I learnt German at school.
I remember my German teacher insisting on speaking only German to us for the whole 40-minute once-a-week lesson. The result being, we had no idea what she was saying to us 80 percent of the time.
Four years of German and I’d be lucky to remember 2-3 words.
Somehow I don’t think one 40-minute session a week counted as ‘language immersion’ but credit to her for giving it a go.
It’s well-known that young children can learn a second language in a way that is so fast, so thorough that us adults are left in awe.
Two friends of mine, who hail from two separate European countries, have taken their children overseas for extended periods to immerse them in their home country’s language and culture. Those children – who are now 7 years old – have been speaking a fluent second language for five years or more – essentially since they started speaking English.
In fact, when they get back, it takes a little while for them to get back into the swing of English again.
For us adults, a couple of 8-week stints in a foreign country wouldn’t begin to see us speaking fluently in another language. Even the best ebooks and audio recordings in the world couldn’t achieve that.
So why is it that young children – particularly those under 3 – can learn an entire second language at the same pace and fluency as their first language?
It’s because from the age of 0 to 3, children have a unique learning capacity that will never be repeated again in their lifetime. It takes them from a helpless, dependent newborn to a young personality that knows exactly what it likes and does not like, thank you very much! Hello, tantrums! (A subject for another blog.)
It’s also why the environment our children are in for the first six years of their lives, and in particular the first three years, is so vitally important.
The impressions that are made on their brains actually alter the mind’s pattern or direction. Essentially, what they learn affects their brain and then this newly affected brain, influences what they then learn. It becomes self-perpetuating.
For a newborn, this process is largely out of their control. The impressions they are taking in – from the sound of mum’s voice, to the vibrations of the family pet barking, to the feel of the baby rug under them and even the visual stimuli of the baby mobile hanging over their change table – is all pretty unconscious.
But after a few years, that child can start to exercise some choice over what stimuli he experiences. His interactions with his environment are much more conscious, and intentional. He will gravitate toward some materials over others. He will absorb his surroundings using all of his senses and he doesn’t have any preconceived ideas to block his way.
For us adults, it is our previous experiences that can hinder us.
When we learn a foreign language, we aren’t starting from a clean slate. We have our language of origin to compare everything to. That is the thought process we use: “Oh, ok. So ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ is German for goodbye. Got it.”(see I can remember some German!).
A child doesn’t use that frame of reference. He learns the second language the same way he learns the first – by absorbing the information anew. He isn’t comparing it to what he already knows.
It is this process – of comparing any new knowledge to what we already know – that can make us adults somewhat sceptical of new information. We don’t inherently have an ‘open mind’ – we are taught to think critically and – without even realising it – steer clear of information that is contrary to what we already think.
That is why there is still so much scepticism of the Montessori philosophy. Traditional schooling methods are widespread and have been in place for generations now – and it takes so much more effort to contemplate something different.
But our children have an open mind. They are born with it!
And each time they learn something new, it changes their perspective slightly.
Have you ever wondered why your children are happy to read the same book or watch the same movie over and over again? Or use the same materials in class over and over? It’s because the experience is a little different for them each time, as their brain is a little different each time.
The same thing does happen to us.
Each time we unpack a memory and then pack it away again, it goes back a little differently. It’s why us humans are notoriously bad witnesses in courts of law – the more we think about something over and over, our perspective changes as does our memory of a certain event. We can even convince ourselves that something is true – or not true – if we think about it enough.
It is this changing of our brains as we learn that is the foundation of Dr Montessori’s philosophy.
It’s why the prepared environment is so important. Not just the physical environment, but the people in that environment, too.
So why is it that many schools practice language immersion, but not immersion in other disciplines? Why isn’t maths taught the same way, or history or geography?
Why is it commonly understood that for a language to be learned properly, information needs to be absorbed through all of our senses – we need to hear the dialects, experience the culture, touch and feel the objects we are talking about and converse with others for it to really sink in – but for every other subject, we are expected to read a textbook, fill out a worksheet and hand it in for our score out of ten?
Well, in a Montessori environment, that concept IS understood.
It is why the five disciplines – Language, Practical Life, Sensorial, Mathematics and Culture (science, history, geography, anthropology and biology) are taught the way they are in a Montessori environment.
Our children are immersed in these environments and encouraged to learn through all of their senses.
We might not be able to control the intellectual blueprint our children are born with, or the timing of when the mind and body come together to see our children walk or talk (developers of state-sanctioned age-based curricula take note!) – but we can control the environment they experience every day.
And that is where our Montessori schools come in.
The prepared environments help our children in ‘self-creation’. The children choose the materials at a time that suits them – to create themselves. What they do with their hands, actually creates their brains.
It’s fascinating isn’t it?
The mind-body connection is a relatively new concept in the modern world, although of course that is not the case in ancient cultures. Yoga studios are popping up everywhere, with increasing numbers of people realising that slowing the mind and connecting with the earth and their own bodies is the path to relieving stress. There is still scepticism among some of the benefits of yoga and, you know, some things are just hard to measure.
Like having an open mind.
It takes an open mind to have a new experience. It takes an ability to be comfortable with the fact that perhaps what you have been doing up to now is not right.
It also requires an ability to be comfortable with mistakes.
We’re not always going to get it right. But mistakes are actually fabulous! They are the single best way to learn something new.
I love that my boys are encouraged to make mistakes in their Montessori classrooms – and we encourage mistakes at home, too. I know some schools reward students who DON’T make mistakes – just write 100% of the answers that the teacher is looking for, and you’ll be Student of the Year.
But that’s pretty short sighted if you ask me.
Albert Einstein famously said: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
It’s so true. It’s only by stretching ourselves that we can learn something new.
It’s interesting how mistakes are viewed in a Montessori environment. There are no erasers or liquid paper to cover it up. Mistakes are fine – they are how we learn! Children just put a line through their mistake, and try again.
It’s no biggie.
My eldest son wrote out Christmas cards for everyone in his class in the last week of school last year. It was his idea and he found some cards we had in the cupboard and set to work one morning. Looking over his shoulder at one stage I had to smile at the card he was writing:
Mery Marry Merry Christmas. Love Cooper.
Ordinarily I would have been horrified at the thought of giving that to someone as is. I would have said ‘Get another card – there’s a whole pile there. You can’t give her that!’
But, thankfully, I’ve learned a thing or two about mistakes in my studies of the Montessori philosophy and I know that the most important things are that (a) he recognised it was wrong (b) he kept trying until he thought it was right and (c) he was comfortable enough to leave his mistakes there for all to see! (Luckily they were Montessori children the cards were going to, so hopefully they understood that as well!)
The other important thing my children learn about mistakes is how to make amends, and I’m learning that, too.
It’s not the end of the world if we take a toy off our brother, or speak a little too harshly to our husband about the dishes not being done at the end of a long day when it is THEIR TURN (not just me, surely??).
But it is important that we recognise when we have done something wrong, own it, and make amends.
My sons, of course, make mistakes all the time.
Two days ago my 7 year old son gave this note to my 5 year old son:
It says ‘So sorry Mihcell Love Cooper’.
Spelling mistakes aside, it was a nice gesture!
It was actually before I even woke up in the morning (did I mention my children are very early risers?) – but my husband told me about it when I got up and I took that photo.
I think it’s pretty cool.
I asked Cooper what it was he was sorry for, and he said ‘fighting with Mitch’. I didn’t ask for details as it really doesn’t matter. He was sorry and he gave a note to his brother to make amends.
It’s so important that we can say – I’m sorry. I’ve really messed up here. What can I do to rectify the situation?
Just the other day I was at the kitchen table reading when my 5 year old dropped a glass behind me and it smashed on the floor.
I didn’t say a word – in fact, I didn’t even turn around from what I was reading. But out of the corner of my eye – I saw him go to the cupboard under the sink, get out the dustpan and brush, sweep up the debris and deposit it in the bin. Then he carried on with what he was doing.
Again, no biggie. It wasn’t deliberate. He cleaned it up and carried on.
That’s what we need to do. Rectify it if we can – and then move on and put it down to a learning experience.
It’s an important lesson for all of us.
PS – Please leave a comment below! I really love hearing from you. Do you agree? Don’t agree? Either way! Do you remember how mistakes were handled when you were at school or even at home? What do you think of the Montessori approach to mistakes? Let me know! 🙂
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