We thought we would take this opportunity to address the question of work in Montessori. Why do we use the word work, as opposed to play, or any number of other verbs, to describe the activities children do on a daily basis? Was this a deliberate choice by Montessori? What are the implications? What type of community does Montessori hope to create by the promotion and utilization of the word work? Further, what is the underlying philosophy behind the decision?
While work often receives negative connotations, especially in our contemporary locution, it’s important to point out that Montessori fosters a positive conception of work. How often do we hear the phrase, often sighed, sometimes by those closest to us, our even by ourselves, “I have to go to work today.” Yet, for children, they are still developing, not only an appreciation for language, how it is used socially and culturally, but also, what could be called an ethics of life. For Montessori, work is a gift and a necessity of a meaningful life. “I get to go work today.”
Essentially, children are discovering what Montessori names, rather inspirationally, “another kind of work which has its origins in life itself”. Work, not as livelihood. Work, as the passion of a life truly lived. In ‘The Child, Society, and the World,’ Montessori goes on to offer an important distinction between these two different types of work. Consequently, she offers the parameters by which to help us start to think more concretely about how the Montessori approach to learning addresses this division, and how it is different from the traditional model.
“One must live and the means of livelihood are given by work - that is certain. It is also true that we must have feet in order to walk but it is not true that because we ought to have feet in order to walk, that all our body is composed of feet alone. That we must work in order to live is true, but that is not the whole story, nor is it the aim of work. If we work with this aim which is not the real aim, then everything comes up wrong side out.”
As always, Montessori has a wonderful, spirited way of placing everything in just the right context - with just the right amount of sauciness - a context that we can easily relate to, identify with, and ultimately come to understand, if not wholeheartedly adopt. Regardless of what position we endorse, Montessori forces us to take our standard assumptions into consideration. What makes Montessori so relevant today, in our estimations, is not only her alternative approach to education, which is not a contrarian stance, but rather, one that we continue to find inherently, to use a turn of phrase, ‘to just make sense’. It feels intuitive.
In terms of education, which Montessori always finds a way back towards, she relays that one of the major faults of the traditional educational system is that it treats children in a singular way, by attempting to equip them with the necessary skills to obtain a job, more often than not, at the expense of trying to foster an appreciation or love of learning. Quite simply, the traditional approach was not designed to encourage children to enjoy the process of apprenticeship itself, which is not to say that anyone who works in that system is at fault. It’s just not set up that way.
What the traditional system involves, therefore, is a plan of education, one that most of us are intimately familiar with and probably educated by, that helps ready children for the work force. We all know the lineages. In this case, the most efficient way to accomplish that, is by preparing students to pass examinations. Thereby, the school will help children advance one step closer to a profession, a profession which is largely chosen for them, or in the least, encouraged by the method of preparation itself, i.e.: if a child demonstrates a certain proficiency in a certain subject matter, they are more likely to succeed in that area.
This routine, of preparing children for work, is one that persists from the moment children enter school, to the moment they leave and pursue a profession. “By doing this”, Montessori says, “we learn what we might call a manual art of the brain”. Which is to say, we are conditioned from our very first moments, to try to think in terms of how best to prepare to pass examinations, rather than to try to learn how to think, work, and live on our own. Thought demands courage in a way that an examination cannot assess.
Yet, as Montessori graciously reminds us, “no matter if we are doctors, teachers, or professors, we all take the thing as a job, just as much of a job as the fishermen who go to fish. It is a means by which one makes his own living. And if there are differences in human beings and different classes, there is one thing which is common to all of them - each seeks the kind of work which brings him money. And it is only just that one should work and find a means of living. But the child”, highlights Montessori, “is conscious of another kind of work”.
This other type of work that Montessori alludes to is the type of work that children exemplify, both in their innocence and in their fearless engagement with the world. Children are, almost by nature, ready to confront what seems impossible, not out of inexperience alone, but out of a certain willingness, or life perspective, to try to meet things where they are. They are not yet governed by what we accepts as our conventional limitations. It is almost, as Montessori elucidates, a higher necessity, a calling to discover the joy of learning, the happiness to be found in the pursuit of a life spent searching for a different set of questions.
“One’s life work”, we hear, so often uttered with respect and admiration.
With the above in mind, Montessori was very deliberate in her choice of the word work. She aw it as a guiding principle to the cultivation of a new type of learner, one that was not conditioned by a method of evaluation, but that was inspired by a mode of life. While the traditional approach may prepare children to make a living, it doesn’t prepare them for happy living.
“By working in this fashion, he arrives at an inner level and he does not think about examinations and of what class he is in. He does not think about what kind of work he is going to do in life, whether he is going to be an engineer or a teacher or whatever. We have thus been able to put together children of difference degrees and levels of culture, because what interests them is the work itself and they do not feel any artificial pride.”
With that, we’ll leave you with a final, lovely quote from Montessori:
“If it were true that man need not work in order to live or man did not work in order to find a means of having enough money to get food and clothing for himself an his family, that man would work just the same, because man works just as he breathes and because it is a form of life. Without work, man would not be able to live without becoming ill, degenerate and old, and that is why work is one of the essentials of existence, of life. Men are urged to work by a need which is higher than the instinct of self-preservation, and a man who no longer works for himself or for his family is a man who does the great work of the world.”