The last three chapters we have chosen to share for our Book Club this month, highlight Montessori’s deep commitment to her vision of reform to education. She advocates for a reform which requires a fresh view at the uniqueness of each child and articulates pedagogy which supports the young child’s capacity to learn spontaneously from a specially prepared environment. Such a place recognises the child’s need for freedom and independence and fosters attitudes of respect and trust. It offers learning opportunities from peers as well as adults, and treats an error as a friend, rather than a tool for correction. It recognises the futility of rewards and punishments, and promotes emergence of self-discipline (we tend to call it today: self-regulation) and urges us to search for a new moral code based on spiritual qualities such as humility and kindness.
As you would anticipate, Montessori recognised the futility of both prizes and punishments which she explains in a chapter of the same name starting on page 126. Drawing on her experiences of working with children with special needs, she discusses both as tools used in education to improve children’s achievements. Montessori highlights how demoralising rewards are for those children who never receive them and how futile punishments are if applied to children who are not able to work within the expected parameters, totally negating the possibility of natural and individual progress. She sees prizes and punishment as “…kind of a slavery,…. which our schools employ to lead children to do what we thinks is best for them” (p:126). In this chapter she does not refer to this approach as a means of improving children’s behaviour, something which has become common practice in schools today. Montessori recommends that we acknowledge the 3 – 6-year-old’s need to move, speak and use their senses as the main focus for their development, and if we understand this focus, we facilitate the child’s self- development; that “is the child’s prize” (p:135). She continues to express her view that “Children do not instinctively flee from work, but rather hasten to it, for work (focused on self construction) is food for their inner life. “ … “not because work brings some acquisition, but because the child grows by its means” (p:137). I understand this to mean that work includes all activities which support the development and refinement of the child’s movement, language and senses, the three key sensitive periods she described in her later writing.
In the chapter dedicated to the discussion of the child’s Will (p:246), Montessori offers a wise guidance: “In order to lead small children to construct their fundamental basis of the will, we must identify their first longings” (p:250). Once again she alludes to the importance of following the spontaneous inclinations of young children (whilst ensuring they are safe). The footnote on page 246, explaining our current understanding of the will, is a very helpful guide, likening it to volition, and makes a close connection with what was understood by moral education which we often refer to these days as ethics.
Montessori draws a link between the gradually emerging will and the child’s capacity to control movement and to remember what is required. This relationship is described in some detail on page 256 and gives us an insight into Montessori’s focus on the importance of work as the means of the child’s development. For me the development of the will is a slow process and outlines the struggle between the child’s urges and gradually emerging social awareness of appropriate behaviour. Montessori gives the following advice:
“To strengthen the will is to give a foundation to its construction; to construct the will in children, the will as part of their personality, they need to be prepared to express it. Preparations are not always direct, above all in the phenomena in the process of creation, in the phenomena of development”.Montessori, 2013: 256
In this context, what might help us today are the many views of how to support young children’s self- expression through the use of positive language and by helping them describe how they might be feeling rather than brushing those feelings aside. The writings of Philippa Perry about being a parent, continue to be a very wise and tolerant guide for not only parents but also struggling teachers who are being challenged by the children’s gradual process towards socially acceptable behaviours which do not necessarily always demonstrate compliance, but reveal kindness, care and empathy for others.
And these considerations bring us to the final chapter of the 1913 Rome Lectures dedicated to Moral Education (p:259). As one would expect, Montessori’s writing at the start of the 20th Century connects moral education with religious education, and she is very clear about the lack of impact moral tales and religious stories may have on the development of a moral code of very young children. Once again, she reminds us of children’s capacity to develop themselves and of the connection between moral and intellectual education as evident in the education of the senses. She sees our growing sensitivity linked with the developing intellect and vice-versa. I am not sure I fully understand how Montessori connects education of the senses and the use of sensorial material with the child’s growing sensitivity, which I would interpret in context of how children feel. In fact, this lack of discussion of the child’s feelings is something I have found challenging in much of Montessori’s writing and it is something I have continued to reflect and ponder on recently.
The chapter also highlights the importance of the role of adults in this area of education. Montessori recognises the importance of our role “If there is no inner sensibility on which the whole moral and religious life can be constructed, then we can only give groundless ideas” (p:268). She urges us to reflect on our moral code and values and to consider what example we give to young children as we guide them in their preparation for life.
For Montessori, pedagogy should lead not only to changes in the education system but also to changes in society. “All social revolution come from people’s aspirations to draw on as close as possible to …..absolute good” (p:271). For this change we require a new teacher “… teacher in the sense of a guide along the road of wisdom; scientist in the sense of an observer who respects life…” (p:276).
Montessori M. (2013) The 1913 Rome Lectures Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Co. Ltd
Perry P. (2019) The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did) UK: Penguin Books