Freedom of Choice in the Second Plane
If we understand the Freedom of Choice to expand in 3-6 from a child's agency over their own basic needs to include authority over their intellectual development as well, we can predict how the freedom will be expressed in the Second Plane. Indeed, in each new plane of development, the number and complexity of a child's choices expand, preparing them to be fully responsible for their own decisions and the consequences of those decisions as they mature.
In the Elementary years, then, the role of the teacher shifts again, from deciding what scope of materials is available to learners in the environment to supporting learners as they navigate the consequences of their choices. As children's awareness and attention to their social groups expands, the qualities of discernment become more complex. No longer does a choice affect just the child, as may have been the case for an Early Childhood learner deciding between working with the Broad Stair or the Pouring materials. Now, an intellectual choice brings with it other social outcomes, too. Choosing to engage in advanced math materials may be outside of the child's intellectual comfort zone but allow them to work with a group of friends whose company they value. Likewise, a child may be distinctly interested in some singular topic, but will have to choose whether delving deeply into a topic that's of great personal interest outweighs the implications of working alone.
We also know that this age comes with diverse trajectories between children's ability to predict the outcome of their choices and to self-regulate their own impulses. Children in Elementary may seem mature beyond their years at one moment and bafflingly goofy at the next. They may simultaneously crave meaningful roles to contribute through and be frustrated by their inability to manage the responsibilities that come with that leadership. It's a wild ride.
Montessori teachers know to observe thoughtfully as children move through the Second Plane, to remain conscientious about tracking their academic progress but equally attentive to understanding their social and emotional lives. They are as alert to a child's progress in math and language as they are to whether they have enthusiastic companions at lunchtime. Throughout, we seek to protect the child's freedom of choice, even when we can see that those choices may have harder consequences. You'll notice teachers engaged in deeper, more probing conversations with children as they plan out their choices, offering feedback or raising potential tricky spots the child may not have predicted. Now, in addition to our reliable roles as scientist, servant and saint, you might add, "trusted advisor," to the list, as Montessori elementary teachers seek to offer counsel without imposing on the child's ultimate ability to choose for themselves.
Learning to listen and notice children's discernment, to offer counsel without steamrolling their agency: it's hard work. It requires patience and skill and trust that the child's safety net is intact. But likewise, it raises the responsibility for us as adults to offer that guidance in a way that elementary aged children will hear, and that depends on far more than what we say in the middle of a conflict. Protecting children's agency in the small decisions reminds them that we trust them and respect their ability to follow their own instincts. Within a trusting relationship, the counsel we can offer in more serious decisions is more valuable to the learner. While we still want to protect their ultimate freedom to choose their activities and engagements on their own, it's important to establish the relationships with young people that allow them to see us as reliable resources in their own choice-making and as safe places to land when the consequences of those choices may go awry.