Thursday, September 5, 2013

Reconciling my Montessori past with a Classical future

I am actually a part of two coops.  Yes, I am insane - this is the expression of my honey bee, extrovert personality.  This is my first year with Classical Conversations, in part, to find other people interested in Classical education.  The second coop focuses on art, music and Montessori.  I started it in my home 6 years ago (yes my oldest had just turned 1).  One of my friends was crazy enough to buy the materials so that I could try Montessori on their kids.  I took two years off of the coop (it continued without me), one to have a baby and one year I was an assistant at a new Christian Montessori School (now closed, they are starting a mission school in El Salvador - I have their elementary library let me know if you want to buy some books). We were there 8 to 1 pm, 5 days a week.  We have been back at coop for the past three years. 

I finally had my "aha" moment about Montessori last year.  

The Good 

First, it teaches skills well.  In fact, it does this better than any other curriculum.   Today, as I was getting ready for coop #2 I realized that it follows the model that Andrew Kern discusses in his talk "Assessment that Blesses" to a tee!  

First you imitate the master.  The teacher presents the material to a student individually or in a small group exactly the way that it should be done.  Then the child works with it - once, for an hour, for months; whatever amount of time it takes for them to internalize the lesson.  This ability to let children to move at their own pace is one of the amazing things about Montessori.  Once you reach that milestone the teacher introduces the next step in the progression.  Eventually, step by step, you master skill based areas - mathematics, grammar, etc.  

In fact, a student can just look around the room and get an idea of what he will learn over the course of the next six years. Motivation is built in because you see the goal and know the next steps.  In the multiaged classroom you are constantly exposed to the next level and reviewing previous levels as you help younger students.  It truly is genius. Teacher training is the key to success here.  Teachers spend years developing their understanding of the progression of lessons and their ability to evaluate students and move them along in the progression.  It is academic coaching at its best!  

If the heart of education is teaching skills then this is the way to go. 

However, education is not about skill building - education is about soul shaping. 

I now desire my education to look more Classical, more like this: 
EDUCATION is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty.  It should be distinguished from training (for a career), which is of eternal value but is not the same thing as education.  Circe Institute 
The Bad (in my estimation)

I wondered why this program could cross borders so easily.  You see, Montessori does have a few great lessons that frame the elementary years.  Although Montessori was Catholic and probably pretty faithful, her education system does not require a certain story or perspective on life to be effective.  Her "soul shaping" great lessons are so universal and general that you can overlay your own philosophy or creed and get one of the best skill building frameworks - ever!    

This is most evident in her curriculum design.  There are 5 areas of study: practical life, sensorial, language, math and cultural (art, music, science and geography).  She does not outline stories to read and her history curriculum is the great lessons mentioned above (she had the original social studies).  In the most blatant terms - she doesn't even aim at teaching wisdom and virtue.  Although she is strong on aesthetics there isn't any ultimate truth that she points towards.  The soul shaping stories that the children hear are left completely to the discretion of the teacher and the school.  Although, as we'll see, she did have some thoughts about the type of stories children should hear.   

I often got frustrated at the school because on the rare occasions when we read aloud to children it was mostly non fiction books.  I constantly wondered how children were introduced to the ideas of love, jealousy, faithfulness, greed, etc.  They never really heard stories that dealt with these issues. Montessori focused on the reality of life. She had strong feelings about fantasy and fairy tales.  She basically said they were inappropriate for children.  For a while I could see her point, but I still read Peter Rabbit and St. George and the Dragon to my kids.  I'm glad I did. 

I understand the concern about kids not understanding fantasy and reality - but now, after reading books like Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Esolen, and trusting in quotes like these: 

"Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” -C.S. Lewis
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.  G.K. Chesterton 

and from one of my favorite bloggers:

Music is for listening. Art is for seeing. Poetry is for loving. History is for tethering. Stories are for virtue. Let's not make this harder than it has to be.

"Stories are for virtue."  Virtue is key to soul shaping.  Virtue is "moral goodness; the practice of moral duties and the abstaining from vice, or a conformity of life and conversation to the moral law. “ (1828 dictionary)   If stories are not a critical and clearly outlined element of your educational curriculum; you are leaving it open to chance, whim or intentional design by the individual user.  

Montessori wanted her children grounded in reality and she is often discredited for this reason.  However, it is not just that they don't engage in fantasy play.  It goes beyond that. They aren't even introduced to fantasy story.  Truly, this might be okay if parents rebel and don't follow this creed at home.  But, without a good story how do you learn about heroes? Where do you overcome villains?  Maybe through history?  But that is also missing from her core curriculum. 

Montessori focuses on culture studies and geography - you don't learn the history of your nation or people as a part of the curriculum.  Of course you can add it - if you like - how you like.  If history is for tethering - giving you a sense of rootedness and connection - here it is totally open to interpretation.  

So the two key parts of a curriculum that are truly soul shaping are not outlined specifically in Montessori training.  In some ways, this is genius because anybody can add what they like with an excellent core in skill building.  In some ways it leaves the “real education” the “soul shaping” up to the discretion and beliefs of the teacher and school – often without parents realizing it.

My Personal Conclusion

For me,  Montessori will always provide excellent tools for skill building - especially in math and grammar.  Truly, it is amazing!  But for forming a soul, a full education, it is lacking.  Honestly, in many ways, true Montessori kids are more open to suggestion because they lack the sense of direction and rootedness that story and history provide (if teachers strictly follow Montessori teachings). Of course, probably not more so than public school children.  At least Montessori kids have skills!  

I will discuss Montessori materials often, but I can't adhere to a Montessori philosophy.  I use the tools and the progression of skills because they are excellent.  Plus, I am still part of a coop where LOTS of the materials are available to my family.   At coop, I know what philosophy people believe and how it influences their teaching.  

In the end, soul shaping will happen.  That's why I don't think Christian Montessori is necessarily an oxymoron (which some believe) - but it isn't a given, just because of the founders' faith.  I intend to be intentional in the stories I read and history I tell.  I want my sons learning lessons in virtue and rootedness that will serve them well.  This is also why many curricula are a list of books and Montessori provides a room full of materials.  Heart versus skill. 


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    1. Hi,
      I am so sorry that I did not respond earlier. I have not been keeping up with this site as much as I should. Over time I think the montessori materials ( especially math) will be well used. In general my friends and I have come to feel that CC in the younger ages is just about exposure and have found many parents whose oldest is 4 or 5 become disenchanted with CC because the format is just hard on that age group. I think exposing them to the memory work is helpful though. Really though I would focus on reading God stories - lots of them. I think the stories do more to help form thoughts and are easier for kids to remember long term. In the end I would use montessori math and maybe some of the language materials but read TONS a of stories and maybe use CC cd's to introduce new words and ideas. 4 is young so make sure she can play outside, try out art experiences, etc. Blessings as you try to guide your little one. I am also so sorry to hear of your loss.

    2. Good stories not God stories (although those are good too).