A key to being a grand master Catholic Montessori Teacher

by David Fleischacker


One key to becoming a great teacher is to become one who is like a magnet to children. When you are a magnet, children want to learn from you over and over again.  They return to you like a fresh stream quenching their thirst. Of course, there are a number of elements to becoming a great Montessori teacher — one has to know how to teach the lessons, one has to know how to move and talk to a child, one has to learn about one’s own character and disposition.  But after these things, what else can one do?  The answer is the difference between a mediocre teacher and a great one.  That answer is to become a light to which the children are attracted. If you have to “get” children to do lessons, and yet all these preconditions are met, then you likely need this extra element.  And it is not merely a subsidiary benefit, but it is central.  That element is that first and foremost, the work or object of the lesson needs to reside in you as a beautiful, cherished treasure and discovery of your own.  In other words, the guide needs to deeply treasure the material or activity that unlocks something in the world before giving that key to a child. How?

  1. You need to meditate on the work, think about what it does within your own interiority. Think back upon your own childhood. Think about all the facets of creation that this key opens for you. Think about how this key fits into God’s work of creation and salvation. And as you give this lesson more and more, you need to come to see it as a friend, an old friend, who has helped so many children awaken to the beauty of all that is good.
  2. Carry this “meditation” out not only in private but in the room while children are around. Make it real, not a show. Show them that you care so much about this work that you do it too.  And  you should be absorbing this work as an adult, deeply into your adult horizon and heart.  There is a deep mystery in all of these works for every age.  

With out that deep residence of the material in your soul, know that the students know when you are asking them to do something and you see it only as a duty and not a cherished mystery.

When you you show them a material that is deeply cherished in your soul, children then will come to you and you do not then need to “chase them down” to get them to do some work. And for those who do not come, presume God has not yet made them ready for the work that you cherish.  Do not get upset about this. Do not go after them to “make” them like it or do it. This will back fire.  Remember that God does not treat you that way.  He could.  But he respects your freedom. Do unto others what God does unto you.

Montessori mentions that her way of education provides keys to life.  Many times we would think of those keys as facts about life and culture and the world. These is some truth to this, but one must go a bit deeper because not every fact is a key to the world.  And what I have found is that there are three types of keys in Montessori: the heuristic (or transcendental); the generic; and the local.

A key unlocks a door into some home or world. So a key can be a fact, but they are facts that unlocked another world of facts.  One example might be color. Once one learns about red, blue, and yellow, and one comes to discover the various types of colors, it really begins to unlock the ability to attend to a larger range of colors on a multitude of objects. Likewise for all of our senses. Once we know how to use a sense, to focus our attention to this or that facet of a sense, we then begin to see all the sensory objects that emerge in that sense. So for example, once we start to see shades of green, then we can see fields of green, oceans of green, forests of green, and wide ranges of shirts and hats that are green, and even the Green Bay Packers.  The same with sound.  Once we begin to hear various patterns of sounds, it unlocks all the birds that are singing in the spring time, or all the leaves that are blowing in the wind, or the beautiful orchestra playing downtown.  

Lonergan calls these types of notions motor-sensory notions.  Exercising them then builds a world of sights and sounds.  On a next higher level however, intellectual notions begin to emerge. In Insight, Lonergan identifies three fundamental notions that lead to intelligibility. Intelligibility is the object of any act of understanding.  When one understands a circle or the algebraic meaning of a line or the meaning of a gene in genetics, one is understanding an intelligibility.  These really are types of correlations or functional insights that articulate the nature of something.  

Notions in turn are not isolated but form into sets of relationships that unfold into patterns of recurrence that result in the development of one’s motor-sensory perceptions and memory, the development of one’s understanding into viewpoints, the development of one’s judgements into a person of solid reasoning (or what Lonergan calls the “principle notion of objectivity), and the development of one’s decisions into a well formed virtuous human being.  These patterns of notions are called heuristic structures in INSIGHT.

Montessori materials begin to plant seeds of these notions in the youngest children.  Not just the motor-sensory notions, but also the intellectual and moral notions as well.  Practical life materials for example help to strengthen the will in creatively generating beauty and order in the world.  Observing children at work in practical life leads one to the natural hope that one places in the youth of the world for a better future. Montessori’s sensorial materials help to further refine the senses, but they also begin to open up the child to a vast array of insights and the knowledge of how to reach insights through what St. Thomas calls phantasm (he was following Aristotle).  These phantasms are rich images constructed from motor-sensory perceptions.  These can be worked into various kinds of symbols and data patterns for insight.  Hence, even before reaching first grade, children can reach into higher levels of math.  Likewise for language.  As children come to learn words through three part lessons, and then explore parts of speech through activities, they come to a profound understanding of how language works and how it serves them in thinking, communicating, constituting orders (like a political constitution or a business contract), and in getting things done.  Language that came to manifest through its structure the interior notions and operations of human consciousness comes to be a profound key that carries with it the rich history of human intelligence and freedom. 

There is more of course, but these notions are some of the most profound keys that Montessori helped children to appropriate through their environment.

A second level of keys is really in terms of the generic categories of the world.  These can be such categories as color or shape.  But they can be categories of things, such as is chemical things or biological things (what Lonergan calls explanatory genera).  Montessori designed ways in the environment for children to makes such categories their own, for life.  Classification boxes, timelines, types of lands masses or water ways, are all delivered in a fashion that attracts and embeds these genera frameworks into the child’s soul by stirring in the child a deep and mysterious encounter and fascination with creation. 

A third level of keys is more specific yet. It deals with imparting particular facts and skills and words that are useful for today. This could be as simple as cleaning a computer to using a microwave rightly.  It will include a number of specific types of vocabular words and vernacular structures found locally so as to help the child better connect with those in his or her world. 

In short, I have found the keys to be as comprehensive as heuristic notions (or even transcendental notions — see Lonergan’s Method in Theology) which are universally relevant across cultures, to something based on generic categories which also can be universally found, or something more specific to a particular culture that deals with that culture’s peculiarities.  In all cases, the child finds liberty when given these keys.    

Maria Montessori talks about her way of education as one that provides a child with keys to life.  One type of key that I have found is that which allows the child to encounter and engage what constitutes any kind of developing or changing thing in this world.  That kind of key can only be unpacked if one becomes attuned to the interior life both in one’s self and in the child.

Interestingly, the keys upon which I would like to shed some light spring from fundamental keys already planted at the core of our souls.  A turn to interiority reveals this fact.  We  naturally thirst not only for food and drink, but also for understanding, truth, and goodness.  These are the transcendentals that constitute what Plato and others called the light of Being. St. Augustine followed this same language about a light within the soul.  Aristotle, Plato’s student, renamed this light in terms of what it was able to cause, namely the ability to think and abstract  and define and know the world and use one’s will in light of one’s knowledge.  He called it the agent intellect. St. Thomas does the same. Bernard Lonergan transposes this interior light into a combination of Thomistic language, Augustine’s self-knowledge, and modern interiority analysis.  He calls this light the capacity for self-transcendence, a capacity which is constituted by three transcendental notions; the notion of intelligibility, the notion of being, and the notion of goodness.  These fundamental notions are transcendental because they are the interior movers of our ability to rise beyond an old self to a new self, and to transcend into all that exists.  The everyday language of one facet of these notions are questions.  What and why questions express the notion of intelligibility. Intelligibility literally is the intrinsic notion or aim of a question for understanding.   “Is it so?” or “Is it true?” are  question that express the notion of being.  We want to know whether something is correct or real.  Questions for deliberation such as “Where should I go?” or “What should I do in life?” or “Should I get married?” are all questions that aim for a decision in the end. These express the first step of the notion of the good.  However, the notion is a bit larger as well than just a question, but  that would take me beyond where I want to go at the moment. If you would like to read more about these notions, see Lonergan’s book on insight, specifically his chapter on the notion of being, or his book titled “Method in Theology” and look at the index for his transcendental notions.  In any case, these notions combined together constitute the human capacity for self-transcendence.  

These fundamental notions do not need to be taught to a child. They exist.  They are the created participation in the Divine Light.  They are the Teacher who resides within each of our souls as a well-spring of conscious existence.  In the Montessori world, in a concrete fashion, she saw the need to create an environment that liberated this inner reality of our existence for understanding, being (truth), and goodness.  And wrapping these altogether is love.  The essence of the human soul is for love, and that love gives birth to these other notions and then is complete through their completion (or virtue).

However, these transcendental notions do become specified in different ways. So, for example, the question for understanding which seeks patterns of any type can be directed to seek the nature of something, or its efficient causes, or its final cause.  It can become directed toward the relationships of one thing with another through its environment, or even to the universe at large.  And it can be examined in terms of its frequency, or how it developed.  These are specifications of the notion of intelligibility and Lonergan unpacks these in a dynamic fashion in his book Insight

Maria Montessori’s discoveries that led to the creation of children’s environments result in helping children to form these specifications of their transcendental notions. For example, starting in Children’s House, she has a set of beads grouped in various ways.  There is a single bead, or a string of beads, or a area of beads set out like a square, or a volume of beads in a cube.  The strings of beads are from two through 10 in length. Then the areas of beads are two through 10 on each side comprising from four to 100 beads.  Then the volume is 2x2x2 through 10x10x10 beads comprising from 8 to 100 beads.  Children in a concrete way come to see the patterns of lengths when they are grouped into areas and volumes.  This allows them to see these patterns in their relationships.  This provides a heuristic notion that seeks more precision in understanding any types of patterns or relationships.  Such a specification of the notion of intelligibility Lonergan calls a “heuristic notion.”  This heuristic notion seeks patterns of sets and sequences.

Once a child begins to discover “relationships in sequences” such as between the number of beads in lengths, areas, and volumes, then this become a kind of tool in the child’s interiority for exploring the world.  Montessori’s discoveries are filled with these types of heuristic or transcendental keys which is what makes her way of teaching so profound for children.  It liberates them.  And this liberty is what gives them a profound joy and peace.