As a follow-up to the reading of Dewey’s Democracy and Education, I recently read The Montessori Method. Written in 1914, it purports to be one of – if not the first – attempt at scientific pedagogy. The emphasis is on designing education around a method that actually works for the way children behave naturally, rather than the way we would like to make them behave. A quote from the opening chapter drew me in:
The situation would be very much the same if we should place a teacher who, according to our conception of the term, is scientifically prepared, in one of the public schools where the children are repressed in the spontaneous expression of their personality till they are almost like dead beings. In such a school the children, like butterflies mounted on pins, are fastened each to his place, the desk, spreading the useless wings of barren and meaningless knowledge which they have acquired.
Much of this quote rings true of the education I received almost a century after this book was written, so I was extremely interested to hear some of the details about how she would do things differently. The first two chapters emphasize strongly that a system of rewards and punishment actually prohibit growth, and that a true scientific pedagogy must be based on the liberty of the pupil. At first blush, this definitely gave me pause; first, because she was dealing with pre-school age children I had to wonder how effective complete liberty would be, and second because I tried with difficulty to imagine extending this out into higher level learning.
Therein was perhaps the most frustrating part of this book: the lack of an organization and coherent explanation of the system that made sense to me. For example, Chapter III consisted entirely of the inaugural address given at the opening of one of the Children’s Houses where this method was used. Although there was interesting information to be gleaned from this address, it seems like it could have been better were it re-written and summarized.
The Development of the System
Montessori explains that the system she developed started with work that was being done for the education of “idiots” – or those with special needs as we might say today. She describes how, after working with the special needs children, they were able to take basic elementary level tests and score as well as the typical elementary students, which was considered almost miraculous at the time.
Her descriptions of her feelings at this success were quite moving. She explained that on one hand she was extremely happy for the success of the special needs children, but at the same time, she knew the success would be limited, because when this method was applied to the normal children, they would succeed far beyond the levels the special needs children would ever be able to reach. Looking back at this a century later, it’s upsetting to see how little of her methods have actually been implemented, and how little education has advanced; Montessori was certain that this was a break through which would quickly spread and revolutionize education.
A theme that is sprinkled throughout the book is the importance of Montessori calls “meditative silence.” At one point she explains that she brings in a baby wrapped up in “swaddling bands,” which I had to look up. From there, she gives a lesson which bore at least a resemblance to some of the Buddhist lessons I’ve heard:
“I have brought you a little teacher.” Surprised glances and laughter. “A little teacher, yes, because none of you know how to be quiet as she does.” At this all the children changed their positions and became quiet. “Yet no one holds his limbs and feet as quietly as she.” Everyone gave closer attention to the position of limbs and feet. I looked at them smiling, “Yes, but they can never be as quiet as hers. You move a little bit, but she, not at all; none of you can be as quiet as she.” The children looked serious. The idea of the superiority of the little teacher seemed to have reached them. Some of them smiled, and seemed t0 say with their eyes that the swaddling bands deserved all the merit. “Not one of you can be silent, voiceless as she.” General silence. “It is not possible to be as silent as she, because, – listen to her breathing – how delicate it is…”
The children looked about amazed, they had never thought that even when sitting quietly they were making noises, and that the silence of a little babe is more profound than the silence of grown people.
Throughout, she emphasizes her utter control over the children – how a word can bring them to silence or have them up and marching about the room. It’s a bit difficult to reconcile the earlier importance of complete liberty with these seemingly strict commands. The best I can do is this: when children are at liberty to learn on their own, and have grown to appreciate the ways that you have helped them discover the world that they’re interested in, they will happily follow your direction without reward or threat of punishment because they believe it will continue to help them learn.
Overall though, silence, including being able to move gracefully around the room, seems to be a very important skill for the children to learn.
The Actual System
It wasn’t until about the last quarter of the book that the actual activities and materials related to the Montessori Method were discussed. Not knowing much going in, I had assumed that this would make up the majority of the book, so it was surprising and slightly frustrating not to come across it until this late. A few of my take aways:
1. Didactic Materials: The most important part of this system is the design of the didactic materials. It is absolutely necessary that they be designed in ways that the children want to play with them, and can enjoy using them in a hands-on, self-directed way such that they can’t recognize this is actually a “learning” process in any traditional understanding of the school. One example that I was actually familiar with was a block set where you put the blocks through various holes, and only the correct one would fit.
Perhaps most interestingly were the sandpaper letters that Montessori had designed in order to help the kids learn the alphabet. This led to them learning to write before they had learned to read! Crazy – and interesting!
Incidentally, one of the companies I’ve found that does a really good job of producing Montessori-esque children’s toys is Melissa and Doug. If you have a child or have friends who do, consider checking out their offerings:
2. Intellectual Gymnastics: The end of the activities themselves is not the goal – it is the process, the intellectual gymnastics, where education happens. For example, the child scooping dirt into a pail is most likely not interested in the end result of having dirt in the pail, rather, they’re developing their ability to shovel and scoop and aim, etc. An adult does them a disservice by filling the pail, thinking they are helping them achieve a goal. Learning can only happen when the child does the activity themselves. Imagine yourself in a world where everyone was faster than you and did everything for you without giving you a chance – they fed you, clothed you, picked you up, moved you around, etc. They do this because you’re so slow, they feel it will be easier to just do it for you. This would be maddening to you though! We each want to control our own surroundings to some degree. This is the comparison Montessori makes to adults and children. Rather than doing things for them, we serve them best by helping them learn to do these things for themselves as much as possible.
3. Simplicity: The other biggest takeaway is that we often tend to overcomplicate the lessons we prepare for children. In teaching shapes, we don’t need to get into geometry and discuss the definition of a square; instead, seeing and feeling examples of squares would be much more helpful.
Although the book really wasn’t what I thought it would be, it was definitely interesting! Some of the scientific material was outdated (more on that in another p0st) – but overall, I think it was a decent introduction to the Montessori Method. As one of my goals for Philosophy Matters is to work with children and philosophy I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about educational theory. Having heard about the Montessori Method, I thought I would explore a few books on the subject in chronological order – starting with the original.
The biggest disappointment is that I’m not walking away with anything concrete that I can really use – but I I think that may be something other books will fill in better, as this was written while the Method was still being actively developed!