Free to Concentrate
Thoughts & Reflections
One of the hardest things to understand about Montessori, especially for those who have not had an opportunity to see a classroom in action, is just how much children are capable of, particularly in respect to their ability to focus, which becomes a catalyst for exploration, discovery, and ultimately, their entire sense of life-possibility.
Watch as the attention of this five-year-old boy remains completely uninterrupted. His motivation to stay on task is undeterred. His classmates purposefully move throughout the environment, independently selecting their own work, intent to follow their interests – and yet, no one interrupts him. No one breaks his concentration. How is this possible?
Of course, it’s not just the fact that children are physically capable of the act of concentration that often surprises us, as adults, which is a remarkable feat for just about anyone, but also, and perhaps most importantly, recognizing and embracing the extended period of time in which children do truly focus.
“ When the child finishes the exercise which requires great concentration, though he has worked hard at it, he looks rested, and tranquil, even better than he was before. ”
As adults, and despite our very best efforts, our mindset of childhood can become rather fixed. Whether we like it or not, we often end up adopting preconceived notions of what we think it should be like: loud, boisterous, unrestrained and often, despite our best intentions, precariously helpless. Routinely, our expectations of what children can effectuate are at loggerheads with their actual potential.
Montessori describes, with an unparalleled measure of observation, a traditional conception of attention in childhood. She adopts a conventional way of talking (and, subsequently, thinking) about children, when she impersonates, “Children cannot fix their attention…they cannot concentrate…their minds wander…they move in a disorderly way…it is difficult to control them!”
Without a doubt, and if we quickly go through this list in our heads, reciting the characterizations, point by point, many of us find ourselves casting these exact same presumptions upon childhood. It makes us wonder, as adults who also occasionally fall into this trap, are our judgements of childhood based upon our experience as children?
What is it about Montessori that helps children focus? Even if we carefully set aside our biased opinions of childhood, which is always a wonderful place to start any conversation or project, and acknowledge that these judgements and their ensuing vocabulary aren’t adopted in Montessori, the question remains: how does Montessori help children focus?
There’s something special about Montessori, in that it allows children the space, confidence, and wherewithal, to focus their attention, without judgements and with the freedom inherent in the desire and passion to learn.
In order to reach the state of focus that life demands, that life will come to require from each of us, we need to find the comfort that only the trust in ourselves can elicit. This is acquired through experience, through practice, through repetition, through having the confidence to make mistakes, and the happiness that is achieved by continued persistence.
“ The child is impelled by the opportunities given to him. – Maria Montessori ”
These efforts, to face challenges, are exhibited daily, in Montessori classrooms throughout the world: classrooms that are specifically designed to encourage collaboration, have a social component that is integral to the academic one, and that wholeheartedly, and as a function of the classroom, support concentration.
Concentration is, at one and the same time, the ability to let the world go, so to speak, and, simultaneously, completely immerse oneself in the specific tasks of the world. Montessori talks about this phenomenon at a much more molecular level, as she articulates the attitude that a teacher must adopt, and that she hopes society will one day endorse:
“ The teacher must believe in the child, she must understand that the child loves to work. She must have in front of her eyes, the impressive picture of a child who when left free concentrates on work, who gives every atom of energy to the task upon which he concentrates.”
In Montessori, there is, to be sure, a community comprised of atomic individuals, each unique, each germinal in their different pursuits of what they find of interest. Montessori names this, in a powerful way, ‘the unity of personality’. What the classroom allows is for the cycle of concentration, trust and work, to happen naturally, in a safe, prepared environment.
Concentration requires trust. Trust takes time. Work takes concentration. Children deserve our trust. They deserve an environment in which they are free to concentrate. As June George always reminds us, “You can’t control the child, but you can control the environment.”
Written by:Bobby George