters

Montessori had a number of major, radical breakthroughs in the field of education. What is usually charted up as her most notable is the idea that we, as adults, must learn to follow the interests of the child. We must meet them where they are, not where we think they should be. From this original, powerful insight stem so many other branches, outgrowths quintessential to truly understanding the revolution Montessori enacted. A revolution, we should add, that is still being played out today.

In our estimations, the single most underappreciated development by Montessori is the idea that how children learn is in direct relation to the environment in which they learn. Montessori understood that the presentation of the materials, for instance, must be neat, orderly and carefully fashioned. This is not to make things look pretty for adults, or prospective parents, but to entice and support the sense of wonder and discovery that children embody. Who wants to engage with an activity that looks disheveled, unorganized and out of place. 

As spring approaches, we put together a few refresher style thoughts centered around the idea that the environment itself is a work of art. It must constantly be attended to, nurtured, and ultimately prepared in such a way that it will come to take care of and usher in the instigation of learning initiated by our students. As you may have heard us articulate before, we believe that, “schools should be machines in the ways in which they are run, not in the ways in which they teach”. 

What we mean by this phrase is captured rather eloquently by Buckminster Fuller, the great American designer, author and inventor, in a little known text called, Education Automation (2010:75). Writing in the early 1960s on the future of education and the changing needs of students and society, no less than the systems in which they operate, he states:

“Real education will be something to which individuals will discipline themselves spontaneously under the stimulus of their own ticker tapes…No two persons have the same appetite at the same time. There is no reason why they should. There is no reason why everyone should be interested in the geography of Venezuela on the same day and hour unless there is some “news” event there, such as a revolution. However, most of us are going to be interested in the geography of Venezuela at some time - our own time - but not all on the same day. Simultaneous curricula are obsolete.”

While traditional approaches to education often offer the type of single curricula that Buckminster Fuller describes, teaching the same thing at the same time to every student, despite their abilities or interests, Montessori focuses on the total educational experience. Traditional styles of education, then, are machines in the way they teach - and, everything else is just, well, everything else. For Montessori, however, “everything else” matters because it’s a direct indication of the entire learning experience.

Giving Time

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Whether we know it or not, we live busy lives. Each, in our own way, we strive to accommodate, and sometimes even tackle, our overpacked calendars. Calendars can be extremely overwhelming, especially the digital sort, as they constantly beep, reminding us of a pending appointment, or perhaps one that we just missed.

Sometimes (and here you can read 'more often than not') we're in a hurry to get here or there: to the grocery store or the soccer game; to work on time, or home before our spouse arrives. It's become a commonplace occurrence: there just isn't enough time. How often do we hear that phrase repeated? "If only there was more time in the day." To be sure, there's just so much to do, and of course, we want to make sure that we have the time to do it all. 

In a way, it's the exact same with children. They want, or should we say need, to have the time it takes to accomplish tasks they set out to effectuate. What do we mean by that? Well, in our estimations, the motor of education, for creating the environment to develop confidence, independence, and the ability to think for oneself, is driven by the time it takes to learn.

What does it mean to "take time"? Whose time are we taking? In this wonderful video, there's so much at work. What you'll see is a four year old student, taking the time to tie her shoelaces. It's only a minute, which means that she's practiced her heart out. Speaking of hearts, how about those green converse!

The majority of the import of the video is not actually what is depicted on the screen, but rather what falls outside the frame of the camera. Mainly, we're speaking about the space that was created to afford this four year old the time and confidence needed to complete her tasks: however simple or inconsequential they may seem to us. The creation of such a space takes patience, care, confidence and, in many respects the most important element, time. She felt comfortable enough to take the time the task required.

Putting on our Montessori hats, it's one of the many reasons we fell head over heels for this approach to education. Montessori creates a space in which time is allowed to blossom. The way Montessori was developed was according to the specific, individual, developmental needs of students. Which is to say, it's not based on a general, one-size fits all curriculum.

How is this different from traditional approaches? Well, for starters, in the conventional system, everyone is working on the exact same thing, at the exact same time. They're allotted x amount of time. When that time expires, it's time to move on. Take, for example, the issue of learning how to tie your shoelaces. While we've just witnessed the product of this students tireless efforts, and can imagine her teacher's fastidious, loving hands and voice helping her every step of the way, picture an environment in which halfway through the task, she was told it was time to wrap things up and move on to the next activity. What would that have done to her confidence?

As adults, and despite our best efforts to optimize our time by planning ahead, waking up early, packing lunches before we go to bed, we simply run out of time. One of the many, incredible benefits of Montessori is that it "gives time" to children. Montessori provides children with the space and confidence that they can take the time it needs for them to accomplish the tasks that they set out to achieve.

Five Days a Week

Transient

There are a lot of misunderstandings about why Montessori requires five days a week. We thought we'd take this opportunity to address a few of them.

First, we think that it's really important to remember that we employ five days a week, not for ourselves, but for our students. We really believe, and the research tells us, that it is in the best interest of the children that they attend five days a week.

Second, and with this first point in mind, consistency is extremely necessary for children. As children learn to navigate the world around them, they really thrive on order, habits and routine. Children don't understand time the way we've come to adopt the clock, so following a consistent path is essential.

Third, and just as important, children need to have the time and freedom to make mistakes. With five days a week, we create an environment in which children feel confident enough in themselves, that they're willing to take chances, and explore new activities.

Basically, they're more inclined to push themselves, without the fear of external or internal pressure to achieve perfection, and perform to "expectations". With more time allotted, we find that the children are much more comfortable and confident in themselves and their peers. They have a vested interest in each other.

As a matter of fact, they spend a lot less time trying to figure things out, being re-acclimated to the situation. In essence, they just feel out of place, if five days a week is not followed. Additionally, the anxieties of transitions, which many children experience, become less and less.

We're certain that there are more points, and we'd love to have you chime in below.