The Great Story of Observation

By Andy Lulka, April 2021

Dr. Montessori had a radically different vision for the role of the adult in the school environment. Within that role, our primary function is this: to observe. Nothing more, nothing less. But what does it mean, to observe?

…the teacher must learn to control [themself] so that the child’s spirit shall be free to expand and show its powers; the essence of [their] duty is not to interrupt the child in [their] efforts. This is a moment in which the delicacy of the teacher’s moral sensitiveness, acquired during [their] training, comes into play. [The teacher] must learn that it is not easy to help, nor even, perhaps, to stand still and watch. Even when helping and serving the children, [the teacher] must not cease to observe them, because the birth of concentration in a child is as delicate a phenomenon as the bursting of a bud into bloom. But [the teacher] will not be watching with the aim of making [their] presence felt, or of helping the weaker ones by [the teacher’s] own strength. [They observe] in order to recognize the child who has attained the power to concentrate and to admire the glorious rebirth of [their] spirit.

Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, Clio Press, 248

In this quote, Dr. Montessori is telling us that observation is about the guide and the changes that need to happen internally for the guide in order to be gain appreciation for the child’s spirit. That our job is to observe in such a way as to be able to sense a child’s spirit, and that what we need to do first is to stop ourselves – to develop our own self-regulation to use today’s parlance, or our own discipline to use Dr. Montessori’s words.

The observational practice that Regina Lulka and I call ‘transformative observation’ allows us to do just this, and has been an essential piece of the spiritual preparation of the adult for both of us, and all the adults with whom we have shared it.

When we give the presentation we lovingly call “The Great Story of Observation” we talk about how human knowledge and understanding emerged through processes of observation, through our engagement with new technologies that expanded our capacity to perceive. We also talk about the challenges involved in aiming for objectivity, and the importance of seeing ourselves as an active participant in the process of observation, even while the agency related to the activity we are engaging with as observers belongs rightly to the child. When we observe children, we become partners in a co-creative relationship. Our observations affect us as much as the children. This is why we call this kind of observation transformative.

Many great artists, psychologists, psychotherapists, philosophers, pedagogues, scientists and spiritual leaders have grappled with these same ideas, and express them in various wonderful ways. Transformative observation is not in any way unique to Montessori. The details of what we observe however, and the challenges associated with becoming able to sense the inner life of children are more complex than most.

This is because most adult humans believe we understand children. We were once children after all. And yet, we know as Montessorians, that most of what society says about children and education is patently false. We ourselves were socialized to believe those false things. If we were lucky, we may have also had counter-narratives that help us see where what we have been taught is not the same as what we know. Either way, it is important that we understand that we cannot step outside of our own ideology and we can never really see from another’s perspective. We can, however, undertake an examination of our assumptions, pre-conceptions, and judgments. In doing so, we can learn to notice when we are being more or less subjective, and when we are able to see more clearly with less influence from these assumptions, pre-conceptions and judgments.

And so the most important question we can ask ourselves is: What are the obstacles and prejudices in regards to children and education that we need to overcome?

One of the more powerful ways we recommend engaging with that question is through (you guessed it!) transformative observation. But what is transformative observation?

Transformative observation as we practice it is a way to observe internal and external experiences simultaneously, separating them from each other so we can learn to see them as an integrated whole. It is not something that can be taught through a blog post, or even one workshop. It is a practice that takes months if not years to take root.

The most important step towards this is to sit down and be as still and quiet as we possibly can with a pen and paper in hand.

In stillness, we can hear our thoughts. We can also be more aware of our senses.

When we recognize our thoughts as emerging from within us, rather than from our senses, we can start to discern our inner world from the impressions we receive from the outer world. We can record what we are sensing in the environment, in the child’s being, the child’s activity, and what in our own responses. From reviewing these records, and the patterns they reveal, we can learn how the two – the external and internal – work together to create our overall experience.

Every time we engage in this way, we get closer to being able to really become that passive participant-observer that can marvel at the child’s spirit. And the more we do it, the better we will be able to put our own responses aside, and truly respond to what a child needs it when they need it, and to know whether or not we are capable of meeting that particular need in that particular moment.

Andy will join us for a webinar this Tuesday evening at 18.00 (British Summer Time) / 19.00 (Central European Summer Time) to explore the concept of transformative observation further. Register here now.

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