Friday, March 16, 2007

Montessori Questions

A few posts ago, Loraine asked me about whether or not the Montessori method was compatible with Catholicism, because “I am wary of the idea that children need always to be choosing for themselves. This seems contrary to the Catholic understanding of human nature – since the Fall our desires tend in the wrong directions.” And she had a few other questions I’d like to address. It took me a while to prepare a longer post, but here it is.

In answering Loraine’s question, I’m going to speak about the Montessori Method for children aged 3-6 (there are other methods for ages 6-12 and 12-18).

One generally unknown fact about Maria Montessori is that she was a devout Catholic, and her method is steeped in the Catholic understanding of the human person. She believed in the Fall, and understood that small human beings need moral guidance. But because she also believed in post-baptismal innocence and that our God Himself became a Child, she recommended that the Montessori teacher approach the child with a humility and reverence that is still as counter-cultural today as it was in the 1930’s. She didn’t have a romantic view of the child as a “noble savage” or any of the usual secular errors, and yes, she did design the environment to limit a child’s choices and encourage order.

What I find wonderful and mysterious about the method is that it works – children really do work and focus and learn in a Montessori environment. You have to see it to believe it. I always recommend that folks visit a Montessori school and simply observe. You’ll come away with a lot of ideas, and you’ll appreciate the peacefulness and order.

It’s important to remember that the Montessori method was designed to be used in a classroom situation, with up to thirty children in the charge of one adult. The Montessori classroom was to be beautiful, neat to a fault, and full of high-quality materials. The teacher (usually in possession of an MA in Montessori education) was to be completely focused on the children and guiding them in learning. As Lorraine correctly notes, since the classroom was designed to be solely a learning environment, fairy tales and imaginative figures such as Peter Rabbit or Mickey Mouse were not allowed in the classroom. The classroom focused on teaching young children about the real world.

All of this means that it is difficult to translate the Montessori Method strictly to the home. Parents are not gifted with the detachment of teachers: they have the responsibility of teaching children to obey, to be kind, and so on. And it is really difficult to maintain a fully-equipped Montessori classroom in the home as a homeschool. It takes energy to maintain it neatly, and further energy to acclimate the children to using the materials as tools, not toys. It *can* be done – I’ve seen it done – but it’s difficult!

“MegaMommy” Barbara Curtis is a mother of twelve (biological and adopted), Montessori teacher, and author of many books, who has thought deeply about applying Montessori principles to parenting. I highly recommend her book The Mommy Manual that suggests good habits for moms to acquire, such as watching your child without helping them (Montessori teachers learn to sit on their hands to stop from interfering unnecessarily). When you’re always in a hurry, it’s easier to do things for kids. But it’s so important to slow down and simply let them do something (ie: put on their own shoes, pour their own milk, put scotch tape on their present) all by themselves. This is how they learn, and they learn faster and more deeply when moms have the time and patience to watch and let them learn.

You might want to read her page about child-sized furniture, and other products (some great ideas!). The reason for giving children real things instead of toys is because children yearn for real things, to do things “myself!” They yearn to grow up and be like Mommy and Daddy. And as an artist myself, I can say that a solid grounding in the real world is a terrific launching pad for the imagination.

As for fairy tales – our home is a school, but it’s not only a school, so we do have fairy tales in our home. But I do think it’s important for very young children to learn about the real world first, so we have lots of DK books for our toddlers, the sort with real photos. We save the fairy tales for the next-level-of kids, ages 6-12, when even Montessori agrees that moral education begins in earnest, and then fairy tales are helpful.

I think that Montessori doesn’t necessarily distrust the imagination, but it’s important to remember that it’s a classroom philosophy, not a parenting philosophy. However, I’m trained in the Montessori Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and I find it wonderfully imaginative and very reverent. Montessori was a scientist, and yes, there’s room for the imagination in science, but only after you’ve learned a lot of the basic rules. A Montessori education focuses on helping you learn those rules.

Waldorf education is sometimes portrayed as the polar opposite of Montessori, but I’m not sure that’s true. However, it is based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, whose ideas are more New Age than Christian. What is remarkable is that despite his quirky and sometimes (to me) very bizarre ideas, the material end product of the philosophy is a lot of very beautifully-crafted chidren’s toys. I personally don’t care for or recommend Waldorf education (I’m a Montessori preschool alumna myself) but I certainly do love their toys!

Those are a few thoughts on Montessori – let me know if you have any further questions!


stephanie said...

More on the children choosing for themselves:

I am reading "Natural Structure: A Montessori Approach to Classical Education" by Edward and Nancy Walsh and they point out that the Montessori method allows for "free choice within limits" and quote Maria Montessori from her book, "The Secret of Childhood" where she writes, "Let us leave the life free to develop within the limits of the good, and let us observe this inner life developing."

faithemmanuel said...

Thank you for this clarification! I love this blog. -Faith

Raindear said...

Thank you very much for such a thorough reply. That was quite informative.

However, I still have a few questions. The emphasis on peace and order, patience and a reverence for childhood - those are all beautiful notions, but they seem merely Catholic to me, and not really Montessori per se.

Also, the reference to post-baptismal innocence seems misleading in this context. Isn't that an innocence in terms of culpability, more than an innocence of desires?

I am still uncertain as to the usefulness of a distinction between classroom learning and learning through the imagination. The truths learned from fairy tales are not any less real, though conveyed through a more fanciful medium. Children are already enthralled by fairy tales at the age of three or four. Why wait until later to fill their mind with images of the glory of virtue and the ugliness of vice?

Finally, there is something natural and beautiful about slowly growing into adult activities. As a child, I remember helping my mom or sister bake, standing on a stool in the kitchen helping stir dough or measure out ingredients for cookies. Children are not on a level with adults yet. Is it wholesome to foster independence in small children? They still have so much need to learn from others and for many docility is a difficult virtue.

I hope I don't sound horribly negative! In practice, there is something very attractive about Montessori and it is popular among many Catholics families whom I admire. However, I am trying to be critical and discerning about the principles.

I am by no means an expert on Waldorf education either, but a friend of mine wanted to become a Waldorf instructor and her account of the method was very appealing. It is based on the thought of Rudolf Steiner, who I believe was a fallen away Catholic, and you are certainly justified in some skepticism there. However, his philosophy is surprisingly traditional: According to Steiner's philosophy, man is a threefold being of spirit, soul, and body whose capacities unfold in three developmental stages on the path to adulthood: early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence. His division of the soul is, of course, Platonic and compatible with the Thomistic understanding of human nature and his corresponding division of childhood development is intriguing. Naturally, the Waldorf method divides education into three general phases corresponding to the stages of development. It is basically education through the senses, through the passions, and finally through reason. If you are interested I can elucidate further. Sorry to leave such long comments! I am just fascinated with the comparison between the two methods since I read this article.

regina doman said...

Raindear, I don't mind the questions, so long as you don't mind me taking a while to answer them! But I don't know if I can do justice to all the points you raised (other Montessorians, feel free to chime in here). Briefly:

-- RE: peace, order, patience and reverence for children -- you won't have to read too far in any of Montessori's writings or any Montessori textbook to encounter these concepts. They are the essence of the Montessori method, even done from a purely secular perspective. If you have further questions, you really should read the books or visit a good classroom, or both.

RE: Also, the reference to post-baptismal innocence seems misleading in this context. Isn't that an innocence in terms of culpability, more than an innocence of desires?

I agree that children are still "fallen creatures" and certainly have "fallen desires." I was trying to get across how Maria Montessori pondered, as a Catholic, Christ's pointing us to a little child and saying, "Unless you become like these." She was trying to go deeper into the mystery there as she worked with actual children. (Again, read her work!)

RE: classroom learning vs. learning in the imagination
We're probably not disagreeing about anything useful here (especially if we are both coming from a homeschooling perspective -- are you?), and I don't know enough about Steiner's method to take an anti-Waldorf position. I don't know what Montessori would say in this context. In her day and age, children were safeguarded from "real" learning until later and simply given toys and amusements. These days, Barney the dinosaur teaches counting and Care Bears teach phonics. The imagination and real facts are mixed. Montessori always insisted that mathematical facts can be interesting to children in and of themselves without being sugar-coated by rainbow bears or princesses. I think both Montessori and Waldorf teachers would agree that it's demeaning to mathematics, children, and fairies to do so!

Again, I don't know that Montessori meant her method to be applied wholesale to the home outside of the classroom. Would she have a problem with children pretending to be fairies or knights outside of school? I don't think so. (Though I am sure you could find a Montessori-Nazi who would disagree with me.)

I believe (though I could be wrong) that Montessori saw an important role for fairy tales and the correspondent stock responses to goodness and vice for children above the age of reason. I can understand why Montessori teachers ban fairies from the classroom, but I wouldn't throw out fairy tale bedtime stories or wooden swords even if they asked me too.

RE: children being pushed into adult activities, etc.

Children in a Montessori environment aren't pushed into adult activities. If they don't want to set the table, learn how to tie their shoes, draw cursive letters, water plants, polish silver, or do any of the activities in the classroom, they need not do so. But most toddlers and children leap at the chance to do these things in the classroom because the tasks are presented in such an inviting and easy way that enables them to do so, and most children are eager to work with them. It is "natural" for the children to the nth degree! If a child feels the task is beyond them, he doesn't need to even try it until he feels ready. But he sees other children doing these things and in the classroom, the older children (there's always a mix of at least 3 years among the children) are eager to help the younger ones learn.

In the education world, there is a huge push to equip toddlers for Harvard, but that is not what Montessori is about. In fact, many Montessori teachers feel the frustration of dealing with parents who are enrolling their child in Montessori just for that reason. But the teachers know that this is not what Montessori is about.

What *is* it about then? That if a child is presented the concepts of math and language in this inviting and beautiful environment, that she sees the beauty of the math or language concept in and of itself, before there is drudgery or discipline involved. It instills in the child a willing, hopefully lifelong eagerness to learn and absorb (and btw the Montessori "absorbent mind" concept doesn't last past age 6, at which point the Montessori method switches gears to adjust to the child's new styles of learning.).

RE: Is it wholesome to foster independence in small children? They still have so much need to learn from others and for many docility is a difficult virtue.

It's not *that* kind of independence. I can say that, having been a Montessori child and applying some concepts in my home, the child is not so independent that he's no longer docile, nor are you "off the hook" as a parent because the child still needs guidance, and even though he can sweep on his own, in practice, he won't do housework (without regular prompting).

RE: Steiner
I can only speak about Rudolf Steiner out of ignorance, and thus oughtn't really to speak at all.

However, years ago when I read a book distilling his ideas, and came across his idea that an unborn baby has no soul until about three days after birth, I thought, "Pagan weirdness AND a very good excuse for justifying abortion and infanticide!" Now, of course, I'm sure he had many good and worthy ideas, but after I read that one, I chucked the book.

So forgive me if I smile :) if you try to present Steiner as "Catholic" as Montessori.

However, I have good friends who I respect who love the method, so please don't allow my blatant prejudice to blind you to further explore Steiner. But I'd think it's a stretch to baptize his method as Catholic.

Please, everyone, feel free to set me straight about this.

The article you linked to (thank you, btw) does seem to be written by a Waldorf teacher and is slanted in favor of that method. I'd say it's unfair to Montessori in certain respects (though of course, if you want to find Montessori-nazis who tell parents to throw away all the toys at home, or teachers in the method who rush their charges into heavy-duty intellectual schooling, you won't have to look too far).

I can only urge you again to read Montessori books or try to see it in action.


Did I say I was going to be brief? Sheesh, sorry!

Anyone else, please add your own thoughts, correct my errors, etc. And I apologize if any of this seems harsh!!! Thanks for reading!

Raindear said...

Thanks again! That certainly clears up a lot of my questions/objections. If I ever find a free moment to read again(I have six unfinished books sitting on my nightstand already), I shall certainly take your advice and read the primary sources.

I was thinking more in terms of homeschooling environment, although I was also curious about the Montessori classroom approach.

No need for apologies. (: I appreciate a direct response.

Pax Christi,

Donna said...

Regina - I am curious as to where you found the Steiner comment about the child not having a soul until three days after birth. I studied Waldorf for many years and one image that I truly treasure to this day was found in a book by Karl Konig (founder of the Camphill Movement - Steiner Ed. for the developmentally disabled) where there is a beautiful mental picture he gives of the child's angel presenting the mother's soul with child's soul *before* conception - a direct image taken from the Annuciation. The idea being that even before a physical conception there is already a spiritual conception - and a unique bond between the soul of a mother and that of her child.

I have often heard Catholic women who use NFP say that there just came a time when they *knew* God had another baby he wanted them to welcome.

I have found those involved with the Waldorf movement to be profoundly accepting of life - perhaps not for the reasons that a Catholic would be - but I really don't think infanticide would be compatible with Steiner's philosophy. In fact, I was at a workshop on biodynamic agriculture while I was awaiting test results during my third pregancy to show whether my baby had Down's Syndrome or Trisomy 13 - I found nothing but encouragment that this child was meant to be and that I would be able to mother him/her. (Thankfully everything was fine and Christian is beautiful 7 year old boy today).

regina doman said...

Thanks so much for sharing about your experience about Steiner, and I am relieved to hear something good and pro-life about him.

I don't remember the book I read this in, though I have had a pro-Waldorf friend confirm the idea as being consistent with what she had read about Steiner. The book was in a stack I got from a friend years ago when I was a young mom with one child and had time to read about parenting philosophies! The author who was distilling Steiner's idea was decidedly pro-choice and used this idea to support prenatal testing and elective abortion if the child was "defective." (The attitude was, "See, you shouldn't feel guilty about doing this! Because Steiner himself said a child's soul doesn't really enter the body till three days after birth!")

However, your sharing seems more consistent with the spirit of those I've met who use Waldorf philosophies. I'm always happy to hear good news about people, including folks like Steiner! Thank you for the enlightenment.

M. Alexander said...

I've always loved the book "The Mass Explained to Children" by Maria Montessori. My sister was trained in the Montessori method in Ireland and works now as the co-directress of a school in NH.

I think Montessori is instinctively Catholic but can be taken and misapplied by non Catholics or uninformed Catholics and the principles subverted.

The Steiner method is not Catholic or Christian and will always have that as a drawback. I do think the method has some good ideas though- poetry recitation, developing motor skills by learning crochet and the emphasis on art. But I don't trust the philosophy of it.