I sometimes think our culture hasn’t so much embraced dualism as a kind of tri-ism. While the dualists liked to separate out the things of the body from the things of the soul, leading to some heresies where a “Christian” was told he could either do as he liked with his body, or must ignore it to death. But now we have separated out body and mind and ditched the soul. Montessori is a breath of fresh air in that she sees persons as whole; body, mind and soul. One interacts with the other.
In her education the child is not reduced to some one sitting and learning aurally by hearing the teacher and visually by watching the teacher – all very passive, but participates in his own learning and discovery by doing things, touching, manipulating, tasting, smelling and trying things out. I wish I had read her books while I was still doing my MA. It would have helped me a great deal.
I did my MA dissertation on how to bring children with various severe learning difficulties (especially autism) to the Sacraments. Montessori’s philosophy was rooted in three things (as far as I can see), her work with children with learning and physical disabilities, her Catholicness and her degree in engineering. At first sight you may wonder how they connect. Well, as I see it, Montessori learned a lot from the children she worked with in the hospitals. In my experience such children have amazing compensatory coping skills so that they can get a great deal out of life.
When I worked in a children’s hospice we had, what was called a “multisensory room”. Through light, sound and texture we could arrange the room to suit the child. Sometimes it would be warm, darkish and low stimulation, and at other times the children liked the music, bubbles and coloured lights. The walls were white so that they could be anything from low to high stimulation. Many children with autism in particular need low stimulation. There’s some evidence that children with ADHD cope better with it too. Montessori didn’t have to deal with the fall out from the over bright, shouting, busy stimulation directly aimed at children that we have today, but she understood children needing to learn through the experience of their whole body.
Montessori’s degree in engineering definitely influenced her brilliant idea to introduce geometry as a sensorial activity with very young children. It was a particularly brilliant plan in light of the children who first attended the “Children’s Houses”. While Charlotte Mason had the children under her care learn about the world around them through sensorial experiences with nature, the children in Montessori’s schools were in the slums of Rome. There wasn’t a lot of nature to be had. Even so, Montessori records how they found a piece of dump-land near the flats that the children turned into a little garden. Children feel and run their fingers around the shapes and edges whether of the items in the geometric cabinet or leaves and sticks from outside. The lessons introduce the names of the shapes and the children draw them, touch them, make them fit into place and so their whole selves get to discover the shapes.
So, how does Montessori’s Catholicness fit this? In my dissertation I wrote about how a church can be a multisensory room. (Putting aside the stuff that happened in the ’70s where churches became boxes with benches in them). In a church there are stain glass windows, statues, candles, marble, stone and wood. There is the smell of old incense – and at Mass the smell and sight of new incense. All of the accoutrements of Mass or the church when empty, are one big multisensory experience that does not require the participant to grasp spoken language (although that helps) or to be able to see (that helps too) or even to truly “get it” on a theological level. While the Mass has it all there for the Phd Professor- so everything is there for the severely disabled person. The Church knows that we need to have a relationship with God that is whole. We pray with our bodies, minds and souls just as children need to learn and form their relationships body, mind and soul. Montessori got this. In a nutshell I would say that Montessori produced a method of education based on a philosophy that we all need to interact with beauty.