I've recieved this beautiful letter from Emma, friend of Alys Mendus, as part of the preparation of Edu on Tour Brazil 2014. She kindly agree I can share it with you on my blog, too.
I think if I had to pick one thing, the first thing that captured my attention and made me take a closer look at Montessori Education, it would be the emphasis on the development of the whole child. At the turn of the 19th/20th Century Maria Montessori wrote about how the almost exclusive emphasis on the intellectual development of the child in traditional education was failing both the child and society. It seems to me that, sadly, not much has changed! In contrast, Montessori’s own unshakeable belief that the physical, social and emotional development of the child are equally as important as the intellectual, can be clearly seen in the educational practices she created. One hundred years on, parents the world over still share with Maria Montessori the desire to prepare a balanced child for the world in which we live.
Montessori education understands that the child learns in a fundamentally different way to the adult. For a young child under 6, this is especially true. Neuroscience is now proving the observations Maria Montessori made a century ago regarding the importance of movement in learning. Many studies now demonstrate the vital connection between the movement of the hand and the brain when engaged in a learning activity. When hand and brain are engaged together synaptic connections in the brain are made in a particular way and ‘cemented’ through repetition in a way they are not when more abstract methods are used with a child of this age. The way that children learn and absorb vast amounts of information in these early years led to her terming this stage of development The Absorbent Mind. A child in this phase of development may engage in activities seemingly pointless to an adult. For example, having observed an adult wipe up a spill, a child may copy the action but continue wiping long after the liquid has been cleaned. For an adult the point of the exercise is cleaning the spill i.e. the end result, for the child the point is the mastery of the action. It is something they will repeat time and again until suddenly, the inner desire disappears when mastery is achieved, and the child moves onto the next thing.
In the Elementary/Primary classroom (6/7 – 12) the child has reached a very different stage of development. The use of the conscious mind is much more pronounced and the emergence of a reasoning mind is apparent. The child is also becoming much more social and is increasingly able to work in groups. They are much concerned with justice at this stage which is why parents with children this age often hear “it’s not fair!” Another characteristic of this stage is the ‘telling of tales’ denoting a desire for their developing moral compass to be affirmed by an adult. Traditional education works on the model in which the child is seen as an ‘empty vessel’ into which the teacher ‘pours’ information. In the Montessori classroom the teacher functions as a guide. The child’s inherent desire to learn and seek out information for themselves is respected. Each academic year starts with the Great Lessons – 5 impressionistic lessons with accompanying experiments and hands-on charts which outline the history of the Universe. (1. The Story of the Universe; 2. The Coming of Life; 3. The Coming of Humans; 4. The Story of Language and; 5. The Story of Numbers.) From these stories children can follow their own lines of inquiry depending on their interests. Teachers can help pair up children into groups of similar interests or help a child who is struggling to find direction. Each child has a journal they keep and discuss regularly with the teacher, in this way it is ensured that the whole breadth of the curriculum is covered by each child, though in a way of their choosing – a child who has the ability to direct when and how they learn something with get far more out of the work than one who is simply told to ‘complete page 5 of the work book’!
While the importance of creating a balanced child is something few would disagree with, equally Montessori understands the fundamental importance of Literacy and Mathematics, a primary concern for both parents and teachers throughout the world. Without mastery of these skills, constraints laid upon children by whatever society they are growing up in, be they social, cultural or economic constraints, cannot be broken. Language and Maths are tools used throughout the curriculum. For example, a child in the elementary classroom researching the planets will use their reading and writing skills to compile a report and, with the guidance of the teacher may use the multiplication and division boards to work out how old they would be on each of the planets in our solar system! Likewise in the Children House (3 – 6y) the sensory and practical life activities inherently help the children work towards the beginnings of literacy.
To us, the realisation that a skill is easy to learn if it belongs to a game/activity which is fun to play and which the child desires to repeat again and again until mastery is achieved, does not seem revolutionary. Its application in an educational setting, however, was, and still is. For example, key to literacy but little understood in traditional education is the ability to listen and hear well. Children enjoy discriminating and matching the varying chimes of the bells or the tones of the sound boxes. Later, an ‘I spy’ game is played with a handful of recognisable objects e.g. a toy cow, a hat, a jug etc.. Initially the teacher would say they saw something beginning with ‘c’ and the child would look at the objects, say their names and, in time, pick the cow. Later the teacher moves to ‘I spy something ending in w’ and eventually gets the child to identify the middle sound. The connection between the children’s handling of the physical objects and materials as they repeat these activities cannot be understated. With time, they learn to use the movable alphabet and sound out the names of the same objects for themselves. This is perhaps the most unusual thing about Montessori’s literacy programme – that the children learn to write before they learn to read. Reading requires comprehension of someone else’s ideas where writing – with the movable alphabet and later with pencil and paper – is simply self-expression. Through the games they have played with sounds the ability to word-build occurs spontaneously and joyfully as does the ability to read later.
The Mathematics materials follow similar principles. Again you will find children, over three year age groupings, working together with colourful materials and discussing their work. Boxes of beads, colourful tiles, chains of coloured beads, checkerboards and metal pie charts are just a few of the materials to be found in the classroom. Again it is the connection between the hand and the brain, as proven by modern neuroscience, which allows children to understand mathematical concepts beyond any they could hope to comprehend through the purely theoretical workbooks found in traditional schools.
Maria Montessori was an empiricist, she studied children without pre-conceived ideas. Her methodology grew directly from her observations of children’s development and their requirements at each stage of that development. She is often criticised for taken a dim view of the importance of imagination in childhood, but this is to misunderstand from where her criticism stemmed. She disapproved of the use of fairy tales and childhood imagination by adults as a behaviour controlling device – be good or the bogeyman will get you! She understood the use of imagination as vital for the child of 6 and beyond, for without it how could they comprehend the universe and everything within it? She did, however, advocate more limited uses of imagination for the very young child – why make them imagine getting themselves a drink when you can give them child-sized things so that they may do it for real. She felt a child’s imagination can only truly take creative flight when they have a strong understanding of reality and the world around them. Only when they have that understanding can the imagination achieve its full potential. Human imagination is responsible for all our greatest achievements, from the first cave paintings to landing on the moon and beyond. The understanding of the importance of this is at the heart of Montessori methodology.
The vital work of the child is their self-formation. Every educational system should support this work yet too often it seems that education works against the natural development of the child and therefore impedes their self-formation. Montessori education on the other hand seeks to provide an environment and the tools which aid the child in this task. As a parent and an educator I can only point to the wealth of happy children and parents I meet…. And to the astonishing knowledge of the world and depth of understanding these children display. For me there can be no better advocate of Montessori education than this.
Emma Hughes, October 2014