Our preparation as Montessori teachers and parents can include all sorts of general advice, just like the generalizations Montessori offers us herself in these texts. We know we are meant to observe children scientifically, to offer them interesting motives, to intervene only when necessary, all that sort of thing.
And sometimes she even gives us specific stories to look to: the children who opened their own classroom to return to work when the teacher didn’t arrive, the punished child wearing the ribbon discarded by the child who had been rewarded, the laughing child who has just tumbled down a flight of stairs. These stories are useful both in that they remind us that Montessori learned from real children and because they remind us that we must, too.
“The life of the child is not an abstraction.” When we begin our teacher education programs, or we prepare for our own children at home, we are offered so many resources that counter this. What to expect of your toddler... what lessons are appropriate for three year olds, four year olds, five year olds... We may discuss, in theory, that a child’s individual development, in theory, may be different, in theory, but in preparing for that development, in practice, we spend far more time talking about the abstract child than the one in front of us.
The ways in which we prepare to learn with children should give us some sense of what to expect, some parameters for what is developmentally appropriate or predictable and what may need special support. But those details, those checklists and reports, are only useful to the degree that they support our sense-making of observations of the real children in front of us. They are trail-markers, letting us know we’re on the right path as we explore, not finish lines toward which we should be pushing children.
The classrooms are spaces within which teachers can learn about children’s development. Not the abstractions of children’s development, but the lived experience of each one in particular. Thinking about our classrooms as spaces within which adults learn, rather than spaces within which adults teach, reminds us of our critical role as Montessori teachers, practicing non-intervention, observing scientifically, passively.
And again, this does not mean that anything goes. The children should have clear lessons on right choices. They should be given both the tools they need to live independently and the models they need for that independent life to contribute without injury or insult to the other members of their society. But when we are more interested in completing charts of children’s progress through sequences of materials we’ve decided they should follow before we ever even met them, we’ve lost the path.
The children will surprise you. The two year old in my class, years ago, whose exceptional fine motor skills raised my eyebrows, who inspired me to ask more questions about her family and her experiences to understand why, at only 32 months old, she could thread needles and manage embroidery. Her family, I learned, celebrated their indigenous heritage by maintaining the crafts of their culture and she had been helping her parents and grandparents to bead intricate artwork. The five year old, bullish and cumbersome in his movements as he elbowed his way through his day, who washed the baby as though the plastic doll were a real child, nurturing and caring and gentle in ways he might never show me if he’d known he was being observed, who reminded me not to presume I knew a child just because I knew what they were like when they knew I was looking. The children will surprise you. Indeed, the children should surprise you. If you truly believe that each child is their own, unique individual, how could they not?
It is a cautionary tale, not only to us as teacher-scientists, to avoid limiting children’s possibilities by presuming we can create a chart that details them all. When we prioritize the chart over the child, even when we use Montessori language to defend it, we standardize our expectations of children and we replicate the limits of standardized education in classrooms that are designed to be limitless. Remember: our work is not to replicate, but to revolutionize. When we lead with the charts instead of following the child, we reinforce the same, often unspoken but rarely absent, presumptions that there are paths that are welcome here, and paths that are not. We substitute our expertise as adults for the potential of the society the children can create for themselves and, in doing so, we create again and again the same social structures of power and authority that Montessori promises to dismantle. Who are we to silence the first explorations of agency in the child? Who are we to decide which of their choices we approve of and which ones are “off-task?” We cannot simultaneously dignify the child while we degrade their choices.
So use the charts. Use the sequences, but use them to help you ask more interesting questions about the secrets of childhood. Use them to let you know what you don’t yet know about the actual children in front of you. Use them to inform conversations with parents that make more detailed your image of the child, that make more complicated your understanding of who they are, each of them, in particular. Use the charts, but follow the child.
* A response to Chapter 3: The Teaching Methods Employed in the Children’s Houses The Discovery of the Child. M. Montessori