Friday, June 13, 2014

The Absorbent Mind of the Child - a Montessori perspective

Dr. Maria Montessori did not come to the concept of The Absorbent Mind until 1949 when she wrote the book by that title, later in her life, only after decades of observing children. We cannot, however, think of the child's absorbent mind like the sponge, because the sponge is visited by moisture but loses it again. Absorbing is a mental activity, a continuous effort. As an adult, it is an exhausting process to absorb new ideas; however, the child is energized by the process of absorption. In the child's mind, everything is taken in without question or judgment or choice. She does not absorb through conscious effort or focus. She does not take more time when the environment or topic is more complex. Regardless of whether the child is living in a complex urban environment or the tribal society, in varying languages and cultures, the child still has two and a half years to absorb the fundamental elements of the culture.

Important clarification of language, the absorbent mind does not learn. You do not teach to it. It absorbs. To support the absorbent mind, we must understand how it works. The absorbent mind does need a rich environment to gather the material. As early as 1926, in the Secret of Childhood, Montessori writes that the child will be in continual peril without the environment prepared to receive it. Empathy, for example, must be observed and internalized, before they can follow the rules of kindness of the classroom. Developing the environment convenient to the adult damages the child, on a fundamental level, such as keeping a child from being able to pour their own liquids into a cup, to strengthen their own hand muscles to pour their own drink. It creates an atrophied capacity in so many respects to structure the environment simply around the adult.

In the nuclear family, rather than in the traditional society in the native community, the children are isolated from the community of other children and social worlds. The emotional connection to the community is critical for the development of human values. Locking the child away in the nuclear family is in opposition to the needs of the absorbent mind of the child.

The mind absorbs globally, totally, instantaneously, and seemingly without any effort. It is not just the sensorial impressions of objects and things. The child is also taking in emotional, moral, social, spiritual, and intellectual information-- everything that is alive in that environment. The child observes the physical conditions, the degree of cleanliness, how people interact with one another, the social and moral and emotional values manifested in our actions-- all of these things are consumed by the mind of the child. They absorb every detail of the environment. Montessori makes the analogy of the camera, rather than the sponge, making pictures and imprints of the whole and then focusing in on individual pieces of the landscape. There is no discrimination of what is right and wrong; whatever is there is taken in. Every minute detail is registered, whether I am taking a photo of the whole room or of the tiny element. In a second, it is absorbed.

The adult mind is more like that of a painter, selecting elements that we find attractive and important. We pick and chose. We make that painting to varying abilities. We take much longer to represent a great deal, but the absorbent mind is continual and all-consuming. Whereas the child expends no great effort within its environment to form impressions of large scale. Foundationally, these early impressions become an integral part of the psyche of the child. Just as the light changes the film permanently, the environment forms the permanent formation of the child. Dr. Montessori uses the term incarnation, the environment literally making the flesh of the child. It is not like the sponge holding the water, where the water is separate from the sponge. The environment literally becomes the child, in the period of the absorbent mind, in the form of connections between the neurons that form the basis for the psychic foundation for the child. If interactions are limited within the child, the connections in the brain will also be limited; it is the literal flesh in this respect, the electrical connection within the brain: her intelligence, her language, and her movements.

Another characteristic of the absorbent mind is that is cannot discriminate or chose between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, easy or difficult. It absorbs all things. The child cannot become the good, kind, compassionate person without the value being expressed around them. Those prejudices manifested in actions in the environment become the prejudices of that environment. By taking in those prejudices and values, she gives new life to those prejudices, both good and bad. Whatever we want to perpetuate about our human culture, we must bring these things to the children.

What raw materials are good enough for a human being? The higher the quality of the materials, the better the children can realize their potentials.

The work of the absorbent mind remains hidden. We do not see that the child can speak until sounds resembling language come out. We cannot see the muscles forming in the womb, in anticipation of the first steps of walking. Any work of the child begins much earlier than we can observe its operation. Much like Montessori's analogy of the film camera, we do not know what images have been absorbed in the light of that space until later, when it develops. The work is unique and specific to the first plane of development.

Dr. Montessori says that the price we pay, as adults, for the conscious mind, is the loss of the absorbent mind. As the foundations are laid to be three, and eventually six, the absorbent mind fades away, replaced by the mind of the conscious worker. The first phase, age zero to three, consolidates the work of this time-- what Montessori calls the consolidation of the psychic organs. We imagine, in adult prejudice, that the thoughts of the child are insignificant, that adults are the enlightened beings, when the dignity of the child speaks against that arrogance. The educator must cast aside this prejudice, this arrogance, and overcome it in order to the the guide of the child in the stage of the absorbent mind.

What does the absorbent mind help us create? Human beings, in all of the organs of our mental life, our psychological life; our coordinated movement guided by intentions and chosen by the will; language as a mode of communication; and each of those organs of the mind develops separately for a process of coordination to form a unified personality. The work of the primary child is unifying all of these faculties, from age three to six.

Language is one of the easier elements to observe regarding the absorbent mind. We can see the equal adeptness that a bilingual child manifests. Regarding movement, however, one can observe the way that the child moves their hands. The child is given helps which become rather a hindrance, rather than a help-- such as the sippy cup, when even an infant can drink out of a glass, or the fork and knife and chopsticks that the young child has within their capacity, rather than the finger foods we serve the children. The small child has the capacity for great balance in carrying water or objects, but we underestimate them and reduce their capacity for disbelieving their capacity. Exposing them to complex sentence structure and a diversity of vocabulary in every day life enables them to speak in a way their brain is prepared to engage. We do not teach the advanced capacity: but we must expose them to the environment and values which they will incarnate. The educator must be aware of which values we must not expose for incarnation.

Creating the absorbent mind-- the work of the child-- is creating the individual person. The child takes in their own conditions as they are today. Cultural adaptation, such as language, is totally adapted to each culture. The reverence for knowledge is representative of the culture found in some cultures and not others-- my Montessori instructor Uma Ramani gave the example of signing, making a gesture of reverence to the paper or book that has been walked upon, as part of her Indian tradition learned in Calcutta as a child. Even after having been immersed in an American culture for years and years, she has never unlearned the reverence for books and almost automatic reverence gesture when she has mistakenly stepped upon the book.

Consider how we thank a person. Teaching the words thank you are less effective than looking directly at the person and saying, You prepared me a wonderful cup of coffee. I enjoyed it. We must consider, when teaching grace and courtesy, that there are no magic words to substitute for authenticity that we communicate to a child. The educator must question the genuine feeling we communicate to the child in our cultural myths and habits. The children will ultimately find comfort with the conditions of that time, for better or for ill. The educator is, then, the agent of the spiritual heredity of the human society.


Jeannot Jonte Boucher is a Montessori educator and parent in Dallas, Texas. 

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