How do you measure your success? How do you know whether you’re doing this Montessori thing, “right?” Is it by the advancements the children make each week, or each month or each year? Is it by how quickly your environments become peaceful and busy, or by how many children are engaged in advanced math materials? Is it by how tired you are at the end of the day? How many power struggles you’ve resolved? How many hugs you’ve received?
Montessori reminds us of the cosmic contribution of our lives when she spends so much time discussing the evolutionary paths of life on earth. She is not describing the development of the cow from some curious obsession with cows, but to articulate the ways in which, moment by moment, over lengths of time cannot understand, nature moves us toward our most perfect state.
We think of ourselves in such limited ways. We measure our worth, and, by extension, the worth of the children, by what we can see and count. We think of the value of our contribution as something that lives within windows of time we manage. And so, when we are ambitious, we want to move along those predetermined timelines. We measure children’s “success’ in preschool by whether they are “ready” for kindergarten, and their success in kindergarten by whether they are ready for first grade.
The purpose of being four is not to become five. The purpose of being four is to be four.
How would we structure our schools differently, how would we prepare our homes, if we appreciated this? How would we enact what Montessori calls the one form of education, to support life? If we stopped rushing them along, if we recognized that the contribution they make may be beyond our ability to measure?
It would be ideal, in many ways. And terrifying. How would we know if we were doing it “right?” How could we be sure we were not underpreparing our children or letting them run wild or stealing from them what they could become by not pointing them in the right direction?
As Montessorians, we believe that children are intrinsically good. We believe that the natural state of children is positive, that children will do the right thing if given the opportunity, and that when children’s behavior is less positive, it reflects some obstacle to the child’s natural state. We believe children are intrinsically peaceful, and that peace is the natural condition of childhood. When conflicts do occur, we look to the physical design of the classroom, the developmental differences between children, or the choices of the teacher to resolve. Finally, we believe children are intrinsically motivated to learn. We believe that children’s motivation to learn is natural to them and continues to blossom in environments that allow authentic learning.
And we believe that, if we remove the obstacles to their development, “the mysterious being that each individual is to realize can be achieved.”
So, how do we measure the progress of a mysterious being? How can we be sure we are removing the obstacles and not just ignoring need? Montessori reminds us: when the individual is developing in alignment with their potential, we can observe certain phenomena. The child is peaceful. They are purposeful in their work. They are attentive. They can persist for long periods of concentration.
In short, they look a lot like we do, as adults, when we are absorbed in the things that bring us joy. When we lose track of time because our attention is captured. When we experience wonder.
As Montessori practitioners, we have to balance the noble trajectory of the child’s potential with the immediate context of our societies. Even if we seek to change the rules for our current society, if we want to move toward more collaborative economic models or more humane systems for health care or housing security, we still need to begin where we are. And so we pay attention and assess, but we do so in ways that protect the child’s natural development. We assess children individually along a developmental trajectory that includes observation for social, emotional, intellectual, physical and academic growth. We expect this development to be nonsequential and nonlinear, following each child’s own progression, child-driven and adult-facilitated.
We look for children’s use and ease with materials, children’s attentiveness to the self-correcting qualities of the materials, children’s creative use of materials and exploration of “hidden” features and children’s readiness for more challenging materials, as often indicated by “step-skipping” in earlier lessons. But we are equally attentive to children’s joyfulness and calm, to children’s attentiveness and the purposefulness they demonstrate in their work. We push back against the outside pressures to rush children along. We contribute to collaborative relationships between home and school, between neighborhoods and school, between adults and children, to begin to change the expectations, to remind parents and school admissions counselors and each other sometimes that the purpose of being four is not to become five. The purpose of being four is to be four. It is not our role, as teachers or parents or bureaucrats, to decide what comes next. That is the work of the child, a work best measured in wonder and joy.