“There is nothing which makes you learn more than teaching someone else, especially when you don’t know the subject very well”

(Montessori, 1989:69)

As always the Bookclub reading has stimulated new ways of thinking. Montessori’s lecture given in India in 1942 entitled “Montessori’s ‘Alternative Comprehensive School’: On the Principles of the Montessori School” and published in The Child, Society and the World affords us a glimpse at her thinking on what Montessori  schools have to offer and also clearly demonstrates that her ideas about Montessori schools and the principles which underpin the teaching have evolved.

Montessori begins the lecture with an exploration of what she means by individual education and she refers to several approaches which developed the idea further, most of them no longer used today; however, they do resonate with today’s interpretation of individual learning or work used by many Montessori schools. Montessori reminds us that it is the role of the teacher to inspire in the child the interest. For her the interest in the child is sparked by the fundamental urge to understand something … to penetrate into it; the interest and the didactic material go hand in hand.

She explores further the significant influence of the Froebel method on her own early ideas of education. She describes the Froebel method, as “the most perfect among all the collective methods … in which the teacher guides the whole class in a collective work” (Montessori, 1989:64). She also refers to the use of Froebel’s gifts and occupations in her first school and we see this influence in the design of the Montessori materials such as the geometric solids, the binomial cube and the early sewing activities. However; Montessori also recognises that the child has a need for “continuity in the materials” which develops culture of “systematic individual work which has as its basis individual interest” (Montessori, 1989:63).  So this gives us an insight into Montessori’s reasoning for progression in the use of materials, which we sometimes refer to, looking to Bruner’s ideas about learning, as the scaffolding of learning using the Montessori materials.  This is also the reason for children revising many of the sensorial materials in the early elementary years.  For example, they use the largest cube of the pink tower to explore volume and the bi- and trinomial cubes to learn about the principles of algebra whereas in the nursery the cubes provide opportunities for comparison of shape and colour and grouping and patterning of the pieces.

Montessori continues to explain the need for ‘only one set of material in the classroom’ as she sees this as a tool for encouraging development of discipline and she also challenges our thinking about the size of the classroom.  She advocates large classrooms with vertical grouping where children have an opportunity to learn from each other. Interestingly this principle was used more recently by Vicky Colbert when developing a network of rural schools across Colombia referred to as Escuela Nueva.

Montessori explains her reasoning for the three-year age bands which she links to a “family of three children, born at different times” (Montessori, 1989:65). She further advocates that the vertical grouping is well supported by a policy of open door and recommends the use of low walls to separate the classes to enable free access from room to room yet giving the teacher the capacity to oversee what is going on across several classrooms. In recent years, in the UK and internationally, the policy of the open doors has extended into the outdoor classroom and has reinforced Montessori’s idea of brining the ‘inside out and the outside in’. She also recognises that most children will gravitate towards the same space which they use for their learning despite the open doors policy which promotes “free circulation” (Montessori, 1989:67).  For me this is much more accurate description of the freedom of movement which is fundamental in supporting the child’s freedom of choice. Montessori recognises that children enjoy having a little cupboard with drawers where they keep their possessions. An idea which was embraced by the Reggio schools and developed further as children are encouraged to write messages to each other and leave them as a surprise for their friends – further enhancing the co-operative, social nature of the Reggio approach.

At the end of the lecture Montessori continues to explore the obvious benefits of the vertical grouping and of the open door policy by stating that it is not the class to which the child belongs but learning from one another which supports growth and development. She promotes the idea that “I go and study where I find things which are useful to me and which I find interesting” (Montessori 1989:68) – thus travelling full circle and returning to the beginning of the lecture and the child’s interest and the materials. Finally, she reminds us of three important aspects of the child’s learning – the importance of the child’s interest, children’s need for co-operation and the human instinct, to be attached to one place, which relates to the child’s sense of security when experiencing predictable environment and its routines.

For me Montessori’s reference to cultural development continues to spark questions about what she really means by the use of the word culture in this context. She also prompts me to challenge Montessori teacher trainers by the quote I used at the start of the blog – there are so many opportunities to learn when we teach others about the things we do not know well ourselves – she urges us to “acquire more knowledge in order to give him what he needs” (Montessori 1989:69).  There are so many opportunities for trainee teachers to learn together as they explore Montessori principles in context of the didactic materials – training colleges need to give their students more freedom to fully embrace the essence of the approach rather than the mechanics of the materials along the lines we discussed with Tammy Oesting in our last Tuesday’s webinar.

If you would like to join our Book Club, our next session, where we will discuss Chapter IV, will take place on Tuesday 15 September at 7 pm (BST). Register here.

Based on Chapter IV from Montessori M. (1989 [1979]) The Child, Society and the World: unpublished speeches and writings. Oxford: Clio Press

Barbara Isaacs

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