In the beginning of my career, (forty something years ago!) I thought Montessori was a “nice” way of looking after children – that is until I started to read about it! Well, we all make assumptions about some things some of the time! Even I do! 😊 I quickly learned that this “Montessori thing” was a whole way of looking at life, not merely a method of education.
But it was most unusual, it depended on the children teaching themselves using materials within a prepared environment. It was not easy to understand how that might work! In fact, it took me years to really grasp what that meant!
In my early years as a Montessori educator I was asked many funny questions – “Is it the real Montessori?” (whatever that is!); “Surely Montessori is out of date now? She’s dead for years!”; “Is that spoiling children giving them such an orderly environment, real life is not like that?”; “Is it only for rich children?”; “Is it only for slow learners?” And so on! I guess most of you have heard those questions.
Then along came the 100 year anniversary of the first Casa dei Bambini in 2007. The question of “Surely it is out of date by now?” became a ripe topic. I was asked to speak to a group of childcare workers that year and my challenge was to prove that Montessori was still relevant. Some of my audience had studied Montessori or at least read about it. But many of them were bored – bored with their jobs or bored with listening to people like me. It was a challenge! I started by proposing that we throw away the Pink Tower. That got them listening! I told about Montessori schools in Africa where they had few materials but really grasped the concept of freedom of choice within a structured environment. Well, of course, by the time I was finished we had brought back the Pink Tower, with a new look! It was a more meaningful Pink Tower! It was there to support the philosophy, not the other way around.
I tell that story to illustrate how easy it is for Montessori educators, especially when inexperienced, to lose sight of the main principles behind the Montessori materials and activities. The method becomes confused with the materials. And yet the whole method of education totally depends on using materials!
We cannot have the materials without the method, yet we cannot have the method without the materials, at least some materials, or objects, as Montessori called them. In a Montessori school our curriculum IS the materials, the materials the children teach themselves with. Some materials are teacher designed and made BUT they are always “objects” separate from the educator. They are the teachers. If you want to find the Montessori curriculum, you will find it is built into a list of materials. Implementing that curriculum requires a very specialised system which is the Montessori method. Materials and method are closely intertwined.
How do we manage the relationship between the materials and the method? This can be challenging and requires training, knowledge, skill and an open heart! And sometimes we become so engrossed in managing this that we forget to explain to others what we do. It is not an easy task to explain how children teach themselves using materials. It sounds “too good to be true”!
I say let us show off what a comprehensive curriculum we have – our list of Montessori materials and activities! At the same time let us show how we manage a prepared environment so that it is possible for the children to learn to teach themselves! There are many ways to do this. My favourite is to present what we do through our materials and activities, while, in the background, keeping note of how we cover the state curriculum requirements. Next blog I will explore how we can do that.