“Some may not be interested at all, and others take more time or less to assimilate what they want.” - M. Montessori
Think of all the fears teachers and parents carry for their children’s progress through school. Are they “off track?” Have they “fallen behind?” If a child misses a day or two of school, will they be able to “catch up?” The language we hear so often reminds us of a premise many of us hold in education: that there is a linear path, and a timeline for progression along it, that children are supposed to follow.
But think about your own life. Has it unfolded in an exact and predictable, linear, scheduled path? Have you made adequate yearly progress? Or, in less grand imagination, think about your day, or even a single problem you’ve had to resolve in it? Problems of machines may be solved by following specific, inflexible routes. But people are not machines and learning is not about arriving at a predetermined outcome.
We’ve developed these schedules over generations, and with good intent, in societal-wide efforts to provide a better quality education to more children more equitably. But somewhere along the line, we’ve defined “quality” as “reproducibility” and “equitable” and “the same.” And in doing so, in these efforts to take education “to scale,” we’ve come to think of children and learning as machines, moving steadily along production lines, year by year, with formulated inputs and measurable outputs. We’ve come to prioritize movement along the line over craftsmanship along the way, and in doing, we’ve lost sight of the forest. We get so stuck on schedules developed far away from the children in front of us, and we fret over the child whose development follows a different pace.
Teaching is both art and craft. As teachers, we need both the technical skills to organize content, to understand objective observations of children, to provide accurate stimuli in child-appropriate models. We are certainly craftspeople there. But we are artists, too, influencing the aesthetic of the environment, interpreting what each child presents to us to uncover more of the mystery of that child’s unfolding, charming the child and inspiring their imaginations. Some days we are more skilled at the craft. Some days we are more profound artists. Thank goodness we are not measured by the day.
And while teaching is certainly both art and craft, learning is, too. Children as learners need the craft of accurate content, refined tools and a capacity to use them well. But children as learners are artists, combining together Ideas in new ways, solving problems from new directions, driven by perspectives that only they can see. We want them to become adults who are innovative, resilient, flexible agents of change. We want them to be prepared to create a society we can only imagine. Unless we want them to arrive at the same destination we have, we have to expect them to forge new paths away from the tracks we’ve laid. The new paths they forge will be directed by their interest, not by our timetables.
When we pay more attention to the schedule than to the child, we reinforce two fallacies about learning. First, that it is predictable, regular or standardized. And second, that we already know what the child will need to know.
We know the first to be false: while there are certainly trends in general development, those trajectories are much more diverse within the life of any one of us. Within your school experience, you can identify teachers who were able to help you understand new ideas you’d struggled with before, who could show you something differently or present a problem in a way you could finally understand. Within your life now, you can identify friends or loved ones who solve problems differently than you do, who communicate differently, who have their own strengths. Their perspective enriches yours. Your experience is more complicated, more complete because of the diversity of ways of thinking around you. Your own learning has probably not followed a standardized path, even though you may have persisted through a standardized model. Montessori offers us an alternative to that, a model that honors the distinct and personal development of each child, that offers consistent content, but does not limit the means by which children can access that content, taking “more time or less to assimilate what they want.” We prepare environments within which the content is accessible, but leave the means of access to the child.
And in doing so, we protect the child from the second fallacy: that we already know what they will need to know. We can offer our best guess about what content children will need as a foundation to their futures, but we cannot predict what those futures will hold. If we are to prepare them for an unknown horizon, we need to protect in them the qualities that will help them to create it, among them imagination, resilience, collaboration, and curiosity. Those are not traits mastered on a timetable, but through authentic experiences in settings that allow for their use. Montessori doesn’t throw the content out; instead, she suggests models that allow children to explore it on their own pace and from differing directions. There is no “off track” here.
When a child’s day is structured around predetermined checklists and mandates, there is little room for their own interest or initiative. The child as an individual is separated from the purpose of school, and the school becomes a factory to replicate existing systems. When learning begins from the child’s interest and unfolds at the child’s pace, the child’s curiosity and engagement are protected, and the school (or home) becomes a studio to inspire new understandings. We need to have the tools available for children to develop the craft of learning, but we equally need, in their lives and our own, to make space for what has not yet been discovered, to make time for what is yet unknown.
*a response to "To Educate the Human Potential," Chapter 9: The Earth in Trevail Again, M. Montessori.