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Explaining the Extraordinary, Part One: Cultivating the Potential of the Child

What is Montessori? How is Montessori different than traditional education? Anyone who has ever had a child in a Montessori program has most likely, at some point or another, been asked one or both of these questions. If you have ever tried to explain Montessori education to a friend or family member, then you know how elusive it can be to communicate this extraordinary philosophy and method in a way that captures its beauty and power.

We might answer by talking about the multiage classroom, hands-on, student-centered learning, or beautiful materials. Perhaps, we would mention the emphasis on choice, respect, or peace, and it’s likely that we would say something about the richness and rigor of the program, making reference to such elements of the curriculum as the Sensorial activities, Practical Life exercises, the Math materials, or ‘Cosmic Education.’ There’s so much to say, but it’s not easy to gather together the pieces of the Montessori puzzle in a way that gives a clear, accurate, and compelling picture to those inquiring friends, neighbors, and relatives.

Making the choice to enroll a child in a Montessori school is most often a decision that is made by parents after a good deal of thought and inquiry, and because it is an alternative educational option, it opens the door for those who are interested, curious, or perhaps a bit skeptical, to ask for more information about Montessori education. Those who have observed a Montessori classroom in session often come away with a strong sense that something unique and very special is happening, but understanding the fundamental components and how they are interrelated and organized helps parents to support their child, the teacher, and the school more fully; to field the questions asked by neighbors, friends, and family members; and to converse with others about a remarkable approach to educating children, the aim of which is to unveil the potential of the individual and to make the world a more peaceful and just place for all. Understanding the Montessori Method and philosophy will also assist parents in integrating the Montessori philosophy into their own homes, not to duplicate the classroom, but to complement it.

In this and upcoming issues of Tomorrow’s Child, I will present a framework that organizes the fundamental components of Maria Montessori’s philosophy and Method in a way that will promote a deeper understanding and improve how we communicate with others who want to know more about Montessori education. In order to better understand, communicate, and explain Montessori education, the following questions and topics will be addressed:

What is the primary goal of Montessori education?

What is the fundamental process through which the goal is attained?

What is the essential principle that allows the process to occur?

What is the structure that supports the child to successfully navigate the process?

Montessori was developing her ideas during an era when the mainstream thought on education was based on the notion that children were born empty vessels, dependent upon adults to fill them with information, facts, and knowledge if they were to develop and grow into intelligent human beings. For learning to occur efficiently in this adult-driven model, children were to remain passive, while the teacher ‘poured’ information into them. Movement was very limited because it interfered with the teacher’s job of transferring information to a large group of students, and because the importance of movement in learning had not yet been discovered.

Maria Montessori spoke of a new model, envisioning and then creating classrooms, which freed children from the chains of benches, desks, and immobility. Children develop when they are able to move about and use both their hands and their mind together, she insisted, and the very act of restricting movement in order to fill a child with knowledge is an obstacle to the realization of true potential, which comes from within the child, not transferred to a child from an adult.

It takes a leap of faith and courage to let go of long-held assumptions, biases, and beliefs about how children learn. Today, it is still commonly stated that adults mold or shape the child, which means that we impose our ideas of who and what this individual is to become. The notion of molding a child reflects the mistaken belief that the adult creates the child. But this is backwards: the adult’s role is not to create, mold, or shape the child. Rather, the child creates the adult she will become.

“Education,” wrote Montessori, “depends upon a belief in the power of the child and on a certainty that the child has within himself the capacity to develop into a being that is far superior to us.” A being far superior to us! What Montessori realized is that the role of education is to light the flame of potential which lays dormant within the child; it needs protection and nourishment, and that is the task of the adult, both teacher and parent. Montessori gave the world a way to help children be every bit of what they are capable of being, of taking that underdeveloped potential and developing it. In doing so, she handed us the philosophy and the method for the transformation of the individual and humanity.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is well known; lesser known is his work on the self-actualized adult, whom he described as having a set of natural tendencies, which include the tendency for the following:  oneness and unity; silence and solitude, knowing one’s purpose in life; autonomy and independence; expressing joy and aliveness; trust in the inner-self; appreciating beauty; and seeking justice. Interestingly, Maslow’s tendencies of the self-actualized adult parallel essential elements of the Montessori experience, including: cosmic education and the interconnectedness of all things and people; exploring life’s big questions, such as, What is the meaning of life? and Why am I here?; fostering autonomy and a strong sense of self; integrating beauty into the classroom; cultivating joy and wonder; drawing from the inner-self’s resources; promoting self-directed activity; and nurturing inner discipline. Therefore, we might consider that a Montessori education and a Montessori-based parenting philosophy will support the unfolding of the child’s potential and cultivate the characteristics that empower self-actualization in the adult.

We have all known someone who started school as an excited, curious, and joyful child, only to lose those natural traits and appear bored, restless, unhappy, “not working at their potential,” or “not very bright.” This tendency toward diminished enthusiasm in children is not a natural state; it is the result of a system of educating and parenting that holds children down when they so want to rise up. It occurs when there is a failure to recognize the child’s true capabilities and inner drives to learn and grow. When learning is allowed to take place as a natural unfolding of the self and is supported by adults, the child’s capabilities and potentialities will cause amazement and enlightenment. This is the goal of Montessori education. “We should regard this secret effort,” wrote Montessori in The Secret of Childhood, “as something sacred. We should welcome it with arduous manifestations, since it is in this creative period that an individual’s future personality is determined.”

We have long understood that early childhood experiences are reflected in personality traits, attitudes, and behaviors later in life, but we have yet to recognize the full potential inherent in every child. In the early days of Dr. Montessori’s first work experiences with children in (what were then called) insane asylums and then at The Casa dei Bambini in Rome, she observed repeated examples of children demonstrating unexpected abilities and characteristics. When some of the children who had been deemed unteachable in the asylums took a state test and achieved equivalent or higher grades than children in the state schools, Montessori was stunned. Time and time again, her response at such unforeseen revelations was one of awe and astonishment; this was not at all what she expected. She was following the child who was free to make his own choices and engage in activities without unnecessary adult interference, and she did so with a non-judgmental attitude, and an open heart and mind.

She carried out her observations through a scientific lens, for this was how she studied everything in her life, and what she learned was that the child was capable of being and doing more than she had ever suspected. At first, she refused to believe what her teachers told her was happening in the classrooms. She thought they reported exaggerations and untruths. She was a skeptic until she saw for herself, not just once or twice, but repeatedly, and then she began to understand: the child harbored hidden potential that adults had not even imagined! This then, must be the goal of education, she proclaimed, to nurture and unveil the potential within every child.

The child carries a secret that will reveal his true potential when we adults are able to let go of our strongly held assumptions and open our hearts to a truth that has been largely ignored: the potential of the child is far greater than we suspect, yet it is within our power to nurture the full development of the child’s potential. This is the task of Montessorians everywhere: to create and maintain learning environments which shelter and nourish the spirit and intellect in ways that reveal the potential of the child. This is the role of parents: to create a home environment that allows the potential of the child to unfold.

We might ask, what are the characteristics of a child whose potential is revealed? Montessori listed and described the traits and characteristics that are seen in children who have been given the opportunity to develop in such nourishing learning environments. These traits include: a love of learning and work; the ability to concentrate deeply and for extended periods of time; a desire for order and organization; inner discipline; a love and appreciation for silence and stillness; independence and autonomy; a can-do, self-reliant attitude; compassion towards others; respect for self, others, and the environment; and inner joy and peace.

Still today, these traits remain the benchmark for successful Montessori schools around the world. The wording may vary and the classrooms may not look the same, but in authentic Montessori schools everywhere the goal remains the same: to protect, nurture, and unveil the potential of the child. This too, is the task of parents — to create a home environment in which the child can discover herself and the potential which is her birthright.

(To be continued…)

Photo by This figure of a playing boy is hand carved out of wood and is supposed to represent the understanding of the human genetics as we are about to discover the true nature of life by applying scientific research to biology and genetics. This photo was created in the university of Barcelona. The author of this sculpture is Professor Efraïm Rodriguez Cobos. See more of his work at Barcelona, Spain. Feb 2010.

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