By Barbara Isaacs

The next three chapters of our Book Club reading all relate to Freedom and what it looks like in a Montessori classroom:

  • Biological Concept of `Freedom
  • Freedom in the School Environment, Didactic Material and Teacher
  • How to Give a Lesson as Compared with Other Methods

When I started reading, I was curious, and wondered: what might Montessori’s description of freedom from 1913 look like?

The chapter which relates to the Biological Concept of Freedom (p:54) focuses on the child’s physical needs for freedom.  It begins with ideal conditions for observation of children’s spontaneous development, as described in Montessori’s scientific experiment, that requires “an environment which is conducive to the most perfect conditions of life, and the freedom which allows that life to develop”.  From this I conclude that the environment must offer the child the freedom which will enable this natural development to unfold. Montessori recognises that the physical freedom must go hand in hand with inner freedom – she goes on to define this inner freedom as ‘characteristic of humankind – the creative force’. She explains that the “freedom must not be given a definite shape which would restrict it within limits not its own” (p:58).  This is of course the challenge, and the secret – how do we know what this nebulous freedom should look like? Montessori is very clear that this freedom must be “founded on absolute limits and on absolute laws” (p:60) and she goes on to say that “The way to freedom is through discipline” (p:61).

She returns to this topic again in the chapter entitled Freedom in the School Environment, Didactic Materials and Teacher (p:74). She recognises the misconception about freedom, which continues to this day, and uses the principles of freedom as described by Rousseau and Tolstoy.  She identifies the freedom of movement as an essential pre-requisite, and likens the school to a home where children have the opportunity “to adapt to the scholastic atmosphere” (p:75).  It is interesting to note that she is aware of the need for sensitive transitions. Here we see the reference to a need for an open floor space as well as light moveable tables and chairs, offering children opportunities to create flexible learning areas. She also advocates for access to a garden and freedom of movement from one room to another. She explains that this is important because “This is to free the child from the constant external influence of one who wishes to instruct him” (p:76).  Montessori also reminds us of the young child’s wish to please the teacher: “The pupil who desires to succeed, even if unconsciously, will pay court to the teacher, by pleasing the teacher in the most perfect way” (p:77). This quotation also relates to the description of the third level of obedience as given in The Absorbent Mind (1949:1988, p:237) “his obedience is turned towards a personality whose superiority he feels.” For me personally this puts the teacher in a position which could potentially lead to abuse of this special power, and highlights the need for our own humility and understanding of the privilege of our status.

Montessori goes on to explore the spiritual freedom the child needs in order to develop naturally – for her this goes hand in hand with the physical freedom (freedom of movement) the environment provides. This spiritual freedom does not consist of only giving the right materials and activities – Montessori says that the object needs to take “the place of the teacher” (p:78).  She elaborates further “We cannot say that, in giving the didactic material and in permitting auto-education, we have given freedom. No, we have only given the means of attaining freedom” (p:79) and goes on to say on the next page “…to leave the child free to find this path, this is the foundation upon which we build our concept of freedom.”

“The inner development is made manifest together with gratitude and love of those about us.  It is, in truth, the inner life unfolding and may be seen as the metabolism of the inner life which is free to give growth to the human mind and soul” (p:81.)  According to Montessori these conditions lead the child “to greater comprehension of ….. compassion.”

Montessori expands on this idea in the final chapter of our reading How to Give a Lesson as Compared with Other Methods (p:150).  Here she explores and compares the spiritual life of the child to the “psychic life” which the editors of this book explain in the foot notes as “mental development in the areas such as language, memory, will/reasoning, imagination, independence, emotions and ….. development of consciousness” – demonstrating that for Montessori, psychic development had wide-reaching scope which goes beyond today’s understanding of mental development.  To promote and support this psychic life, Montessori advocates we need “a changed persona of the teacher” (p:151).

This new teacher needs to organise the work for the child so as to enable the psychic development, and this goes beyond “the many ways in which the materials are presented” …. ”this work must virtually reach out to the inspiration and spiritual needs of the child” …. “Children must develop ideas, imagination and reasoning powers” (p:151 and 152). These words resonate with me and highlight some of the qualities of characteristics of effective learning as advocated by the EYFS and are recommended as tools for evaluation of children’s learning and of our observations. On the same page Montessori declares that “Pedagogy must be based on psychology as hygiene is founded on physiology.”

She goes on to elaborate the qualities of the lesson and advocates giving the lessons in silence. And then describes a three period lesson. She also urges us to observe the individual differences in learning and alludes to the importance of indirect preparation, making of mistakes and not enticing children into doing something, but leaving them free to complete the exercise for which they have a tendency at that moment, in that period, according to the needs of their psychic life”(p:159).

In the closing sentences of the chapter, Montessori shares her view that observations will enable us to see “the phenomena of the inner life of humans, the phenomena of the whole life of humans, since it is not the human body alone which develops, but also the human spirit, and mind, human consciousness, the spirit which we have stifled too much, contemplated too little, and which is perhaps best studies in the years of childhood” (p.162).

Join us on Tuesday 7 December at 19.00 when we discuss these chapters in more detail. Register here.

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