Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Montessori for Social Development and Social Cohesion

The following is a Montessori theory article I have written to explain the Montessori theory of social development and social cohesion from ages 3-6 in the Casa dei Bambini setting. - Jeannot Jonte Boucher


The origin of the word society is
societas, which means companion. From the dictionary meaning, society means an aggregation of individuals living together in a more or less ordered community. While an aggregate is a whole formed by disparate elements, there must be unifying factors bringing these people together. Dr. Montessori writes:

‘Individuality is the basic unit, the fundamental building block of a society, which is made up of many individuals, each functioning autonomously but associating with others for a common purpose… The individual rarely lives a life entirely apart from others; rather, he is meant to associate with many others.’ (Montessori, Education and Peace, p 56)

The Reciprocal Relationship between the Individual and Society
As human beings, we are all born and work in the society of human beings. We are each individuals formed in the context of society. We find meaning and relevance in the context of society. In the area of education for social life, Montessori writes in Education and Peace:


‘Education must foster both the development of individuality and that of society. Society cannot develop unless the individual develops, as we learn from observing the child, who immediately uses his newly won independence to act in a social environment. Most of our actions would have no reason for being if there were no other people around us, and we do most of the things we do because we live in association with others.’ (p. 56)

Most of our actions are in the context of interactions with others. It is a critical part of human identity. Just as nature forms the individual, we may observe the natural path for the formation of society.

Social Development in the First Six Years
The First Three Years: Foundations of Individual Personality
To examine the work of the child through the lens of the first three years, the first task of the child is the formation of self. During these first three years, the child lays the foundations of the individual personality. In creating herself, the child is observing the stable patterns that are a part of that culture-- the values, and the prejudices of that society. The child incarnates that stable part of society, as part of her time and place. In doing so, she adapts herself to being part of this time and place.

Dr. Montessori writes about the child’s adaptation to society thusly:

‘The child’s characteristics, during his life as ‘the spiritual embryo’… are mental qualities that we find in the cohesive part of society. The child collects and incarnates them, and by this means constructs his own personality.’ (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 248)

The child’s socio-emotional development lays the basis of trust security, empathy, and the tools for other social interactions. Therein, the child learns to distinguish the self from the other. During this time period, the child orients to patterns of relationships and develops trust and security in the environment. As a basis for empathy, the child learns to discriminate emotional cues and to imitate facial expressions, all developing in the language and patterns of the child’s own culture. All of these help the child orient to the environment and develop trust and faith in that environment:

‘Well before they master language, babies communicate through emotional expression, and that it is through these interactions that they develop the security, confidence, and motivation to master their more obvious motor, verbal, and cognitive achievements,’ (Eliot, What’s Going on in There, p. 290).

To elaborate on Eliot’s idea, emotional connection is the basis for development. As the child grows and gains more functional independence, she gains context first with the immediate social circle of the family, then the child acquires more of an identity within society, as the circle expands. This takes place in the time period of three to six years.  

Three to Six Years: The child’s role in the community of the Casa
"The child of around three needs a society of other children."
The child is developing and consolidating what she has learned in the first three years, toward thought, will, and action. Dr. Montessori says that life evolves through association with one’s fellows (Montessori, Education and Peace, p. 57). During this time, the child has a growing awareness of himself in the context of a community. The development of the child's mind and the formation of groups in inextricable, simultaneous with the integration of personality and growing functional independence.  

Life in the Casa: evolving roles in community:
The First Year
In the three-year-cycle, every child experiences the entry of a social group, independent of parents and caregivers. It is an environment specially prepared for the needs of the three-to-six-year-olds. The guide shows the child how to complete activities on her own for the first time, now trusting this new adult and feeling secure in this environment. She begins to experience the freedom which is hers, making choices with guidance. As she works here, she becomes aware of other children in this environment. She learns how to express her feelings in appropriate, respectful ways. She develops abilities to wait, share, respect another child, and to delight in their achievements. With the first spill of beans or materials, she sees her actions impact the entire environment. She learns how to control her choices to impact the group favorably. She takes so much joy in taking place in the group that she develops a sense of benevolence and positive feelings toward the entire group. This is the emergence of community.

The Second Year
In the second year, the child finds herself in a familiar place, but with changes. She is no longer the youngest, and she is much more independent, now knowing not only how to care for herself but how to help other children. We see the child moving into the second psychological stage of the Exercises of Practical Life, responding to the needs of the environment and not just responding to materials available for practice. The child discovers how fun it is to work with other children. Many group games which we offer in Sensorial, language, and math are a response to the need to collaborate. This may be in collective exercises with the golden beads, for example; and the child begins to exercise give and take, to listen and to talk, to lead and to follow, and to come to a compromise.

The Third Year
When she returns in the third year, she finds herself senior in the classroom, where others look to her for help and are inspired by her abilities. Children embrace this leadership with responsibility and joy, as well as more independence in communication. She is caring, respectful, and empathetic, with such a level of integration of her personality that her choices take into account the needs of the entire group.

In Dr. Montessori’s words:

‘It is interesting to see how, little by little, these become aware of forming a group to which their activity contributes. And not only do they begin to take an interest in this, but they work on it profoundly, as one may say, in their hearts. Once they have reaches this level, the children no longer act thoughtlessly, but put the group first and try to succeed for its benefit.” (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 241)

Social Intelligence and Social Cohesion

Social Intelligence
We observe in the child the development of social intelligence. In social awareness, we observe the ability of the child to read social and emotional signals and cues. The child becomes aware of oneself in relation to the group, of the needs of others and oneself, the group and one’s actions in part, and a final awareness of one’s ability to contribute in a meaningful way toward the group. Arising from this awareness is a new social facility: communication, patience, empathy, the ability to share, to give and receive help, and a new flexibility to align one’s behavior to the collective needs of all, for the benefit of all—that is, altruism.

Social Cohesion
As the child develops social awareness and social facility, the resultant product is social cohesion. The child is capable of giving reciprocal help to the community. In doing so, the child gains a respect for, interest in, and admiration for one another’s work. This leads to an awareness of the consequences of one’s on choices and actions, yielding a sense of sympathy and moral support to the needs of others. With such practice, the child may become ready to put the needs of others and the community before the child’s own needs, when called to do so. Rather than forming an external kind of discipline, this yields a kind of harmonious discipline arising from the natural social sentiment, wherein the child develops a genuine love for the community of the Casa, aligned with a deep sense of belonging:

‘Children act in accordance with their natures, and not because of the teacher’s exhortations. Goodness must come out of reciprocal helpfulness, from the unity derived from spiritual cohesion. This society created by cohesion, which children have revealed to us, is at the root of all social organizations.’ (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 252)

Cohesion in the Social Unit
How it differs from the cohesion of organized society
Society cannot function on the unconscious power of social cohesion learned in childhood. Society still requires organizing on a conscious level to develop mature human society:


‘A society like this seems to be more united by the absorbent mind that is does by the conscious mind. The manner of its construction is observable and may be compared to the work of the cells in the growth of an organism. It seems clear that society goes through an embryonic phase which we can follow among little children in the course of their development. This unity born among children, which is produced by a spontaneous need, directed by an unconscious power and vitalized by a social spirit, is a phenomenon needing a name, and I call it “cohesion in the social unit.” (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 241)

Conscious, organized society, on contrast to that formed by the absorbent mind, is founded on principles of social integration, wherein customs and laws guide conduct. The obedience of the member—the citizen—is to a leader and to laws rather than simply altruism and empathy. Dr. Montessori writes, “Men do not form society just by having individual aims and undertaking each his own work… The final form of human society is based on organization,” (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 246).

The Analogy of the Loom
The Weaving Analogy

‘Life in association is a natural fact and belongs, as such, to human nature. It grows like an organism and shows a succession of different characteristics in the course of its unfolding. An illuminating comparison may be made with the Indian village industry of hand-woven cloth practiced by the villagers in their homes.’ (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 245)

To clarify Dr. Montessori’s analogy of the cotton preparation, it is important to delve into the process. As an explanation, in creating and weaving cloth, it begins with a cotton ball on the calyx. First, workers remove the seeds and separate out the cotton. The cleaning is critical for the formation of fabric. Similarly, we remove all the unhealthy behaviors to create the integrated personality.

Once the cotton is cleaned, workers spin the cotton into yarn. This is akin to the formation of personality. After that, we can create the integrated, strong fiber on the basis of the strength of will and character of the child-- and the foundation of society.

Once the cotton has been cleaned and spun, we use the yarn to create the fabric. The yarn must be in the loom in a very orderly fashion, parallel and not crossing. It is a cohesion or order, but nothing unites the yarns except of the framework of the loom. If a single one is broken or threaded incorrectly, there will be a fundamental flaw in the warp, in dressing the loom. This is akin to the development of the personality of the place at first-- growing but not united by conscious organizing.

Cohesion is the basis for the organization of society. Analogously, weaving the weft with the shuttle is akin to organizing society. These are the rules and regulations that bring this group together as an organized social entity. This is how we bring about the result of the complex fabric of social society. Therefore, the fabric of society is based on the weft of the strength of the individuals underlying its initial parts:

‘…the two things [cohesion and organization] interpenetrate. Society does not depend entirely on organization, but also on cohesion, and of these two, the second is basic and serves as a foundation for the first. Good laws and a good government cannot hold the mass of men together and make them act in harmony, unless the individuals themselves are oriented towards something that gives them solidarity and makes them into a group. The masses, in their turn, are more of less strong and active according to the level of development, and of inner stability, of the personalities composing them…

‘Education, therefore, of the little ones is important, especially from three to six years of age, because this is the embryonic period for the formation of character and society.’ (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p.246, p.252)

 The Foundation of Society: The adapted individual
If the environment is supportive of us, we are attracted to superior personal evolution, and our work progresses toward the same center. If work is not supportive, we find ourselves in an outside extra-circle, white toward the periphery. There is a constant need to draw ourselves inward, toward superior personal evolution as virtuous human beings. Not encountering an environment suited to them, most children arrive at the Casa already deviated from the state of accessing personal evolution. It is in the time when a child is with us that they can become attracted to the process of internal evolution, represented by the blue circle in the end-noted graphic. However, if not receiving the children in the 3-6 age, drawing them in is much harder. Yet, the work of the three-to-six year old is critical to society, because it is this group that is the foundation for a peaceful society.

The Social-Embryonic Period: The Foundations of Society
Repeatedly, Dr. Montessori instills that the collective solidarity is an outcome of normal development. If we do not do the work of building early social cohesion, we cannot lay the foundations for a peaceful society. To develop a strong and peaceful society, we work with the unconscious, absorbent mind to lay the foundation. Later, all of the same work becomes very difficult and will not have the same outcomes as when given in the period when we can work with the unconscious absorbent mind.

Again, all of these capacities are developed by normalization. Furthermore, all of the foundations of normalization are laid in the first six years, primarily in the 3-6 age range. Often, educators debate the origins of character education, but character education comes from experiences during this time period:
“Character formation cannot be taught. It comes from experience, not explanations.” (Montessori, 1946 London Lectures, 237.)

The Formation of Character
Resultant to normalization, the child becomes a good steward of the environment and resources, positive in interactions, responsive to the needs of others, manifesting altruism and benevolence, and a further cooperative, non-competitive attitude. Virtuously, the child develops a natural love of work, perseverance, joy, patience, sympathy, and obedience.

Aspects of the Prepared Environment Supporting Social Development
There are multiple aspects to the prepared environment’s support of social development. Within these, the large class size lends itself to diversity, and mixed age groupings play a role of mutual aid; likewise, the three-year cycle provides a dimension of evolving participation and trust in the space. The active social life of the Casa provides a multitude of opportunities for problem solving. The children’s natural motives for activity, such as sensitive periods, support work and concentration, and the limited resources for materials facilitate communication and cooperation.

The larger the group, the more wealth and variety of personalities. The broader the swath of personalities, the more of a variety of communication opportunities there are with different people. Ideally, Dr. Montessori wrote that it could even be 30 or 40 children. The large mixed age group challenges the abilities of each child, at each stage.

The three year cycle further allows the evolving role in the community. To elaborate, there is the knowledge that this-and-such is going to happen, there lies security and trust in the knowledge that what the child is coming to repeatedly and will happening again and again.  Our communities are not classrooms, but rather, we call them an environment for life, where children live their lives. Environment needs to be used in an active sense, of living in this community. The environment is not exercised in finding work from the shelf but in the social interactions of the community, learning constant self-control. The child learns where to work, how to place the mat, how to react to the spill, always problem solving, waiting for the right material, how to move the table, how to find a friend.

The child must not only wait for work but know to replace work and know it is for another child. We see increasing self-perfection in respecting material which will be needed for other children. We also, as adults, respect children working with something for as long as they need. We place objects around the room to connect the child to the environment (brass and wood, flowers, and food for animals), so that they increasingly become aware of the needs of the place. We show the child that they have the ability to meet the needs of the environment, in stewardship.

In walking on the line and in the silence game, we see the needs of the individual sublimated to the needs of the group. The social behavior exercises which we present, leading to grace and courtesy-- Margaret Stevenson called these easing the wheel of human congress, to act with respect and consideration. The story-telling in culture folders, the celebrations and occasions which we celebrate in the life of the Casa, expand the context of community for the child beyond the classroom to other people, other cultures, and ways of being. All aspects of the prepared environment support social development and social cohesion. It grows to encompass—in a cosmic sense-- the whole world and the universe.

The Role of the Adult
We must remove obstacles from the environment, for the child's normal development. Otherwise, we would be constantly anticipating that things are not right, giving negative instruction of what not to do. We give this environment to the child to ensure that they can live in freedom. As adults, we must be respectful and humble; only then will the child be safe and secure to follow the path to natural development and see the outcome of normalization.

In relationship, we see simply that by removing obstacles to natural development, the adult brings a sense of safety, security, and trust to the child. By ensuring freedom and remaining a dynamic link to the environment, then the child can pursue the natural path to development.

The Socio-Embryonic Period
The Work of the Child from Three to Six Years

‘Our hope for peace for the future lies not in the formal knowledge the adult can pass on to the child, but in the normal development of the new man.’ (Montessori, Education and Peace, p. 58)

The child is called the social embryo, because the child is being normalized and becoming the basis of society in this social community. The loom from the earlier-mentioned metaphor provides a limited social environment, just like the Casa. Without the loom, the warp cannot be laid-- critical to social cohesion. In creating a framework for the development of social cohesion, we support the natural evolution of society. It is, in a way, developing a spiritual microscope in order to support development’s natural laws.

Social Development through the Planes
In social development through the planes, we see that the development in the first plane supports the development in the second plane. Second plane development following age 6, development of morality inquiry, is how the child develops a personal sense of morality and what is right or wrong. Such moral inquiry develops the sense of individual responsibility to the conscious development of society. In the third plane, the child asks, "Who am I, and what am I in the context of society?” The goal of seeking one’s place develops a sense of self-worth as a foundation for individual responsibility. The question, What worthwhile thing am I capable in society, constitutes what Dr. Montessori called "valorization". In the fourth plane, the child goes on to make contributions to society through a social sphere. To support the child through each plane, we create appropriate environments at each stage:

‘If the child and the adolescent do not have a chance to engage in a true social life, they do not develop a sense of discipline and morality. The human personality is shaped by continuous experiences; it is up to us to create for children, for adolescents, for young people an environment, a world that will readily permit such formative experiences… Society can be organized, in short, only if education offers man a ladder of social experiences as he passes from one period of his life to another.’ (Montessori, Education and Peace. p. 32)

In Conclusion: The Need for Social Cohesion
Social cohesion is critical for the development of the societal fabric. To continue Dr. Montessori’s metaphor, we need this cohesion so that the society can hold form and have substance when removed from the loom of given structure. Mr. A.M. Joosten writes:

‘Let us then help the child lay the foundation and corner-stone of really integrated life in himself and help adult society today and the society of the future proceed on this road of real unity and development with its center in the human individual, its builder in the child and its destination beckoning the whole of mankind.’ (Joosten, Learning from the Child, 1963)

The builder in his metaphor is the child. In helping the child lay their own foundation, we as a civilization can realize our collective potential more and more, to evolve to a higher level of what we are collectively capable of as, human beings and humankind. This is the level of trust and faith we must have in the child: humility in providing the right conditions for that work which only they can construct, being foundations for peaceful, just, and equitable society.

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