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.

Setting Expectations

We recently had a wonderful conversation with a prospective parent on the value of one-on-one education. As this individual observed the classroom in action, an almost serendipitous encounter for anyone, and one we would highly recommend, a discussion coalesced around the role that the teacher plays in the Montessori environment. 

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Observing Ms. Wood present a new lesson to one of our four-year-old students, we were prompted to converse about the need to foster independence, and how that is, arguably, the primary task of Montessori guides. [We call them guides, instead of teachers, to denote that learning isn't solely about instruction, but more about putting the child in touch with their own abilities.] Of course, from the conditions of that independence, beautiful things start to arise, such as concentration, confidence, and the joy of learning that accompanies completing a task on your own.

After Ms. Wood had presented the work, she confidently reassured the student that he could handle the challenge. Then, she gracefully, and with a certain tact, removed herself from the situation, leaving the student to the activity at hand. As Montessori writes, “Once the children’s interest has been aroused, the teacher withdraws into the background, and must be very careful not to interfere - absolutely not, in any way.”

As adults, we often have the tendency to want to interrupt, whether that is to praise or unnecessarily assist, but we must try our best to set a different set of expectations. Montessori, for her part, explains that “well-meant praise is enough to do damage; the child will not look at work again for weeks.” One of the most important things to keep in mind, then, is the type of environment that is created, one in which independence is allowed to flourish. Our observer was really impressed with this approach, commenting on how pleasantly surprised she was by this individual attention.

As we diligently observed Ms. Wood, she kept a careful, watchful eye on the progress of the student, taking note of his interactions as she looked on from across the room. If a child completes the task with ease, or has difficulty with aspects of the activity, or the activity itself, Ms. Wood will take note of these successes, or challenges. She will then address them next time she presents the work, whether to utilize the material to evaluate progress, or to reinforce the original presentation.

Interruption, whether praise or correction, disrupts the learning process. In such instances, the child is not allowed to make mistakes, or develop the confidence that only a sense of discovery and exploration can afford, in the moment. The challenge for the teacher is knowing the exact, individual level of each student, always keeping them right at the limit of their own abilities.

Observing a Montessori Classroom

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One of our absolutely favorite things to do is to showcase our classrooms. We believe in transparency, thinking that the more people can see, the more they’ll come to understand. In our estimations, a lack of transparency has been one the greatest obstacles to the success of Montessori, and it’s our desire to try to open things up. Having the opportunity to see a Montessori classroom in action can be an incredible experience. In the least, it prompts a number of questions, both simple and complex. Ultimately, and this is our greatest hope, it can help observers make an informed decision, not only on the education of their children, but also on the perceived societal value of early childhood education.

We encourage current parents to schedule a time to observe, keeping them up to date through photographs and daily conversations, but we do not make it a requirement. With prospective families, however, especially those with no previous experience of Montessori, we do make it a condition of acceptance. Of course, the way we see it, it’s not about us, but it’s about them. Primarily, we want to ensure that Montessori is the right fit for their family. It also, and at the same time, provides a wonderful opportunity and insight into how people think about education.

With anything, the further down the hole you travel, the harder it gets to try to keep that surface perspective. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this is the only way to do things. We must always try to keep in mind that different families have needs, expectations and desires that might exist outside the parameters of what they envision as Montessori. It’s not our task to tell families what to do, but merely to showcase what we do, seeing if it’s the right fit for them.