This week I had the good fortune to visit Forestville Montessori School in the northern suburbs of Sydney, and it was an immense privilege to do so. I found a warm, calm, thoughtful environment where children up to the age of 12 were working independently and purposefully, guided by teachers who are clearly highly experienced masters of their craft. The classrooms were replete with all the carefully designed resources that each individual child might need, for them to be able to move to the next stage in their learning, yet the overall effect was of order, balance and beauty, and the rooms were free of the discordant and garish clutter which so often overstimulates children in many primary schools.
Most remarkable was the focus and attention span of the children, who were clearly working on material that in some cases far exceeded the level that children might be expected in many schools, in which a tacit understanding can exist that the purpose of an education is simply to meet standardised curriculum requirements – an understanding that underpins the reductive industrial model of education which pervades our society, and which emphasises the cohort average over individual uniqueness. I hasten to add that the vast majority of school teachers and leaders recognise this reductive approach as inadequate, but they have their hands tied by political and/or financial imperatives; no-one may ever actually want a system in which the individual is not specifically encouraged to flourish … but unfortunately, this is where we have found ourselves in education.
Not, though, in Montessori schools. Dr Maria Montessori was a pioneer of the progressive education movement in the early 20th century, and her detailed methods have stood the test of time. The Association Montessori Internationale summarises the difference between traditional and Montessori schools as follows: “In traditional education adults decide what children need to learn and the ability to retain and reproduce information is used as a measure of academic success. The teacher is the active giver of information and children are passive receivers. In the Montessori approach it is all about the activity of the child. The teacher takes on a different role, that is, to provide the right kind of circumstances so that children can be guided to find what they need from what is on offer. Children then become active learners and are able to reach their own unique potential because they are learning at their own pace and rhythm focussing on their own particular developmental needs at that moment.”
As an observer, I noticed above all the power of quiet, which was palpable in the learning environments. To see young children reflecting, engaging and learning in a calm, relaxed but focused manner was uplifting. It was a reminder of the paramount importance of investing in teachers and teaching, of taking time to build on (and share) the experience and wisdom of teachers, and of working to create spaces in schools which are places where individuals can genuinely be constantly but unobtrusively monitored, supported and challenged. When children benefit from this kind of investment, they thrive; they grow into interesting, inquisitive human beings who have the skills to navigate their path through their future learning – and through life.
To see this already in 3-6 year olds, let alone 12 year olds, was truly a genuine privilege. Progress in education IS possible, and this should fire up educators and parents to demand a re-evaluation of what schools are doing with children. And if they want to see at first hand the breadth, depth and wisdom that Montessori offers, I am sure that they need only reach out and ask.