Thursday, July 26, 2007

Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater

Or, hanging on to Montessori principles when the materials have been consigned to the basement...

I'm a big fan of Maria Montessori and her methods of education. The Secret of Childhood is a beautiful book written by a woman with a sharp mind and a gentle approach. This book, more than Montessori: The Method (which I find dry, dull and overly scientific) inspires me each summer when I read it again. Maria Montessori has a contagious respect for children and her insight into their development is invaluable.

I was first smitten with the Montessori approach through Simeon's experiences with the method in a Montessori preschool he attended. I read all the books I could get my hands on about the method and the more I read the more involved I wanted to become. I wasn't happy to be the mother of a child in a Montessori school-- I wanted to be his Montessori instructor, but I didn't want to be anyone else's, just my own son's. It became obvious to me that I wanted to educate him at home and so I took him out of preschool the following year and joined a Montessori Homeschooling group.

When our meetings took place I wanted to talk about Maria Montessori's ideas about education, but the other mothers wanted to share ideas about making your own Montessori materials at home. I was a bit on the fence with all the materials. I saw some good in them and had quite a collection myself at the time, but I was having a hard time seeing how these materials were the be all and end all of Montessori education. Pink towers, brown broad stairs, red rods and cylinders--certainly these items served a purpose in Maria Montessori's schools all those years ago, but were they essential to the practice of Maria's methods and principles? I had my doubts.

I did keep a Montessori style classroom with the manipulatives accessible at all times for years in my home with all the trappings I could get second hand or make myself. But it wasn't long before the cylinders started to go missing. I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time each day sorting, pouring and classifying the Montessori Soup that room would quickly become.

Why was I doing the work of a child? Who was this for anyway? And where was the child's natural desire for order Montessori had talked about? Yeesh. Well, when cylinders became hand grenades and red rods became guns-- and when one of those guns broke a pane of glass in the sun room door, I saw a light.

Montessori materials are made for classroom use. They aren't supposed to be accessible to children around the clock or used as toys. Many are, furthermore, designed to mimic home life and the home environment. A zipper on one's pants is better than a zipper on a dressing frame. Same for buttons. And the work of a child can be accomplished, the principles of Montessori education can be followed to good result without a pink tower, without a red rod, and without many many, of the materials that the The American Academy of Montessori will insist are essential to the methods.

I beg to differ. Maria Montessori herself begs to differ,

What method was used to obtain these results? There was no method to be seen, what was seen was a child. A child's soul freed from impediments was seen acting according to its own nature. The characteristics of childhood which we isolated belong quite simply to the life of a child, just as colors belong to birds and fragrances to flowers. They are not at all the product of an "educational method."

The first thing to be done, therefore, is to discover the true nature of the child and then assist him in his normal development.

From The Secret of Childhood, pg 136.

That's the perennial Montessori method. While the Academies of Montessori education have a "product" they must guarantee, we have no such burdens to carry or reputation to uphold in our home education and we are free to pursue Maria Montessori's inspiring principles within a natural home environment as we see fit for the good of the child and for the whole family.

Some of these principles include...
  • The freedom of the child
  • The absorbent mind and its functioning
  • The importance of work: How a child's work differs from that of an adult
  • The sensitive periods of development: Child led learning
  • The prepared environment
  • Spiritual preparation of the teacher
  • Poverty of spirit
  • The need to protect and shield the child
  • The importance of joy in work


Katherine in TX said...

Well, this post was a God-send...or at least my husband will thank you for saving him an inordinate amount of money. I just received a Montessori N`Such catalog in the mail and have been drooling over it all day. Thanks for the perspective.

Kristen Laurence said...

A wonderful post, Suzanne. So true.

Cindy said...

Suzanne, thanks for putting a different perspective on this for me. I have recently made trays for my kids with the bean spooning and rice pouring, and I feel the same way about the Montessori soup! Thanks for making me feel sane again.

Christine said...

Wonderful insights!

Amy said...

Oh Suzanne, you have put into words what I have always thought but could never express so well. Please go on! I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this. :)

Ann Horan said...

I always love to read and get inspiration from Maria Montessori but I never really got why all those "materials" had to be so special (and expensive). I think it is very important to remember that homeschooling will never be like school in a classroom.

Tracy said...

Thank you Suzanne! I am usually guilty of thinking I need all the right equipment for whatever new project on which I am embarking, but somehow I never found the desire (or money)to buy all the Montessori supplies. When I spend that much I buy beautiful Waldorf toys that spark the imagination! I do love the concept of tactile works for young children and have some bins of "works" that require sorting and classifying. But after learning that M. Montessori's project was intended basically as an educational daycare so that impoverished Italian mothers could go to work, a similar light shone on my perspective - that children who have the real life experience in the home do not need artificial practice at many of these tasks. I would love to hear more about the parts of the "bathwater" you think are worth keeping.

helene said...

Rah! Rah! I just LOVED this post!

Meredith said...

Good perspective here, thanks for sharng your thoughts! I do know MANY ladies on the Montessori 4Real forum who would be interested in your bathwater if you decide to part with it for good, ;-)

Melanie B said...

Thanks for this. I've been interested in learning more about Montessori, especially Montessori and homeschooling. My former roommate was training to be a Montessori teacher and working in a Montessori classroom as an assistant and I was fascinated by the materials she'd bring home and the methods she'd describe.

I tried to read a couple of books including Montessori: The Method and had a hard time getting into them. I'll check out The Secret of Childhood since you recommend it.

Celeste said...

WoW! I so enjoyed that and I must pick up that book and read it. Thanks for the insights once again!

Elizabeth said...

Very interesting perspective. Thank you!

mel said...

Interesting...I also love Montessori methods and have put together some homemade "trays" for my younger two to bring out during school time, mainly as a way to keep them productively entertained while I'm working with the oldest child. I have felt guilt over not buying all the fancy equipment too though...and then I think "is a pink tower really all that much better than stacking blocks? Do we need sand trays when there is a sandbox in the backyard?? lol!
Anyway, I maintain that the homemade versions are fun ways for younger kids to "do school"...but I too have gotten over the full scale Montessori set-up. But we do have dressing frames. :)

Elizabeth said...

I missed this the first time and Katherine sent me here. I heartily agree and came to some of the same conclusions several years ago, but you've put it so well and it is such a great thing about which to be reminded!

Katherine in TX said...

Well, I learned it the hard way, but I definitely agree with you. :)

My Creative Side: Montessori Inspired said...

Hi. I really like your article. It hits home with me. I have had a successful daycare center for 40 years making my own creative montessori manipulatives. Mostly homemade. Now I share my activities on my blog for others to learn that it doesn't cost a penny to be creative and work with Maria's theories. Thanks for your blog and your postings. Merry Christmas!

mama2pearls said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughts and, as a Montessori program coordinator in a public school AND a Montessori teacher trainer, I am thrilled to read that you are offering this perspective to parents creating Montessori home-schools. I will share it with parents at our school and with teachers as well. Here is my two cents (or 10 if you will humor me):

The materials WERE designed for classroom use, not for homes. Ergo the expense - they are built to be handled by 20 - 30 kids for 20-30 years (not 2-3 kids for 2-3 years). Many of the materials purchased for our public school classes in 1989 are still being used today. Educators need NOT buy or create all of the awesome materials. In fact, there are WAY too many materials in most classrooms.

I believe that Maria would have been confused by parents buying materials for children to use at home! In some cases, she also would have been baffled by teachers insisting on doing things the EXACT same way she did over 100 years ago.

Perhaps her MOST important contribution to education is the idea that we MUST SEE every child's individual needs and provide WHATEVER MATERIALS & LEARNING EXPERIENCES are necessary to help every child learn and feel empowered by knowledge. She would expect all of us to carefully observe and design lessons to meet each child's needs.

I hope you will continue to share your thoughts about Montessori home school education. And I hope you will try to get your home school group to focus more on the philosophy and less on the "trappings"!