Montessori and the new century

By Phyllis Wallbank

It is a very great pleasure to be able to talk to you here in South Africa about Dr. Maria Montessori and how she showed the way to educate.

I am very old (85 this coming birthday) and I was very lucky to know Dr. Montessori as a friend during the last important and productive decade of her life. I went to stay with her in her house by the sea at Nordveg and also to stay where she lived with her son's wife's Mother and Father, who were bankers, at Baarn near Amsterdam. After her death I also went there to stay with Mario and Ada Montessori.

What was Dr. Montessori like? She always had a bevy of adoring men and women around her and often became impatient with them although she owed much to their dedication. She disliked this personal adoration of people who often surrounded her, and said that when she pointed to the view that she so much wanted them to see, they tended to look at her finger and say "Ah! What a beautiful finger!" She however loved her real friends and was always loyal to them.

Edward Mortimer Standing and Claude Claremont gave up very promising professional careers to follow her and to help spread her insights into the way that children are meant to learn.

She was a strong willed woman who had fought all her life to follow her own star, beginning at 16 when she went to a technical college normally only for boys, as she thought at that time that she wanted to be an engineer. Later, she was the first woman in Italy to study medicine and had to do autopsies alone at night, not being allowed to attend with the male students in the daytime. She became the first woman to hold a University chair (in Anthropology). She retained this strong willed character and was by no means a soft old lady!

When I was at Baarn with her, and the children in the room once knocked something down, they immediately ran away and hid behind the sofa! When I was in Austria with her and was walking across the hotel lawn, she approached a deck chair with a man fast asleep in it. She suddenly went near him and made a very loud noise, waking him up; she explained to me that each afternoon he had woken her from her siesta by loud raucous laughter beneath her balcony!

She was a genius and like those before and who will come after, she had to tread the initial path all alone; and for this she had to have a strong character.

She felt that she had this very important message to impart and every moment was precious to her when lecturing. Once in a lecture, when she saw a girl looking sleepy, she immediately banged a book down with full force to wake her up!

At home in Holland in those latter years she was very lonely because she was Italian speaking and the family all spoke Dutch. She never attempted to learn the Dutch language and felt herself always a foreigner. When she was in England she always complained of the grey skies and lack of sunshine compared with her native Italy which she left during the Mussolini Dictatorship.

Montessori knew that I understood the basic philosophy of all her materials and her work and writings. Because of this she let me examine with her and for her in several countries for the Montessori Diploma. I did this also with her son Mario Montessori, for a later Advanced Diploma.

For many years I was a Vice President to the AMI and I was Chairman of the British Montessori Society. I organized her last International Conference which was held in London a year before her death.

She was a person of exceptional vitality for her age, driven by the knowledge that she must get her insights over to the people of the world. She was a strong willed scientist, a genius, who had through circumstance of dictatorship and war, seen the universal child, because she had as her laboratory so many countries of the world, so many cultures and so many different economic and social environments where she could observe children and their way of universal development. This is why she said always that hers was not a "Method" but was the way that people were meant to learn by their Creator. She was following our universal human nature and giving keys to the enjoyment and better understanding of the world.

Her main great observations had to do with certain periods of development occurring universally. She pointed to the years of the absorbent mind, when all children in the first six years absorb their own environment, their country's traditions and their country's culture. The main periods of sensitivity, she saw, changed at each six year completion and with three year specific tendencies within these. Having seen the world's children and how they develop, she sought to give them the keys to their environment by devising self corrective materials which gave the keys to the understanding, the wonder, and the appreciation of their world.

Today I want to consider with you how Dr. Montessori would have met this changed environment by still giving keys to the environment that the child of 2003 finds himself in. She died over half a century ago, in 1952. How has the environment changed? Some basic things are not changeable and here the keys remain viable and valuable. So how has the world changed? Here are a few of the changes:

Photo copiers, dish washers, ball point pens, tumble driers, micro chips, air conditioners, word processors, drip dry clothes, computers, cassette recorders, the Internet, Walkmans, CDs, chat rooms, dating agencies, computer programs, car air-bags, lasers, car route finders, digital TV, cheap air travel, videos, package holidays, digital cameras, large supermarkets, camcorders, freezers, mobile phones, microwave ovens, satellite telephones, pre-cooked frozen food, satellite tracking, instant coffee and tea bags.

What will be of main importance for the coming generation whom we are to serve? We must give them the keys needed for their generation.

We must make self-corrective materials, as she would do, and we have to look carefully to see that we give the vocabulary and the basic facts that will be in common usage for later development and understanding of things that are affecting the world.

For instance, we know that the world weather is changing and that water, either too much or too little, is going to be a major concern for many countries. We should give the keys that help towards the understanding, therefore, of the water cycle. How to give the keys that will help? Make visible the invisible wherever possible to make the water cycle really understandable. It doesn't need expensive equipment. In a country where there is cold weather and there are radiators, a child's simple toy windmill above a radiator will make the windmill turn due to the rising warm air. Collect the rocks and soils of different kinds and find out those that are most repellent of water and which are porous. This will give them the key to understanding where any flooding will travel and where it is most likely to stop. Leave it to them to make their connections and discoveries, because this will excite them more than if you tell them. See that there are charts with the names and pictures of varying types of rock so that they can identify and name their own finds. Have also charts with pictures and no names so that they can try to place on it the correct name labels. Have the water cycle illustrated on a chart with names and then another without and the separate name labels for them to place correctly on the chart. So that they understand plant life and water more, see that they have three identical plants; water one too much, one just a little each day and one not at all, and let them observe the differences in the plants.

This is the stage for love of facts and names, and so now is the time they should learn the names of different types of quantities together with their symbols. This makes later science equations more easily understood. Another difference to meet will be the large numbers needed for space and the large minus numbers for particles. It is easy to use larger numbers because Montessori Maths always shows the digits are just 1 to 9 but it is their place value that is important. Materials would be made for this. Montessori, I feel sure, would use materials for practice in changing large numbers into their powers of ten. Young children enjoy this.

Computers, TV, etc. all rely on the simple binary system. It is easy to show this with the bead materials and to change binary to decimal and vice versa. They can just play with the bead materials and change at every 2 instead of at 10 and find out for themselves. The teacher anticipates the activity and prepares the number cards for the next stage.

The vocabulary for quantum mechanics and theory can just be part of the materials at the stage when children love to acquire names. Remember electric light was so different from candles and each generation has this leap. To the children born to electric light it was just normal! The Absorbent Mind takes in the entire environment that is there for the young child. Teachers can get the relevant vocabulary from a children's encyclopedia if they look up the Quantum Theory and then prepare the name cards to put by the side of each particle in gradation, showing name and the charge and the mass. Remember these materials are made so that they are self-corrective and are within the environment for the child to choose. They are not imposed as a class memory lesson in the way of teaching in schools that are not based on Montessori.

They need to know now what DNA is and to know a little about genes. This can be introduced in the way described in my course2 by a general talk from a knowledgeable enthusiast and expert, and when interest has been imparted there should be card materials ready. In my own school the great American scientist and engineer Buckminster Fuller came and talked to the 6 to 12 age group about 'Spaceship Earth'. Together with models, pictures, videos and apparatus made by the teacher, put there to follow through when wished, a high standard of knowledge was achieved. Self corrective materials allow the child to repeat as often as he/she wishes. Remember Montessori said, "We keep them company on their way." It is their interests for which we prepare these materials, and we put them there for them.

The medical discoveries since Dr Montessori's time show the physical reality for the stages of development. Through the wonderful MRI scanners, the brain can be observed in action. She would have been so very interested. Just recently there has been some great research involving the frontal lobes of the brain done by South Dakota University. The frontal lobes are used during the Absorbent Mind period. By the end of the sixth year the frontal lobes are no longer used for the absorption of language in the way that they have been! Instead language is learnt intellectually in the language centres of the brain. This is why very young children pick up language quicker than their adult parents when they go to live in another country. The child's frontal lobes take in the language as a whole like a photograph, whilst the parent has to learn through the intellect, like a picture drawn piece by piece.

The synapses in the main brain light up and interconnect all the time as facts are learnt during the 7 to 12 period. This is the age when they are particularly interested in the physical properties of the world and how things work. They are seeking to know and to link their understanding. The fundamental facts that they learn are related to the whole of their life, they are not in watertight subject compartments. They work with teaching materials in History, Maths, English, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Languages, Art, Music, etc. and link them as a whole. Machinery should be used at all stages and its main way of working understood. Throughout all of the child's life and in all subjects is the unifying fact of their religion.

The prefrontal lobes from 7 to 12 are now used mainly for social development whereas before they were used like a photograph for absorbing the whole of life around them. This new phase of universal development is the stage when the child seeks friends and when the family alone is no longer sufficient. The frontal lobes now, according to the latest research from South Dakota University, are used particularly to read the emotions on the faces of people. This stage of development makes children particularly sensitive to these.

At the next stage, during adolescence, from 12 to 18, they are seeking to find out who they are. They are not now totally like either of their parents but are a new unique person. Just think, in the whole wide world there is no one exactly like you! The South Dakota research says that at this stage the frontal lobes now close down their ability to read faces and they are no longer able to interpret faces showing anger, disapproval, etc. How extraordinary! How useful this is now that the adolescents have to find out for themselves what they really think matters and to know themselves and to realize now what they regard as true and important. So nature now sees that these frontal lobes are no longer sensitive and useful for interpreting the adult's emotions around them.

The philosopher Lonergan has shown how this understanding can be helped and shows the stages of thought encountered. He is rather abstruse and a difficult writer to understand for non-philosophers, but he is worth studying, although the study will take a long time! He says clearly, though, of this 'self mediation' stage, "It is not a matter of analysis of oneself, it is a living, a growing, in which one element is gradually added to another and a new whole emerges."

The poet T.S. Eliot sums it up in a verse in Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The young people now become interested in subjects connected with society in both their own country and the world. They are interested in laws and their working. Mathematics are most liked when connected with their own and other people's budgets, stocks and shares, gambling and probability, the country's finance, global economics, ways of income, ways of spending, the cost of war and defence, sanctions and their effect, international debt and monetary rescue; mathematics is then vibrant and meaningful to each.

From 18 to 21 years, the ability to read approval and disapproval in others gradually returns to the frontal lobes. Now these frontal lobes of the brain are particularly active and the seat of deliberate thought and planning. This physical change now aids this stage of development when decisions and actions need to be made according to their own uniqueness of character.

I shall finish with a way of thinking about our own talents. The ancient East had a way of helping people to find out these. I am going to put up on the projector groups of dominant characteristics, and you can find the dominant characteristics which best describe you. If you are doubtful, think which category your friends would put you in! There is no category better than another.

Since Montessori, we have learnt more about the differences between the male and the female brain. The spatial area is much greater in boys' brains than girls'. Also, the latest research shows that when born, the heads of boys are slightly larger than the heads of girls.

There is a very fine book by a husband and wife, surnamed Pease, which shows why men read maps more easily than women and that they don't really listen when women want to tell all their ups and downs of the day! This is because men are by nature problem solvers and are already seeing solutions! We are complementary to each other.

Here is a list of character differences (there is no one that is better than any other):
  1. Principled and Orderly
  2. Caring and Generous
  3. Self Assured and Competitive
  4. Creative and Intuitive
  5. Perceptive and Analytic
  6. Likable and Dutiful
  7. Accomplished and Impulsive
  8. Self Confident Leader and Forceful
  9. Peaceful and Reassuring

They should use this list and work out in what ways these talents would be useful within their own community; then each person knows that they have a place within that society that is useful. Now choose the one you feel to be most like you and if you feel that another also fits you then have it as a subsidiary. Have you chosen yours?

Here are some of the talents arising out of your character that you need to use within your surroundings, your society, and for the world. Look for the same number that you have just chosen from the previous list, and then read what talents are within you for your character to use:
  1. Speak out for right values. Encourage order.
  2. Look after the materially and spiritually poor.
  3. Give confidence and support to those in difficulty.
  4. See possibilities and help bring them to fruition.
  5. Spot the difficulties and help solve problems.
  6. Popular and dependable.
  7. Use your active nature to help others achieve.
  8. Lead to promote true values: truth, justice, love.
  9. Help people to reconcile and now live in the present.

These are then your talents that you have a responsibility to use within your community, together with the basis of the major religions which are an integral part of our lives, giving love and respect for all Creation. Every one of our talents is needed and because of this uniqueness, no one is able to take our place! We each have our own part to play in the development of this wonderful and exciting world.