"La somma sapienza e il primo amore"
“The child should love everything that he learns, for his mental and emotional growths are linked. Whatever is presented to him must be made beautiful and clear, striking his imagination.”
Montessori reminds us that children should love what they learn, and so many teachers and parents can describe that joyful exclamation for a newly mastered skill or the ways in which a child cannot stop talking about a new area of interest. It’s the same for us, too, isn’t it? We seek an emotional connection to our work, a sense that it is satisfying some different part of us than just the numbers in our bank accounts. And, like the children, we cycle between times of great activity and times of deep reflection, when our spirits are quietly making sense of a complicated problem or considering a new idea.
We know we need activity in our own lives, that we are not satisfied by lives led entirely at desks or behind screens. The same is true for the children. We know we need time to discuss great ideas with our peers, to debate and lean in, to argue and be assured that the things which are important to us are important to other people as well. The same is true for the children. We know we need time with peers, and time alone, time to connect and time to contemplate. The same is true for the children.
This balance is not only essential for the deep work of our intellect, but for the space it allows for gratitude and connection. When we offer children new facts in the absence of a human connection to those facts, we steal from them the most powerful lesson: that all of this knowledge, from the innovations of technology to the articulation of the Base Ten number system, from the classification of the animal kingdom to our ability to discern the parts of a cell through a microscope, all of it, is the result of human curiosity and human imagination. And that we are all, ourselves as teachers and parents and the children as well, we are all a part of that experience.
When we situate new learning within a recognition of the real lives who have come before us, when we challenge students to reflect upon those lives and to place themselves in the continuum. Learning should not be limited to a practical matter of standardized assessments or predetermined facts. Learning should raise us up. It should make us feel both powerful and humble. We are small part of a human experience that includes extraordinary minds. We are a part of that which is extraordinary, and we are small.
Evoking this in the children requires us to enact it ourselves. Learning is, after all, an act of great courage. If I am to learn something new from you, I must first trust you enough to give up what I believed before. I must feel safe with you. If we present ourselves as already having all the answers, of already knowing it all, we offer the child an unattainable finish line. There’s no box big enough to carry all that humans have the capacity to discover, and even if there were, we would not be able to hold it ourselves. If we want children who will be courageous in their own learning, we need first to offer them a connection to other humans, both to the bold discoverers whose work is now the content of textbooks, and to the ones beside them who are still joyfully mastering the basics.
We aim to protect in the child their intrinsic curiosity, to feed the flame of their imaginations as they identify their own great work. We need to model what it looks like when you love the things you are learning about, and in the work of teaching, the things we are learning about are the children. We need to demonstrate the same joy in discovering each child, as a unique and irreproducible phenomenon, to express the same curiosity in uncovering what was previously unknown, the same insatiability at what Montessori called, “the secret of childhood.”
But what about when we don’t feel that joy? What about when our own spirits are tired, or overextended, when teaching or parenting feels more like a burden than a love story? Montessori gives us the key, here, too, in pointing us back toward the child, not toward a “patronising charity for humanity,” but a “reverent consciousness of its dignity and worth.” When we are tired, we will not be sublimated by lofty language about love for all humankind, but by reflecting intentionally on the dignity and worth of the child in front of us. How does this child reflect all children? How can I translate my own noble ideas into a curiosity about and gratitude for the child who is here and now? And how can I do so with the balance I know is so critical for them, of time together and time alone, time in activity and time in quiet reflection?
Ask yourself today what you might do today to care for the child in front of you today, because of all the uncertainties in the world, here is one thing on which you can rely: that child will be gone tomorrow, grown a day older, with new memories and more complexly informed ideas. Today is your one chance to know who that child is today. Be curious. Be reflective. Be grateful. Love what you learn.