“Our House is on Fire”*

If we wish to bring to the children knowledge of the real and material world, nothing can be more significant and accurate than the image of the tree that is human solidarity, rooted in a distant past and extending its branches towards eternity, while we live the infinitesimal second allotted to human life.

Maria Montessori, San Remo Lectures, (1949) p. 18

By Kavita Doodnauth, November 2022

In 2015, at the Montessori Europe Congress in Lund, Sweden, I attended a workshop and Marvin Reyes, from Vincerola Montessori in Cologne, was one of the facilitators. As luck would have it, Marvin and I were part of the Earth Project, a Montessori Everywhere initiative interested in sharing ideas in environmental sustainability and stewardship. I finally had the chance to tell Marvin that a principle shared at their workshop affected me so profoundly and opened my mind to nature in a completely different way. It was this, “nature is not to be scorned”. The spider is not a creature to be feared, nor the worm or the snake. 

In the same way we are role models in the speech we use and the grace and courtesy we employ, let’s be mindful of not passing on our phobias or misguided impressions to the children. You might be afraid of an animal or have ideas about what constitutes “bad weather”, think that mud is “dirty” and have a fear of the dark. These subjective impressions are obstacles to fostering a love of nature, in all its forms. Rainy days help our plants grow and rain is vital to the water cycle. Mud and dirt are full of microscopic creatures and nutrients for trees and plants and play an important role in many ecosystems. And well, the dark – we all know that we can only see the stars glimmer because of the dark! The lesson I learned that day is that we protect what we love – we cannot love what we scorn or fear. Since then I have been so aware of my behaviour; let’s just say that I’m a work in progress but the children don’t know that!

The Earth Project, initiated by Simone Davies on behalf of Montessori Everywhere, invited children, parents, teachers and administrators to share their experiences in environmental stewardship with others and to challenge themselves and their schools to become even more sustainable. We had high hopes for what might germinate but the challenges of the pandemic proved to be a significant obstacle to sustaining momentum. In the months that have passed since, I have reflected with, I admit, some sadness, that a lasting movement was not established. The school where I work also found it challenging to move forward with our plans because of the uncertainty caused by lockdowns, staff shortages and student absences. Despite good intentions and interest in the project, we were not able to set up a school-wide initiative. I know that my colleagues have not given up or forgotten the sense of purpose that guided us in our early discussions. I see small changes and I am optimistic that stewardship and sustainability will be given more focus. 

Now that I’ve given you the background, I hope you will indulge me in sharing what is on my heart. To do that I would like to make a series of connections that frame my concerns and inform the questions I have about the place of environmental sustainability in education. While we may never know the exact origin of Covid, a prevalent theory is that it is a zoonotic infectious disease, one of a number that plagues us. In other words, these diseases originate in animals but make the jump to humans. For years doctors, scientists and researchers have been working on the causality between the negative human impact on ecosystems and the increase in zoonotic infectious diseases. In protecting ourselves from infection we were required to use materials that have contributed to more waste flooding our landscapes and waterways. Covid also served as a powerful obstacle to education, research and environmental action. In particular, this last idea concerns me the most. 

During the pandemic concerns about maintaining educational outcomes grew. To address this we found ourselves interpreting Montessori materials in ways that perhaps contradicted our training. Some of us were incorporating methods that are usually avoided in a Montessori context. Parents were concerned about what children might not be learning and the media reported on impending learning loss. Now that we have returned we can see the impact on young people, their parents and our colleagues. And yet, in all of the discourse, there is more focus on academic loss than the human impact we see and feel in our schools. This is where I understand how hopeless some young people must feel. As the much-quoted Greta Thunberg is known to say, “Our house is on fire”, and the adults are worried about academic loss.

We prioritize the transmission of knowledge and the development of academic skills when our world is in danger. We continue to centre our comfort instead of engaging in the uncomfortable but necessary task of regenerating our ecosystems and pulling back from the brink of environmental catastrophe. If I were a young person I might lose faith in us. And so the protests have become much more challenging and “in your face”. Artwork is being defaced to demand answers to the seemingly simple questions, “What is worth more? Art or life?…Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” 

As a primary guide, I understand my responsibility in supporting the child’s adaptation to their culture, place and time. I believe we must understand this task as the foundation for the advancement of culture in all its forms and not merely the replication of it. It is often said that we cannot imagine the future that we are preparing our children for. We should carefully consider what we prioritise and to what end.  There is one more point I am inspired to share, especially after attending Gabriel Salomõa’s talk, “Listening to Diverse Voices in our Community” at this year’s Montessori Europe conference. Gabriel amplified the knowledge and expertise of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon who preserved and “shaped forest composition and…diversity”  of the Amazon rainforest as we know it. The relevance of this to our work is profound, particularly in the elementary and adolescent environment.

First, this is evidence of humans knowing how to live in a regenerative, sustainable way on our planet for an extended period in a much broader and more inclusive telling of history. In dismantling the acceptance of a “general history” that erases the knowledge and advancements of cultures outside of the European historical narrative, we expand the potential for a more diverse understanding of living in harmony with and not in conquest of, our planet.  It also brings to mind an idea that Carlos Chiver Jassan, of Merkaz Montessori in Mexico City, introduced me to – the decentering of humans in our interaction with other elements of nature. Recalibrating our position to nature as a place or thing we are superior to and instead understanding ourselves to be an aspect of nature. 

Academic learning is important and can lead us to discoveries and inventions that may yet preserve our planet and its inhabitants. So too, is the cultivation of wonder in the majesty of nature and our understanding of ourselves as part of nature. We must make every effort to connect the children’s foundational experiences to elements of the natural world and to help transform their love for animals, plants, clouds, the stars, worms and mud into gratitude and stewardship. Undoubtedly, I would have been sad if Van Gogh’s sunflowers had been destroyed but I know that if we engage in more sustainable ways of being and doing that one day someone will have the opportunity to create another beautiful masterpiece. 

Do not be discouraged by Dr. Montessori’s admonishment that we, “have readily given up our own freedom and have ended up loving our prison and passing it on to our children. Little by little we have come to look upon nature as being restricted to the growing of flowers or to the care of domestic animals which provide us with food, assist us in our labours, or help in our defence. This has caused our souls to shrink and has filled them with contradictions” (The Discovery of the Child, 2017, Chapter 4 – Nature in Education, p.98). Hold these words close to your heart and accept them as a challenge instead. Lean into your contradictions, ask yourself some hard questions and create space to pass on curiosity, wonder and gratitude for our world, it has the capacity to become action. Please do not stop there, Montessori reminds us, “the function of the school is to supply him with interesting information and motives for action. A child, who more than anyone else is a spontaneous observer of nature, certainly needs to have at his disposal material upon which he can work”(ibid, p. 102).

Join us on Tuesday 22 November at 19.00 (UTC) to explore how you promote the need for Education for Sustainable Development to your key stakeholders. How do you explain to parents and carers that a curriculum centred around sustainability is as important as learning sounds and numbers? How do you set out your curriculum when educational inspectors visit your school? And how can you involve the community in your work? Register here.

* Greta Thunberg

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