Purpose of This Blog

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

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A School of Experience in the Elements of Social Life

Human beings are masterful at adapting to their environments. Powered by an ever reflective and evolving ingenuity and creativity unique to the animal kingdom, we are able to continually shape the natural world to meet our biological needs. Nearly everywhere we find ourselves on the planet can become our habitat through our associated alterations to, and developments of, the natural world. “Man… by his work transforms the environment, creating another world that pervades all of nature. This world is something more than nature, for to build it man uses everything that exists in nature” (Montessori, Education and Peace 96-97). Humans have created a supranature.

In the development of human civilization, social cohesion facilitated an early reliance on each other for ideas and materials to perfect our world; collaboration was the norm. We were united in the pursuit of the preservation of our species. Such intimate dependence continues to the modern age. “[O]f necessity, each and every one of us depends on the work of others and is obliged to work for others… it is men who keep other men alive; each lives thanks to the life of others and contributes to the life of the other” (Montessori, “Human Solidarity in Time and Space” 10). There is an inherent solidarity to our ancestry that binds us to this day.

We must, however, be cautious of progress. As biological organisms, we first work to ensure that our physical needs are taken care of. Once secured, we then preferentially design our environments for comfort and pleasure. In time, “men have become accustomed to considering things from the mere point of view of obtaining economic and material benefits, to satisfy their vanity, to gain respect from others, or from ambition” (Montessori, “Human Solidarity in Time and Space” 16).

In an effort to continually provide for greater and greater ease, we have created a shadow species of inanimate objects - many of which can operate independently, without human input following their genesis. These machines have acquired a near intelligence that is unlike anything the world has seen before: human creations that change and evolve on their own.

The rate of human-created mechanistic development now appears to be outpacing our own biological evolution. A computer’s operating system is constantly adjusting to the stresses of use, age, incompatibility with the breadth of software to which it communicates, and to what it encounters in the cybersphere - triggering alerts and updates and new versions of itself - effectively running through multiple iterations of natural selection until it can no longer function in the environment for which it was created.

Humans have responded to the needs of machines with whole industries built on the care and support of them, often through the creation of more machines that can tackle the pace and diverse scope of the need - while still attempting to provide for the once-promised simplicity and ease to the individual organism. Merely maintaining the machine is not truly living; it is slavery, self-induced servitude.

Throughout human history, systems of education have been developed in response to the world as it presented itself in particular environments across the globe in order to provide for the biological success of the species. We are animals, predisposed to behaving in ways that protect our own. From observation, to demonstration, to the presentation of abstract concepts, to experimentation - each method of sharing information about the world to the younger generations was employed to ensure the success of our genes. Only relatively recently in our development as a species have these systems provided codified opportunities to wonder, postulate, theorize, and question; in short, to be educated.

We now live with, within, and side-by-side supranature. It is a projection of what we value and demand. And yet, we are its creators, and ultimately do have sway over how truly dependent we are on it - and how independent it becomes. We can train ourselves to see supernature for what it is: a manifestation of what human history has needed and desired. Its mere existence, however, does not mean that we have to accept and embrace all that we have created. “We must fight this flawed and dangerous attitude with all our strength” (Montessori, “Human Solidarity in Time and Space” 16). We can celebrate our ability to imagine, design and create, while always tempering those accolades with discussions of morality and balance. We can embrace the scientific and technological developments that unite and advance our global human collective while establishing the limits to which we will allow such developments to go:
“A unifying culture of science and technology is what we have inherited; it is what we share as a unified human organism on the planet - even as it continues to develop and change in our hands… There is nothing inherently evil about our advances in supranature. It is only out of balance with human moral development” (Ewert-Krocker, “Montessori’s Plan for Work and Study: An Explication” 323).

There is both magic and menace in what humans have created. What is needed is a new morality, one that is able discern the benefits of supranature as well as the dangers of continuing to blindly feed it. “This world, marvelous in its power, needs a ‘new man’” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 84).The educational programs we craft, therefore, for today and for the future need to be designed as true aid to life, not the needs of the machine:
“[A] new morality, individual and social, must be our chief consideration in this new world. This morality must give us new ideas about good and evil, and the responsibility towards humanity that individuals incur when they assume powers so much greater than those with which they are naturally endowed” (Montessori From Childhood to Adolescence 78).

We have within us the capacity for the spiritual equilibrium needed to bring the world to peace. It is rooted in our inherent biological nature, and can be fostered through following the natural laws of development from birth. We must remember our biology. There are rhythms in nature that are our rhythms, cycles in the nature that are our cycles; we are of nature and to nature we can again commit. To be truly, fully human means to be rooted in our bodies and our natural predispositions as part of the natural world. The schools of tomorrow, contrary to what the momentum of supranature might suggest, need to be more firmly grounded in our wildness. In so doing, we can “[reveal] something of the potential lying untapped in the commonplace, in our own places, in ourselves, and the relation between all three” (Orr, “Place and Pedagogy” 183).

The new morality we speak of is a result of an evolution of human consciousness. It first begins as part of our innate biological development, and our irrefutable biological tendencies towards which we lean as we grow. In such ground, it is rooted in one’s autonomous sense of self (independence), and one’s authentic sense of self and meaning in relation to one’s community (interdependence). Further, it springs from the valorization that comes from purposeful work.

The heirs of the future, the heralds of the moral development that we seek, are those most close to the adult world. It is in the mind and body of the adolescent that all of our hopes must be directed. They are poised to temper the role that supranature takes in our lives. As such, adolescent educational environments must be carefully prepared and constantly maintained with this end in mind. We must be resolute in our approach to the rationale for, and design of, these programs; our work is to champion the adolescent’s full biological, social, and psychic development within their own geographical context and place along the continuum of the human history.

In addition to fostering independence throughout a child’s development, it is the moral development of the child that must remain foremost in our minds. “Moral education is the source of that spiritual equilibrium on which everything else depends” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 73). From the earliest and very intentional lessons in grace and courtesy in the Children’s House; to learning about our world - its people and its cultures - and the interrelated fabric of our lives in Elementary; to tending to the needs of our school and opportunities to serve our local communities in Adolescence - each and every step reminds us of our critical role in helping to reshape the future. The children possessing of this new human consciousness will lead the way.

The prepared environment for a child of the Third Plane (twelve to eighteen) is uniquely designed to meet the developmental needs of the adolescent, and the manner in which the human tendencies manifest at this stage of life. The word adolescence comes from the Latin ad- (“to”) and alescere (“be nourished”) (Harper). The adolescent is a new child, as if newly born into society. Through this lens we are reminded that the child of this plane is both incredibly fragile, while also being eager to engage with his community.  He wants to know who he is, how he fits in, and what value he provides to his community:
“At adolescence we have this newborn social being who needs to find out about social life but still develop as an individual… [I]f there are any sensitive periods in adolescence, there are two: one for justice, which is social, and one for dignity, which is individual… Social development is based on individual development. But for both kinds of development to occur there must be freedom” (Davis, “Extending the Syllabus Without Distortion” 52).
As such, the prepared environment for the adolescent must necessarily provide for opportunities for self-expression and psychic development, and experiences of purposeful work and social organization within the context of science, history, and humanity.

It is through the hands of the child of the First Plane (birth to six) that the intellect comes alive. The texture, weight, temperature, etc. of objects help the child to define, categorize, and ultimately understand their surroundings. The mind cannot, to the same degree, do this work on its own. Without the hands-on manipulation of the world, the child cannot accurately comprehend - and therefore cannot truly, fundamentally interact with - the world. The hand and head go together in service of the developing child.

Throughout a child’s life, the degree to which the hand and head serve as vehicles for comprehension oscillates: the child of the First Plane relies on the hand and head working together to satisfy his sensitive periods; in the Second Plane (six to twelve), while still working with materialized abstractions, the child relies more heavily on his capacity for imagination; and then, in the Third Plane, the child’s intrinsic drive towards self-discovery is accompanied first by a decrease in intellectual stamina, and a predisposition to do service-oriented, manual work; followed by an analysis of one’s knowledge, the selection of education that meets one’s interests and goals, and a perfection of one’s skills. Education [for the adolescent] should therefore include the two forms of work, manual and intellectual, for the same person, and thus make it understood by practical experience that these two kinds complete each other and are equally essential to a civilized existence” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 65). Both the head the hand continue to work in concert to aid this critical stage of human development.

Much as the child can be borne anew through his time in a prepared environment, so must the adult who serves the child be predisposed to seeing children differently, and be open to continuously reflecting upon and refining one’s practice. This is a spiritual process as much as it a pedagogical one. When we speak of preparation of the adult we are talking about the guide being as carefully prepared as the learning environments themselves; and more: this preparation being one of knowing what his role is and what he can expect from the students. This means that the guide’s focus must forever and always be the child and his fundamental needs, developmental characteristics, and human tendencies. The guides true role, then, is to ensure that these biological and psychological rhythms are acknowledged and satisfied. This is what we mean by self-construction. The child, in a prepared environment with a prepared adult, is in the process of building himself. “What motivates the child is thus not the goal set for him by the adult, but by his own drive for self-perfection” (Montessori, Education and Peace 79). The role of the adult is to remove the obstacles to the child’s developmental tasks, and let nature run.

The adolescent is growing and changing in incredible ways. They are looking for definition: of themselves, in relation to their childhood; and, of themselves, in relation to their wider community. It is a matter of establishing their identity. “Only when there is independent development can he associate with others” (Montessori, “Third Lecture”). Dr. Montessori viewed the social development of the child of the Third Plane as occurring through both experimentation with opportunities for self-expression, and through intimate and engaged involvement in purposeful work that engenders independence. The child is as if newly born, now into society. “Who knows what will emerge from the soul of youth at this stage of life.” (Montessori, “Third Lecture”).

Adolescence is a culmination of ongoing physical, emotional and intellectual development. A child of the Third Plane is now ready to engage with the world in novel ways. In the two slim appendices to From Childhood to Adolescence Dr. Montessori outlines her recommendations for a reformed model of education for the adolescent: a powerful blueprint for practitioners striving to align their service to the child of the Third Plane.

In the first appendix, Erdkinder, Dr. Montessori describes her belief that it was important that children leave their homes for their secondary education:
“During the time of adolescence it is helpful to leave the accustomed environment of the family in the town and go to quiet surroundings in the country, close to nature. Here, an open-air life, individual care, and a non-toxic diet, must be the first considerations in organizing a ‘center of study and work’” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 67).
The idea was inspired by programs Dr. Montessori had witnessed in Germany and Holland that were part of a wider reform movement in secondary education in Europe at the time. “Erdkinder” was the name Dr. Montessori gave to this idea for secondary students living on a farm, away from their families and familiar lives, learning about human history through their immersion in work of the land. “We have called these children the ‘Erdkinder’ because they are learning about civilization through its origin in agriculture. They are the ‘land-children’” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 68).  There is a pedagogy inherent to the places we inhabit.  Place teaches us in fundamental, foundational ways that speak to our origins. “[K]nowledge of a place - where you are and you come from - is intertwined with knowledge of who you are. Landscape… shapes mindscape” (Orr, “Place and Pedagogy” 187). The adolescent is, literally, a child of nature. When we can open deliberate avenues to access what is natural in each of us, deep connections and meaningful learning can take place.

Dr. Montessori was very clear to articulate, however, was that it was not merely being out in the country that would provide the galvanizing force for the children. “[I]t is not the country itself that is so valuable, but work in the country, and work in general, with its wide social connotations of productiveness and earning power” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 68). Indeed, for Dr. Montessori it was the involvement in the work of running a farm, and participation in the production and exchange of goods from the farm, that would most powerfully equip the adolescents to see themselves as having the potential to truly contribute to adult society. She felt that it was essential for the students to create, and be a part of, an interdependent community that is connected to the land and other humans. In an environment prepared in such a way the adolescent can not only focus solely on study and work, but develop the independence and self-confidence needed for adulthood.

The second appendix, Study and Work Plans, is comprised of two general sections -  the Educational Syllabus and Practical Considerations of Social Organization - and articulates the main facets of interwoven growth occurring in the adolescent: the development of the self, and the development of the self in relation to others. Fostering the full exploration of this duality can bring the spiritual development asked of us, needed now - and for the future.

Dr. Montessori showed us through her extensive work with and observation of young children across the globe that there are fundamental ways of knowing that are part of who we are as sentient beings on the planet. She referred to this as “Psychic Development”. We are each, for example, predisposed to the acquisition of language and mathematics. As infants we absorb the spoken language of our family, without it being formally taught to us. It is an essential part of our earliest of environments; we integrate language into our very beings as the critical tool to getting our base needs met. In a similar fashion, so are we drawn to make sense of our world through order and categorization. The development of this mathematical mind happens as we further organize our environments, transforming early sensory information into knowledge and then, through perfection, true understanding. Lastly, Dr. Montessori found that like our early sensitivities for language and math so is the young child able and eager to absorb the morals of his family. Learning the graces and courtesies of one’s culture, discreetly instructed or absorbed through observation, shape the child’s navigation of his immediate social environment and frame the more mature moral development to follow.

The child in adolescence is a social newborn; he is as if born again. What was true for him as a young child relative to his immediate family, now returns with equal sensitivity relative to society. The psychic development the child undertakes in adolescence is now predicated on having the skills necessary to be a contributing member of society: the acquisition and practice of language in a way that allows for the conveyance of clear communication between people; the development of advanced mathematical knowledge that can now be applied to the ever-expanding understanding of the world, of supranature; and, the embodiment of morality on which the maintenance and health of society squarely rests. Each of these skills are critical for the adolescent’s integration into adult society as an active and contributing citizen.

Equal in its importance to the development of the individual at this stage of his development is the adolescent’s strong desire to explore the complex physical and emotional changes he is experiencing through “Self-Expression”. “The chief symptom of adolescence is a state of expectation, a tendency towards creative work and a need for the strengthening of self-confidence” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 63). Not only is he looking for ways in which he might meaningfully process and gain understanding of who he is becoming; the adolescent is also seeking recognition and feedback from his peers and, therein, the self-confidence so necessary to aid his developing independence. Dr. Montessori recommended Music, Language [Arts], and the Arts as the means through which a child might further construct the self in service of the adult to be. “Self-expression is an essential step in the development of one’s humanity toward human understanding and solidarity. Art, music, and language as self-expression help us to understand one another better” (Ewert-Krocker, “Montessori’s Plan of Study and Work: An Explication” 316).

The bridge between satisfying the developing needs of the self, and the self in relation to society, is completed through the section of the Plan of Work and Study called Preparation for Adult Life. For this aspect of the adolescent’s education, Dr. Montessori believed that it is essential that he is provided opportunities in The Study of the Earth and Living Things; The Study of Human Progress and the Build Up of Civilization; and The Study of the History of Humanity. In each of these areas of integrated academic exploration, the adolescent is ready to connect the sciences and humanities in ways that move beyond the imagination germane to his elementary years. Now, as a social newborn working to define himself and his place on the continuum of human evolution, he is especially sensitive to the stories of history and the scientific ways of knowing that have allowed humans to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos. “These studies should consider that uplifting of the inner life of humanity towards tendencies that grow ever less in cruelty and violence and strive to form ever-wider groups of associated individuals” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 72).

The ground from which the adolescent’s spiritual equilibrium will grow is his social independence; that is, his ability to function freely and with independent thought within adult society. Dr. Montessori accounts for this when she speaks of the child’s natural predisposition for psychic development and self-expression. To fully realize the the adolescent’s moral development, however, the child must feel the valorization of working in a community in pursuit of a common goal:
At the base of all these activities there must be a gradual conquest - a gradual gaining of independence… It implies the acquiring of a sense of the power to act alone; the possibility of carrying out some useful and important action without help from others; the being able to solve one’s problems for oneself, to reach a difficult goal by one’s own efforts” (Montessori, “Principles and Practice in Education” 58).
Such work provides additional opportunities for exploring one’s gifts further; seeing how one is critically connected to the success of the collective whole; and, recognizing the satisfaction that comes from successfully participating in purposeful work that benefits others.

An adolescent child bridges two worlds: childhood and adult life. Until this point he has been guided and protected by his family and teachers. His base fundamental needs have - for the most part - been met, and he has developed a working sense of how his culture and the world operates. He possesses the knowledge most often expected of him: elemental mathematics, functional literacy, an awareness of the beacons of history, and the basics of the physical and natural sciences. What is missing, however, and perhaps the most important is knowledge of himself. The critical step for the adolescent as they step into society is the development of true, authentic independence - for independence is the foundation upon which healthy lives are made.

Dr. Montessori spoke of valorization as becoming aware of one’s own worth. This is not accomplished through external praise, but rather comes about from the completion of meaningful work, acting alone: in the solving of a vexing challenge; in service of a community’s needs; in achieving a personal goal. From such valorization grows the independence needed of individuals living in society:
“It is the ‘valorization’ of the personality, to become aware of one’s own value… he is independent, he is sure of his own actions and knows how to act. This is the basis and law on which the soul must stand...  For the ‘valorization’ of the child’s personality there must be very definite basis in social experience.” (Montessori, “Moral and Social Education” 86).

True to every plane of development is the importance of ensuring that the work with which children are engaged is purposeful and in support of their manifesting human tendencies and path towards self-construction. The establishment of the adolescent’s identity in society comes from being part of a community to which one sees oneself as valued, contributing member. For the adolescent child, nothing so deeply resonates than opportunities to do real work in service of others - fulfilling a critical need, with each individual playing a critical part:
“We cannot overlook the importance for educational purposes of the close and intimate acquaintance got with nature at first hand, with real things and materials, with the actual processes of their manipulation, and the knowledge of their special necessities and use. In all there [is] continual training of observation, of ingenuity, constructive imagination, of logical thought, and of the sense of reality acquired through firsthand contact with actualities” (Dewey ).
Dr. Montessori speaks of what is required to root the independence necessary in order for the adolescent to be prepared to fully engage in the adult social sphere. Referred to as Practical Considerations of Social Organization, this is occupation work done in service of the community to which he belongs.“Production and change, exchange, are the essence of social existence… the youth should experience this in life. This is the secret of social life” (Montessori, “Third Lecture”).

There are many marvels in the development of the child to which the guide and parent can bear witness. Of them, independence is perhaps the most profound and transformative. When the child has become so disciplined that his activity is concentrated and wholly-consuming, and such discipline is activated not at the expense of those around him and even enriches the entirety, he has achieved independence. As we look towards the suite of skills necessary to be truly empowered beings - possessing the confidence, courage and capability that fuels innovation - independence is the one on which our hopes depend. Our job is to ensure that the child continues to be able to connect to this ultimate sense of personal possibility throughout the successive stages of his development, with freedom and responsibility.

Dr. Montessori has outlined a model for secondary education that is revelatory. It is rooted in meeting the developmental characteristics and tendencies from birth, and follows the child through continual stages of self-construction. Each step of the life-long strategy is critical. Ultimately, “[t]he human soul must shape itself” (Montessori, Education and Peace 106). What we, as parents and guides, can offer the adolescent is love and partnership for the journey ahead. “[We] must have the greatest respect for the young personality, realizing that in the soul of the adolescent, great values are hidden, and that in the mind of these boys and girls there lies all our hope of future progress and the judgement of ourselves and our times” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 72).

The role of the adolescent is to perfect the species. What he carries forward into adult society will ultimately provide the spiritual equilibrium and moral compass needed now and in the years to come to maintain human collaboration and unity.

Works Cited
Davis, Linda. “Extending the Syllabus Without Distortion”. The NAMTA Journal. 31. 1: (2006).
51-55. Print.
Dewey, John. “The School and Social Progress.” The Philosophy of John Dewey. Ed. J.
McDermott. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1981. 457. Print.
Ewert-Krocker, Laurie. “Montessori’s Plan for Work and Study: An Explication”. The NAMTA
Journal. 37. 1: (2012). 311-325. Print.
Harper, Douglas,. Online Etymology Dictionary. Web. 16 July 2016.
Montessori, Maria. "Dr. Montessori's Third Lecture". Erdkinder Research and Development.
Amsterdam: AMI, 1981. Print.
---, Education and Peace. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company, 2007. Print.
---. From Childhood to Adolescence. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company,
2007. Print.
----, “Human Solidarity in Time and Space” The San Remo Lectures, 1949. Amsterdam: AMI,
2003/2004, Print.
---. “Moral and Social Education” The NAMTA Journal. 37. 2: (2012). 86. Print.
---. “Principles and Practice in Education” AMI Communications. 1.2: 2011. 50-60. Print.
Orr, David. “Place and Pedagogy”. Ecological Literacy. Reprinted in The NAMTA Journal, 38.
1: (2013). 183-188.


  1. I hope you are aware of the worth in your words here and how brilliant you are! :-) Polly

  2. Well...

    As I learn more, the scope and potency of Dr. Montessori's vision becomes all the more clear. It is, truly, beautiful!

    Thank you for your kind words,