Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Montessori Made Easy


Some book debuts are memorable and marvelous to behold, and this is one of them. I almost feel privileged to review Charlotte Cushman’s Montessori: Why It Matters for Your Child’s Success and Happiness, recently published by The Paper Tiger.

Maria Montessori was born on August 31, 1870, in the provincial town of Chiaravalle, Italy, to middle-class, well-educated parents. At the time that Montessori was growing up, Italy held conservative values about women's roles. From a young age, she consistently broke out of those proscribed gender limitations. After the family moved to Rome, when she was 14, Montessori attended classes at a boys' technical institute, where she further developed her aptitude for math and her interest in the sciences—particularly biology.

Facing her father's resistance but armed with her mother's support, Montessori went on to graduate with high honors from the medical school of the University of Rome in 1896. In so doing, Montessori became the first female doctor in Italy.

Montessori displayed the same insatiable appetite for knowledge that she has encouraged her teachers to imbue in their pre-school and kindergarten students. Her premise was that “class” and a child’s external environment did not necessarily determine the contents and actions of his mind, unless he has a passive, as opposed to an active, ambitious, eager mind. (Passivity is also an action of volition, or of choice, but a negative one.) The mentally healthy mind possesses the human attribute of volition, and can develop a willingness and ability to think. This, Cushman, emphasizes, is a natural desire in children. Bright, independent, confident children could hale from any strata of society. Social status is irrelevant.

As a doctor, Montessori chose pediatrics and psychiatry as her specialties. While teaching at her medical-school alma mater, Montessori treated many poor and working-class children who attended the free clinics there. During that time, she observed that intrinsic intelligence was present in children of all socio-economic backgrounds.

Montessori became the director of the Orthophrenic School for developmentally disabled children in 1900. There she began to extensively research early childhood development and education….

Montessori began to conceptualize her own method of applying their educational theories, which she tested through hands-on scientific observation of students at the Orthophrenic School. Montessori found the resulting improvement in students' development remarkable.

When an infant begins to see things – when the blurs and blogs of color that swim in his vision begin to coalesce into identities—what a child needs to know is that these things are real things in a reality that is permanent and stable. Montessori stresses the primacy of existence. Cushman writes:

“Children need to establish a view of the world that is stable, and since the child forms himself from his environment, order is a major component of Montessori classrooms. Everything in the classroom is in order. The classroom as a whole is in order, organized into designated areas, each of which is part of a sequence. The materials on the shelves are in order, and each activity is displayed properly arranged in its container. Concepts are presented in a logical order and there is order in how they are taught. Order is part of the daily routine.”  (p. 5)

Discussing the role of language in a child’s developing and growing mind, Cushman notes:

“Humans are cognitively superior to all other animals because they can reason (and can thus control their environment and their own lives). A person uses mathematics in the process of forming concepts. He forms a concept for a given kind of thing when he has integrated the appropriate number of abstractions from real instances of it, and he then labels that concept with a word, which is a symbol for the concept. Language is a systematic combination of such symbols that arranges concepts in a logical sequence and is, therefore, primarily a tool of cognition.” (p. 40)

Cushman makes this startling observation about how a child begins to learn how to speak:

“The child is sensitive to human speech even before he knows who is speaking. By the time the baby is four months old his eyes are focused on the mouth of the speaker and he can be seen making little motions with his lips as though he were making silent words. At six months the child begins to babble, imitating the sounds of human speech, and by the time he is eight or nine months old, he has uttered every sound in the alphabet of his native language. It is interesting to note that the child does not utter and imitate every sound in his environment, but is drawn towards language.”  (pp. 40-41)

Here are some highlights from Cushman’s opus:

“Creation doesn’t start with…creation. It starts with knowledge, and the primary focus of education in the beginning must be the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge needs to be presented in an orderly way so that the mind can file information logically and retrieve it reliably; only then can the mind make the novel connections that are the essence of the creative process. Once knowledge and skills have been attained, freedom is necessary for the mind to bring innovations into existence.” (p. 112)

“What, then, is the true aim of the Montessori Method? In a word—independence, and the result is the child’s profound love of his work.” (p. 128)

“Self-esteem entails two interrelated aspects: that one is worthy of living and that one is competent to live. It is the knowledge that one’s mind can grasp the facts of reality, that one can understand the world and then live rationally and morally.” (p. 142)

“Self-esteem, as I discussed earlier, does not come from the approval of others. Children initially develop their self-evaluation from the conclusions that they draw about the world through their experiences. If they think reality is understandable and that they are capable of understanding it, they will have a positive view of themselves; but if they think reality is chaos, that they can’t comprehend it, and that anything goes, they will have a negative view of themselves.” (p. 157)

“In Montessori education the child is taught how to think for himself. He uses concrete objects to experiment with and confirm reality. The Montessori child develops an independent mind because we do not tell him what to think. We allow him to learn independently—on his own—without flooding the room with adults. We also let him learn by interacting with lots of other children.” (p. 196)

In modern education, children (and high school- and college-age adults) are pressured to become “socialized,” to fit into groups, to “go with the flow,” to conform collectivist identities and purposes, to obey and not question. But, Cushman asks:

“Fit into what? The group, the crowd, the gang? Relationships are with individuals, not with unknown collectives. When someone wants to fit in with the unnamed “others,” he puts himself at the mercy of what others think of him. Instead, he should be defining what his standards are for relationships, decide which individuals are worthwhile, and choose his friends accordingly.” (p. 209, Italics mine.)

Cushman advises parents:

“As you consider your options, keep this in mind: education is more than just learning how to add and read. Education is preparing the child for adulthood. When he grows up, he will need to know how to listen and remember what he hears, read and assimilate information, follow a train of logic, and make decisions.” (p. 211)

At the end of Maria Montessori, Cushman re-emphasizes the purpose of the Montessori Method of education:

“The ability to think is essential for man’s survival and happiness. I don’t know of any other educational system other than the Montessori Method that uses a highly specialized, integrated methodology for the specific purpose of teaching a child how to use his mind. Maria Montessori discovered what children are and how they really learn. And she recognized that in order to reason, it takes much more than just an accumulation of facts. The Montessori Method is a realistic approach to learning based on the true nature of the child. And it works.” (p. 222)

Forty illustrations of children at work – never at play – in a Montessori classroom adorn this important volume. Some children are smiling while performing a chore or a task. Others are frowning in thought while engaged in some activity. But a frown is a good sign. Ayn Rand, to whom Cushman has dedicated her book, noted in her novel, The Fountainhead:

“…. Man's first frown is the first touch of God on his forehead. The touch of thought.”

Montessori: Why It Matters for Your Child’s Success and Happiness, by Charlotte Cushman. Kerhonkson, NY: The Paper Tiger. 253 pp. Illustrated.

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