Years ago in some online comment Janet Lansbury wrote:
“I was encouraged by a mentor, infant specialist Magda Gerber, to view babies as whole people from the get-go, not my projects, not reflections or extensions of me. Their emergent personalities never felt like my responsibility.”
That babies are whole people is actually a revolutionary idea and one that I hope takes hold in the hearts and minds of all those who care about children and their education.
This concept is built into Montessori education. Children are not incomplete adults who need to acquire academic skills and moral behavior in order to be fully human. Rather they are born wired to communicate, connect, create and contribute and then like the rest of us spend the rest of their lives defining themselves to the environment they find themselves in.
Children, when they enter kindergarten for the first time, have already logged upwards of 43,000 hours doing action-research on the world. As they march or meander or charge or slink into school that first day they actually are a “whole people” on their own mission to continue their brain development in the presence of other classmates, trusting the adults to present the appropriate challenges.
Rather than seeing the child as the object of their efforts, Montessori teachers know it is more effective to see the child as the subject of a marvelous story about a journey into the world: the story of a unique genius guiding our hero into adventures which present challenges she learns to master. In this respect the only difference between a five- and a fifty-year old is the type of challenge they are taking on. The human brain never becomes perfect. It spends its whole life creating and recreating itself as it goes from one challenge to the next.
Montessori teachers have learned the art of educating without controlling. They want to lead the child’s unique, weird, delightful character into the world, not direct it. They know that correct behavior is not sustainable if the motive for it does not come from within.
Unfortunately, acting as if children are incomplete adults is still the dominant way. To combat that tendency, I have a fantasy that someday all parent-teacher conferences will open like this:
Parent1: “What have you noticed about my child’s genius.”
Teacher (big smile): “Just yesterday Malka did the coolest thing. She and her three tablemates were working on a math problem and the two boys were getting into an argument about the lowest common denominator. Malka patiently listened to the dispute for a minute and then calmly took a clean piece of paper, put it on top of the paper they were arguing over, leaned in, almost putting her head between them, took a pencil and showed them how she had done the problem. She was so compelling (and had the right answer) that they simply had to stop. She didn’t raise her voice. She almost didn’t say anything.”
Parent1: “Yes, she really doesn’t like conflict.”
Parent2: “Yes, but you know it’s more like she isn’t afraid of conflict. Remember when she was five and her cousins were over at our house and started fighting over the remote and she tried to get them to stop and finally just went over to the TV and turned it off? That was amazing.”
Parent1: “I know. That’s right. She’s pretty unflappable.”
Teacher: “Yes, she is actually fearless. I am going to start noticing how she handles conflict more. In fact, I will email you next time I see it in action.”
Of course, in a parent teacher conference it is, also, important to go over academic progress and social adjustment. Certainly parents and teachers need to talk about the challenges a child is having and how to help them, but I guarantee that these conference will go better if the parents and teachers first share stories about the child’s unique character and delight in it collectively.
This is one of the many reasons why bringing out the best in children requires keeping the child’s genius at the center of all those schooly discussions about dyslexia, math phobia, giftedness, attention deficits and executive function disorder. In fact, to have constructive conversations about children both parents and teachers need to transcend the categories in their head by sharing anecdotes using descriptive language.
The secret to the success of every child is seeing the child as a unique human driven by an inexorable genius in the process of becoming.