One of the core premises of Montessori is the belief that children are intrinsically motivated to learn, a conclusion drawn from observing children from infancy on. There is nothing we do, in that child’s first year of life, to teach them to move, to talk, to pull up, to shuffle along, to smile, to engage, to feed themselves, to listen for the sounds of nature, to embrace the people they love. They teach themselves to do these things, driven by an inner energy beyond our ability to speed up or push along. Montessori articulates that observation for us here, in reminding us that there exists, in each child, an inner teacher far more influential than the hierarchies or bureaucracies of content standards and school grades might impose.
Trusting this inner teacher demands of us great humility, in putting aside our belief in our own all-knowingness, and great respect, in trusting that the child, not just children in general, but specifically this child in front of us, this one who’s confounding us or challenging us or who loves things we don’t love or who is interested in things that do not interest us, is on the path they need to be on. Even when we don’t understand the path. Even when we can’t see exactly where it’s going.
The child is constructing the adult they will become, a new kind of adult, Montessori reminds us, who is not only more advanced technologically and academically than we are, but who embodies a more developed soul, a more connected humanity, a “New Man.” This construction doesn’t happen by the child following along on a predetermined timeline of core content requirements, or by completing four pages of a workbook each day, or twenty minutes of “independent reading.” The construction happens when children are able to act on their own environments in meaningful ways, through a “series of motives” that allow them to understand, influence and, ultimately, improve their society.
Our work, then, as adults and advocates, is not to declare what we have already decided children should know and when they should know it, but to prepare environments within a child has meaningful activities available to them, within which their contributions are useful and propelling, and within which they have the time, tools and support to develop the skills they’ll need to strengthen those contributions. A child’s sense of agency is far more useful to them as a learner than their ability to recite their times-tables from memorization. When we’re designing those “series of motives,” we need to begin by understanding what the child, not children in general but this particular child In front of me, is motivated by. And to understand that, we need only to observe.
The child at home or at school is surrounded by what Montessori calls “elements of culture.” The plants you grow in your kitchen or the way the light comes through the window at different times of day, how pans conduct heat or why puppies and children need to eat different food: there are endless, meaningful motives for the child’s engagement. You’ll know you’ve followed the ones that satisfy the child when their concentration is focused, when they can engage in an activity without seeming to tire of it. The child who asks for you to read the same book over and over and over again may not be driven by the book, but by the close human connection that comes from cuddling up to read. But they might just love the book. And in either scenario, our best response is to read with them, to give them the resources to read on their own, to ask them interesting questions that demonstrate we are curious without judgment, and to build upon their answers in the motives we prepare for them next. We’ll know we’ve matched it by the child’s response to what we offer next. And, if we’ve misjudged, the onus falls on us to go back to our curiosity and learn more, that we may prepare more adeptly, that the child’s inner teacher can have what they need to move toward the adult they are working to become.
Without a predetermined timeline. Without frustration when the child needs to linger a little longer on one idea or another. Without doubt when the child seems truly to have learned something faster or more astutely than we thought they would. “If we follow these rules,” Montessori tells us, “the child, instead of being a burden, shows himself to us as the greatest and more consoling of nature’s wonders.” The greatest and most consoling, deserving of dignity, of our time, of our faith in them, and of our wonder.
A response to "Chapter 1: The Child's Part in World Reconstruction" of The Absorbent Mind. M.Montessori