"But humanity is not yet ready for the evolution that it desires so ardently, the construction of a peaceful and harmonious society that shall eliminate war. Men are not sufficiently educated to control events, so become their victims. Noble ideas, great sentiments have always found utterance, but wars have not ceased! If education were to continue along the lines of mere transmission of knowledge, the problem would be insoluble and there would be no hope for the world… we have before us in the child a psychic entity, a social group of immense size, a veritable world-power if rightly used. If salvation and help are to come, it is from the child, for the child is the constructor of man, and so of society. The child is endowed with an inner power which can guide us to a more luminous future. Education should no longer be mostly about the imparting of knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentialities."
- Maria Montessori, Education for a New World
Although her work is often thought of as a curricular model, Montessori was herself a humanitarian, believing that, through new structures of teaching, we could create a more promising future, one in which children's nature was preserved into their own adulthood. If children were to reach adulthood, Montessori argued, without the messy fingerprints of our own failings imprinted on them, the future they could create would be beyond our imagination.
Essential to the realization of this possibility is a reconceptualization of what matters in school. Montessori challenges that, "mere transmission of knowledge," and, instead, asks us to commit to supporting children's purposeful work, even when we might not understand what its purpose is. In her later work, Montessori describes eleven Tendencies of Humans, each an essential and universal, if highly personal, quality of human development : orientation, order, exploration, communication, activity, manipulation, repetition, exactness, abstraction and perfection. Montessori saw purposeful work as an enactment of the Tendencies of Humans in balance. When the Tendencies are satisfied, the individual is peaceful, focused and engaged. They remain peaceful, collaborated and motivated to learn.
The trick, though, is in being observant to, and protective of, children's purposeful work when we, adults, with our own agendas and timelines and schedules, don't necessarily understand its purpose. You'll see this in play in Montessori classrooms, when teachers remind themselves (and visitors) never to interrupt a child at work. When the child is engaged and focused and concentrating, we know their work is purposeful. Their purpose may be hidden to us. But if we interfere with it, we not only steal from the child the intellectual and spiritual engagement they previously enjoyed, we subtly remind them that our goals as adults are more important to us than theirs are.
When my son was three, I observed one day in his Montessori classroom. He was used to me visiting his class and took little notice of me there that day. I watched him, a quiet child who often liked to observe other children's work, as he carefully removed the small wooden box of 45 golden beads from the Bank Game and carried it to a table. He sat at the table, removed the lid from the box, placed his head sideways on the tabletop, raised the open wooden box high above his head and slowly poured out the golden beads, watching in fascination as they bounced across the table. When they finally came to rest, he carefully pushed his chair back from the table, gathered the beads, slowly counted them back into the box, confirming he'd retrieved all 45, and then started the process again.
He did this three more times as I watched before he finally put the lid back on the box and returned the box to the shelf.
Talk about having to sit on your hands! It took all my self restraint not to interrupt him, to gather up the beads and the box and tell him not to pour the precious golden beads out any more. But I was a guest and I knew the rules of observation, and instead, I just stared bug-eyed as his teacher until I caught her attention.
"Do you see what he's doing?" I asked.
"Yes," she replied, "He does it every day."
She saw my raised eyes and patted my shoulder. "I don't know why. But he always counts the beads back and he always finds all 45." She shrugged and walked away from me, and I was reminded that Montessorians don't interrupt unintentional error and children are free to explore as long as they can return the material to the shelf ready for another child to use.
There came a day, some weeks later, when my son stopped pouring the golden beads. His teacher never understood why he did it, but she was confident that there was some purpose in it to him. She even tried it herself one afternoon after the children had gone home and assured me that it was quite beautiful to watch. And one day, he was finished. The work no longer had purpose for him, and he left it behind.
How different that would have been if, every day, motivated to watch the beads fall, he had been interrupted and discouraged and reprimanded. Instead, he was affirmed by his teacher to follow his instincts, even when she didn't understand them, until they were satisfied.
The child is a mystery. Of course. If we truly understood each one of them, we would be able to apply that knowledge to ourselves and we would already be able to enact a different world. The future they will create, if we get out of their way, is more than we can imagine. We don't have to understand it. We just have to respect it enough to let it blossom. It's an act of great faith, yes. But acting from our own agendas hasn't gotten us to the peaceful world we say we want to create. Maybe it's time to trust the mystery and look to the child.