Discover the Child

Discover the Child
"There is a tiny light in the unconscious of mankind which guides it toward better things." "We must follow the child, but we must follow the child as his leader." -Maria Montessori

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Impressions From the 2013 International Montessori Congress

It’s difficult to explain why some moments are transformative. The 2013 International Montessori Congress in Portland, Oregan was a life changing experience for me. Was it the inspiration of great leaders, the magnitude of 2,300 Montessorians brought together by a shared purpose, sharing the experience with the people I admire and work with closely, the feeling of gratitude for the gift of this experience generously donated by our own Montessori community or the encouragement and reminders of reuniting with mentors and friends I haven’t seen for many years? It may be even more difficult to put into words exactly what I learned and to reflect on what these great teachers wanted to share with us. Eduardo Cuevas reminded us of Montessori’s message that observation is both art and science. The science is to deconstruct what we perceive into its parts in order to see all of the detail and the art is to reconstruct the whole, “So as to know, love and serve the divine in man.”

The closing keynote speaker, Dr. Vandana Shiva, touched so deeply in me the places that had been stirred by this experience. It is possible her words may best guide my attempt to convey the lessons of this International Congress. Dr. Shiva, an environmentalist, feminist, physicist, philosopher and founder of Navdanya, an organization that has advocated for and trained 700,000 organic farmers in India and created 112 seed banks for the protection of biodiversity, spoke so beautifully on the themes of love and respect for nature and life, that she rekindled a deep desire to serve and protect the the nature of the child and the child in nature and even more to live better.

She called for us to respect the perfectly balanced and diverse web of life and nature as a whole and to honor the sanctity of work. Her revelations of ecology and the protection of the seed resonated so perfectly with our vocation of protecting the life of the child to create a peaceful human ecology. She bravely defends the most vulnerable of humanity and has watched the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives due the the ecological and human disasters resulting from the destruction of ecosystems and the destruction of the seed, farming and farmers, yet she spoke only with deep compassion, not anger. Paul Hawken, an environmentalist and author pleaded with us to focus on the solutions, not to focus on the catastrophe, but Dr. Shiva lives fighting for the solution and showed us the way to compassion. It is from this place of compassion that I am moved to action, and I hope I to live and share her message and the message of Maria Montessori with as many people as possible.

Love, love is most important. To love the child is to love humanity and to love the web of life is the work of the adult. The balance of nature on the point of "the highest degree of turmoil," as Swimme describes, in a system of connectivity and diversity must guide our interactions with the child. While her contemporaries professed the ecosystem to be untouchable by man despite relentless commodification, Montessori reminded us that, 

"One thing still evades the intelligence of humanity and that is the consciousness of [our] terrestrial destiny, and that is the fact that the whole of humanity is so intimately united that it forms but one organized energy."

This image of the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101) from NASA's telescopes
depicts the spiral arms of the galaxy where stars are created.
Before the universe came into existence, there was a quantum void, Brian Swimme explained that the whole universe is a fluctuation out of this vacuum, not of emptiness but of enormous potential. The Universe exists in the perfect balance to create galaxies. The galaxies can exist in a precise pattern with swirling arms that give birth to stars. When the pattern is disrupted, star creation ceases to exists. It is so huge, so impossible to conceive of the greatness of this creation and our connection to this infinite energy, but the child, too is seething with possibilites and deserves the same divine reverence. He is made of star dust and has inherited 200,000 years of human understanding. If we protect the nature of this child, from her arms great things will be born, too.

"Protecting the diversity of the seed is our sacred duty," professed Dr. Shiva. To save our seed and its infinitely creative power, we must save the seed of our humanity, the child, from corruption because "No living being, especially the child is something that should be modified externally." Judith Snow, through beautiful story telling, revealed the truth of diversity and inclusion. Inclusion not only serves a child that we may label as disabled, but improves the development of all children and the performance of the teacher. Paul Hawken reminded us, nothing in nature is linear, which is clearly the case with the child. Neuropsychologist, Dr. Steven Hughes, shared with us the patterns of cognitive development for many children, none alike. Does it make sense, then, to present the same segments of knowledge in the same order to every child? It does not. Michael Gurian reminded us that there are certainly 3.5 billion ways to be a boy or a girl, but that there are tendencies for both boys and girls and we, as Montessorians, must maximize these tendencies. We must work with the nature of the child instead of against it.

The child, like the seed, has a great power for self-construction. Though he cannot choose his environment, he uses his human and physical environment to construct himself. The environment we create must connect to the child's inner nature and must connect the child to nature. What is the most important aspect of this environment? Dr. Adele Diamond, credited as one of the founders of the field of Cognitive Neuroscience, explained that love was the most important ingredient of any environment. Montessori explained, 

"The child draws love to himself and rapidly absorbs life around him, creates movement, creates language to express his soul born incomplete and uses his living environment to establish his personality." 

Diamond and Hughes explain also how the Montessori environment serves the nature of the child to be successful, not just in academics, but in life. The skills neuroscientists have discovered are most indicative of success in life include creative problem solving, flexibility, self-regulation and self-control, discipline and perseverance, a set of skills called Executive Function. The low teacher direction and highly-structured environment of a Montessori environment build opportunities for these Executive Functioning skills to develop. Hughes explains that almost every aspect of the environment helps develop these skills optimally for each individual child through the culture of the classroom and the repeated exploration of the materials themselves. He also explains that Montessori appeals to the child's natural modalities of learning- his senses. Through brain scan images Dr. Hughes explained how the child, with each exploration in this highly structured environment, becomes an expert at one skill in particular- learning. He asserts that the Montessori environment is perfectly adapted to the development of the child at each level from birth through adolescence.

It is a critical time to provide this education to the child. Dr. Reniero Regni, a Montessorian and professor at the university of Rome explains, "The Western World has grown into a great power that now has the fear of actually destroying the civilization that gave birth to it. We need wisdom to hold this great power and we must construct it straight away." Why don't we have this wisdom? Brian Swimme explains, it is simply because humans have never needed this wisdom. Surely, if the smallest microorganisms that gave birth to all life on the planted could invent photosynthesis to solve a problem of food shortage, humanity can certainly overcome the crises of our planet. 

The child has a true love of the environment Regni explains, and "What does love do? It transforms the world." We cannot curse our artificial nature, it is our nature to transform our environment. "Being anti-technology," Reigni explains, "is like being anti-digestion. It is our nature, but we can neither allow this artifical nature to destroy nature... We need to help man's work converge with nature's work." We live in a fast world that is only speeding up. How do we prepare the child for this fast world? Regni tells us, "If you want your child to go quickly, then slow down." The child's work is slow because he is constructing his neural network. We must give the child right now everything that he needs. Above all, the child needs to work. We often profess how must we love the child, how we want to do everything for the child, but we are not giving him what he truly needs because “Man builds himself by working. Nothing can substitute for the lack of work: neither welfare nor affection.” (Secret of childhood p. 262). To save humanity, Dr. Shiva explains, "We must reclaim work as creativity."

We've become disconnected from humanity and work. We focus on the commodities and profits produced per acre, not the health of the food per acre. Montessori explains, when we separate the child from nature the desire for possessions emerges. We've become focused on cheap, fashionable clothes, not the well being of the producer. Montessori pleaded with us to value all life, that no life is disposable. However, our educational system focused on creating consumers. Paul Hawken explains, "It takes $300,000 of taxpayer money to teach a child not to think systematically." A connected curriculum honors nature, but the world taught in disected segments to a child who is divorced from the work of his own hands, trains him to separate the products he enjoys from the human producer and to devalue work. We are reminded by Dr. Shiva that, “Everyday, every moment when work is about the serving of life, maintaining of life, renewal of life, it is a source of joy.”

To truly value work, we can look to the child. Montessori tells us that the child has an instinct for work, that an inner voice is telling him to work or die! The child has a real hunger for objects and movement, but what do we usually tell him? Don't move! Don't touch! The child's energy is channeled into everything he does and the child has great energy, but his work is strange, explains Reigni. If you ask a child to bring some water, he will bring the heavy jug sitting next to the glass of water and the more he works, the calmer and happier he becomes, but we adults cannot wait to rest and think of anything but work. Reigni points out, “The economist would not be in favor of the child, but because the child is closer to the powers of creation, perhaps he is more correct that the adult.” 

Just as it is for the child, it can be for the adult. Work and vocation can converge and, "Here the child is a master." Was Michelangelo racing down off the scaffolds of the Sistine Chapel to play bingo, Reigni asks? When the instinct of work is neglected, we think it is a true privilege not to work. If the child is divorced from his work and not allowed to explore his world through his senses and the work of his hand, he becomes disconnected and cannot find focus and interest. Without interest, he cannot find his purpose and will only become more distant and disconnected.

As adults, we must regain our powers of observation and relearn the art of putting all of the pieces back together to see the whole. We must be the child's interpreter. Montessori herself was a great scientist and a great spiritual being. Reigni tells us, If we loose the scientific aspect of Montessori, we become idealists. If we loose our technique as teachers, we will just have discourse, and if we loose our spirituality we will loose great wisdom.

There is hope for the future. Brian Swimme tells us that, "The Montessori movement is exactly what we need to develop the wisdom to act in ways that are mutually enhancing," but that we must not dismay in the face of many obstacles. Instead, we must consider the universe. Once, in a universe dominated by light, matter was something negligible until matter and light arrived in perfect balance and the universe as we know it came into being. It wasn't until the conditions for life on this planet arrived in perfect balance that, "What was negligible became stupendous." Andre Robrefroid, president of AMI, called for us to be "A new force in improving what we do, not discrediting what others do," and to "Increase the clarity of our message." We are truly educating for a more peaceful world and we can continue to look to nature for inspiration and to her many defenders.

Thank you to all of the families at Follow The Child Montessori School whose generous donations made our experience possible.

If you want to help spread the message of Montessori, please visit, Building the Pink Tower.

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