We know only too well the sorry spectacle of the teacher who, in the ordinary schoolroom must pour certain cut and dried facts into the heads of the scholars. In order to succeed in this barren task, she finds it necessary to discipline her pupils into immobility and to force their attention. Prizes and punishments are every ready and efficient aids to the master who must force into a given attitude of mind and body those who condemned to be his listeners.”
The Montessori Method, Dr Maria Montessori 1912
This paragraph follows an explanation of slavery. Montessori saw clearly that the school system in which a special bench that forced a child’s upright posture so they could sit all day and be talked at by a teacher, and go home saved from scoliosis, was all wrong. Of course, the doctor notices that children who are allowed to move around and find their own ways of learning are not in danger of twisted backs in the first place.
She finds the system of punishment and reward petty (red marks, detention and stickers are not designed for moral growth but merely conformity) and points out that without heroism – that is the will to do what is good because it is good – then corruption and cowardice are the results.
I think a brief look at our politicians clutching their Oxbridge degrees in one hand and what amounts to an allergy to telling the truth on the other, has to be a prime example of what Montessori warned us.
All parents have a right and duty to the education of our children, and we most definitely need to ensure they learn right from wrong. The tyranny of relativism was a mere yapping puppy in Montessori’s day. The Enlightenment had already brought some darkness in that area but it hadn’t grown to the proportions our poor children are faced with today.
Education is more than leading the child out. The child must grow and mature and as each child does this in his own way we can’t force understanding on them all at a certain age. Their age is mostly immaterial to their growth, maturity and ability to learn.
As Catholics we have a theology of the person that is deep and well considered. We know that the Sacraments give grace and so we get our children baptised but we also know that while the missing grace of Original Sin is mended by the graces that come with baptism, there is still the scar – the concupiscence – that we must all deal with. We tend to bend towards sin. But spend any length of time with children and you’ll notice that while they might need good guidance, boundaries and sensible discipline, they do have a strong sense of justice, if not mercy. Young children, particularly those under 7 or 8 – the age of reason, need close adult supervision to help form their conscience and curb tendencies to cruelty or meanness. We teach them to share, be gentle with others, and how to listen and basic safety.
Without this early formation children often lack social skills, basic kindness and even language. A classroom with at most two adults to thirty 4 year olds is not the place to do this basic learning; and that’s before you factor in the bizarre targets of the National Curriculum!
There is a cultural view that targets, exams and state provision are the be all and end all of education. I’ve even heard of parents who refuse to work with their OWN children when they can’t get the school placement they want, because they insist the state should provide.
Then there are parents who brag about how their child got A*s or whatever, in exams, but seem to have missed that their child is miserable, angry, incapable in social settings and lacking basic morals.
It’s well past time to change all this. When we consider that Montessori (and Mason) were writing over 100 years ago we look pretty dumb that we still haven’t set about changing things so that our children get a genuine education.
I was so wrapped up in the school model of education when I first began home education that when my children began to read books as Charlotte Mason would have them do, I got restless thinking that just sitting there reading wasn’t “doing” anything. How could I possibly know that my daughter was learning anything while she sat with a cup of tea in one hand and Notes From the Underground in the other?
But then I think it was C.S.Lewis who said that his best education came from being left to read the books in his uncle’s library. It took me a while to realise that when the children were “just reading” that they were learning. They expanded their reading and vocabulary. For Iona it helped her writing fluency and did more to stop her reversing letters and built up her general knowledge better than all those worksheets put together.