Sometimes it’s the most simple things in life that can make all the difference. My 5 year old son asked me a question recently that had me totally stumped.
“What did you grow when you were at school?” he asked me.
I nearly choked on my coffee.
“Grow? Well, nothing,” I told him. “We didn’t have a farm like you do back when I went to school. In fact, we didn’t even have a vegetable patch.”
The confused look on face spoke volumes.
“But how did you grow your fruits and vegetables?” he asked, innocently and with genuine concern.
“What fruits and vegetables? No, we didn’t have a farm,” I said again. “We didn’t have anything. Just classrooms and an oval for the kids that played sport. That was it. I didn’t go to a school like yours. We didn’t worry about growing fruits and vegetables because we didn’t have a kitchen to cook them in.”
“WHAT?” my 7 year old chimes in from across the room.
“But, but……how did your teacher heat up her lunch then?” By now my youngest is looking truly confused.
At this point I’m smiling as I’ve realised this is another one of ‘those’ conversations. Where I talk about what school was like for me, and my children ask endless questions, both horrified and intrigued that such cruel and tortuous conditions ever existed.
I didn’t go to a Montessori school, but my boys don’t know anything else. They think all schools have 20 hectare working farms, forests they can run through, kitchens in every classroom – and teachers that eat with their students.
“I’ve got no idea how my teachers heated up their lunch, Mitch,” I tell him. “They didn’t eat with us. As soon as the bell went, they would head straight to the staff room. I guess they ate their lunch in there with the other teachers. The last thing they wanted to do was eat lunch with us.”
“But why not?” he pushed.
And it got me thinking.
Because they were the teachers and we were the students. Because they didn’t want to spend any more time with us than was absolutely necessary. Because their Caterer’s Blend coffee was calling to them along with their brothers in arms where they could congregate within the safe walls of the staff room and eat with their peers – certainly not with us.
“Is that like how you weren’t allowed to walk around in class, or talk or even go to the toilet, mummy?” my son adds, apparently remembering a previous conversation we’d had.
“No, well yes. I guess it was like that. We could go to the toilet but only if we had permission first. My school was very different to yours,” I said. “Very different.”
Two little faces look up at me with a combination of pity and slight disbelief. And a little bit of awe. “Mum had it pretty tough,” they’re thinking. “If it’s true.”
I can relate to that feeling. It’s what crosses my mind when I hear stories of the previous generation doing it tough. Getting an orange for Christmas and walking 10 miles through the snow or searing heat to get to school, with no shoes.
It couldn’t have been THAT bad.
I think it’s the inability to move around the classroom or talk in class that really horrifies my children. It’s something they just can’t imagine.
In her book ‘The Montessori Method’, Maria Montessori was one of the first to articulate a critique of traditional education and she talked about children being pinned in place like butterflies mounted on pins – each fastened to his place – the desk.
“The principle of slavery still pervades pedagogy….I need only give one proof—the stationary desks and chairs. The distance between the seat and the desk was calculated with infinite care… the seats were separated and the width so closely calculated that the child could barely seat himself upon it, while to stretch himself by making any lateral movements was impossible. This was done in order that he might be separated from his neighbour. These desks were constructed in such a way as to render the child visible in all his immobility.”
It does sound pretty horrifying, when you think about it.
And it was then that the realisation hit me.
Some of the differences between a traditional school and Montessori can seem subtle or even inconsequential, but they are actually profound.
My boys are used to adults that sit with them, get down to their level to talk to them, that eat with them, have conversations with them over lunch and have an interest in them as people.
I’m always amazed at how well my son’s guides know my children.
Just a few weeks ago I was blown away by when my youngest son’s guide made a throw away comment during a parent teacher conference about my son’s lunch the day before, and how good it had looked.
She had known what my child had had for lunch the day before.
I don’t know if I’d even remember what I had for lunch the day before.
But she knew.
Because she eats with her community of children. Every day she sits on a small chair at a small table in the company of small people and she eats with them and chats with them. Like people. Like equals, in a community of equals.
Perhaps a subtle difference to my schooling days, but profound nonetheless.
It’s these differences I can still take for granted, even after all of my study of the Montessori philosophy.
But there was one key difference I had never really thought about.
I pictured my classrooms with the rows of desk and chairs and the teacher up the front. There was no cooking in class, in fact you daren’t eat (no matter how hungry you were) or you risked the wrath of not only the teacher, but probably the head master as well. You didn’t get up and walk around and you certainly didn’t strike up a conversation with a classmate. Group work didn’t kick in until high school, and by then everyone was so focused on just getting a pass and getting out of there, no-one cared in the least about group dynamics and leadership and socialisation.
They’ve got it TOTALLY the wrong way round, I thought to myself.
When children are small (I’m talking about pre-school here, so 5 or younger), they are expected to play in the playground and spend time with their friends – when in reality it is actually well documented that children this young prefer to play alone (and in fact, they almost exclusively pursue independent play).
Then, when they get to school and they are finally ready to socialise and work with others, they are made to sit at desks alone, with little opportunity to engage with or learn from their peers. At this age, children are naturally drawn to group work and exploration but it’s stifled in order to meet society’s expectations of ‘work’ at school and the age-old factory-style approach. Students in, students out.
Finally, if the child hasn’t completely disengaged from schooling by then, they start high school – just in time for puberty.
On the cusp of adulthood, and in a time of huge physical and emotional change and with social circles a high priority in their lives, adolescents are expected to focus entirely on academics. They are parked behind desks, made to study into the night – with all eyes on the big final year score.
Little concern is given to the fact that adolescents have come full circle and are easily distracted by then, with a concerted effort required to keep them engaged in their learning. In adolescence, they need choices, responsibility, interaction with others and the chance to get their hands into the earth. To feel grounded and to have the opportunity to explore who they are. To work on meaningful real-world projects and to engage with their teachers. Instead, they are provided with prescriptive texts, based on a prescriptive curriculum, with prescriptive outcomes designed to meet a prescriptive standard.
And the outcomes are not always good.
No wonder the traditional education system is not delivering.
Dr Steve Hughes, Assistant Professor of Paediatrics and Neurology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, argues that the traditional method of education has run its course and is no longer meeting the needs of students, or the world at large.
“Traditional education is really running out of steam. It doesn’t have what people need to be successful in the future,” says Dr Hughes.
“It’s dawning on people that education should be about the development of the person and not about knowing things, discreet facts.
“Maria Montessori really essentially got everything right as far as I can see. She anticipated so much of what we now know about neuroscience, brain development and optimal models of education.
“What traditional education was designed for may not be relevant in this era. People now have many jobs, many careers. What children need is the broad scope ability to adapt to situations, size things up and figure out a sensible way forward in any setting that they find themselves in.
“Montessori offers a wide scope development of a human person and their brain.”
With Montessori we talk about ‘following the child’ and this is the absolute foundation upon which the whole philosophy is based.
It’s why Montessori inherently works with children.
Dr Montessori was a scientist. She observed children closely and purposefully developed her philosophy to align with their planes of development.
The high dropout rate in senior school and even higher dropout rate in universities is testament to the fact that we are not adequately preparing children for life beyond school.
The powers that be know that traditional schooling stopped working long ago, but it’s like trying to turn the Titanic as the iceberg is looming. It’s too slow to change, so it keeps ploughing ahead, with so many children paying the price.
It’s no wonder our children are so happy at our Montessori schools. Not only are they allowed choice, exploration and the opportunity to interact with others, but these elements are specifically tailored for each phase of the child’s development.
It’s not hard. It comes naturally to them.
I’ve realised that life is just not meant to be that hard. There is a natural order of things. If something seems extraordinarily difficult, every step of the way, perhaps that’s just not the way it is supposed to be. Perhaps that is the universe saying – stop. Listen. Feel. Deep down inside you, you’ll know if this is right. Listen to your intuition and find a better way.
As Montessori parents, that is our role. To stop. To listen to our children. To make decisions that we KNOW are right, even if we do feel like a lone ranger.
Until next week,
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