The timelessness of a Montessori Education...
At the annual LMS Corporation Meeting on May 13th, Jana Porter, LMS Head of School (1996 - 2002), shared the following:
Just a few weeks ago, in the Jane Mack building, I ran into Larissa, an LMS alum, twice as tall and twice as old as she was when I knew her. Hi Jana, huge hug, caught me up on her life. Although lots had happened in those intervening years, it was as though they had never happened, a time warp of sorts. Not a moment of hesitation, or even surprise, we recognized each other immediately and each of us, visitors of sorts, clearly felt as at home and grounded and purposeful in these halls as we had 12 years ago. And connected.
Made me think – what is it that makes Montessori education so timeless? What is the essence of that connection Larissa and I have, and will always have? Why do so many of us – myself, Laini, Ben, Jasmine, Tucker – keep recreating ourselves here, carving out new roles that grow and evolve as we do? How can what worked over 100 years ago on another continent be so on the cutting edge today? How is it that geniuses like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, and Google’s Larry Page and Sergei Brin, all trace the origins of their creativity back to their Montessori educations? What is it?
When I first started at LMS, with no previous knowledge of or experience with Montessori education, I used to go home at night and tell my husband that there was magic going on in the classrooms. It was the only way I could explain a toddler’s eagerness to put his dish in the sink, a three year old’s nod and smile of satisfaction when she completed the pink tower, the wonder in the eyes of a six year old as he learned about the creation of the universe, the calming presence of an upper elementary student mediating a conflict between two younger children. It was also the only way I could understand how children could safely use knives as big as they were to cut their fruits and vegetables. No one ever got hurt. It had to be magic.
In the intervening years, I’ve learned that it isn’t magic at all. Most of us in this room can probably articulate what IT is, at least the components. We would use words like child-centered, the whole child, developmental, three year age grouping, process driven, collaborative, the materials, preparing the environment, cosmic, universal, individual….and on. These are some of the particulars, but what drives them? When you sift through it all, what are the essential truths that create this timelessness? What is it we’re really celebrating this fiftieth year?
For me, it all boils down to three essential truths Maria Montessori knew about children. She knew about intrinsic motivation, which the rest of the world is just discovering; she knew about therobustness and complexity of the human spirit; and she knew what creates human connection. I want to talk for just a minute about each of those.
Maria knew that carrots and sticks do not motivate children to learn. Research in the business world is now showing that bonuses, incentives, and threats may reward a narrow, linear focus, but they actually restrict and deter the kind of creative, conceptual, flexible “outside the box” thinking that our rapidly shifting world and exponentially increasing knowledge base demand.
A man named Daniel Pink has recently written a best-selling book about motivation called Drive, in which he emphasizes that four decades of research on human motivation have shown us that intrinsic motivation, the joy of the task itself, is where it’s at and is what is needed to motivate workers. Go figure. He has even come up with something called SDT, or Self Determination Theory. It stipulates that we have innate needs todirect our own lives (autonomy), to learn and create new things (mastery), and to contribute to a greater good than just ourselves (purpose.) Sound familiar? He believes that if employers structure the workplace around these innate needs, around intrinsic motivation, then employee satisfaction and productivity will increase. What would this look like? Employees could choose when and how and with whom they completed a task instead of doing it at a certain time, in a specific place, with a pre-selected team. Employees would know the values and mission of their organization and how they contribute to the whole. And they would work on Goldilocks tasks – not too hard, not too easy – developmentally appropriate. Maria could have written this book. Intrinsic motivation – one of the timeless truths of Montessori education.
Montessori education also celebrates the resiliency and joyfulness of the human spirit. According to her granddaughter Renilde Montessori, Maria defined her pedagogy as “Education as an aid to life, as an aid to the spirit of life as it finds expression in the human species.”In a paper she presented in 1988 at the AMI International Study Conference in Washington DC, Renilde pointed out the human tendency to bemoan our fate. “It is commonplace to clamor about the danger we represent to ourselves and to the habitat we have in common with so many other…species,” she wrote,”…bewailing in tedious cacophony our evils and shortcomings and the doom that threatens due to our abject acquiescence in our own debility. This is a cop-out,” she wrote, “unworthy of our human condition.” And if anything, this tendency to bemoan our fate has gotten worse since she wrote these words. Just turn on the news.
The human spirit, its robustness and resilience and passion, is what Montessori education speaks to. I watched my 14 month old grandson in the park on Mother’s Day, and saw his delight in his surroundings, his eagerness to explore, investigate, marvel at, and celebrate his environment, every inch of it, from the movements of a worm under the picnic table tothe texture of the bark of a tree. In Education and Peace,
Maria Montessori writes of the life force that inspires children as “a kind of love that is not transitory, that does not change, that does not die…love for one’s environment…The love of one’s environment is the secret of all man’s progress and the secret of social evolution …Love of the environment inspires man to learn, to study, to work.” Montessori education cultivates that sense of wonder, that passion to interact with what is around us, that spirit that defines our humanity, at a time in our evolution as a species when we need it most. It keeps alive the “what if’s,” and “why not’s?,” it nurtures the “I can do it,” and the “we can do it together,” it balances a realization that one is just a tiny speck in the universe with a conviction that one can change the world. It speaks to the human spirit and tells us that all things are possible.
And lastly, in addition to her understanding of human motivation and her faith in the humanspirit, Montessori understood the significance of human connection. I’m thinking of the spark between me and Larissa, the timeless connection I feel, I think we all feel, with the children we’ve learned from and with, the children we’ve followed. I think of the many faces on Biff’s bulletin board and the deep connections they signify. When she went off the Board of the Lexington Montessori School in 1999, Mary Rivet spoke of what she valued most about this place, what she saw to be its greatest gift to children. She said that LMS is a place where each child feels seen, and known, and cherished for who they are. She spoke of the relief and connection a child feels when an adult in their lives looks at them with eyes that say, “I know who you are.” It is that connection, imparting to children that they are seen, and known, and understood, that creates the context and safety for learning to happen.
Human connection. The inherent joyfulness and wonder of the human spirit. Intrinsic, innate motivation to learn and to progress. These, for me, are the essential truths of Montessori, and that they are even more relevant and essential today than they were more than a hundred years ago issuch a cause to celebrate! Happy Birthday, LMS. And thank you to Aline for letting me continue to be a part of this place.