Purpose of This Blog

Devoted to guiding educators towards a centered and intentional Montessori practice.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Deepening Our Connections

As we gaze into the candles and fires that form the centerpieces of many of our winter traditions, we can explore the relationships humans have to the physical world. Could it be that it is not only cultural nostalgia that draws us to these iconic practices? Could it be a tickling of our ancestral past? Memories of family celebrations, taken deeper, blending into feelings of protection from the unknown wild. Is it a distant perception of our ancestors sitting around a fire for warmth and security?
What lies deeper still? Could it be that at some profound level we have an awareness of our intimate relationship with the universe? Can we can draw connections between our celebrations of light and the fact that we all come from light – light of the great improbable flaring forth, that tremendous burst of energy that erupted from no thing into all that we now know, and more. How incredible to help children make the leap between the bundles of energy dancing in our eyes at the holidays, and the photons present at the very beginning of everything. 
We are all children of this light.

Mindfully Celebrating the Holidays

In Montessori classrooms, we go to great lengths to make connections between cultures and countries across the globe and throughout time. Rather than isolating people through their differences, we celebrate the commonalities we all share.
One way that this is accomplished is by using the Fundamental Needs of People to compare how cultures across the world and through time have met their needs for survival: nutrition, shelter, clothing, belonging, defense, transportation, communication, self-expression, the healing arts, and spirituality.
On this last need, our class discussions become especially rich. We ask questions that provide opportunities for deep reflection: Why is it that so many cultures from so vastly different regions of our planet have celebrations this time of year that involve light? Our conversations reflect an understanding of the need for sunlight for warmth, as well as energy for growing crops for sustaining a community. We discuss the literary image of light as being one of hope and possibility, and of darkness one of wasting and despair. 
What children take away from these conversations is that humans develop practices that are grounded in their most basic needs. If we look first to these needs as we approach understanding our various ceremonies, we may find that we’re not that different after all.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Three Questions


In this beautifully rendered retelling of Leo Tolstoy's short story, Jon J. Muth creates a simple and resonant opening for deep conversations with children about character. 

  • What is the best time to do things?
  • Who is the most important one?
  • What is the right thing to do?    

I have used this fable with upper elementary students as a way of elaborating upon discussions of freedom, personal choice and responsibility. I begin with just the three questions, prior to reading the story. Students can journal their responses individually, have small group conversations, or share their ideas through a facilitated class discussion; each of these strategies has worked well in my experience. 

Partly because of the richness of the watercolor illustrations and partly due to the eloquence of the text, students immediately grasp the immediacy of the needs of the characters involved - they can feel the significance of what transpires.

I encourage you to explore this story on your own, and then share it with students when you are ready. It is a life-affirming tale that can bring clarity to one's own world view, and strengthen the ties of a community who shares it.

Enjoy the reading.

The Three Questions, by Jon J. Muth (ISBN: 0-439-19996-4)

For More Books About Peace:   

Evolution & Intelligent Design: Science & Stories in the Montessori Cultural Curriculum

            Montessorians do a wonderful job of being open to and welcoming of many different cultures and global perspectives within the broader Cultural Curriculum. In our classrooms we often share other ideas on the origins of the universe and the emergence and development of life (myths, legends, family beliefs, etc.). Such practices help develop tolerance and morality.
            In our effort to be inclusive and build community, however, we cannot become so permissive that we allow such stories and philosophies to replace science. The cultural stories that are shared are not equivalent substitutions for the scientific explanations for the same events. This is a separate and distinct discussion to one of beliefs. Evolution is a scientific theory, not a philosophy resting on faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 King James Version). Our scientific discussions in no way rule out the possibility of a creator; they merely focus on the data gathered and reviewed.
            In order to speak with authority, it is important that teachers have a firm understanding of what biological evolution is, and of its principle mechanisms: natural selection and genetic drift. The theory of biological evolution is “the process of change in the inherited traits of a population from one generation to the next” (Dorer, 2008). Natural selection causes “heritable traits that are desirable to become more common in a population; traits that are not, are eliminated (Dorer, 2008). “Organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring”(Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005). Genetic drift refers to “random changes over time” (Dorer, 2008) “owing to the chance disappearance of particular genes as individuals die or do not reproduce”(Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005). Educators need to know the science underpinning the theory of biological evolution, and the empirical, data-driven and peer reviewed examples that support it.
            I believe that it is important that we use the word science to denote the kind of study we might be engaged in at a particular time. We need to define what “being scientific” looks like so that children and their parents understand that we are, in fact, taking sides.
            According to the Oxford American Dictionaries (2005), science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” It is a way of knowing that is grounded in objective study and the testing of ideas. Biological evolution is a theory, “ a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something”, where supposition means “an uncertain belief” (Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005). A theory is only uncertain, however, because it cannot (yet) explain everything that we observe occurring in nature. That doesn’t mean that what it can explain – scientifically – is less valid (Jones in Barlow, 2006, p. 67). 
            Creationism is a religious philosophy that “the universe and living organisms originate from specific acts of divine creation (Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005). It is a story, but not a scientific one. Likewise, Intelligent Design (ID) is also a religious perspective – this one attempting to use science as a mechanism to legitimize its validity. There are two principle tenets of ID: “that life, and the complex processes by which cells do their work, cannot have been produced by that combination of chance and necessity known as Darwinian evolution” (Peterson, 2005, p. 413); and, “ the kind of information embodied in things that are designed can only be produced by an intelligent agent, not by undirected material causes.  Design, they say, is empirically detectable…in living things” (Peterson, 2005, p. 413). Backers of ID believe that reasonings such as the theory of evolution are “wholly insufficient…to explain the specified complexity that characterizes life at the cellular and molecular level”( Peterson, 2005, p. 418).
            Principle ID proponent and spokesperson Michael Behe, professor of biology at Lehigh University and author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge of Evolution, believes that some biological systems are “irreducibly complex”(Behe, 2002)  – that is, to break them down into their component parts would be to find examples of structures that do not operate alone and are therefore not consistent with the “numerous, successive, slight modifications of prior systems”(Behe, 2002) as required by Darwinian evolution. Behe sights the flagella of bacteria as one such example.
            The evidence for irreducibility, however, has not been found. “Evolution produces complex biochemical machines by copying, modifying, and combining proteins previously used for other functions” (Miller, 2002). In fact, citing Behe’s flagella example, Miller goes on to show how some of the proteins involved do work independently and can be acted upon by natural selection.
            Another supporter of the intelligent design concept, Jonathan Wells, author of Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong writes about ten “icons” that he believes indicate flaws in the theory of evolution. Wells “suggests that Darwinism encourages distortion of the truth” and claims that “[s]tudents and the public are being systematically misinformed about the evidence for evolution” (p. xii). One of Wells’ principle examples, however, that comparative drawings of vertebrate embryos faked by the German scientist Ernst Haekel are still being taught as credible examples for evolution has been wholly discredited by the scientific community. “Regardless of Wells’ religious or philosophical background, the Icons of Evolution can scarcely be considered a work of scholarly integrity” (Miller, Janata & Olson, 2006).
            In a 2005 ruling against the Dover [Pennsylvania] Area School District that had required the inclusion of Intelligent Design in the ninth-grade biology curriculum at Dover High, Judge John E. Jones III cited the American Association for the Advancement of Science in their contention that “the Intelligent Design movement [had] not proposed a scientific means of testing its claims and that the lack of scientific warrant for so-called ‘intelligent design theory’ [made] it improper to include [it] as part of science education”(Barlow, 2006). Jones ruled that intelligent design was a “religious theory. Therefore it should not be taught in a science class, not even as a counterpart to evolution. Teaching intelligent design would violate the Establishment Clause because it substitutes a particular religious theory over a scientific theory (ACLU, n.d.).”
            Dr. Steve Case, Research Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas and former chair of the Kansas Science Curriculum Standards Writing Committee, believes that the intelligent design idea is a “God of the gaps” concept; that “God lives in the gaps in our understanding”(Miller, Janata & Olson, 2006). If we introduce intelligent design as a viable scientific theory in schools we set children up, he reasons, to have either a “crisis of faith” or to be “anti-intellectual”( Miller, Janata & Olson, 2006); either students learn more of what the scientific evidence shows and in turn question their faith, or they turn wholly away from learning because if the universe is so complex, we cannot possibly understand it, so why even try.
            As teachers, then, we face an ethical dilemma in treating the stories that are brought to the Montessori cultural curriculum as equivalent to the science explaining the same events. Part of it is how these stories are brought to the fore. Myths, fables and legends used to demonstrate the myriad ways humankind has attempted to explain the strange and mysterious seem to me an entirely valid inclusion. Stories paired, however, with empirical, data-driven and peer reviewed scientific observations and experiments creates controversy in the discriminating minds of elementary-aged children where there is none. The disconnect is one of beliefs, not science.
            For older students, with a solid understanding of the scientific method, biological evolution and natural selection, a discussion of the history of scientific thought could be incredibly enlightening. Then, the tenets of creationism and intelligent design might be teased out and set beside the scientific evidence for evolution. This would be a philosophical discussion about the history of scientific thought – not science itself, because there is no scientific evidence to support either creationism or intelligent design.
            In our younger classrooms, then, let us explore what cultures from around the world have created to explain the mysterious and sublime. Let us truly revel in the similarities of perspectives and belief systems that people from across the globe share. But, let us not treat any of these stories as valid alternative scientific explanations for the theory of biological evolution. To do so would be to misrepresent science as purely conjecture taken on faith.


1. ACLU. (n.d.). Know your rights: A guide for public school students in Colorado             [Brochure]. Retrieved from http://www.aclu-co.org/education/youth/sybil_liberty/index.htm
2. Barlow, D. (2006). Dover schools’ unintelligent design. Retrieved  August 31, 2009.         From http://eddigest.com/
3. Dorer, M. (2008). Intelligent design, science and the Montessori curriculum. MediaSite    Recording. St. Paul, MN: St. Catherine University
4. Miller, S. & Janata, J. (Executive producers), & Olson, R. (Writer/Director).             (2006). Flock of dodos: The evolution-intelligent design circus [motion picture].              United States: Prairie Starfish Productions           
5. Natural History Magazine. (2002, April). Behe, M. (2002). The challenge of             irreducible complexity: Every living cell contains many ultrasophisticated             molecular machines. In R. Milner & V. Maestro (Eds.). Retrieved August 31, 2009 from, http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/nhmag.html 
6. Natural History Magazine. (2002, April). Miller, K. (2002). The flaw in the             mousetrap: Intelligent design fails the biochemistry test. In R. Milner & V. Maestro (Eds.). Retrieved August 31, 2009 from, http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/nhmag.html 
7. Oxford american dictionaries. (2005). Dictionary [computer software]. Apple             Computer, Inc.
8. Peterson, D. (2008). The Little engine that could…undo Darwinism. In J. Noll             (Ed.), Taking sides: Clashing views on educational issues (pp. 412-419). Dubuque: McGraw Hill.            
9. Wells, J. (2000). Icons of evolution: Science or myth? Why much of what we teach          about evolution is wrong. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Playful & Profound: Reflections on the Development of the Upper Elementary Child

When children enter the Upper Elementary, they suddenly find themselves in a very big and different world. They are sure that they’re in one of the same classrooms down the hall that they used to hear about, but now everything seems a bit off. Things are moving faster: curricula, friendships – it’s like standing on the curb of a busy and exciting, but slightly, terrifying street and wondering how you’re ever going to get across.

But, they do, of course. Fourth graders are industrious and intellectually curious. They look hard for explanations of facts, how things work and why things happen the way that they do. They take pride in their finished work and are suddenly excited to be reading to learn, not simply learning to read. Soon, the world begins to unfold before them again. Where many fourth graders still show their youth is in their inability to truly see big abstract concepts, and in their commitment to rules and regulations. Fourth graders do work cooperatively, but the rules that govern such activities – and the balance thereof – might take precedence over the work itself.

To fifth graders who have been in the class before, everything looks more familiar and comfortable. They are able to concentrate for longer periods of time, they are proud of their academic achievements, and are very receptive learners. Fifth graders enjoy rules and logic, but they don’t get hung up on it as before. Rather, they turn this attention to detail towards deep studies and projects.

Sixth graders, believing that they have it all dialed, are challenged to slow down and reflect and revise previous work. To them, new tasks and experiences are much more interesting than content they previously worked on. That said, sixth graders seem to possess a wonderful ability to abstract – to see the big picture; in fact, these children are beginning to see the world from multiple perspectives. They might believe that their perspective is the correct one, mind you, but they can also articulate the views of others. Sixth graders love to feel grown up and to do work in school that is relevant to them. At times they can be impulsive and argumentative – but that is all just part of them refining their focus back on themselves, as they see themselves as part of the larger world out there.

As students prepare to leave the Upper Elementary, their development tends to again settle. They may feel particularity strong in one content area over another, they can abstract well, and they can see the benefit of rehearsal and preparation to their studies. Graduating students from the Upper Elementary enjoy work that feels real to them as their world shifts to include more and more aspects of current events and pop culture.

At each of these developmental benchmarks, the Upper Elementary teacher works to meet and reach each student where they are. This means not merely responding to how they present, but also intentionally preparing the environment, curricula and teaching strategies so to accommodate these student-chameleons.

For Further Reading, Check Out: Yardsticks by Chip Wood (1997) ISBN: 0-9618636-4-1

Friday, November 25, 2011

How We Say, What We Say

In an experiment exploring how I say what I say, I created a "wordle" all of the text of this blog to date. Certainly an interesting reflection of my priorities and sensibilities; at least, in how I express them. Try it out with your own work: www.wordle.net

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Educating for Understanding: Montessori Math and Geometry (2 of 2)

We are mathematical beings. Our very survival as animals on the planet has depended upon us being able to think logically, to recognize patterns, to make educated guesses, and to imagine. These are mathematical ways of knowing that come from a deep understanding of one’s surroundings and its rhythms.

In a Montessori classroom we develop keen mathematical minds through specialized equipment that allows the brain to make profound connections. We surround children with math and geometry. Much like an immersion language experience, math is taught in a Montessori environment in a manner that allows for deep and conscious work. One has to pay attention. 

The concrete materials that we employ resonate with children because they are meaningful, and the work that involves them is purposeful. When a child uses a Montessori math material they activate a multi-sensory battery of skills that demand that child does not merely calculate. Rather, a child has to think. 

It is fairly easy to produce functionally literate mathematicians in a school setting. Students can memorize facts and can be shown formulae; they can be taught how to think linearly, and move from one concept to the next. What we do here, however, is to teach with the whole brain in mind – to develop an understanding of math and geometry that allows children to know and understand.

Educating for Understanding: Montessori Math and Geometry (1 of 2)


As parents, it is natural and right for us to want to be sure that our child is prepared for the next stage of her learning, as well as life beyond school – where the skills developed in the classroom can be readily applied to real world issues.
Where many parents get hung up, however, is confusing their own traditional educational history and path with what lies before their own children.  The reason why you’re here at a Montessori school is because you wanted more.  What we do in a Montessori environment is guide children to realizing the deeper meanings beneath abstract math and geometry concepts so that the knowledge is internalized. Then, when faced with larger more abstract challenges in math and geometry children can rely on their ability to think and problem solve to come to reasonable solutions – answers that require much more than just being able to calculate.
Math Text Books and Math Fact Sheets are natural extensions to the Montessori approach to mathematics education, but need to be used sparingly with great intention paid to when and why they are being used.  Abstract, pencil and paper math works used for memorization and automaticity alone serve to undermine the entire philosophy of teaching in a Montessori environment; that is, learning to understand, to go deep, and to develop the skills of critical thinking. 

Why Montessori Matters

                                                         (image courtesy of Montessori Madmen @ http://montessorimadmen.com/) 

A Montessori education offers children the world. Through presenting great, impressionistic lessons that ignite curiosity and inspire questions, students learn to make connections and to see how the entirety of a concept relates to its parts, and back again. 

The Montessori classroom is a lively workshop. Here, students delve deeply into studies inspired by teacher-led lessons and ones of their own choosing. Projects generated from these engaged explorations are commonplace and enliven the classroom community.

One of the many beauties of a Montessori education is the time afforded the children to truly “know”. Rushing from one topic to the next is patently avoided. As such, the space for profound understanding is fostered. Children stay with a work because they feel its significance. They form an intimate connection; that relationship resonates within them. This relationship is love.

This way of knowing comes from being genuinely part of what you are trying to understand. Through slowing down and learning to take their time, looking at the familiar from different perspectives, children deeply explore the questions and concepts before them. They are engaged with their studies, working with purpose.

We are all part of the Montessori movement because we want something different for children –something beyond a model of education that values dissemination of knowledge over understanding, that confuses sameness with strength, and one that measures achievement only through solitary gains on yearly assessments. 

In a Montessori school, we believe that children are spirit-filed beings yearning to be believed in, that education is about freeing children to explore a learning environment prepared with intention, where they can partner with teachers to set goals for their leaning, and “where trained adults relate to them in a guiding, helpful, positive way around the love of learning” (Schaefer, n.d.). In this relationship students develop a powerful personal understanding, and build meaningful connections with one’s community, and the world. 

A Montessori approach to education in the 21st century provides children with an environment that meets timeless needs: a child’s need for respect, honor, time, purpose, choice, challenge, practice, feedback, extension, more practice, mastery, and the chance to contribute.

Montessori students are curious, self-confident, eager and energetic; that is, full of interest and intention. They are partners in directing their learning, engaging with curricula that are novel and meaningful and relevant – all with the support of compassionate and knowledgeable educators. 

In The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori wrote the following call to action: "If education is always to be conceived [as] a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of [our] future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual's total development lags behind?... The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities"(Montessori, 1949).

In a Montessori school, we aim to do more; indeed, change the system – re-frame and re-create the world as we want it to be. Montessori saw education as “the bright new hope for mankind”(Montessori, 1949). Help us in our endeavor to empower children of to seek out knowledge, to ask questions, to challenge themselves, to love living – in short to see before them an unobstructed, free horizon with nothing but possibility ahead.


1. Montessori, M. (1949). The absorbent mind. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

2. Schaefer, L. (n.d.). Authentic Montessori. MediaSite Recording. St. Paul, MN: St. Catherine University

Process vs. Product: The Pursuit of Happiness and the Paper Trail

One of the many beauties of a Montessori education is the time afforded the children to truly 'know'. Rushing from one topic to the next is patently avoided. As such, time for profound understanding is fostered. Children stay with a work because they can feel its significance. They form an intimate connection, and that relationship resonates within them. This relationship is ‘love’.

This way of knowing comes from being genuinely part of what you are attempting to understand. Through slowing down and learning to take their time, looking at the familiar from different perspectives, the children deeply explore the questions and concepts before them.

One of the frustrations that sometimes surfaces for parents of Montessori students is the lack of paper products that come home – in traditional school settings often seen as evidence of learning and growth happening during the school day. Indeed, without such documentation, trusting that the school and classroom teachers are doing best by the children can feel like a great act of faith.

Becoming focused on the completed products generated during the school day, however, may not be the best measure of a child’s success. If we instead examine the conversations about a subject of interest, plans made and projects initiated, material explored - sensorially rooting a major curricular concept, maps built, timelines made, posters developed, stories written, etc. Each of these examples highlights the tenor of the work environment in a Montessori classroom.

The challenge for teachers and parents alike is to reach farther and to look deeper. It is not enough to concern ourselves with dittos and worksheets, contracts and quantities of works accomplished. We all chose to be part of this school for what rests at its core: facilitating the fundamental unfurling of a child’s self.

Sitting on Our Hands…

Recently, I have been reminded of how important is it to let children stumble into their mistakes. What I mean by this is that so often parents, guardians and teachers rush to prevent the children within our care from experiencing discomfort or dis-ease.

I’m not speaking of life-endangering mistakes such as crossing thin ice or going too close to the edge of a precipice; such risks are objective and profound and worthy of immediate adult intervention. I am speaking, rather, of those subjective moments of intense thought and wonder that follow more benign transgressions – moments that surprise and confuse, spellbind and trouble - moments that cause a young person to reorganize what s/he thought was real and true, to integrate new ideas based on the uncomfortable experience.

This shift in perspective might follow a complete reverse layout of a work and time spent attempting the process, or the sorting out the complex dynamics of a close group of friends. Each of these moments offers an entire spectrum of possible reactions, each with its own set of consequences and future focused meanings.

All of us have taken a photograph with our finger in the way, or without the lens cap off. It wasn’t bad or wrong; it just happened. The “mis-takes” we experience throughout our lives shape our view of the world and our place in it. They also account for much of the joy we feel after reflecting upon and integrating such experiences. If we, as adults, sit on our hands - wait and watch - we give children the chance to discover the certainty that follows the discovery of a mistake and the plans made to make a change for the better.

Freedom with Responsibility: A Life in Balance

Maria Montessori spoke early and often of children being 'spiritual beings within a material body.' Our mandate, as teachers and parents alike, is to free this spirit and allow for its full expression. This is accomplished through the creation of environments and opportunities organized to promote one's freedom and celebrate one's independence within the context of the liberty tolerated by the whole community. So it is that we can help facilitate the construction of a child's personality.

Let us speak of freedom as that inevitable, internal and intrinsic capacity to be free, whereas liberty is the right and power to act in a manner of one's own choosing. The latter is something that is external, given, and proportional to the independence that one is acquiring: the sense of power to act alone, based upon a series of prior successes.

In a community that provides for individual expression there is a balance separating freedom and license. To be sure, the classroom is a wonderful example of just this: the children have the freedom to make choices that are safe and kind (for themselves and others), but not the license to do whatever they please.

The liberty that a child may take, then, is based upon her successful use of her inherent, organic freedom coupled with her demonstrated independence. This necessarily involves planning, careful choices and the conscious decision to take her learning to the next level.

The challenge for children in a Montessori environment is to look between the scaffold of follow-up work that the teacher has provided, such that they allow themselves the time and space to follow their bliss – for that is what so much of living is all about.

A Pedagogical Seesaw: The Balance Between Prescription and Free Choice


One of the most delicate pieces of work for a Montessori teacher is the pacing of instruction and work time in a class. It is an artful balance that is constantly undergoing evaluation and dips slightly from side to side as student involvement and time direct.

There are many pieces at play here. The teacher greets each student first and foremost as unique and capable, possessing her/his personal set of strengths and needs. The companion filter to this is the scope and sequence of the Montessori curricula, all within the greater framework of state-established content standards. Using both of these ways of knowing, the teacher then embarks on a remarkable journey of attempting to meet each student where s/he is – every student, within the spectrum of abilities and across the curriculum for each area of study.

This seems, at times, a precarious balance indeed as  the needs of students, teachers, parents, administrators and governing educational bodies each stake their claim in the process. It is a dynamic system, one that requires patience on the part of all stakeholders and a willingness to first consider and then stretch to test ideas beyond one’s own comfort zones.

It should be said that teachers in a Montessori environment strive towards “life enriching education”; that is, time spent in school that inspires, awakens and enlivens a love of learning. With an understanding of individual readiness, drive and need for support the teacher forges a plan for the class and individual students that works – one that is flexible and may change over time.

Many students do exceedingly well with independence and personal responsibility. Others require more guidance, scaffolding and structure. This simplified spectrum of learning styles can, naturally, be time and place dependent. Sometimes those self-motivated students may resist being told what to do (given their past independent successes) and those children who often require the most assistance want to be left to their own devices to plan for and figure out work on their own.

Each classroom is different and each year is different, given the turnover of roughly one-third of the class in our multi-age classrooms. The culture that is created within a class is a mixture of teacher personality, skill and expectations; student experience, sense of self, tendency towards academic rigor and social responsibility; and, parent involvement, personal schooling experience, understanding of and faith in the Montessori process, view of their child, and view of their child within the context her/his future.

One of the pieces of learned wisdom that gets lost in the process, is the teacher’s experience with children in an educational atmosphere where freedom, choice and directive instruction combine to make a workable whole. Some students and parents, for example, may cry out at a perceived lack of prescriptive lessons, while others claim that there’s too  much. What isn’t seen (or shared, perhaps) is the learned sense of what works for children of many stripes over time.

A Montessori teacher sees in three-year cycles. While s/he is very much aware of established performance expectations and exit criteria, s/he also has the hindsight of knowing what resonates for children – through the years, for students of varying interests and abilities. As such, it is across the three-year flow that the teacher plots the arc of a child’s growth and development. Along this curve s/he supports the needs and extends the strengths to new levels as is appropriate - given the balance of a wide and rich set of curricula.

We all have a part to play in the process of a child’s  social and academic development. Given measured  modeling from each of the stakeholders we can trust the child to arrive at the sweet  balance point when it’s time. If we take our cues first from the child, while listening critically to those voices in our head, we stand to create remarkable possibilities.

Quaker Mysticism and Montessori Philosophy: Reflections on Education and the Teaching Life

     In my family’s spiritual tradition of Quakerism, queries are often used to help frame a particular session of corporate worship. In stillness and silence members wait for ministry from God relating to the questions at hand. Like the koans of Zen Buddhism, these queries are statements used to help focus one’s attention rather than questions to be answered. And so it is that I begin this discussion of Montessori pedagogy and the life of the teacher.

  • Are we aware of what it is that calls us to attend to the needs of the child?

  • Have we spent the time necessary to

        internalize the core of Montessori’s vision?

  • Have we examined our own spiritual practice so to encourage it in others? 

  • Are we mindful of our limits to affect change?

     I am drawn to this topic as I have wrestled with feeling unsettled in my teaching practice of late. We each chose this profession because the work resonated deeply within us.  For me, it has been a passion-filled existence, one of great creativity and learning. I have embraced Montessori’s philosophy and continually work to clarify what her original intensions were.  Recently, however, I have often have asked myself how long such dedication is sustainable. With competing priorities from multiple stakeholders pulling me in directions, at times, at odds to my understanding of child development and Montessori’s calling, how does one keep up with the internal and external demands of a teaching life?

Inward Bound

     Years distant from the potency of my own Montessori training, I sometimes struggle to find that spiritual center that was so present for me then, through my work. Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach (1998), offers a suggestion on how we might reconnect with the younger version of ourselves as teachers that first committed to a career in education. He says:

Remembering ourselves and our power can lead to revolution, but it requires more than recalling a few facts. Re-membering involves putting ourselves back together, recovering identity and integrity, reclaiming the wholeness of our lives (p. 20).

I am deeply moved by Palmer’s acknowledgment of the grief a teacher might feel as he sees his beliefs and his life’s work grow apart, and am likewise inspired by his call to action through caring for one’s soul. Our great work today is to listen deeply to the entirely of who we are now, without attachment or alarm.

      At present I feel my self divided, seeking an inner calm that will come from balancing my inner commitment to Montessori’s pedagogy and its outward, realized expression. It is the peace that comes through joining the many forces in one’s life to create one’s true identity (Ibid.).

      Walt Whitman, in his “A Noiseless Patient Spider”, points to this quest to find the connections that resolve in the formation of one’s spiritual self.

            A noiseless, patient spider,

            I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,

            Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,

            It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,

            Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

            And you O my soul where you stand,

            Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,

            Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to con-

            nect them,

            Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,

            Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul. (Miller, J., p. 314).

This deep journey of self-understanding is what brings teachers closer to their work’s original mission. It is“[t]hrough maintaining awareness of our spiritual natures, we can facilitate the children’s expressions of their spiritual natures” (McFarland, p. 3). Allowing for our and the child’s spiritual self to be actualized is how we connect in deep meaningful ways. The “[o]ne thing that will forge true human unity is love” (Montessori, p. 22).

The Potential of Spirituality to Transform

     Because of the intimate nature of our work, teachers often tightly wrap our own identities into how our students perform: if the child does well, we do well; if the child struggles and falls down, we sink too. If not done mindfully, we can lose ourselves in our work – confusing the work for living fully. To deepen our teaching practices means to transcend educational pedagogy to a place beyond curriculum, assessment and instruction. This is an inward journey that can prepare us for our very outward lives. Living mindfully, we can then better connect with the children, families and colleagues with whom we work. Little will change in education until teachers face these inner conflicts and proceed with humility (Standing, p. 300).

Reframing the Essence of Montessori Education

     I contend that in placing major emphasis on the unique equipment present in Montessori classrooms we run the risk of creating the image that Montessori education is all about curricular content, rigor and mastery. In fact, it is the process by which concepts are learned in the Montessori environment that truly sets it apart. The specific tools that Montessori developed are, indeed, critical components: they provide sensorial pathways to learning, as well as control of error promoting independence. What is normalization if not living authentically as a supported spiritual being? Through honoring the developmental needs of each child, knowing when to support and when to extend, we realign each student with their spiritual centers. The materials are the mantras, the walking meditations that bring the child to peace.


     The crossover between the spiritual underpinnings of Montessori’s pedagogy and that of Quaker education is remarkable. Whereas Montessori spoke of the “spiritual embryo” (Montessori, 1995, p. 70), of a child’s unfolding potentialities, Quakers too believe that a “divine seed animates every human soul, and they understand their primary mission to be nourishing it so that all people may reach their intellectual, social, moral and spiritual potential” (Miller, R., 2002, p.4).  Quaker philosophy, as a religious practice, may serve as a potent backdrop to this discussion as we look to find again and articulate the spiritual underpinnings of Montessori’s movement.

A History

     The spiritual practice of Quakerism grew out of the religious autocracy of seventeenth century England. Faced with an imperious and dogmatic Church, Christians, led by George Fox, left to discover a more personal connection with the Divine. Quakers believed that there was that of God in everyone, and that it was that through listening in silence for this presence that an authentic communion might be formed. So moved were some of the early Quakers that they were seen to quake when receiving ministry from the Spirit, creating the name Quaker. Though initially a derogatory term, the followers of this practice later reclaimed the title as their own. Early followers of Fox referred to their growing religious organization as the Children of the Light, Friends of Truth, and later the Society of Friends. In modern parlance to be a Quaker is to be a member of the Religious Society of Friends. 


     What set Quakerism apart from the prominent religious practices of the time was its placement of the individual in direct contact with the Divine.  Ministers and other intermediaries were not necessary. Quakers believed that because we were of God, we had God within us. They called this the Inner Light. As such, everyone had the ability to communicate directly with the Divine. This empowerment is what gave Quakerism is particular mystical quality, that through significant “contemplation and self-surrender”(Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005) spiritual enlightenment could be attained. “Progress in this mystic quest is indicated as time and space and matter recede and then disappear. In the void, God may have a chance to speak” (Sibley, 1985, p. 5).

     Quaker practice wasn’t then, nor is it today, a solitary one. That is, it is not an ascetic meditation that one does alone. Quakers meet to worship together in silence. Fox believed that Quakerism was a “religion of experience”(Ibid., p. 7), that it was the Divine communication itself that legitimized the practice, not just a reliance of Christian scripture. Where “the genius of Quakerism…is to be found [is] in the notion that authority arises out of the Light Within reflected in the religious consciousness of each individual soul in the Meeting of Souls”(Ibid., p. 10). It is through “the promotion of the personal experience of God within the individual as he/she interacts with and within the group”(Thorne, 2006, p. 16) that the mystical dimension of Quakerism can be realized.

Social Activism: Education as a Spiritual Practice

     The history of Quakerism is one intimately linked to service in the care of others. Friends believe that “the sacred is always within us as potentiality, waiting to be addressed, answered, called into fuller being” (Lacey, 1998, p. 3).

When this inner light is found, recognized, and kindled it not only shines forth, but it is reflected in the people and communities in which we live. It is “the bond linking all human beings”(Miller, R., 2002a, p. 3). When you care for others, Quakers believe, you are identifying with the Light, that of God, in them.

Friends Schools

     When Quakers speak of education it is necessarily “spiritually rooted…concerned with the creative evolution of new consciousness” (Miller, R., 2000, p. 6) and not simply driven towards individual academic success. Much like the mystical relationship an individual in Quaker worship can have with God, Friends schools are designed with great deference to the will and desires of the learner. “[T] hey maintain that first-hand, experiential knowledge, refined by the exercise of judgment and reason, enables people to discern deeper truths”(Ibid., p. 5). Ones’ education is not, however, accomplished in a vacuum; rather, “it is an encounter between an active, aspiring, evolving being and the larger world with which we are co-evolving” (Ibid., p. 9). So is it that Quaker education embraces the fellowship of scholarship. The deep knowledge attained in such an educational practice comes not from the mere transmission of information flowing from the teacher to the child; instead, profound learning occurs because the student is first trusted and nourished as a spiritual being, and then is led towards truth.

Montessori Schools

     Montessori, too, believed that “we are created in order to evolve the cosmos” (Montessori, 2007, p. 22). In fact, “she was a tireless crusader for the spiritual renewal of humanity, which she believed could only occur by nourishing the divine creative power within the children of the world” (Miller, R., 2002b, p. 3). In worship, Quakers speak of centering down to find that place of deep attention and receptivity. In a similar way “Montessori sought, above all, to cultivate [such] inner discipline through purposeful activity [after which] the  child becomes ‘normalized’ – capable of acting responsibly, independently – through concentration” (Miller, R., 2002b, p. 11). The role of the Montessori teacher is to guide the child to aspects of the prepared environment to allow for said immersion.

Reverent Work: How Schools Can Help

     It is time to radicalize Montessori education, to return to its spiritual core (Wolf, 1996). I believe that an unhurried corporate practice of philosophical and spiritual searching can bring profound transformation to both teachers as individuals and to a school’s staff. This is of paramount importance. Paul Lacey (1993) speaks to the spiritual role of the teacher:

We have natural aptitudes for the spiritual life, just as we have for walking and talking, but in each case the natural aptitudes and longings can only be fully realized with the caring support of others. That process of encouragement and nurture is the teaching-learning process, educationOur work, as educators, as parents, as humans, is to help nourish the     spiritual life in ourselves and in others (p. 2).



     The psychotherapist Erik Erikson “divided lifelong psychosocial development into eight stages, each characterized by a psychosocial crisis that represents a conflict between the individual and society” (D. F. Webb, Jr., personal communication, February 2010). Erikson’s last two stages, specifically the aspects of generativity and integrity, touch on the two key aspects of this discussion: our role in aiding the spiritual development of children, and the alignment of our core pedagogical values and their outer manifestation. Parker Palmer describes generativity in the following way:

            On the one hand, it suggests creativity, the ongoing possibility that no matter our age, we can help co-create the world. On the other hand, it suggests the endless emergence of generations, with its implied imperative that the elders look back toward the young and help them find a future that the elders will not see. Put these two images together, and             generativity becomes “creativity in the service of the young” – a way in which the elders serve not only the young but also their own well-being (p. 49).

We have before focused on the idea of integrity - that intimate and deliberate coupling of our inner and outer lives such that dissonance is diminished, or at least less frequent. Perhaps the “way of renewal” (Ibid.) lies in having the ability to view our work as part of a greater story – that of building and reshaping humanity.


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13. Sibley, M. Q. (2005). What canst thou say? Quakerism and religious authority.             Retrieved March 6, 2010. From http://www.universalistfriends.org./printable/quf1998a_printable.html

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15. Thorne, A. (2006). Rufus Jones (1863-1948): Quaker mystic and social activist.             Retrieved March 6, 2010. From www.la.edu/PDFfiles/humanities/rufus_jones.pdf

16. Wolf, A. (1996) Nurturing the spirit in non-sectarian classrooms. Holidaysburg, PA: Parent Child Press.