Question of Work

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.”


Profile Kaylee Jones

Kaylee is one of our favorite types of Montessorians. She discovered it, the way it discovered her. Which is to say, she always knew she wanted to be a teacher, to help children learn, but there was something about the traditional system of education that didn’t resonate with her intuitions of the way she hoped things could be.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about yourself?

A: I was born in Nebraska, Go Huskers!, and I’m a pretty typical Midwesterner. My contribution to every potluck is either my grandmother’s cheesy potatoes or tator tot hotdish. After getting my degree in Early Childhood Education and working a bit in a traditional school setting as well as a daycare, I knew I had to find something different. Baan Dek was the answer, and I’ve been here for over a year now.

Q: Things have really changed since you first started at Baan Dek! You were hired as a rover, of sorts, and now you are an assistant while training to become a Primary Guide.

A: Yes, this is actually the third position I’ve held! I knew nothing about Montessori coming in. It started out with the comment, “Hey, Baan Dek is hiring” from my roommate Sarah Skaff. I came into my first position working in after-care with the attitude of, maybe I’ll like it, maybe not. By the end of the first week I figured out that this whole Montessori thing is so different from anything I’ve ever been around. These people are crazy, and it works! There are 18 children eating at the same table, and everyone is so happy!

This first position was just dipping my toes into the Montessori world.  I’ve been around kids all my life, and I’ve never seen anything like this. I remember being in the classroom and seeing a 3 year old doing these amazing things! We have such low expectations, but I’m blown away every day by the children’s capabilities.

Transitioning from after care to the toddler room was also a big change. When we first started, the biggest work of the day for some of our 18 month olds was getting their shoes on by themselves. Then all of a sudden there was this explosion of knowledge! It was incredible.

Q: Are you one of the crazy ones now?

A: Yes! I’m crazy for Montessori. :)

Q: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from working at Baan Dek?

A: Baan Dek is not a school. It’s more than academics, we’re living life together. We’re all coming into this community, a hodge podge assortment of people, a group of misfits. We’re all the misfits thrown together, and we work! We work and grow together, with no judgements happening. We just help each other. It oozes into the environment and I think, into the children. We’re all here to do this together!

Q: That reminds us of one of our favorite Steve Jobs’ quotes! It begins: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels…”

Q: Did you have a Montessori moment?

I’ve had so many Montessori moments! Not necessarily one big one, but definitely many small ones. One moment that is a continual “Montessori moment” is the idea of freedom in the prepared environment. As Montessori explains, it’s not total all-out freedom. Instead, it’s freedom with discipline. Children will earn their freedom by showing they can handle it and are capable of bearing the responsibility that comes along with it. This concept was a big eye-opener for me, when first starting out, and continuing now while in training.

Another thing I see in the children that absolutely blows me away is the amount of effort they put forth in their work. For example, a child working with bead stringing who is putting every ounce of their effort into stringing one bead. I don’t put that amount of effort into anything, EVER! Can you imagine what I could do if I put that amount of effort into something!?

Q: You would be living on the moon by now!

A: No kidding! I think training was probably when I realized that Maria Montessori as a human being was so radical. She had an “I’m going to do whatever I want!” kind of attitude. For example, she was the first woman physician in Italy, which is not a small accomplishment. She never really stopped being different. She kept changing, from working in the slums of Rome to working with the mentally handicapped, she was constantly moving and improving. Even after she became established, she was still observing and traveling to study children. While in her 80’s, she traveled to Africa!

Q: Such clarity of vision! To relate it to our world, she would still be exploring the next frontier, like technology. Speaking of exploring, we know you love to travel. What are your next top destinations to visit?

A: Travel?! I LOVE to travel. My top picks would be...

  • Africa, because my brother and sister in-law are interested in working there.

  • California and the west coast in general. I’m thinking San Francisco.

  • China, and anywhere different. I like different things. I’ve been to Europe, and I loved it, but I’d like to travel more out of the box.

  • Australia, for the kangaroos

Q: Is this sense of adventure what drew you to Montessori?

A: It’s weird because I’m sometimes a reserved and anxious person, but when I start traveling or learning new things, I get so excited! For example, going to St. Louis this summer for training gave me a real feeling of possibility. Not only did I get to live in a new city for the summer, but I also got to learn how to do this Montessori thing! Not just observe, actually participate in the process of giving presentations, and delve deeper into the theory behind Montessori.

Q: Did your previous experience at Baan Dek help with training?

A: Definitely. There were a few members of our training group who had no experience in the Montessori classroom. I think it would be so confusing to start from scratch! There’s a lot to learn.

My advice to someone thinking about receiving their Montessori certification is this: If it’s something you want to do, then do it! Even if you haven't done enough research, or don’t have enough real world experience, don’t let it stop you from starting.

Q: What happens if Montessori becomes the status quo, what place will you have?

A: I don’t know. Part of the reason I left the public school is because it was too mainstream. It’s all so standard. Not because I wanted to be on the edge, or be different, but because it never fit. If Montessori is what the mainstream is, would I still want to have my different thing? I’d probably want to take it to the edge, take it to places it doesn’t exist. Like to different countries or cultures.

Q: Wow! Very inspiring! Ok, now for a change of pace. What’s your favorite color?

A: Blue. Hands down.

Q: We know you went to Scotland last year, do you have a favorite memory from that trip?

Besides the postcard of London I sent to Baan Dek? I remember my sister’s birthday, we were planning on doing something special. We went to a soccer game in Glasgow, and then instead of continuing to celebrate her special day, she gave me a birthday present instead! She took me on a Harry Potter tour!! It was a complete surprise. She isn’t interested in HP, but she went along with me on the group tour, and it was very special.

Q: What about a favorite Montessori material?

A: Trinomial Cube. But during training this summer I fell in love with Washing Hands, so it might be a toss up.

Q: What treats do you always say yes to?

A: Chocolate, anything with chocolate.

Q: What is your favorite type of restaurant to frequent?

A: Coffee shop/bistro. In Sioux Falls my favorite is Coffea!

Q: You have 15 minutes of free time, what do you do with it?

A: Surf Pinterest or Instagram.

Q: What is your favorite Starbucks drink?

A: Java Chip Frappuccino, it’s like a chocolate chip shake!

Q: What was your favorite childhood book or movie?

A: “Beauty and the Beast”, because of the library and the talking cutlery.


Concentration is a part of life.

“Concentration is a part of life. It is not the consequence of a method of education.” - Maria Montessori

There’s a certain conception that remains prevalent in our society today about the ‘problem of concentration’. Or, in more contemporary terms, many people are concerned to address what they perceive to be an inability of children to remain attentive to tasks for an extended period of time. 

Ironically, when we do observe children immersed in an activity, in what may seem like a lengthy engagement, we immediately think that something might also be awry. “Why are they so absorbed?”, we asked ourselves. “Don’t they want to play with their friends”, we wonder. 

Ultimately, and in both different cases, the one where concentration doesn’t seem to be readily present, and the other, where it feels overly present, we rather hurriedly rush, singularly focused on a lone question: “Is there something wrong with my child?”

The focus, in this case, is placed solely on the child.

Montessori herself, before she discovered what would later become her method, describes the first time she observed a child totally absorbed by an activity. “This did not seem normal to me. It was normal but I had studied the psychology of those days which said that little children were incapable of concentrating.”

“This was the seed”, says Montessori. 

Arising from this original, germinal insight, Montessori went on to redefine the role of the teacher, and essentially, that of the classroom, which she termed the prepared environment, in, as we will come to see, a rather novel way. 

She offers two examples:

First, the teacher was to “lead the children to concentration”. Which, perhaps counter to our thoughts about traditional education, means not interrupting the students when they are focused, whether that means to praise them or correct them, but rather, allowing them the opportunity to explore the work on their own accord, discovering their own mistakes.

As Montessori describes, in a note to teachers, “If you interfere, a child’s interest finishes, the enchantment of correcting himself is broken. It is as though he says, “I was with myself inside. You called me and so it is finished. Now this material has no more importance for me’. A child does not need praise; praise breaks the enchantment.” 

If you close your eyes for a moment and reflect upon your own childhood education, picturing the type of interactions you had with your teacher and your classmates, and the setting in which these relationships transpired, the entire mode of instruction is predicated on a model of interruption. 

For instance, we only need remember the type of instructions, and questions, that we were offered while in school. “You will have ten minutes to complete the quiz. When you are finished, can you please raise your hand, and I will collect them.” Or, alternatively, and most alarmingly, “when you hear the bell ring, you must stop what you are doing and immediately proceed to the next class”.

Perhaps this is the reason why so many of us are enchanted by Montessori, and other, alternative forms of education that allow children to focus, and follow their interests, at their own pace, coupled with their own desire.

In the second instance, the role of the teacher, as Montessori elucidates, especially as it pertains to children, is “to help their development afterwards”. What this means, as we mentioned only in a cursory fashion, is that when the children have reached that moment of concentration, the apex of focus, nothing else matters. “This is the moment of conquest, the time when the child instructs himself according to the urge of nature.”

As teachers, then, it is our responsibility, not only to foster the opportunity for concentration to arise, but also, to protect it when it happens. One critical aspect of this, which we will now turn our attention towards, is the importance that the environment plays. Whether consciously or not, the environment directly informs the ways in which we learn. The environment is, at least in part, responsible for the behaviors that are exhibited.

Maria Montessori herself says, “Each child has his own special form of naughtiness, each child is different and so each child reacts differently.” The typical assumption, when we start to see a behavior manifest that is not characterized as appropriate for adults, is to blame the behavior of the child. What Montessori does, on the contrary, is turn her attention towards the environment. 

By the environment, Montessori means something like, the setting, or atmosphere, or conditions in which children are capable of undergoing great transformation. "The child and his environment are in constant relation. The child feels the environment creating the law, a law so powerful that it contributes to the transformation of his own personality."

What is causing this behavior to manifest? Is there a reason, outside of the child, that the child has tendencies to misbehave, or get distracted, or interrupt his or her friends? The teacher in the Montessori classroom always turns towards the environment, before they turn toward the child. “It is nature which brings the children to the point of concentration, not you,” relays Montessori.

The focus, in this case, is placed solely on the environment.

Spotlight Bettina Tioseco

We couldn’t be happier to introduce you to Bettina Tioseco, head of Westside Montessori School in Vancouver, British Columbia. They’re doing some pretty amazing things. Or, as they like to say, they’re a “different kind” of school, operating since 1986. We’ve been following Bettina, and their incredible work, for quite some time, especially through Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, where their posts always liven our day. Her appetite for learning (see Aristotle quote below) is such an inspiration, and we think you will enjoy her Spotlight as much as we do. Here we go!

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Your background, your interests, your dreams? We would love to hear about your time spent in Shanghai and Beijing. What drew you there, and what did you take away?

A: I was born in the Philippines, where my Dad was from. My Mom is from Valparaiso, Chile. Oddly enough, we moved about 10,500 km from both these places to Vancouver, BC because my Grandmother was drawn to the mountains and water of the West Coast of Canada. As a child, my best friend, Nani and I would invite all the younger children in the neighbourhood to come attend our makeshift school in her garden space. Branches became chairs and tables and we brought in our own blackboards and paper and pencils. We laugh that we both ended up becoming teachers.

After my Montessori training, the school I was hoping to work at, where I currently am, was fully staffed and there wasn't a space for me. My trainer was mentoring a local school in Shanghai that was making a shift to Montessori. They sent a teacher to train with us in BC and I was curious. I decided to take the leap and try it for a year which then turned into ten years! I was in Shanghai for six years teaching Casa and then was drawn to Beijing to have the opportunity to teach Lower Elementary. I feel like I grew up in Shanghai, having spent my early twenties there and having had the chance to travel all over Asia as well as to Europe. My Dad liked to joke that when he asked to see my savings from working overseas, that I would show him the stamps in my passport instead. During my last year there, I flew to DC to take a course with Tim Seldin, How to Build a World Class Montessori School. That had always been a longtime dream, put on the back burner while I gained valuable experience. I feel that my experiences, especially at The International Montessori School of Beijing, formed me into the Montessorian I am today. I was surrounded by top educators and administrators, knowledgeable and talented in their craft.

Q: Now that the hardest question is out of the way: What's your favorite color?

A: The children often like being as fancy as possible, so we teachers like to keep up. I'd have to say Mazarine Blue.

Q: Do you have a favorite book? How about a film?

A: I’d have to say that Pride and Prejudice is probably my favourite book, I come back to it every few years. My taste in films is heavily influenced by my brother, Alexis, who was a film critic and professor. We didn't always have the same taste in movies, but shared a love for Wong Kar Wai and Wes Anderson films. My favourite would probably be, The Darjeeling Limited, because it was the last film we watched together.  

Q: Can you tell us about your hobbies?

A: I thoroughly enjoy kayaking, yoga, baking and board games, especially Catan. I also enjoy learning and putting into practice new hobbies, like felting, candle making, French knitting - anything that I can bring back into the classroom.

Q: Switching to Montessori, what advice do you have for new Montessori schools?

A: I would suggest working at great schools and learning from them. There is no better way to learn than by being mentored by great teachers and having the chance to work with them. I would also suggest surrounding yourself with people you admire, respect as well as really like. They are the ones you will be spending every day with and together, will create the atmosphere and morale that transfers into the classroom.

Q: With that in mind, we suppose the same question can be applied to established Montessori schools - or schools in general.

A: I believe strongly in Observations and Professional Development. In the words of Aristotle, "He (she) who dares to teach must never cease to learn." We try to observe a few classrooms each year, both traditional and Montessori, and appreciate and reflect on the ideas and inspiration we gain from other teachers and spaces. Our classroom teachers just attended a Tedx Education event here in Vancouver, and the insights and knowledge we have gained is incredible. We were fortunate to hear Dr Adele Diamond speak. She is a world leading Developmental Cognitive Neuroscientist and a huge advocate for Montessori. Having scientific research on the effects of hands-on learning on children's executive functions is incredibly affirming for the work we do.

Q: How have things changed since you first got started in the field of education?

A: A lot has probably changed since 1986, when Westside Montessori School first opened.

I was actually still in elementary school in 1986 :) and didn't go into Montessori until about ten years later. Since I began about 18 years ago, I'd have to say that the biggest change is the influence of media and exposure to devices on children. As time has gone on, we have seen that a multi-sensory tactile approach to learning is what solidifies understanding of concepts in our children, especially in math. In the field of neuropsychology, Dr. Steven Hughes and Dr. Diamond have validated what we as Montessorians have known for years: working with the Montessori materials is good for young brains. And more than ever, necessary.

Q: Did you have a "Montessori Moment?"

A: I actually first came to know WMS when picking up my cousins who attended the school. I peeked in the window (which I probably was not really supposed to do) as I was picking them up early for a dentist appointment. At a glance I was mesmerized - the children inside were busy, engaged, productive and joyful. That prompted me to go into Montessori rather than mainstream teaching and I never looked back.

Q: What’s your favorite education related quote?

A: It’s unconventional to take a quote from a TV Show, but something Mr Schuester on Glee once said really resonated with me, "The best teachers don't give you the answers. They just point the way and let you make your own choices, your own mistakes. That way you get all the glory. And you deserve it."

Q: What do you think is the best introduction to Montessori?

A: The best introduction to Montessori is a normalized, true Montessori multi-aged classroom.

Q: What continues to inspire you about Montessori?

A: Being in the classroom is definitely what continues to inspire me about Montessori. Spending each day with a child and watching them grow during their three foundation years is what it is all about.

Q: How do you feel your work impacts the community at large?

A: One example I can use to answer this question is with six-pack beverage rings. When I walk my dog in my neighbourhood or local trails, I often see one left on the ground. The students and I always bring them into the class and add them to a Practical Life tray. I've heard the story over and over again of children fishing out the rings from their household rubbish or recycle bins, crossing the street to pick one up if they see them, or collecting them at picnics. They know the negative effect these plastic rings can have on marine life and make sure that their families know that it is important to them too. Building awareness and mindfulness with these young minds makes an impact that they will carry with them.

Q: What kind of legacy would you hope to impart to students?

A: My hope for my students is that they feel capable, empowered and that they have a sense of perseverance. I hope that they lead lives that they enjoy and that they are able to grow up to be contented, conscientious and contributing members to their communities.

Q: In what ways do you envision the future of education?

A: I felt very hopeful after the International Montessori Congress in Portland, Oregon last summer. There seemed to be a shift in the Montessori Movement, if you will. The vision is to have Montessori not as an option or alternative in education, but as the norm.

Conversation on Montessori

It's often hard to get to where conversations naturally lead, but we thought we would give it a try, with our first podcast at Baan Dek. Bobby George and Charlotte Wood sat down to chat about the role Montessori plays in education. The starting point was a quote from Jean-Marie Guyau: "Through seeing others smile, the child smiles." As with all things Montessori, there are so many layers, that sometimes the best way to carefully try to unfold them is rather spontaneously. If you enjoy the conversation, and would like to hear more podcasts, please don't hesitate to let us know. We'd love to hear your thoughts, and if you have specific topics that you would like to address, we'd love to hear those too.