Montessori on Making Mistakes

Maria Montessori had so many original and wonderful insights into early childhood education. One of the most under appreciated, and subsequently misunderstood, is the idea of mistakes - of having the space, confidence and ability to make them - and the power of determination that comes from within. When you overcome your mistakes to accomplish a task, you build the moxie and fortitude to, well, accomplish just about anything.

Of course, everyone has probably heard, in one form or another, this fundamentally sound, inspirational, and often conciliatory phrase: “making mistakes is important.” Many of us might even recall a specific conversation with our parents, teachers, or friends, as they consoled us on a failed achievement. - “There’s so much you can learn from this experience,” they motivate. “These types of mistakes will make you stronger,” they empower. “We made the exact same ones,” they confide. - Some of us even have our own favorite quotes. Here’s ours, from Alexander McQueen. “You can only go forward by making mistakes.” 

Yet, why are mistakes important? Why do they help us go forward? Is it a cliche to say there’s value in mistakes?

Montessori: “While the progress the children make seems wonderful, it can only be attributed to the freedom they have in exercising themselves. With methods in general use, teachers must very often correct children. Each time they make a mistake, the teacher must correct them. We, on the contrary, advise that children should not be corrected, that they should be free to make mistakes, not in an absolute sense, but only in their spontaneous efforts for perfection.”

Perfection, to be sure, should not be read in terms of some sort of geometric exercise in which everything must line up just so - which creates anxiety, frustration and, some might say, complacency of thought. Rather, perfection should be understood in terms of the effort required to improve: the sense in which confidence is continually acquired to better our abilities and expand our way of thinking about the world. In this sense, perfection must be thought of in terms of the attainment of one’s interests, and not the correction of an ability. As Montessori says, it’s more spontaneous than calculated.

While traditional approaches to early childhood education are often structured in such a way as to prevent mistakes, Montessori says the exact opposite. Mistakes are important, she relays, not because they are mistakes, but because they allow the freedom to experiment, discover and ultimately explore. As she explains, “If we interrupt to correct, we may distract the attention which has just awakened, the phenomenon on which we must rely if they are to perfect themselves.” If we interfere with the process, in the name of the product, we limit the capacity to create. At the end of the day, what matters most is the passion that is developed in accord with one’s interests. 

At the same time, Montessori extends this observation, and takes the idea of making mistakes one step further. By way of example, she elucidates the capabilities that are required to have the opportunity to make a mistake in the first place, and expounds on the processes involved. In an instructional instance, in which she cites the color tablets exercise, Montessori writes: 

“As an example of an error easily made is when children are placing, let us say, eight shades of the same color in an incorrect order. They put the light where the dark should be in this given order of shades. In our lesson we make children understand how and in what gradation of color they must place the shades. If they do not place the shades all in order, it means that they have not acquired the power of perceiving these slight differences in the gradation of colors.” 

The irony of mistakes is that you can’t make them if you don’t have the space to experiment, but you can make them if you don’t yet have the ability to accomplish the task. Hence, the vital import of teachers, or what Montessori affectionately referred to as ‘guides’, who put the children in touch with the materials. As such, guides are trained observers, educated and empowered to respond to the individual needs of each and every child. Without imposing their will, they serve children by following their interests.

“The teacher must learn, not to teach, but rather to observe.”

Which is to say, as Montessori does: “If we were to correct them, we would attain the superficial goal of the children putting the shades in line, in order of gradation of color, but we would not succeed in giving the children what they lack, namely, the ability to distinguish between these different shades. It would take a supernatural power to make children see what as yet their eyes cannot see, to give perfection as if by miracle to one who still lacks ability and must gain it only through their own efforts.”

What this instance affords, then, is a rather comprehensive question that could easily be applied to a number of cases where mistakes are on the line. Namely, how do we provide the optimal conditions for children to discover their abilities and pursue their interests? Here, the question is specified to our current example: “What must we do so that children may succeed in putting this colors in order of gradation?” 

The traditional response would be to show the children their errors, identifying where and how the mistakes were made, and entrusting that they won’t make the same mistake twice. This approach, of course, smacks of familiarity. This is the way most of us were taught. For Montessori, however, different approach is required. As she writes, the goal is not to have us correct their mistakes. Rather, the ambition is to “keep their attention fixed in these exercises in such a way that they will continue the exercises themselves until they have developed the ability to distinguish the shades”.

Montessori: Map Work

Greetings from Baan Dek! Hope everyone is having a joyous Summer. We thought we'd take this opportunity to introduce our fourth book in our Montessori series from Abrams Appleseed. It's called, Montessori: Map Work, and it just might be our favorite. It's now available to order from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


Here's a little bit more about the book:

As with all things Montessori, students begin with the concrete and move to the abstract. When learning geography, students first develop an understanding that the earth is a round globe, made up of land and water. They then manipulate the shape of each continent before addressing its name and location. 

Montessori: Map Work introduces readers to the seven continents via textured edges to trace with their fingers, modes of transportation between each one for spatial context, and illustrated native animals for relevant and meaningful associations. Young children will absorb the age-appropriate geography and gain a better sense of their place in the world.

We sincerely hope you enjoy. It was so much fun to put together.

Baan Dek T-Shirts

We teamed up with the incredible duo at Funky Fresh Supply Co. to create an original series of Baan Dek t-shirts. While we're providing complimentary shirts for all of our students, we know there are a lot of people in the community that want to show their support too! As of today, they are now available to o, directly through the website: Be sure to check out the different designs and colors! Thank you so much for your interest.

Our Expectations of Childhood

We’ve been puzzling over a little bit of a paradox, one in which we occasionally find ourselves entangled. It goes something like this: As adults, why are we so surprised when a child accomplishes a task we didn’t think they could accomplish? Or, conversely, why are we so unsurprised when they fail at that exact same task? This simple observation led us to another series of questions, which we hope to address here. Namely, what are our expectations of childhood? And, more precisely, what’s at play when we make such assumptions?

Clearly, having lived through childhood, which says something in itself, we often reflect upon our own upbringing, trying to remember both our successes and failures. We attempt to measure their importance, especially in terms of inheritance, considering what we think is important to pass along. We want to optimize the journey for our children, while, at the same time, limiting their exposure to those painful lessons that we learned — the hard way. It’s a tricky path to orchestrate, let alone navigate. Sometimes we find ourselves narrowing the path, before they start out.

Protecting our children from making the same mistakes that we made somehow provides us, as adults, with a sense of encouragement and comfort. We’re relieved when our child doesn’t crash their bike into the back of a parked car the way we did, or stick their impatient fingers into the oven to test if the apple pie is done. In a certain sense, when they avoid these seemingly unnecessary encounters, we perceive this as an accomplishment. We chalk it up to us helping them. After all, we know best, because we’ve lived through it. We’ve experienced these things, and we don’t need our children to experience them too. Yet, it’s not always about us. Which is to say, we truly don’t know what value our children will find in their mistakes, or in their discoveries. Surely, these types of lessons, and the heart of their takeaways, are different for everyone. They were different for us, despite the best efforts of our parents. And, who are we to judge?

As with so many things, Maria Montessori offers insight. In the closing remarks to her 1913 Rome Lectures, she writes, “Surely we cannot claim that people can learn to be active when we accustom them to inactivity, that they can be prompt in their choice when we hinder them from choosing because we wish to choose ourselves.”

While her examples directly reference the constraints of a desk at the turn of the twentieth century, and a classroom full of equal-aged children, working on the exact same task at the exact same time, they also apply to the cultural, historical, parental and societal expectations that we have of children. What are our expectations of childhood?

Expectations can be easily administered, or they can be extremely difficult to apply. It’s the balance that’s the most difficult: knowing when to take off the training wheels, and when to allow your child the courage to ride without the knowledge of your hand at their back. Prescriptive measures can be half-measures, unless they’re fully endorsed by the person trying to utilize them.

What’s most apparent from Montessori’s comment is the tendency, as adults, to offer a topdown approach to the world. Not only through education, but also the way we perceive children learning to engage with their own possibilities. We think that we were there before, and we know what limitations should be put into place. Limitations, however, like just about anything, can be overcome.

At this point, we thought it might be helpful if we illustrate the thread with a concrete, visual example. Sometimes, seeing a reference, and putting it into context, can help us better understand the situation, offering us the necessary vocabulary to converse.

You’ll notice a two-year-old student in a toddler environment, completely engrossed in the washing hands activity. Everything is just her size. From the apron to the pitcher, from the table to the cloth, even the small bar of soap is suited to accommodate her stature. She’s intently observing as the soapy film slowly floats to the surface, almost magically leaving her hands as she continues to submerge them in the shallow bowl, the depths of which she views through her fingertips.

Trying to make sense of the science, she’s absorbed in the process, experimenting with different gestures and movements. Increasing, and then decreasing the amount of surface-area-to-volume ratio, she’s experimenting with outcomes. Needless to say, part of this process is figuring out what works and what doesn’t work, and trying to examine the precise reasons why. The limits that are reached are the ones that she discovers herself. She’s setting her own expectations.

As she finishes with the washing hands portion of the activity, having exhausted her attention and interest for the moment, she decides to wrap up the work by carefully putting it away, making it neat and ready for the next person. As she goes to empty the dirty water in the bucket, the bowl slips out of her slippery hands. Instead of crashing onto the floor, it actually gets stuck on the outer rim of the bucket. The water sways back-and-forth, threatening to overflow the edges. Of course, our natural tendency is to want to jump in and help prevent any accidents. Instead, we observe, watching the process unfold.

Carefully maneuvering herself so as not to spill the water, she manages to wiggle the bowl free without spilling a drop. “Phew”, we think to ourselves. As we intently look on, with a certain level of concern, we watch as she fastens her hands to the side of the bowl. She firmly grasps the lip, positioning herself to effortlessly empty the contents in the bucket below. Without any hesitation, she accomplishes the task. We wipe our brow and exhale a sigh of relief. “She did it,” we think to ourselves. But: Why are we surprised by her success?

Why did we somehow expect that she was going to drop the bowl or spill the water? What is at play in our expectations, not only of the environment but also of the individual? Why do we feel apprehensive as we witness the execution of the activity?

It’s easy to be consumed by the nervous thought of the bowl breaking on the floor, or the thought of the child slipping on a droplet of water. Yet, by wanting to protect her from making mistakes, are we overlooking the power they can usher in? Why can’t we be just as consumed by the thought that she will accomplish the task that she set for herself?

Surely, it’s not just the thought of physical harm that ails us. We’re also worried about her confidence. “We don’t want her to be overwhelmed or unhappy”, we exclaim, in a moment of justification. “If she fails, we don’t want to see her cry.” Of course, we want to support her, and encourage her efforts. What’s the best way to do this…

At the same time, we convince ourselves, we don’t want to interfere with the totality of the process. We know, deep down, that there’s as much to be gained from her failures, as there are from her successes. That’s the way we learned to see the world. Surely, this isn’t just a matter of putting a positive spin on an old idea: making mistakes is important. We like to think it’s something much more. It’s allowing children the opportunity to create their own set of expectations.

Originally published on Medium.

The Art of Washing Hands

A few days ago, we happened upon one of our toddler students, working on washing her hands. Keeping in mind that one of the overarching purposes of this activity is to teach children the necessity of the daily routine, and its importance, we were just besides ourselves, at the level of concentration and patience on display. She's not yet three.

As you watch the video, you'll notice how she explores the science behind the soap, watching it lather on her hands, as she slowly scrubs back and forth. Ever mindful of her surroundings, and her relationship therein, she surveys the room. Paying attention to her task, but also cognizant of what else is happening, she doesn't lose her focus. When she places the bar of soap in the water, the bubbles somehow, magically disappear. You can see her mind seemingly light up as she figures this out, reiterating her exploration through experimentation.

What is at work here is more than anything we can see. It's her, in the process of coming to understand and relate to the world, in her own rich and meaningful ways. Discovering the science of interactions, the mathematical precision that underlies so much of what is at work, she is committed to the task at hand. Literally, she is washing her hands. As she sets the soap aside, she dunks her hands into the basin to see them emerge clean.