This guest writer Nicola Hill talks to Daisy and Zelda about Montessori philosophy.
MY CHILD’S FIRST SCHOOL
Or: the most important decision I may ever make for her.
Everything I have learned in life has been through the alchemy of experiences and people empowering me. School, in retrospect, was something that had to be done to get to the places that I was expected to get. A long and often tedious game of elastics where the band got higher and higher. I was a good jumper. I have jumped all the places you are supposed to get.
Then we started a family and suddenly, impossibly, I went from agonizing about when to introduce nuts into my baby’s diet to realizing that I had to make a decision about her education – at the most critical time in her development as a human being. I knew I wanted more for her than my experience of the education system. I have no use for elastics these days.
My daughter started at Capital Montessori school in Kingston just over a year ago. The school has a programme for 3-6 year olds, with the main method being “learning through doing”. (tick, learning from experience). The starting point for learning is that children do this instinctively and individually, with teaching being a delicate art of observation and support: a Montessori quote is that the
greatest sign of success is for a teacher to be able to say that the children are now working as if [I] do not exist. (tick, learning from empowerment).
On first observation of a Montessori class, we discovered a multicultural Lilliputian universe. Children running their own affairs – calm, happy and industrious. In a class of 25, the four teachers were unobtrusive. Intricate activities lined the walls. A boy of 5 or 6 politely asked me to step off the activity mat of a younger classmate. We were then shown little seats to sit down on, to avoid getting in the children’s way. We immediately enrolled – this exactly matched our daughter’s sensitive, ordered and somewhat imperious sensibility*.
Much of Montessori philosophy also matches our approach as parents – our enthusiasm for self-determination. A Montessori principle is that “no one can be free unless he is independent” – and to “never help a child at a task at which he feels he can succeed”. With confidence and skills gained at school and home, my 3.5 / 4 year old could dress herself, make her breakfast and lunch, pack her bag and clean up after herself – and make scones. She struggled with timeliness and the execution was her standard, not mine (cold pasta and almonds, anyone?), but this has been a great triumph for her (and a huge help to me, with a newborn baby).
Montessori also challenges cultural assumptions – free play is not part of the curriculum at school:
to give a child liberty is not to abandon him to himself.
Instead, the focus is on free choice from a range of prepared activities that develop skills for life, with rules around respecting others and promoting concentration. There is an emphasis on “Learn though Play” (LTP) at other preschools. In an artificial and permissive environment with too many children, however, LTP can look more like LTF (Lord of the Flies). At one reputable kindergarten, I saw this translate as boys running around outside out of control and hitting one another, with girls sheltering with tea sets inside. What is freedom, without rights?
At Montessori, learning is not from teachers talking but something that a child does naturally by engaging with a stimulating environment, free from manipulation or coercion (praise can even be problematic in this context). In other educational methods, a teacher is required to define and implement activities – to make their best attempt at meeting the needs of a range of children, a system which is inherently limited in its ability to follow each child and which requires behaviourial coaching. If clumsily applied, this approach can also instill the idea that the teacher is the font of learning, rather than the child.
There are other reasons that have since reinforced our commitment to Montessori, reasons that may appeal to adults. Like the evidence-based research on higher levels of academic achievement, the trend toward inquiry-based learning in mainstream schools in New Zealand, and the convenient hours (8.45am – 1pm weekdays including lunch). But, as a Montessori parent, I realized that the critical insight would be from my daughter. I ask her: ‘Why should other children come to your school?’. She replies: ‘Because it is their school’**. Exactly.
Note: The views expressed above are personal observations and do not represent Capital Montessori School – Montessori is a rich philosophy and I have only highlighted a couple of aspects. Montessori is also not subject to copyright. This means that you should carefully assess any school to determine its quality of education and commitment to Montessori. If you are interested in Capital Montessori School, there is a free playgroup that runs every Monday from 9.30am during term time.
*genetic inheritance from her father.
**Montessori’s first school had the Italian name La Casa dei Bambini (the Children’s House).
Nicola Hill is a sometime literary theorist, diplomat, human rights activist, theatre improviser and global hobo. She recently returned to New Zealand from New York City. Today she spends her time following two inspiring little people around Island Bay.