Choosing a School is More Like Making a Friend Than Going Shopping
A guest post by Mark Powell
Nina Martin makes a great point in her efforts to make the arduous task of choosing a preschool easier (http://wondertime.go.com/learning/article/choosing-a-preschool.html). Martin gives readers “the real lowdown from parents and teachers on the five best-known preschool philosophies out there.” She’s right that it’s important to choose a school with a realistic understanding of what’s on offer, rather than sticking with one because it’s convenient. A private preschool education is a huge investment; if it’s not a good experience for a child and his or her parents, of course something deserves to change.
Because so much money is involved in a private school education, it’s very tempting to treat the task of choosing a school as we would any other shopping decision. But this is not a helpful analogy when it comes to schools. Investing in a child’s education is more like making a friend than it is like investing in any other enterprise. Schools are living, breathing institutions that thrive on two-way relationships between parents and teachers. Parents are as much partners in educating their children as they are consumers of a product. Between teachers and their students a relationship of trust and understanding is essential, and parents play a crucial role in facilitating that relationship.
Developing a rewarding relationship with a school, like building a solid friendship, requires give and take over time. First impressions can often be deceiving, because they are filtered through generalizations that take the place of experience. With schools, what you see on an admissions tour—the educational equivalent of speed-dating—is never all that you get, because all schools are complex collections of multi-dimensional personalities. Moreover, each of the five philosophies outlined by Martin has evolved over many decades, and their benefits and shortcomings cannot be reduced to a neat list of quips and generalizations without seriously shortchanging them. Take the example of Montessori and the issue of play.
Few issues have resulted in more confusion between preschool philosophies than this one, and some common misconceptions about Montessori philosophy are rerun in Martin’s article. Maria Montessori has often been criticized by mainstream educators for limiting the creativity of children by discouraging free play and fantasy in the early childhood classroom. Others, among them some Montessori children, have called her method a system of teaching through play. To see through the fog, it’s helpful to see Montessori’s position as a reaction to the educational politics of her time, rather than as the rigid position which it has come to be seen. Some background will help here.
In some famous early experiments in which she offered her students toys alongside her educational materials, Montessori found that children actually prefer work to play. She believed that human beings never fully reach their potential unless given the opportunity to become “normalized” through work. In her view, imaginary play satisfies only part of the child’s nature, while work touches their whole being by satisfying a subconscious urge in their nature to grow and develop into an integrated personality. Yes, she believed that symbolic play, fantasy poetry, and fairy-tales have no place in the early education of the child. But she did not want to banish fantasy from the child's life completely, and she knew that most Italian children of her time would return home each day to a family rich in oral traditions, with no shortage of adults to entertain them. Montessori believed that the classroom must be separate in the young child's mind, a place to seek reality and pursue mastery over their environment.
In the “prepared environment” of the classroom, Montessori wanted to nurture three qualities which she saw as important for the young child’s development: first, the power of attention and concentration, which can appear almost like meditation; second, autonomy and independence of judgment; and third, an expectant faith which opens the child’s mind to truth and reality. This third quality, she believed, leads to a tendency in young children to dwell on fantasy, which adults often see as evidence of the fertility of their imaginations. Montessori believed that the tendency of the young child to believe so readily in the fruits of adult imaginations was not a proof of their supple imaginations, but of their dependent and powerless position relative to adults. Their uncritical absorption of the world around them makes it difficult for young children to distinguish fantasy from reality in the stories of adults unless the difference is explicitly explained to them. Montessori believed that adults too often inadvertently sabotage the development of the child's intelligence and creativity by substituting their own imagination for the child's, or by taking advantage of the child's natural credulity because they see the child as a passive being for whom they must act. For Montessori, too much fantasy confuses the young child's emerging sense of reality, interfering with their quest to construct their personality by mastering the environment.
Far from wanting to suppress the development of the child’s imagination, Montessori wanted to establish the right conditions for its development. For her, reality—a world of things seen, touched, and experienced—provides the most powerful source of images for the creative imagination. Through concrete exploration and sensorial experiences with a carefully prepared environment corresponding to their needs, Montessori aimed to allow children to accumulate a store of accurate images of the world. Sensorial experiences calm the mind, helping ground its tendency to flit about in all directions at once. To Montessori, children’s preoccupation with make-believe was not a symptom of their powers of imagination, but a symptom of their need to escape from a reality not well suited to their needs. She saw children as inhabitants of a world made for and controlled by adults. In traditional schools of her day, the only freedom allowed the child was the freedom to play. Have things changed all that much in this regard?
Montessori believed that, given the freedom to choose among authentic, meaningful activities designed to suit their developing intellects and bodies, young children would show their natural preference for work over play and reality over make-believe. In an environment prepared with opportunities for what she termed “spontaneous activity” (learning activities which children choose voluntarily), the distinction between work and play may only be semantic. “It is true that in all these activities, the child may be said to be playing. But this kind of play is effortful, and it leads him to acquire the new powers which will be needed for his future,” she wrote in her most famous book, The Absorbent Mind. In other words it was the object of the child’s spontaneous activity, and not the process of self-motivated exploration itself, which Montessori objected to in the notions of Froebel and other play-based educational philosophers who saw symbolic play and fantasy as the basis of early education.
Imagination, based on the images of reality absorbed through the education of the senses in the preschool “Children’s House,” becomes the focus of the child’s intellectual and spiritual development in the Montessori elementary classroom. At this age, the child gains the ability to imagine what they cannot see. With an interest awakened by the power of their imagination, the elementary child begins to look with longing eyes at the wider world beyond the contained classroom. With a focus turned outward, the elementary child is drawn to questions of culture, including the social world and morality. The child wants to understand why things are the way they are, and begins to ponder concepts large enough to last a lifetime.
This is the time, says Montessori, when attentions stray from the classroom and many boys start playing hookey—going off “on birds’ nesting expeditions, or hunting for ‘tiddlers’; or ‘messing about’ with running water—damming streams and making canals.” At this age too, she says, we find them forming themselves into gangs and secret societies, which—for lack of proper direction—may even run foul of the law. Rather than try to control or suppress this need, Montessori proposes “going out” expeditions for the 6-12 year-old child to explore and research the community on their own, away from family and school.
Freedom of choice remains the key to motivating the child at this level also; but now this freedom ideally grows out of a burgeoning love of real knowledge rather than on the curiosity or whim of the preschool child. Rather than spoon-feed the child with details to be memorized, the elementary teacher guides the child in their freedom by offering a vision of the whole within which details discovered by the child through individual research can become meaningful. A series of impressionistic stories provide a panoramic view of the universe and the sweep of human history. These dramatic impressions endeavor to inspire wonder at the grandeur of the cosmic process, nurturing the idea that the universe was formed out of love, that everything has a role to play in the existence of everything else. In the Montessori classroom, content knowledge is in a sense the by-product of a method that is aimed at encouraging independence and intellectual autonomy by exciting the child’s imagination and stimulating them to ask questions and explore the answers for themselves.
Montessori’s catchphrase was “Follow the child.” She saw children, with all their spontaneity and openness to the world, as the teachers of humankind. Her method gives more than lipservice to the term ‘child-centered education.’ She believed that the way to create a world without war and poverty is to raise a generation of children who have been given an opportunity to exercise and develop their own free wills, through which they will have developed a true sense of their interdependence with all people, living beings, and the planet itself. This sense of connectedness arises from an authentic feeling of responsibility for the general good rather than from coercion or a need for ego gratification. Montessori education at its best can work for every child, especially when they have been introduced to it early; but it may not be for every parent. It’s a relationship that deepens and matures over time, rather than a commodity to be purchased.