Pearls of Wisdom

By Barbara Isaacs

I felt really excited when reading the chapter devoted to Attention (p: 183) in The 1913 Rome Lectures.  Montessori offers us deep insights into the importance of preparing an environment which presents a child with age-appropriate activities which draw children’s attention, stimulate repetition and support their unfolding of deep concentration. She also offers insights into the development of the senses.

“The attention is not captured by objects presented by chance, but naturally focuses on one object, which leads children to concentrate and produces a reaction of activity – in this case leading to sensorial development” (p: 183-4).

She sees this focus on one object a manifestation of the child’s inner guide; “the developmental need that the child possesses by nature” (p:185).  This interest cannot be determined by the teacher, however it is the teacher’s responsibility to present a range of objects, “which are necessary at a given moment the inner activity will concentrate upon”, and which will allow children  “to observe, and lead them to make selections, to choose and to form their character in such aspects as perseverance and patience” (p:188).  As I understand it,  here Montessori demonstrates the importance of the environment which offers opportunities to spontaneously attract the child’s attention leading to not only deep concentration but also to perseverance and patience.  She refers extensively to the notion of presenting the child with objects, and I take this to mean making them available on the shelves in the environment, offering choice rather than demonstrating the use of the object to the child.

She summarises “By giving specific objects to a child at the age when they attract attention for the longest time, we really give a means, a stimulus to the complex formation of the inner personality” …. “In giving the nourishment adapted to the needs of the moment we educate the whole personality” (p:188).

She also gives us insight into the principles behind the sensorial materials when she refers to John Locke’s (1632-1704) theory of “The association of ideas”.  She describes the benefits of the sensorial materials as an opportunity to concentrate attention for a long time and “To observe, compare, choose, reason, make decisions of their own will” (p:189).  Can you recognise some of the characteristics of effective learning in this description?  

She goes on further to define the sensorial activities as “the instruments of a mental gymnasium “ (p:190) strengthening the mind and also developing order which I interpret as the basis for logical thinking.  What is more, she recognises that the child would have experienced many of these impressions and ideas before being introduced to the sensorial materials – and it is these previous experiences which the child organises and orders with the help of the sensorial activities. The child “will acquire power of observing better and in an orderly way the things which surround them” (p:191). They will also have the vocabulary to describe them more accurately. And she illustrates this with a lovely example of a child correcting another one describing lines the teacher is drawing “They are not small, they are fine!”

She celebrates the feeling this learning brings: “The emotional impact is the joy our children experiences when becoming explores of their environment” (p:192).  She highlights the value of scaffolding the child’s knowledge based on previous experiences and calls it “acquired cognition …. the fundamental formation of intelligence” (p:193).

This quote urged me to carry on with reading the chapter on Intelligence (p:218), where in the first sentence Montessori states that sensorial education “establishes order in the construction of the intellect “ and the child learns to “judge and choose” … and refine the “capacity for perception”(p:218).  MY understanding is that this is an opportunity for the child to build on many sensory encounters experienced from the moment of birth – for example the child has experienced  and is likely to have been given the vocabulary for big and small, heavy and light, hot or cold – what the sensorial materials provide is an opportunity to classify and organise, identify and recall sensory stimuli quickly and accurately. Montessori explains that children who “are left to themselves, …. become spontaneous observers of the environment and carry away from the external environment the observations that they need for the fundamental formation of the content of their minds” (p:219).

She continues to explore the benefits of education of the senses through the Montessori materials which enable children to gradually perceive the smallest of details and build the child’s capacity for differentiation. Montessori believes that lack of this capacity results in mental confusion.   She is very clear in her belief that the power of imagination is based on reality and order, making a very strong argument for the children’s need of real experiences. For her, order is an essential part of helping to “educate intelligence” (p:223).  Giving many example from history she demonstrates the human need to educate the intellect which contributes to the “development of the inner life” (p:231).

I could not resist but dip into the chapter on Education of the Senses (p: 205) to get a deeper insight. Montessori makes a connection between the sensory and motor aspects of education the senses, which she expresses many years later in The Absorbent Mind in the now famous quote  “Hands are the instruments of man intelligence” (1949:25).  She sees the first plane of development as an ideal opportunity to harness sensory learning and argues for this need  “…to educate should mean to help children … such a way that it is not chance alone that provides them with the first material of the intellect” (p:211).

When describing the sensory motor learning Montessori defines our five senses as the “external senses”  whilst she mentions the kinaesthetic sense as one of the “inner sense” which result from the general functions of our body.  In between the two she identifies pain sense as manifested in the thermic sense.  Here we are given some insight to the origins of the 10 senses which we have come to associate with Montessori sensory education (adding baric, thermic, chromatic, stereognostic and kinaesthetic to the generally accepted five).  Montessori is quite clear that “Sensory education can occur only when children can practise for themselves a sensory exercise, and sensory education is achieved only through self-practice” (p:212).  The question is: what does this self-practice look like?  Recent research would make us believe that free exploration of an activity and its association with objects in the environment is of greater value than set presentations of the material.  For Montessori, the benefits of these exercise are in the child’s growing capacity to “analyse, classify, choose and decide according to truth” (which I interpret as known facts at the time of learning) (p:212)  And I would argue that it is for this reason that young children need to be able to use the materials to explore and investigate whilst drawing on their inherent qualities as presented to them by the prepared environment.

In the final paragraph of this chapter Montessori reminds us “What constitutes human greatness must be acquired by ourselves” (p.217).  And for me this human greatness lies in our capacity to use our imagination – and this brings us to the final chapter in this book club reading Imagination (p:195).  Montessori states in the opening paragraph of this chapter “The content of our mind is made up of what we take materially from the surrounding by means of sensations, and of what we may construct by means of imagination”.  In this way, for Montessori, education of the senses lays a firm foundation for the child’s imagination, hence the fundamental need for real experiences and connection with nature, particularly in the first plane of development.

It is my feeling that we have misunderstood Montessori’s writing when advocating against imaginary play particularly in the first stage of development.  What she is asking us is not to suggest imaginary scenarios to the child, but to give them an opportunity to create these scenarios for themselves.  She draws our attention to the use of fairy tales as tools for development of imagination “When we tell fairy tales, we do not develop the child’s imagination, as we are giving them the fruits of our own imagination only”( p:199).  As Montessori discusses the development of the imagination she continues to insist that it can only develop healthily if it is based on foundations of “an empirical mind which they (children) can construct in the most orderly manner possible” (p:201). She therefore encourages us to guide children towards developing their imagination as based on nature and develop children’s capacity to observe their environment.

We look forward to reflecting on these chapters with you at our Book Club on Tuesday 15 March at 19.00 (UTC). Register here to join us and we invite you to consider, in advance of the session the following:

  • Attention: Are we true to Montessori’s view in our work, that “we should not try to attract or draw to the child’s attention to some object, for we do not have such powers” (p:185)?
  • Imagination: How do you feel about Montessori’s view that “By preparing children through the education of their senses, and hence, preparing an orderliness of mind and reasoning, so that their inner spontaneous force can select, set in order, and construct so that the individual psyche may be free to shape itself, we prepare the individual for imagination” (p:197)?
  • Education of the Senses: “Sensory education can occur only when children can practise for themselves a sensory exercise, and sensory education is achieved only through self-practice” (p:212).  But what does this self-practice look like?
  • Intelligence: What do you understand by the quote: “children who are left to themselves, …. become spontaneous observers of the environment and carry away from the external environment the observations that they need for the fundamental formation of the content of their minds” (p:219)?

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