Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Little History: Origins - The day that shaped the Montessori method

One day, in 1907 in San Lorenzo, the children had been dropped off early in the Casa-- the earliest Montessori school-- and they broke into the cabinets and sat down at the tables with materials, spontaneously working with the materials all by themselves. When the teachers arrived and found the children working completely independently. They were neither misusing nor hiding the materials; they used them just as the lessons were given to them. Although the teachers said that the children had stolen the materials, Maria Montessori noted that they even reached this place of concentration without any assistance. It was as though they knew what they needed to do.

The child has many unconscious powers that help her find the right activity to meet her developmental needs. Intuitively, the child does know which activity will be right for them, in their environment, if they are given an appropriate environment. At the time, Montessori was hesitant to believe what the teachers had told her, to see for herself whether it was true or not. She suggested that the children decide what to do with the materials, to just observe. Now the children not only had the freedom to repeat and move, but they were given freedom of choice in materials, for the first time. As an experiment, the teachers were to give lessons in whichever materials the children asked to learn. They say it was that day that the seeds of the Montessori Method were sown-- the day that Maria Montessori gave the children freedom of choice. She wanted to facilitate everything in the environment, to put everything on low shelves, changing the seating arrangement from benches to individual tables throughout the room where children could do their work. They needed their own psychological space separate from others in the room who would disrupt their psychological space.

Previously, the role of the adult was to present lessons, maintain order, and control the environment. Without having to keep children sitting down, more of the children's work was done in a shorter span of time. Now, the teachers were observing, noting which materials the children chose, most of the time. Which materials did the select and complete with the most interest? Which facilitated the highest level of concentration? Which items would the children never chose?

One of the first things the teachers noted: the children never touched the toys and dolls. Even having given specific instruction in the playthings, the children were not choosing them. They left them on the shelves. They were more interested in satisfying their developmental needs in other areas. Once the children started enjoying their freedoms in the Casa, she started noticing they showed a level of cooperation and self-control that was never seen before. Even as three, four, or five year olds-- 50 or 60 of them in this room-- would be so respectful of their space. She had a sense of incredulity and wonder. How could it be true?

She wrote, it was like how the stars formed their natural paths along their orbits. The children appeared to be in their natural function. At that point, she became determined to discover what was happening. With courage, she abandoned all her other work in science and decided to follow the work of the child. As a scientist then, she started reflecting, wondering about the conditions in the environment which made it possible to reveal aspects of their nature. She began to form hypotheses-- was it the freedoms, the role of the adult, or the specific materials which cause the child to behave in such different ways from how the child is typically observed?

As a trained scientist, she attempted to recreate conditions and isolate variables to discover which environment is most in keeping with the natural spirit of the child, to further the child's creative construction of the self. That was her work for the next 50 years. What she found-- not only did the children in San Lorenzo respond to these particular conditions, but this was also true all over the world. She began to see the child as an embodiment of great human potentialities, with great powers to actualize the human potentialities, which only a child can endeavor to express. She discovered the innate, natural path that guides the realization of development. These discoveries became the foundation of the Montessori theory, as an outcome of observation and study. However, the creation of the environment preceded her formulation of theories.

Dr. Montessori began to see the child as a great worker with the task of creating the human being. With that discovery came the knowledge that as adults, our role is very different. In response, the revolutionary change in the concept of education was to understand education as serving the developmental needs of the child. No longer is the adult bearing knowledge to the child, but in this new paradigm, the teacher provides the help to life for self-formation within the child. Side by side, the guide and the child work together: that is the foundation of the method.

Any conversation with the child begins with observation of the child. Who are you? What do you need? Adults do not often come to children observing their needs often enough. We communicate what they should know, when and how, but the legacy of Dr. Montessori is the daily responsibility to come to the child every day asking the question of how the adult can aid the development of the child. It is a continual dialog, exchanging learning and understanding between child and adult.

There is a story of a woman who came to Dr. Montessori, asking to become a Montessori teacher. She asked the woman, "Are you ready to serve the child?" This is what Montessori guides constantly ask, when circumstances pull us at every direction. We make a collaborative approach together, between adult and child.

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