Montessori identified the need to manipulate as one of the Tendencies of Humans, those core qualities that we share across cultures and times. Montessori doesn’t mean manipulation in the way that we accuse people of being manipulative... instead, we’re talking about our inherent need to exert some control over our environment, to change the world from what it was when we got there to something better, to something stronger.
In early societies, this need pushed along evolution; controlling fire, constructing tools, harvesting the earth. The organizations of humans reflected the tools available to use and were moved forward when those tools changed. And those tools did more than just change where we lived or what we ate. They embedded a belief that this earth was something we could control, this environment was something we could master.
Look for the evidence of our human need to manipulate: it is present everywhere , from world- spinning changes in technologies to the doodles you trace with a stick in the sand. As individuals, we are compelled to influence our environment. As groups, or organizations or larger societies, we mirror this same drive, working together, making as much use of each other as of the tools in our hand.
The need to manipulate is reflected in our environments, where children’s ability to influence and act upon and build their space is a key quality of the classroom design. From moving tables at lunchtime to the tiny movements of the tweezers, the Montessori classroom offers children real experiences mastering real tools. Children don’t seek to influence their world in pretend ways, any more than adults do. Their need to manipulate the environment is no more satisfied by pretend than the adults’ need for authentic work is satisfied in online games. They may be a short-term substitute, but meaningful work is not imaginary. Meaningful work influences the real world in concrete ways, whether you’re five or seventy-five.
In the classroom, we match this through meaningful work. Children want their work to be meaningful. They want their influence to be real. They want their contributions to be important. And so they seek the real tools to accomplish that. Whether how’re a chef or a carpenter, the right tools matter. Never underestimate the importance of a quality tool in the classroom. Offering the children the right tools for their work may be more costly in the short-term, but they’re priceless in the long run.
The classroom is not designed to fill the time between birth and adulthood. It’s designed to equip children with the tools they need to affect their adulthood, real, quality tools with which they can do real, quality work. It’s hard to change the world with a plastic hammer. Physical tools matter. It’s hard to create profound works of art if you’ve only been offered white paper and crayons. Creative tools matter. You cannot write great poetry if you’ve only ever heard sing- alongs. Intellectual tools matter. They require great cost, both in the resources we offer and in our own engagement with the children. But the return is undoubtedly worth the investment.
We all have the ways in which we control our environment. Our children do, too. Exerting our influence, manipulating our environment, is an integrated, natural part of how we engage the world. We measure the development of cultures by the advancement of their tools. The need to manipulate our environment is essential, like breathing. But just as our awareness of our breath is different when we decide to master it, so is our awareness richer when we master our own intent to influence it. Observing the thousand different ways in which we try to adjust the world to our agendas, we can identify which of those we might just let go.
And how incredibly frustrating when our agendas and our children’s conflict! When we have a new, wonderful material we want to introduce and we can’t find a child who’s interested in the lesson. When we want to include some outdoor meditation and that one friend keeps trying to find worms in the garden. Our dissatisfaction, our frustration, our impatience, doesn’t come from the small nuisances of the environment. It comes from our drive to control them. From our desire to make things different than they are.
When we choose to change ourselves instead of directing our focus on what’s outside of us, we are no less manipulative. But our influence is far more profound. When we choose to change ourselves instead of directing our focus on what’s outside of us, we are no less manipulative. But our influence is far more profound. When we choose to change ourselves, we satisfy that internal drive to change the world, to exert our control, to be in charge. But we do so in a way that leaves us, and our environment more peaceful, more tolerant, more accepting, more grateful. When we make choices about what we need to change in ourselves and what we need to change in the world, our influence is more intense.
When our agendas and the children’s conflict in the classroom, we can take a moment to remind ourselves, to manipulate our own thinking: what was it about what I wanted to do that would serve the child? What was it that I understood about the child’s need or his development? What was it about what I needed that may have gotten in the way? Because the classrooms are not places where our development can take priority, although the nature of our development often nudges us down that slippery slope. The classrooms are for the children. Our excitement about a new concept or material, or our need for quiet, may need to be met outside of the classroom, or with a combination of children who share it.
If we want to change the world in the most profound ways, we have to start by changing how we see it. It’s all a matter of perspective. We can’t change the thing we’re looking at, but we can change the way we look at it.