The Role of the Adult

It was such an honour for me to be asked to contribute to the panel discussion on ‘The Adult’ which was part of the Montessori Everywhere celebrations in honour of Montessori’s 150th birthday at the end of August this year. Along with Dr. Cindy Acker, Dr. Philip Snow Gang and Hannah Baynham, we unpacked the role of the Montessori adult as both a learner (in training) and a teacher in the class setting. An hour was not enough to really get to grips with the work that still needs to be done in terms of preparing the adult to work in a Montessori classroom or adult learning space! What follows are some of the highlights that I thought may whet your appetite for the follow-up webinar on The Montessori Adult on Tuesday 24 November.

Hannah launched the panel dialogue with this apt quote from The Secret of Childhood:

“We must be humble and root out the prejudices lurking in our hearts. We must not suppress those traits which can help us in our teaching, but we must check those inner attitudes characteristic of adults that can hinder our understanding of a child.”

(Montessori, 1966, p. 153)

Montessori speaks to us over and over in her lectures and writings about the role of the adult. Having said this, Montessori is however somewhat elusive in giving us specifics on how we should be preparing ourselves to work with children. ‘Looking inwards’ and ridding ourselves of the sins of anger and pride feature, but there seems to be a lack of step-by-step guidelines that would be so much easier to follow! (As adults, we always want to take the path of least effort!) It appears to me that Montessori was purposefully vague and that this may have been her very intent. It forces us to think about, discuss, debate and unpack our very special task with each other.

In The 1946 London Lectures, Montessori entitles one lecture, ‘The New Teacher’, beseeching us (once again, as she had in many previous lectures) to really think about the nature of our work and see ourselves in a new light. This is still relevant today. The spiritual preparation of the adult must be more than simply taking a deep breath before you walk through the classroom doors to start a day! The guidelines as to the how our preparation should look may be elusive, but what is very clear is why we need to be prepared adults. We need to see education as a continuous transition of our adult-selves in order that we truly meet the needs of the child. Cindy suggested that the lens through which we move is how we see the child and that we need to really know ourselves if we wish to be in the service of the child. This includes the uncomfortable conversations about our inherent biases and prejudices and an earnest desire to transform the learning experiences we offer.

Philip’s reflection on his journey as a teacher put a spotlight on the assumptions we make about children/adult learners and how these assumptions affect the language we use when we engage with them. These engagements contribute to the social conditioning of the child or adult learner and are a critical part of understanding our work as the trainer or teacher. I found myself pondering on this for weeks afterwards and was honestly amazed at the impact our communication has on those around us.

Another interesting aspect of our task in educating adult learners was shared by Hannah, who suggested that perhaps we ought to help them understand Montessori in a more concrete way. We could consider using Montessori’s idea of materialised abstractions to find a way of bringing the Montessori philosophy across in a more tangible way. The facilitation of conversations, listening and questioning should become our preferred practice. Instead of teaching, rather help the adult to help themselves. Adults often do not reflect and take time to consider their experiences and what they know and what they do not know, and this may cause them to miss vital connections in their leaning experiences. I am reminded of the plea of the preschool child, ‘help me to help myself’!

When we think about how adults learn compared to how children learn, we should consider the importance of consciously developing a learning community. Going back to Montessori’s writing in The Secret of Childhood, she has a whole chapter on the work of the adult and the work of the child. Understanding that the adult generally works towards an end goal, and that children are working to develop the adults they will be one day, we need to ensure that all learning opportunities for both adults and children are transformative. Adults in particular often have to develop a confidence that they sometimes did not gain from their own schooling experiences and they need spaces within which to reflect on questions and contribute their thoughts and ideas without fear of mistakes. Cindy outlined the difference between single and double loop learning, and how our objective should be showing students how to embrace learning in such a way that they can apply their new learning and new information in a variety of contexts and situations.

It was clear from the discussion that working with adults is sometimes different to working with children in that they carry their own pre-conceived ideas about life, learning, children etc. I feel that we have to make time in our interactions with adult learners to unpack these notions and offer a wider vision so that the lens through which they view their training and classroom experiences can be expanded. This goes back to the double loop learning described above. The classrooms and adult learning spaces need to be true learning communities. This is developed by the teacher/trainer being open and available to sharing perspectives and developing an ownership of the learning that belongs to each individual within the group.

Diversity in our learning communities is vital in developing a fully integrated learning experience. This was a sentiment echoed by all on the panel. Providing open forums for all voices within the community to express themselves and find understanding should be inherent in our programmes. Mutual respect and a sense of encompassing the unknown/unfamiliar must be embraced. There needs to be more space for conversation that unites our understanding in the service of every child.

So, having said all that, we would like to further unravel these thoughts and consider the following questions during the upcoming webinar:

  • What do we mean by a prepared adult?
  • What role does observation play as part of the spiritual preparation of the Montessori adult?
  • How can we create learning spaces for adults that really celebrate the diversity of the world in which we live?

You are invited to join us in discussing these and other questions on the 24th of November 2020 at 7pm CET (6 pm GMT). Andy Lulka from Integrating Montessori will kickstart the webinar once again and we look forward to having you join us! Our adult learning community is in need of continuous transformation, and we are all responsible for being part of this change. Register here.

Heidi van Staden, November 2020


Montessori M. (1966) The Secret of Childhood New York: Ballantine Books

Montessori M. (2012) The 1946 London Lectures Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

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