Monday, June 22, 2015

The Role of the Adult in the Classroom: The Montessori Guide

Context: These are my thoughts regarding the role that the adult plays in the Montessori Casa dei Bambini, or classroom for ages 3-6. It is based on the writings and oral tradition of Dr. Maria Montessori and the Montessori Association Internationale. 

Humans live in a supra-natural environment, looking for the conditions for their development. Our role as guides in the child’s environment is to provide the conditions the child needs for their task of self-construction. This is in stark contrast to the traditional binary of teaching equaling learning. As provided by Dr. Montessori’s vision, we no longer have an education system of the teaching and the taught; the child must be the most active entity in this environment, central to our approach. 

The three agents of education
The three agents of education are the prepared environment, which will protect, nourish, and stimulate, where the child will find the freedom to construct in a space with no obstacles for natural development, protecting the child's work and distraction from the work, nourishing by providing raw materials for the stimulus of activity. The second agent is the set of proper tools, keeping his needs and capacities in mind, the best of human culture, in a form accessible to the child at this point in development. The third agent is the adult prepared spiritually and scientifically, in ways needed to approach the child from the perspective of being an assistant to life and development from a point of service. The adult who is prepared for this work by understanding the child from a perspective of psychology and understanding the technique of preparing the environment and the means of development for the child. We know that of these three agents, the only living element is the adult.

The role of the adult as an agent of education
The adult must prepare, maintain, and develop the environment, so that the child may live according to natural laws. The adult must link the child to the environment and allow the child to be active in that space, in a way that supports self-construction. The guide presents to the child those tools which lead toward self-construction. Ultimately, the guide is ensuring conditions for freedom, primarily offering help only through the other agents of education-- less overtly and more indirectly.

Only the adult can observe the environment, to ensure that it is always in a state of preparedness, so that the child can work at their development. We are continuously observing the child to see what that child needs at any particular time. We observe what they need at this point in their construction, to link them to the right tools of development. Based on that observation, we reflect to see what it is to help the child self-construct. What does the child need further-- is it the adult himself that is distracting the child? Does the child need encouragement through enticement to the work? Does the child need additional stimulation to approach the work? It is a task of self-reflection to determine when these items should be performed. Only the adult, additionally, can present, to connect a child to a particular means of development, to help the child in their task of construction. Therefore, the adult is the link between the means of development and the adult.

Principle of subsidiarity in the classroom 
Subsidiarity is the notion that we attend to needs by the lowest, simplest means possible before going to a higher authority on that matter. Accordingly to the principal of subsidiarity, we look to the environment to serve the needs of the child first, the routines, the space, and the other children. If that help cannot be obtained from anything in the environment, we look to the shelf and its means of development. Only then can the adult step in to directly help the child. This approach is fundamental to the Montessori Method. It is one of the hardest things for us to embrace, coming from a perspective of the adult offering all helps. As must as possible, we should be in the background. By being an all-powerful agent, we can take on responsibilities overwhelm us, and we do not have time to observe the child's needs. We will then be doing things that we do not need to do or have time to do; the essentials are left undone.

Essential aspects of the preparation of the adult: Spiritual and scientific
If the guide’s role is so drastically different from the traditional role of the teacher, then our preparation is critical. This preparation is spiritual, in the idea that we must examine our attitude and beliefs as the adult, toward the child. We examine the fundamental belief toward the child in an educational context. If we embrace the child as a self-constructor, we understand that the child has powers beyond those which the adult "conveys"; it is the child's own task. To embrace this belief is a challenge, because we have absorbed the notion of the adult-child relationships as one of authority-helplessness. To overcome this prejudice is overcoming an obstacle to the child's development:
"The educator must not imagine that he can prepare himself for his office merely by study, by becoming a man of culture. He must before all else cultivate in himself certain aptitude of a moral order." [1]

We become aware of the pride and arrogance with which we typically observe children. We take on responsibilities beyond our capacity to do in the classroom, thinking that it is we who are doing this work and not the child herself. The child's capacities and powers to do this work, such as learning to read, are worthy of respect. Teachers must develop humility and trust in the child's innate powers which enable her to complete the task of self-construction better than anything I could do for her. Her own powers for self-construction is far more powerful than anything I could induce the child to do through my own efforts. The child is the essential guide of the preparation of the adult.

Each child has an individual psychology, and observation helps us to offer help scientifically to each child. Our roles of preparing, presenting, and maintaining the environment is backed by our technical knowledge. We must be aware of the filter of previous experiences and prejudices that color our observations, or else they are not accurate.

Responsibilities and characteristics of the adult in the child’ environment
The new type of teacher which Dr. Montessori describes must be orderly and organized in everything they do. In Dr. Montessori’s words, “The Montessori teacher has to visualize the child that is not yet there, materially speaking.” The attractiveness of the adult, the capacity of the personality to be inspiring, transfers to the attractiveness of the materials. The guide is there to support them to create their own personality, not one finding validation in their relation to us. The guide has faith that the child will reveal herself through work, in a spiritual field of view. The teacher is always discriminating when to step in and when not to step in. At each point, the teacher is exercising a sensitivity to helping and hindering, in the needs of self-control. The teacher is dignified, and our authority comes from our dignity and trust relationship of being able to show the child what is what. The authority is based on inspiring confidence within the child. The teacher must exercise faith that no matter what the teacher observes, the child's abilities will emerge over time.

The guide’s role changing with emergent concentration
Dr. Montessori was clear that the role of the adult before the child begins to concentrate is very different from after the child has begun to concentrate. The key role of the adult is arousing the interest of the child. We have to gain their interest, to entice them to work and inspire their interest in engagement. We can police disorderly behavior that is not supporting the child's natural developmental needs. We must recognize when the behavior has deviated and is not leading towards development. Being the overt, active person while the children are still being disorderly is a time to lead toward concentration; the focus of our efforts changes after concentration emerges. After that point, we refrain from interfering, to sustain the interests of the child. Then, my work becomes indirect in that phase. When the child are disorderly, I am directive and overt in my engagement. The adult seduces the child toward any activity that will yield attention. The role of the adult, therefore, changes with the normalization of children.

"It is understood that we do not interfere when there is an orderly, constructive activity. If there is disorder, owing to inner or outer disturbance, we would be failing in our duty if we did not intervene, firmly, without hesitation and without any emotional display. We must not limit our intervention to putting a stop to something negative. We must set in motion something positive which will help the child to move in order."[2]

Practical considerations
Dr. Montessori said that the teacher has to have an active imagination. That is because the child displays many disorganized behaviors. The Montessori teacher must have faith in the child who will reveal herself through work. Work is the only solution to bring about the change in child. It is not as a magical environment, as if just put in the right environment, as if the child will immediately emerge with concentration. It takes time, but the child would not have developed these same faculties, over time, without the guide having the imagination to see what will emerge with time and effort. It is a question of a whole revolution, discovering all we are and can be, because we discover unknown factors within ourselves, and should accordingly conceive of our mission as educators.

Albert Joosten on the practice of discerning help versus hindrance

"This is not merely a question of learning something. It is a question of achieving a revolution within ourselves and of our whole outlook, of our whole attitude, and of everything we are, knowingly or unknowingly. The discover and exploration of all we are, without having been aware of it, is one of the most exhilarating and fascinating experiences because we discover unknown factors within ourselves. To try and set right the manner in which we conceive our mission, and accordingly, should fashion and shape our attitude and being, that is spiritual preparation." [3]

Mr. Joosten asks us to learn from the child. It is love in practice. Dr. Montessori calls charity love in action. Mr. Joosten contrasts our concept of love with the child's concept of love, saying, “Love is the will to be and act for the good of whom we love."[4] He seeks to inspire us to look at love differently. The child's love is always forgiving and ready to trust, always honest and patient. Our best teacher is the child, from whom we learn to love in this deeply spiritual way. Love is based on an understanding of the other, in this all-accepting way, without prejudice and condition. Joosten writes, "Love, in order to fulfill its function in human life, is in need, like everything that belongs to the human personality, of education.”[5]

Withdrawing into the background
How does this look in practice? How do we know when to step away? How do we develop the capacity to recognize concentration? Fundamentally, in looking at the child, the lens is the developing child. To go beyond the behavior that needs correction, we look at the child's needs. The actions are serving the inner child, not responding to the outer behavior. This is going to be a big help in our daily practice with children. If we look at the child's activity, we question whether the activity was spontaneously chosen by the adult or by the child. Does the chosen activity serve their development? Even in established classrooms, the work that is happening may be meaningless. It is for us to question whether it supports the inner development of the child. We look at the child and decide whether it serves the child or not. The same is true if the child is imposed on the child; many times, when the adult complains that the child is not completing their work, we question why it is the teacher observes what it is the child should be doing. The imposition of activity, consciously or directly, it is based on the expectations that the adult has imposed, and the child will often complete those imposed activities, but the child will take little from it.

Essential qualities and outcomes of these principles
We should not set the expectation of what they can do when, because it hinders their ability to develop their own will and concentration. The teacher must be able to recognize the difference between positive activity and activity that does not serve development. Mr. Joosten says to intervene in the instance of misuse. If there is faulty handling of the material, you always step in. There is no way the child will ever get to the point of success without clear pointers, for example of where the lip of the pitcher should rest, or that the color tablets are not building blocks. Observing the child's activity will show whether the child had the fundamentals which will lead toward success. In most cases of observing errors, no correction is needed.

As a reflection, the guide must take great care in discerning when to intervene and when to step back and withdraw. Our help is more often a hindrance than an actual help, a great departure to that of general interactions between adult and children. The importance of our work is helping the child grow according to the course of natural development, to the fullest potential. Yet, to love the child is to respect his powers in guiding him to help himself. In Dr. Montessori’s words, "We must help the child to act for himself, will for himself, think for himself; this is the art of those who aspire to serve the spirit."[6]

[1] Montessori, Maria. The Secret of Childhood, 127.
[2] Joosten, A.M. The Spiritual Preparation of the Adult, 118.
[3] Joosten, 108.
[4] Joosten, 114.            
[5] Joosten, 112.
[6] Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind, 201

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