“Neither threats nor promises are necessary; just the conditions of life.”
This is a challenging chapter, and one which requires a nuanced read to be able to discern which of Montessori’s observations have held true after all these years and which are more reflective of misunderstandings of her time. But we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes we need to read Montessori for her empirical observations on the developing child. Sometimes we need to set aside the more far-reaching and culturally-influence conclusions she makes on those observations. This is a chapter that requires us to polish the coal.
The conditions of life, the natural development of children unobstructed. Children are born motivated to learn. Think about how much a newborn changes and learns in their first year of life. No one grades them on how quickly they learn to roll over. They don't get gold stars for learning how to pull themselves upright, or use early language, or make eye contact with the people they love. Indeed, even if you wanted to (and why would you want to?) you can't stop an infant from learning. Their motivation comes naturally, without grades or rewards. That intrinsic enthusiasm persists for most children, and the design of the Montessori classroom makes use of it in our expectation that children will thrive without grades, work plans or teacher-prescribed lists of "have-tos."
But, as much as we want to take advantage of the intrinsic motivation that supports children's engagement and curiosity, we know that, the older children grow, the more complicated that motivation becomes. For some children, they are "taught out" of motivation, what Montessori calls character. Traditional classrooms, with a heavy emphasis on right answers, grades and teacher praise, can squelch children's internal drive and replace it with an emphasis on external praise and reward. For children in environments that "reward" their good work with teacher praise or public acclaim, with bonuses and gold stars, that natural curiosity can be replaced with a focus on the external reward. Over time, the child becomes increasingly dependent on the rewards to motivate their work, and requires increasingly ambitious rewards as they acclimate to each new level of praise.
Montessori seems to discard the potential for children whose “character” has been affected this way. And sometimes Montessori schools do as well. They may only admit children into their youngest classrooms, or they may require previous Montessori experiences for children transferring to their Elementary or Middle School programs. While this may be a practical necessity to make sure that teachers' attention isn't taken up with one or two children who need external reinforcement to stay on task, in the long run, it excludes children from the benefits of Montessori. That is to say, it closes off the possibility that, with the right environment, even a child who has been "trained out" of their intrinsic motivation can develop it again.
Instead, we might adjust our expectations. A child coming to Montessori at ten or eleven years old, after they have been indoctrinated to a system of learning that depends on adults to determine their schedule, their focus and their content, will struggle with the open-ended, self-directed nature of the Montessori classroom. A child has been discouraged long enough from listening to their own instincts about their learning will learn to quiet that internal voice and rely, instead, on their teacher to tell them what to do from moment to moment. But just as we can teach children out of their natural tendencies, we can help them to discover them again if we're willing to offer enough time. Children who have lost touch with their intrinsic motivation may initially be overwhelmed by the freedoms of the Montessori classroom. They may take advantage of those freedoms, just like children who are never allowed to have sweet treats may guzzle them down when they're someplace without those limits. But we need to discern and be patient. We need to give the child the benefit of the nuanced read. Instead of throwing out the potential baby with the teacher-dependent bathwater, we might think differently about how to provide the space for children to reconnect with their natural curiosity. That a child has had their curiosity quieted does not mean that curiosity is dead. Instead, it raises the expectation of advocacy for us, as teachers and parents, to help the child return to their normalized self.
While it will take time, trust, and patience for a child to re-learn their own nature, the reward is far greater than any gold star or All-A report card could offer. We don't stop believing in children just because they didn't have the benefit of Montessori education in early childhood. Indeed, our influence as Montessorians could be far greater if we advocated as passionately for older learners returning to their natural patterns than if we limited our attention only to the ones we work with "from the start." A child who has been in Montessori since early childhood may find their great work in understanding the universe in elementary. A child who has only come to Montessori in elementary may find their great work in understanding themselves. Both children matter and, with enough creativity, patience and compassion, we can serve them both.
* A response to Chapter 20: Character and its Defects in Young Children. The Absorbent Mind. M. Montessori