The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 79
The Leading Principle of the Montessori Method. — Self-Education through Liberty
The Leading Principle of the Montessori Method.
Self-Education through Liberty.
That freedom should be the basis of all education is certainly no new thought. All educationists have preached it, but it has remained for Dr. Montessori to actually put it into practice. One very simple concept of freedom is that children should be able to move about freely; yet where, except in our kindergarten rooms, has this concept been carried out? In page 11 every country visited, little children of 5 and 6, and in many cases of even such tender age as 3 or 4, were to be seen sitting in rows in fixed desks, for all the world like neatly-arranged specimens in cases. They listened with preternaturally old, wise faces to a teacher who talked to them almost incessantly. When they moved about they did so by order or direction of the teacher. In very few instances did I actually see a child do anything that was not ordered or suggested by the teacher. The only movement permitted in most schools is the action song between lessons, and this usually exercises, or makes a pretence of exercising, the upper part of the body only. Occasionally children are made to stand up, and there is an attempt at movement of the lower limbs, but this is so seldom done that it is not worth considering. Even if done between every lesson it is worthless, since the few movements given are in the nature of drill, and devoid of that feeling of joy without which no exercise for little children is truly beneficial. Over and over again the pitiful spectacle was seen of young children, whose every instinct is movement, cooped up in desks for five or six hours a day. Often, indeed, in the best schools individual children, or groups of children, were called out to the front of the class to do something, but this was always by order of the teacher, and was so infrequent and confined to so few individuals in the class that it is scarcely worth mentioning.page 12
The pathetic part of all this is that infant teachers all over the world are, almost without exception, the most human and motherly of women. They love the children in their schools with tenderness and devotion; and this very love and devotion makes the atmosphere of the schools so sunny and pleasant that one is rendered almost blind to the lack of liberty. Most of the teachers with whom I talked were quite aware of the lack of freedom; but they did not see how to remedy it, and they themselves were hampered and bound by regulations, dogmas, and traditions. The idea of liberty is so new to most that anarchy is predicted if the principle is put into practice. Yet in Rome, and in other Montessori schools visited, there was no anarchy. In these schools children move freely about the room, choose what they wish to do, and continue doing it for as long or as short a period as they please, without interference from the teacher. Instead of anarchy there is vigorous life, joy in the work, and the order and harmony that joy and freedom engender. Indeed, I have never anywhere seem more diligent and orderly children than those of the Montessori schools in Rome and elsewhere.
But the physical freedom permitted in the Montessori schools is only the outward sign of the inward freedom of mind and spirit which prevails. Not the least important part of the Montessori method is the fact that the child is freed from the teacher. In other words, the liberty given makes self-education possible. Teachers of the present day, no matter how kind and well-meaning they may be, resemble greatly the despotic kings of old, who forced men to think as they thought, to believe as they believed, and to act as they directed. In many cases, no doubt, the despots of old were kindhearted men, actuated by the best of intentions, but keeping people in a state of slavery nevertheless. They feared to grant liberty on the plea that people would misuse it. We teachers are pedagogical despots, in that we force children to think as we think. We pin the child into a desk that we have designed for him, and we pour our thoughts into him. We stamp ourselves upon him with all our defects, limitations, and prejudices. We endeavour to do what Tolstoy declares is "sterile, illegitimate, and impossible," namely, to mould our pupils into set forms. And then we wonder that our young people are so commonplace, so lacking in resource, and so wanting in originality! Never for one moment during the day in most schools is the child free from the dominance of the teacher's mind and spirit over his mind and spirit. We crush out individuality in our classes, large or small, by treating children in the mass as puppets instead of living, self-acting individuals. We force a dogmatic discipline of drill from without, instead of requiring the child to discipline himself from within; and so we pass on the shackles of pedagogic dogmatism from generation to generation.
In the Montessori schools all this is altered, and the child is free. Instead of being required to sit still, he learns to move about without upsetting things or annoying his neighbours. There are no fixed desks, and the small tables and chairs can be lifted and placed anywhere by the children themselves. No child need remain in one position any longer than he wishes. There is no hard-and-fast time-table, which compels going on to weariness, or which orders leaving off when interest is at its keenest. There are no page 13 collective lessons, where a whole class of forty or fifty children are treated as one, and in which the teacher does most of the talking and three-fourths of the work. There are no children sitting still and listening with bored faces to something they know quite well, and could apply with zest if permitted. Instead of this, each child is intent on his work, and is going about it joyously. The teacher is moving unobstrusively about the room, giving help where help is needed; but her words are few, and she has in her mind the individual, and not the class. Each child is doing his own growing. He is doing the thing in hand himself, not sitting still and seeing it done for him by the teacher, as is so often the case in class teaching.
The Montessori teacher is not afraid to give the child freedom, and she does not hold herself responsible for the good or bad conduct of anyone in the room. The child is made to shoulder his legitimate responsibilities. The teacher no longer assumes a dogmatic attitude; restraint is reduced to a minimum, and the child is given freedom within the law, the law in this case being:—"No child shall use his freedom to offend or annoy others, or to commit any rough or ill-bred act."
"There is something else which assists in obtaining education on this basis of liberty—something which includes both instruction and discipline. In order that children may live in these conditions of freedom, they must find a way of busying themselves in a manner adequate to the need of the unfolding of their inner life. This is the pivotal point of the whole method, namely, to offer the child work—not just any kind, but that work which at that particular moment is the one thing necessary for the development of his inner life."