What do you want from your children’s school? Most parents and schools are focused on knowledge and discipline, which everyone knows go hand in hand. Hence the intense stress on standardized examinations.
But stop and think about it. Are knowledge and discipline really enough? And what do we mean by “discipline”? Do we mean discipline that comes from within? Or merely the habit of complying with the demands of authority?
For seven years I headed a Montessori school, and one of the most common concerns parents had related to creativity. There was one mother in particular who stands out in my mind. After observing the toddler environment, she sat down with me and asked whether the children were allowed to “mix up the works.” When I told her they were not, she replied, “Well, that’s not very creative.” To me, allowing ten toddlers to “mix up the works” – works specifically designed to teach cause and effect, develop fine motor skills, and generate sensory impressions to cultivate imaginative thought  – did not sound creative; it sounded like absolute chaos! But for most people creativity is thought to arise from chaotic free expression. For some who actually work in creative fields, however, this is not so. As comedic actress Amy Poehler stated in a recent New Yorker article, “I’m proud that Mike Schur [a member of her creative team] and I rejected the idea that creativity needs to come from chaos.” Her own success and the scientific research show that she was right to reject this widespread notion.
For parents, enrolling one’s child in a Montessori school can feel like an act of faith. Montessori’s holistic approach is completely different from conventional educations’ test-focused, factory-model approach. And now much of the current US education reform conversation centers on using assessments to not only evaluate student learning but also teacher effectiveness. This endless stream of media test-talk can generate anxiety and doubt for Montessori parents whose children may have limited, if any, exposure to testing or even formal grades. Despite seeing how well their children are developing within their Montessori classrooms, that anxiety and doubt can lead parents to wonder, “How do I know if my child is learning?”
A previously published white paper proposed that Montessori is the educational method for developing the skills necessary to be successful in the 21st century knowledge economy. Specifically, it argued that the accelerating rate of both technological and social innovation will require our children to “reinvent” themselves more than once during their lifetimes; thus children need more than anything to be able to think creatively, which Montessori fosters more so than other educational methods. This means that choosing a Montessori education for your children sets them up for greater potential of economic success as adults, more so than conventional education, which is still situated within the factory model framework generated by the now defunct industrial economy.
But there is another and, arguably, even more important reason why Montessori is the educational method for the 21st century: Montessori education fosters a systems view of the world, which is necessary for the sustainability of our planet and, hence, our species.
When I was the head of a Montessori school many years ago, a prospective parent who came to tour the school greeted me by saying, “I’m only here because my husband went to a Montessori school as a child, and he insisted I visit. But I don’t believe in ‘work’ for children. I believe in ‘play.’”
Needless to say the meeting did not go well.
Her assumption that work is bad while play is good for children kept her from seeing what was really happening in the classroom. But who can blame her? Articles abound in the media extolling the virtues of play on children’s cognitive development while demonizing work. What no one seems to notice, however, is that these articles rarely define play, and they only seem to define work as the didactic instruction found in conventional schools. But when we really examine the constructs of play and work, we see that there is far more to this picture than “play is good” and “work is bad” for young children – especially within a Montessori context. In fact, we find that the dichotomy of work and play as usually presented in the mainstream media by well-meaning child advocates is actually a false one.
The Pink Tower is an iconic Montessori Sensorial material that helps children to (among other things) discern the differences in weights and sizes as each cube is carried to a working mat to be rebuilt. Even the process of weaving one’s way through the busy classroom, cube in hand, while avoiding chairs, tables, toes of other children, and others’ work mats is an important part of this material because it trains the child to move carefully and with purpose.
But all of this movement, from carrying the cubes to navigating one’s way around the classroom, is not just essential to developing good coordination – it’s essential to developing higher-level thinking.