Maria Montessori was born 134 years ago yesterday. Although her research with children has been replicated again and again in the last century, and although her discoveries have been born out in successful practice all over the world (there are about 20,000 Montessori schools in the world today), and although these discoveries constitute the core of the meaning of the word “education,” Montessori education is still considered “alternative” education. Why?
In the last two weeks at Golden Oak Montessori, I have seen the children at work and play.
I greet them in the morning and see their unique personalities as they greet me back in their own way. I visit their classrooms and see them at work—each of them making dozens of internally motivated decisions in the few minutes I watch. I see them playing with abandon on the playground or in GO Explore. They work things out among themselves, they help each other out, and no one gets hurt. Self-possession is the word that keeps popping to mind.
Montessori was the first woman in Italy to earn a Medical degree. As a doctor, children with special needs were her specialty. Her research led her increasingly to several important educational principles:
Each child has a unique set of gifts and an inherent passion to learn. An Educator’s job is not delivering knowledge to children, but helping them find these gifts, fostering independence and self-directed learning, maximizing decision-making and learning from peers.
Where have we heard this before? John Dewey and hundreds of progressive educators have been saying the same things for over a century. Building on the work of Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder, Eleanor Duckworth in “The Having of Wonderful Ideas,” (2006) summarizes her own research:
Whether it be poems, mathematical situations, historical documents, liquids, or music, our offerings must provide some accessible entry points, must present the subject matter from different angles, elicit different responses from different learners, open a variety of paths for exploration, engender conflicts, and provide surprises; we must encourage learners to open out beyond themselves, and help them realize that here are other points of view yet to be uncovered – that they have not yet exhausted the thoughts they might have about this matter.
The weird thing is that we all actually know all this. We have known it for at least a hundred years, and it’s still not common practice. What, then, is the problem?
I have been working with children and people who work with children for over forty years. Here’s my theory: Being an educator is not natural. Those who take responsibility for children are susceptible to several vulnerabilities of the human brain.
1) How can we take responsibility, if we don’t have control?
2) How can you let go of the outcome when you care?
3) The more we know, the harder it is to know that we don’t know.
4) How can we free our minds from the bounds of the categories we’ve created?
5) We think we have a self to preserve.
6) …and all this gives us stuff to be afraid of.
Therefore, being an educator—and this includes all parents—requires a set of disciplines that don’t come naturally and have to be learned.
1) Give up control. Control only what you can control: the conditions that will lead the learner toward his or her own self-control.
2) Let go of outcomes, and build relationships. Our job is to empower children to create their own outcomes, and our relationships are the best delivery system for that.
3) Put what we know (or think we know) on a shelf where we can see it, then focus on learning. Ask questions.
4) Never label, categorize or compare. Always describe. Say it so that it plays like a movie in our heads. The brain doesn’t input knowledge; it constructs it. The unique wonder of each moment is in the details. Tell stories, record stories about each delightfully unique human.
5) Let yourself go. Your real self is indestructible. The self you are trying to protect and strengthen is an image, not your true self. Your true self is ineffable, inexorable and indestructible.
6) Just remember, fears come true. Flip the switch from fear to love.
These disciplines are all tricky, but they are required practices for those who take on the responsibility of educator. Thank you, Maria, for showing the way.