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Overcoming Descartes: Movement in Montessori

Thoughts & Reflections

For all her might, Maria Montessori has yet to be taken seriously as a philosopher. Yet, as we hope this post shows, and The Absorbent Mind demonstrates, Maria Montessori was an exceptional thinker. Perhaps, even an original philosopher of life.

As Montessori was discovering a biological appreciation of childhood, and subsequently implementing a radical new approach to learning, she overcame traditional assumptions in the field of philosophy, such as Descartes’s famous duality of mind and body.

First, let’s take ourselves on a journey.

Close your eyes.
Picture a classroom.
No. Picture your classroom.
Your third grade elementary classroom.

Do you remember the name of your teacher?
How about your best friend?
What do you see?
What does the space look like?

If you’re anything like us, and you were raised in a traditional classroom setting, we probably see something remarkably similar.

Do you see a series of desks? Are they neatly ordered in meticulously organized rows? Perhaps the desks were even alphabetized by last name, with your good friend Bill Anderson always lucky enough to find himself sitting closest to the front of the room. Inevitably, right next to Mrs. Keller.

Speaking of the front of the room, what do you see? A giant chalkboard? Was it green or was it black? How about a big desk? Do you see a formidably-sized desk, presumably occupied by your teacher? Perhaps there was even an absurdly accurate clock, one of those analog ones, which was synchronized by the magic of who knows what. Always on time, the ticks of the clock, heard throughout the quiet moments of the day, were reminiscent of train stations or factories, the places we’d hear our teacher read about at story time.

Now, keep your eyes closed. What do you hear?

With our eyes closed, and our memories focused, we hear the sounds of pencils being sharpened and the shrill turning of the tired sharpener. If we listen really carefully, we can also hear notes hurriedly being exchanged and the crackle of the intercom as it fizzes into existence. Lastly, and most loudly, we hear the sound of the bell alerting us to put our math books away or scurry out to recess or even to home. Is it time to go home yet?

Now, still keeping your eyes closed, think about how often you moved in that classroom. What memories do you have of movement?

Did you walk to the chalkboard to solve a multiplication problem? How often did you “acceptably” get up and move about? Did you make excuses to use the restroom so you could go on adventures in the hallway? It was a long walk to detention, wasn’t it? You might have to open your eyes to realize what a tragedy Maria Montessori thinks this lack of movement is for education.

In The Absorbent Mind, in a chapter entitled, “The Importance of Movement in General Development,” Maria Montessori sets out to set the record straight. “It is high time that movement came to be regarded from a new point of view in educational theory.” It’s not just the freedom to move, she discovers, but what it does for the ways in which we learn.

Now, let’s take ourselves on another journey.

Picture a Montessori classroom. Actually, let us show an aerial, time-lapse view of a primary Montessori classroom. Note the amount of movement in only three hours.

Montessori’s main argument is that thinking is tied to movement, that “movement helps the development of the mind.” However, our traditional educational system has adopted the opposite insight, a Cartesian carryover no doubt: that the body must be affixed to a stationary position so that the mind can have the adequate space it needs to learn. Descartes is everywhere present in educational theories and practices, yet Montessori found a convincing way to overcome his dualities.

“It is high time that movement came to be regarded from a new point of view in educational theory.”

The separation of the mind and body is a “grave error,” Montessori explains. It “cannot but lead to injury.” When there is “a separation between the life of movement and the life of thought,” she expresses, there are serious consequences for learning. What are these consequences? Well, as Montessori articulates, the lack of movement “keeps action away from thought.”

It deprives us of community. It thwarts are participate in a social order. “The very existence of the social order depends on movement directed to constructive ends.” Ironically, perhaps the lack of everyday movement in a traditional classroom is a source for disobedience and social outbursts? Of course, defenders of this model will cite the benefits of recess. But, what about the freedom afforded everyday in a Montessori classroom? The freedom and trust to get up and move about, following and discovering your own interests. To learn how to move and interact and socialize.

If ever there was a movement, now’s the time to see it put into action.

Written by:

Bobby George

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