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Montessori: A Commitment to Constant Renewal

July, 2007
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FZD_0184 In our last article on Montessori education, the question asked was “why change?” Today, it may be pertinent to ask the question, “change what and how?” Montessori offers an approach to child education that is in many ways different from traditional approaches. One of the strongest points in the Montessori approach is the fact that there are no set formulas; there is no set curriculum that all children must comply with.

  The curriculum is personalized for each child. Individual and group activities are adapted to and follow the children’s learning style or styles, rather than the adult’s. Based on the principle that the needs of each child must be recognized and met, Montessori’s approach to education is holistic, and it follows two basic broad principles: “following the child,” and “helping the child do all things by herself.” Both these principles are based on constant, continuous observation and evaluations. But it is not the principles, nor the philosophy per se that make it Montessori. It is the way the principles, the laws of Nature, are interpreted and implemented.

  Holistic EducationFZD_0041

  Holistic approaches to education thrive on the principle that diversity must be valued, and the understanding that unity is simply not possible  unless differences are not only respected, but treasured.

  Holism (from the Greek Holos), was summarized by Aristotle (in his Metaphysics) when he said: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts." This idea that the properties of a given system cannot be determined or explained by the sum of its parts alone, but need to be seen as a whole, is based on the understanding that only as a whole does the system determine how the parts behave. In turn, the parts contribute to the integrity of the system – and add to its value.

  This balance, if lost, translates into deviations of all sorts – mental, social, physical, psychological and spiritual. Holistic education approaches, such as Montessori’s, seek to provide the means that preserve and foster the integrity of each individual. This is done by establishing (prepared) environments where children can blossom and develop according to their particular individual needs, rather than having to perform imposed activities, regardless of their natural tendencies and interests. Respect and trust are thus essential. Adults and children need to trust each other. The integrity of each individual in turn, translates itself into the integrity of the system. That is why Montessori believed that, if we maintain the integrity of each child, then World Peace is possible because each child will help preserve and build it.

  There are many practitioners and schools worldwide which claim to be Montessori. The need for Montessori environments and trained practitioners has grown exponentially, in ways probably few people would have predicted two decades ago. As countries such as China, for example, step into the 21st century, the needs have become even greater. There are literally thousands of schools interested in improving their environments, recognizing that children have an amazing potential that is not being developed to capacity in traditional schooling contexts. This potential translates later into untapped human resources that China knows can neither be ignored nor wasted. Montessori is being seen as an alternative, a way of providing children with more opportunities to discover for themselves the world around them. Mostly, Chinese Montessori schools are considered experimental, because Montessori is still relatively new; and different!

  What makes Montessori different?

FZD_0400   What makes Montessori different today is no longer only a matter of what made Montessori different 100 years ago. Then, Dr. Montessori was one of only a handful of advocates for the creation of environments fit for children and work that would meet their developmental stages and needs. She was almost unique in her approach to children and their activities, and her interest in their particular needs was how to best provide for them. This is no longer so today. Dr. Montessori’s ideas, one century ago, were new and even radical. Today, with the benefits of scientific brain research and modern technology, her observations have been confirmed and even mere day care centers provide physical spaces that are designed for children - in terms of child‑sized furniture and manipulatives (regardless, in many cases, it must be noted, of their didactic value.) Children are, generally speaking, cared for in ways which respect differences in developmental stages and learning styles.

  When it comes to the practice itself, Montessori is different only when practitioners at all levels, each in his or her own area of expertise or activity, can show that Montessori practice and theory walk hand-in-hand, and that Montessori principles are a reality. It remains essential that Montessorians must constantly evaluate their practice and get back to basics, i.e., not lose sight of what is essential. It often happens that we see Montessori environments where adults “maintain” order by controlling children and manipulating their behavior, resorting to techniques and protocols that are the very opposite of what Montessorians believe are healthy practice.

  The greatest pitfall of all in dealing with children, not only in schools but for parents in general, continues to be the issue of punishments and rewards. These are often subtly disguised: praise, withdrawal of attention and love, or enforcement of “consequences.”

  Unconditional acceptance and freedom, for example, continue to be misunderstood concepts and hard to implement, exactly because their importance is not properly understood.

  If correctly examined, it becomes clear that “positive reinforcement” is just another method of behaviorist manipulation. Rewards of any kind are useful when one wants an individual – be it a child or an adult – to salivate at the ring of a bell, like Pavlov’s dog. This approach (based on the work of B. F. Skinner) sees people merely as reactive organisms, rather than proactive beings.

  If a practitioner has preconceived ideas and expectations and is unable to flexibly approach and deal with an unexpected situation, she or he will most certainly fail when surprised by challenges. We all know that children are always challenging the environment. It is part of their nature to learn what is and is not changeable in the world around them. Children need to find out what can and cannot be negotiated. They also need to know where lie the boundaries that can safely be ignored, and those that one cannot venture to cross.

  A child’s need to discover the world will not easily submit to directives such as “do not touch” if curiosity is telling the child to do exactly that. This leads to one other aspect that is often lacking, yet essential: enough space for experimentation. Parents face this challenge almost daily, especially with toddlers and smaller children. Most parents know that it is a lost cause to try to keep children away from objects that for some reason the young ones want to touch, handle, drop, hit, or simply hold and handle. Many Montessorians, even with many years of experience, face the same challenge and simply do not allow children to experiment with this or that didactic material, unless they were first shown or told what to do with it and how to use it. It is thus questionable whether Montessori is truly Montessori, even when all seems to be in keeping with the image one has of what a Montessori environment or school should be, look like, and what should be going on.

  What still makes Montessori different no longer makes Montessori unique. Many principles such as freedom of choice when designing one’s own curriculum, respect for the child, integration, mixed ages environments or classrooms, are shared by other educational approaches, like free schools and democratic schools, for example, and even individual practitioners who simply do it that way because of personal choice and belief.

  “Help me do it by myself”

  This is a sound principle in Montessori. Dr. Maria Montessori said we should not do for the child what the child can do for herself. Now the FZD_0499 question that can be asked is, “are we following the spirit, or the letter of the law?”

  When the moment arises to help the child, should the emphasis be put on “help,” “do it” or “myself?” Some adults seem to be obsessed with the idea of never doing for the child what the child can do for herself. For example, if a child has already shown that she can put on her shoes and lace them, then let her do it. Don’t do it for her. We want to emphasize “let” because it means that the child chooses to do so. Nowhere is it written, that we should “make” the child do it by herself. The principle is “do not rob the child of learning experiences when they present themselves,” because this helps the child gain independence.

  The fact is that all aspects of the practice (holistic approach) must be questioned and pondered at all times, in context and in relation to each other. At times, the child may know how to do something and yet, need to have it done for her, for some specific reason. This need must be met, observed and analyzed, because it may reveal some other underlying need. It may be that the child is asking for reinforcement – she wants once again to see the adult or someone else do whatever it is she needs or wants done – or maybe she needs the assurance that, if necessary, someone will provide for her needs. Or she may want attention or reassurance.

  This example serves to show that there must be flexibility and that adults must meet the needs of children regardless of their preconceived ideas about what is and is not relevant. One must, at all times, think about one’s own thinking processes in order to constantly evaluate one’s practice – be it as a Montessori directress in a classroom, or as a parent. The “think about thinking” process is essential, because observation is based on it, and without observation, much of what is essential for the child, precious learning opportunities, will pass us by without notice and being used. How often do adults ignore a child who is “fussing” and say, “oh, she just wants attention!” – as if that was wrong. Montessorian Margaret Homfray, who studied with Dr. Montessori in the 1920s and 30s, once said, “If a child wants attention, then that child needs attention.”

  If we do not “help” the child when the child needs help, the “doing” becomes less important, and the focus on “myself” ends up becoming a deviation in character – both the child and adult’s.

  Here’s another example of the damage the letter of the law can cause, when the spirit of the law is ignored, misunderstood or perverted – voluntarily or involuntarily. At home, children are consistently taught to put their toys and books away after they finish playing or reading. In Montessori environments, they are also shown how to put away whatever didactic material they are using, after they finish their activity, so others may find it where it belongs, and in turn, use it. This also keeps the environment organized, orderly and clean. It all makes sense… right? Well, maybe not. How do we convey this need and principle to children is crucial. We can do so by setting the example, as best practice requires and often is done, in a Montessori way: we can approach the object left behind, and say, “this is on the floor, let’s put it back on the shelf, so we know where to find it,” and we just do it. This needs to be done when the child is observing. We do not need to call the child, just wait for the right moment when she is watching. Nor should we tell the child, “you left this on the floor…” It must be noted that if not put on the spot, meaning, directly or indirectly criticized (or made feel guilty), quite often children will rush over to help put back where they belong the didactic materials, toys or books. The other way of doing it, and probably this is the most commonly used way by adults in general, is addressing the child directly and saying, “you took it off the shelf, you put it back,” and if the child does not do it, then “force” the child to do it. Remarks such as “If you don’t put this back, I will take it away!” or “You cannot play/work with anything else until you put this back,” are often used. The logic being used here is that of retaliation, rewards and punishments. “Gentle” manipulation isn’t any better!

  This second approach is charged with what can be called “negative logic.” Why? Because a statement like “you took it off the shelf, you put it back” also means the very opposite: “when you do not take it off the shelf, you do not have to put it back.” This kind of logic plants seeds of selfishness, rather than responsibility, and we consistently observe children reply, in this kind of situation, with the inevitable “I did not……, so I do not have to……”

  Likewise, if a child asks for assistance in putting on her shoes and she gets a reply of, “you know how to do that, you can do that by yourself,” and is left to herself, what reply is she more likely to give the adult that next time asks her to help set the table, or bring over the magazine on the sofa, or a glass of water? “You can do that. You know how to do that. You do it! You get it yourself Mom!”

  So, when following a solid principle such as “help me do it by myself,” one must make sure to always observe, analyze the situation and decide what is more important, in that particular situation. In the morning, it may be to help the child do it by herself, by the end of the day, if the child is tired and cranky, to help the child by doing it for her. If the child just needs attention in the form of assistance, even in doing something she already knows how to do and can do by herself, that is what should be provided. There are no absolutes, because all children and situations are unique, and flexibility must guide what we do and how we assist the child.

  Montessori is indeed different because the top priority of Montessorians remains to stand for the rights and meet the needs of children at all times. When this is a priority, all else becomes secondary.

  We will address some other relevant issues and differences in detail in future articles as well as how to meet the needs of children both at school and at home.

Series on Montessori education contributed by Mammolina Children’s Home Montessori Kindergarten

Photo credits: Mammolina Children’s Home Montessori Kindergarten

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