There are many things that one might hear when being told about a Montessori classroom. One will hear for example that children work independently, or that children work at their own pace, or more negatively that they just play. Or sometimes one might say that at the Children’s House level they work independently and at the elementary level they work socially. And regarding how the teacher relates to the children, one will hear phrases like “teach me how to do it myself” or “the teach needs to get out of the way” or “the teacher is nothing really but an observer.” And of course in many of these phrases there are truths. The limit is that these terms fall within the realm of the descriptive*, and so though important, they also have limits and cannot be treated as principles or axioms, though too often people do.
Let me give one example. One such maxim is to let the environment do the teaching and get the teacher out of the way. The purpose of this maxim is really not to get any and all teachers out of the way, but really those who tend to operate under the many mistaken notions of how adults should related to and then teach children. One of these mistakes is that a teacher needs to schedule much of the learning of a child 1) since the child cannot do that for themselves, 2) because the child does not know what would be the best way to learn a subject, 3) because a teacher needs to teach many children to make her use of time and salary effective and so needs to walk many of them through at the same time and the same pace. To teach each children individual would cost a fortune. So the mistaken thinking goes, and thus this maxim is a counter to that. But, if a teacher knows how to relate to a child, when and how to respond to a child’s requests, when and how and when not to interact with a child at a given moment and a given location and when the child is doing x or y, then the maxim becomes a problem, and really should not be used. The teacher after all is part of the environment and really a rather important part of that environment both personally and pedagogically.
In part, this is why I wrote something that most Montessorian’s might cringe at, namely how the teacher should be a magnet to the mysteries of creation. Why? Because the highest and deepest portions of all creation reside in the highest levels of creation, and on earth, that turns out to be the human soul. And a teacher, we all presume, has a soul, and if a good teacher, a soul that has been formed into being a wise mediator, one who knows how to open the mysteries of all creation to other souls.
The key to using this maxim right is really to move from a descriptive account of the maxim to one that builds on understanding the interior realities of the human soul, and how those realities unfold mysteriously through the light of the inner Teacher who is the one who gives us all the inner light of our own souls (we are created participations in the Divine Light). Once one moves from the outer world to a deeper understanding of interiority, and how interiority develops, then one can move to a deeper understanding of the place of the teacher within the life of a children and a classroom environment. Really, the classroom environment is not just the place with physical walls, where keys of creation are opened up, but the whole of creation. This is why gardens and excursions are so important. Investigating streams and hills and flowers opens up the real mysteries of life to a child. But even more than these, other human beings awaken the child. This is why the mother’s smile is so important! Once one begins to understand how all of the relationships of a child to the world unfold, then one can begin to understand what is happening in a Montessori classroom that is setup right.
The same is true when one talks about children working independently, especially in Children’s House (~2.5 years – 6 years of age). This is the stage of the absorbent mind. It is true that children largely cannot work together on projects because they have not develop intellectually, morally, emotionally in such a way to do so. But it does not mean they are not social or that they are absolutely independent. In fact, watching them reveals quite the opposite. Even if they do not yet know how to have an adult conversation with one listening and the other talking, they are moving in that direction chatting at each other side by side. And I suspect this ends up being crucial for the development of neural patterns for hearing, as well as the other senses involved in conversations, perhaps as much important as hearing adults use full phrases when they are infants and toddlers (hence laying down neural patterns of sound in the brain). Or they like doing things while sitting together just as adults sit together at tables and do things. I saw a couple of children once, for example, who would wander and wander when they were by themselves. But as soon as they found a few friends sitting at a table doing works, they would then stop wandering and get a work and work side by side with their friends for a long period of time. None of them were working together (one of the meaning of “independent”), but they all worked best side by side at that table. In other studies, young girls begin to form dyads and triads with friends, and they carry out all kinds of mimicking roles of nurturing together, and as they move into the second half of the absorbent mind stage, they then cooperate in these roles. Boys on the other hand start to form into larger groups by the age of 5 that work out a type of hierarchy. They learn through these rather active larger groups (unless one continuously stifles these, and then boys learning rates serious decline). So, it is not entirely true to say they work “independently.” What the maxim does combat is the idea that we need to get them working together like one would find older kids doing, or even adult doing. And it also combats the idea that all the children in the room should be doing the same thing together with the teacher teaching them how to do it. That notion of “working together” which really is working in unison with the teacher is not really working together or independently. In either case, the maxim of working independently has its severe limits and again, if one uses it as a universal principle, it will fall far short and even blind one to the important social elements of children’s lives at all ages.
The main point here is that even if you are gaining some of the descriptive maxims of how Montessori classrooms are different, as a teacher, you must push beyond these into a deeper understanding of the interior child. This is one of the real elements of “following the child” (which too is a descriptive term and must be put into its proper limits!).
*By descriptive I mean “appearance” or how things are first known in relationship to us through our senses. Descriptive knowledge does have truth, but also needs to be limited to the proper “descriptive” realm in which the notion was introduced. In contrast, explanatory terms or notions have moved into the relationships of things as such, and so are not limited by the relationship these have to the observer (though they do have other limits — see Bernard Lonergan’s book Insight: A Study of Human Understanding for a more comprehensive philosophical account of the distinction between the descriptive and explanatory).