Schools for Individualists – Montessori’s Methods and Today’s Problems

Marsha Familaro Enright Interview – Schools for Individualists

In this 2007 interview by Sara Pentz in The New Individualist (link above), Ms. Enright explains fundamentals of excellent education, the ingenious ways the Montessori Method gives students what they need, how we arrived at the dismal state of education we have today, the dire effects of Post Modernist influence on education, and how she is bringing the Montessori approach to higher education.

Cover of Schools for Individualists

Cover of Marsha Familaro Enright Interview, “Schools for Individualists”

What University Education Might Be and Ought to Be

University Education As It Might Be and Ought to Be

Part I: What Is the Aim of a University Education?

By Marsha Familaro Enright

“Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.” — Maria Montessori

Standard education not only fails to teach the philosophy, history, economics, and politics of a free society, but its methods oppress individuality and instead encourage conformity and obedience. It does the opposite of teaching young people how to live as free, autonomous persons. For a detailed look at the collectivist and authoritarian purpose and history of traditional education, especially government-run, see my chapter “Liberating Education” in the book Common Ground On Common Core.

In the main, traditional university education’ methodology has been unchanged for centuries. Most classrooms rely heavily on an authoritarian, top-down structure of a single arbiter of knowledge, often in the position of lecturer, discussion leader, and knowledge authority, who conveys information to the waiting student-receptacles.

Of course, many colleges and universities are using all the bells and whistles of the latest physical technology, which makes the world’s knowledge available to their students through Internet-connected classrooms, cool electronic writing technology, online discussion groups, or handheld quiz machines.

But the more crucial and fundamental psychological and social elements to learning are often still ignored, especially at the university level. Yet, a free future demands more than the dissemination of information; where do free individuals learn how to use it in their lives?

Given what we now know about human development, learning, and motivation, education is ripe for a revolution in its psychological technology. Students need an educational program that embodies the ideals of self-sufficient, self-responsible, goal seeking, and autonomous individuals.

Furthermore, when freedom and autonomy are directly experienced, students become more engaged, interested, and enthusiastic learners and more often adopt the ideas and values of liberty.

Where can we find the kind of education that suits the development of autonomy? What specific considerations, methodologies, and curricula support this development? Such a system for lower education has been around for more than 100 years.

A Few of the Ingenious Features of the Montessori Method.

“When you have solved the problem of controlling the attention of the child, you have solved the entire problem of education.” Maria Montessori

When it comes to attention and learning, Montessori could have been talking about anyone, not just the child. Without attention, there is no learning. Attention is crucial, yet attentional resources (focus) are limited. They must be used well to efficiently learn the most possible.

Further, the developed ability to concentrate on work and goals and to self-maintain interest and focus allow a person to succeed in long-term projects and purposes. In Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, Jerry Kirkpatrick calls this “Concentrated Attention.”

In his studies on intensely productive and creative people, University of Chicago research psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pictured at left) found that certain conditions elevate the ability to pay attention, and pay attention deeply for long periods of time. He also recognized that specially designed practices in Montessori classrooms provide these conditions throughout the school day. His research group, including the work of Kevin Rathunde, found many exceptional outcomes from these Montessori practices. (A picture of an engaging Montessori material to teach geology is below.)

The use of the Three-Period Lesson is a case in point.

Much scientific research shows that humans learn best if:

  1. They are highly motivated to learn the material for some personal end.
  2. They are physically engaged.
  3. They understand the application of the material to their lives.

The classic Montessori Three-Period Lesson ingeniously engages human attention. With small groups of students, teachers (or “Guides” as we prefer to call them in Montessori) demonstrate learning materials specially designed to focus attention on an important concept, such as whole number versus fractions. Objects and materials incorporating shapes, colors sounds, and textures concretely make the idea vivid. These Montessori materials engage the student’s whole intellect, sensory, motor, and conceptual, thereby powerfully imprinting memory.

The lesson’s three parts are Naming, Recognition and Association, and Recall. The Guide gathers one to four students ready for the particular lesson, seats them in front of the materials, and then demonstrates their use with only the essential words, naming the objects. For example, the Guide might use fraction circles to demonstrate the addition of fractions. (see picture below)

These are sets of metal, pie-shaped circles cut into different quantities of wedges with little knobs on each wedge. One circle consists of 4 wedges, another of 12, to demonstrate fourths and twelfths while all the circles in the material are the same size, to embody whole number. There are numerous kinds of problems possible with these circles, including all the operations of arithmetic. In the most basic, the child can literally see the relationship of different fractional proportions by taking the wedges out of the circles and putting them back in—in different combinations. Each lesson demonstrates one possible use of the materials.

During the lesson, the Guide speaks little, allowing the student to focus and observe the demonstrated examples carefully so they recognize the elements and form associations. The Guide encourages questions from the students; she also, models curiosity, and triggers discussion with questions of her own when students are not forthcoming. Truly successful teachers are exceptional at listening to students’ questions, surmising what students need to know, and modeling and encouraging thinking.

After the fraction demonstration, the Guide asks the student to explain what to do with the materials to solve the next problem and moves the materials has the student accordingly. Finally, the Guide asks the student to demonstrate the material, turning student into teacher and thereby recalling the elements of the lesson, requiring a more complete level of understanding for the student’s performance.

After the lesson, the student is free to pursue more problems with the materials right then or use them later to practice when the student feels interested in working on the material (on the principle that one learns best when one is intrinsically motivated). The Guide regularly takes notes while observing the children in her class and if she finds a child avoiding some material, she makes it her job to think of a way to interest the child in the work.

A key to the Montessori Method’s success is ensuring that the amount of material conveyed at one lesson is not overwhelming but sufficiently interesting, i.e. just the conditions necessary for Flow. More frequent, shorter lessons with follow-up exercises are preferable to one long demonstration. Of course, preparing shorter, pointed lessons is far more taxing to the teacher, but the Montessori Method has systems to make this aspect of teaching less time consuming.

The Three-Period Lesson can be fruitfully adapted to many college-level subjects. In fact, some college classes, such as chemistry, often use a version of the Three-Period Lesson, with the experiment as the final student demonstration. However, as with most excellent methods, the devil is in the details.

Lectures in Their Proper Place

Lessons with materials and concrete experiences are not the usual in university education; lectures are the most common format. If organized well, lectures can distill a vast amount of information down to a few principles and key examples. A lecture can be an economical introduction to a subject. The best lectures essentialize the subject matter conveyed by the lecture.

However, as a method, lectures are designed to be easy for the teacher, not the student. They allow the teacher to recount his or her knowledge without feedback or interrupting questions and side issues from the listener. Although sometimes necessary, lectures are usually a difficult way to learn because they frequently run counter to human learning tendencies.

For several reasons, students must exert an enormous amount of attentional effort to stay focused on what the speaker says during lectures. A lecture requires the learner to mostly listen and look a little. Unlike learning methods that make learning easy, the lecture usually does not engage the whole mind, including vivid perceptions and imagination, or the body of the student. Listening and looking during a lecture involves little sensory-motor work, which normally helps cement learning in memory.

One of the reasons visual aids such as Microsoft® Office PowerPoint® are preferred for lectures is because they offer sensory stimulation, providing at least some perceptual imagery to associate with the ideas being conveyed. Although, like books, lectures can have illustrations, the student cannot study the illustrations in a lecture as long as he or she wants.

Human interaction usually helps to increase interest as well as physically engage the student, but during a lecture, there is very little interaction between student and teacher. Often the lecture is aimed at a large or general audience and thus cannot address individual student goals, interests and comprehension difficulties.

A student cannot stop the lecture to ask a question or request a further, clarifying explanation or replay what the lecturer said. Once confused, the student may find the rest of the lecture very difficult if not impossible to follow. Consequently, students often miss the important points and substantial content of the lecture.

In a lecture format, the best teachers attempt to address human learning needs by weaving their information into a story. Stories incorporate drama, character, values, passion, meaning, purpose, a climax and resolution. Winston Churchill was a master at this. This method utilizes human tendencies to search for meaning and purpose, to connect knowledge acquired to personal circumstances, and to remember people, places and things more easily than abstract ideas.

Excellent lecturers use plenty of concretes to make the information vivid and connected to real experience and, at least in imagination, to stir perceptual memory and bodily feelings of the listener. Imaginative work and bodily feelings help the student feel much more engaged in the material. Exceptional lecturer MIT physics professor Walter Lewin spends 30 hours and three practice trials developing each of the lectures for his remarkable classes.

The best learners are active learners. They can gain from almost any lecture; they come to a lecture motivated to learn for their own reasons. They expend extra effort in imagining their own examples in order to concretize the ideas they’re hearing. As they listen, they maintain an internal dialogue of questions with the lecturer, noting what they don’t understand and with what they take issue. They also tend to seek answers to their questions after the lecture.

Many teachers recognize that this kind of student is rare and usually has high intelligence, strong intellectual ambition, and great self-motivation. For the most part, traditional education methods do not nurture internal motivation and inherent interest in acquiring knowledge—qualities essential in the new global economy, which demands the ability to lithely move from job to job, or change careers.

A long school career of lectures, drills, memorization, and teaching methods out of tune with learning needs usually turns most students away from enthusiastic learning at school. They are only too often motivated mainly by external rewards of grades, adult approval, superior social position and the acquisition of credentials.

Unfortunately, lectures are so difficult to pay attention to, and psychologically painful for most students, that students work hard to avoid them. During lectures, young students often goof around; consequently, they learn that they are “bad” and “undisciplined.” They are expected to know how to force their attention on boring material.

Older students attempting to pass their courses seek low-energy ways to fulfill requirements while maximizing grades, such as the use of tape recordings, buying others’ lecture notes, or passing multiple choice tests without attending lectures.

These students aren’t inherently bad, they are responding to the high psychological costs of traditional education in a psychologically economical way. They more profitably spend their limited attentional resources elsewhere.

Sadly, they often feel guilt, frustration and anger for failing to live up to the traditional classroom’s expectations, with a nagging disappointment for what they’ve missed—or should have gotten—from education. Many students desperately need help to become “active learners,” interested in the material and in charge of their own education.

Integration—But Not the Kind You May Think I Mean

What college graduates do with the information they learn will now, more than ever, determine their competitive edge. Consequently it is imperative that education teach how to think, create and integrate what students learn in one subject with what they know from another with what to do with it to further their lives. Broad knowledge and capability to learn combined with the ability to deftly integrate new material into one’s repertoire is essential to become an adaptable Versatilist, capable of switching careers as the economy demands.

However, teaching methods and curricula need to take into account key psychological features that aid integration. Before valuable information and ideas can be stored in the mind’s subconscious, they have to pass through the conscious mind, which usually can handle only about seven discreet items at any one time (see George A. Miller’s 1956 psychological classic “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information“) If you’ve ever wondered why you need a list to remember what you have to do, here’s the reason, and it’s one of the reasons for the limited attentional resources of our conscious minds.

Ideas—abstractions—are the primordial human inventions that circumvent this limitation, because ideas incorporate myriad data into a single audio-visual concrete, a word or symbol. All instances of babies are integrated into the idea of “baby,” and you can apply what you know about babies to any individual baby you encounter. Voila! You’ve saved a lot of time and energy.

Ultimately, the integration of simple ideas, like those of colors or types of animals, into more abstract groupings like “mammal” make the human mind extremely powerful. Imagination and integration work together to produce the torrent that is human creativity. Integration of information into ideas and actions into skills is the psychologically economical way to use our limited conscious resources when thinking and solving problems.

The person who is a master at the careful, fact-based integration of knowledge is a highly effective thinker and actor.

This is the reason any good curriculum must emphasize work on subject matter across domains of knowledge, by studying works that integrate epistemology with poetry, science with history, philosophy with action, especially by asking students to relate what is learned in one class and course to with what is learned in another.

 

Part II: Creativity

Integration to Creativity

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.”—Richard Feynman

Integration of knowledge across broad ranges of subjects is a characteristic of creativity—and versatility. Research consistently finds that highly creative people tend to have very broad, as well as deep, interests and knowledge. They apply unconventional information and ideas to problems, integrating information in unusual ways across conventional subject areas.

Famed physicist Richard Feynman (at left) is a case in point.

Think of his brilliant demonstration of the space shuttle temperature problem, Challenger’s O-Ring: by dropping an O-ring in an ordinary glass of ice water, he simply and directly proved it could not stand up to low temperatures. His demonstration integrated an esoteric, bedeviling engineering problem with a mundane experience.

He was also famous for his wide-ranging interests, which included samba bands and experiments on ants. He put no limits on his curiosity about the world.

Feynman’s measured IQ was in the high range—124—but not what IQ test-makers consider genius (135+). Contrary to what many people think but consistent with research findings, most recognized geniuses do not have IQ’s in the 135+ range. Measured IQs of people considered to be geniuses are 116 or higher, apparently making an above average IQ a condition—but not a sufficient one—for high creativity. (Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity). (No one knows how individuals acclaimed as geniuses because of their work, such as DaVinci and Newton, would have scored on the test. Given the findings with current individuals, the results of an actual IQ test on Newton might surprise us!)

Unfortunately, IQ tests—and most tests—cannot measure working creativity and intelligence. In other words, they don’t adequately measure how intelligence is put into life’s service by creatively solving problems.

For example, the number of highly creative and successful business people who score average to low on SAT tests is indicative of the test’s inadequacy in measuring working intelligence.

Conditions other than IQ seem to be highly important to the development of creativity, conditions which we can create in educational settings, thereby enabling education to actively develop creativity, rather than stifle it.

For example, the tendency to amass information from close, first-hand observation is very important. Michael Faraday, (pictured here) exhibited this tendency par excellence as a young man: he had no formal education and knew only arithmetic, but discovered the laws of electromagnetism through fascinated observation of and experiments on nature.

A mind that is curious and constantly problem-solving is another characteristic of the creative. For example, the inventor of VELCRO, George Mestral noticed his dog became covered with burrs during a walk. Examining how the burrs use microscopic hooks to stick to the loops of his pant fabric, he realized he could make a new type of fastener. A little nature hike turned into a billion-dollar industry.

What’s needed in education to develop creativity?

“Our care of the [student] should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” — Maria Montessori

We cannot change what nature gives our students in terms of basic intelligence. However, we can offer a program that nurtures those abilities and habits of mind needed for creativity and productivity such as:

  • Objective reasoning skills, not just in science and math, but all domains of knowledge, including such areas as art, history, and literature.
  • Knowledge of a broad array of information, ancient and modern.
  • Habits of connecting information and ideas from one domain of knowledge to another (the way highly creative people do), by:
    • Teaching through works that are cross-domain, like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a work of moral philosophy that founded the study of economics, or Plato’s Meno, which examines history, epistemology, and social interaction.
    • Guiding them to draw cross-disciplinary connections by example such as how a city’s buildings and layout are related to its history; pointing out examples of the way in which original thinkers made crucial connections, such as Newton’s connection of the apple’s fall with the idea of gravity.
  • Curiosity through:
    • Encouraging their questioning
    • Modeling enthusiasm and inquiry about what is being studied
  • Careful observation of the world through:
    • Demonstrating careful observation and the relation of any idea to the facts on which it rests
    • Questioning the observational/factual basis of their ideas
  • Awareness and thinking about the meaning and purpose in life, by presenting a curriculum infused with deep questions which connect knowledge to living by:
    • Always asking what any given fact or idea means to human life
    • Asking of any knowledge: to whom is this information valuable and how will it be used?

Using the Great Books, what are often called the Classics, in the curriculum schools students in timeless ideas, of the best thinkers in civilization, useful in any era or place. These works are extremely influential today. They include works from philosophy to economics, mathematics to literature, history to science and more. Simultaneously, the Great Books’ authors and their ideas serve as examples of the highest in creative thinking skills.

Properly schooled to think deeply about these works, a student economically recognizes patterns, trends and influences everywhere in culture, from art to business, from job trends to medical discoveries.

One small example: Did you know that there was a time when people were confused about how something could be one thing now and another thing in the future? The ancient Greeks pondered this for some time. In the 400’s BCE, “What is, is,” said Parmenides, who believed existence is timeless and change impossible, a mere illusion. “I can’t step into the same river twice,” said Heraclitus, who argued that all was continuous change. The Greeks couldn’t reconcile how states and change could co-exist. How could something be an acorn now and yet the very same thing an oak tree later? They could not figure out how that worked.

It took the genius of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle decades later to resolve this problem with the identification of the concepts of “actual” and “potential.” Try to imagine our world without these ideas—how could we think about science and technology, societies or evolution?

Students need to learn about such great ideas as Aristotle’s breakthrough, along with the important fact that so much we take for granted in our great civilization was invented by creative individuals all through the ages. And reflecting on concepts that we take for granted raises students’ analytic thinking skills. This is just one benefit of studying the Great Books.

Knowledge Across Categories

Carefully crafted assignments, classes can purposefully integrate knowledge from one domain to another and encourage students to find connections between seemingly disparate material, just like creative thinkers such as Feynman and Mestral. Teachers can urge students to constantly seek connections among these great ideas and between the ideas and our contemporary world. Unfortunately, most college curricula and faculties make no attempt to execute these crucial tasks.

Discussing the place that a fact, idea or theory has in human life should be a constant aim. Teachers should consistently require—and offer–—proof for statements and beliefs, and explicit logical arguments. Everyone should examine the premises from which they draw their conclusions. Facts and truth, however unpleasant, should be the standard. By modeling and emphasizing these practices, faculty can encourage students to have excellent observational skills.

How to deal with unpleasant facts without denying them should also be a highly encouraged skill. Teachers who model such thinking teach volumes. And teachers need training to insure these aims—something which the rare university professor gets.

Ultimately, by consistently applying these practices, students will learn the skills needed to think objectively.

 

Part III—Inspiration

“First We Must Inspire, Not Just Inform”

Maria Montessori, pictured at left, noted that the student is a “spiritual embryo,” with his or her own innate pattern of growth ready to unfold, delicately and amazingly, given the right psychological and physical environment. The teacher’s role in this unfolding cannot be underestimated.

Maria Montessori said: Teachers “have to conquer minds stirring up the great emotions of life,” to achieve real learning in students. In other words, teachers must tap into students’ deepest desires and values, such as love, joy, and pride, to motivate students. And, although Aristotle’s dicta “All men by nature desire to know” captures the human species’ trait of curiosity, curiosity can be squashed through ridicule or sapped through boredom by teachers—or coaxed into riotous flowering.

Great teachers are often transformative to the student, helping him or her learn to love knowledge and serious work, to acquire heightened reasoning skills, to look at many sides of a problem, to gather information from far-reaching domains in order to find solutions and to be self-reflective and reasonable – all important ingredients to future success.

Famed investor Warren Buffet, who did not want to go to college, said of his time achieving a master’s degree at Columbia University, “But I didn’t go there for a degree, I went for two teachers who were already my heroes.”

These principles necessitate teachers of the highest order: those with the utmost respect for their students, who can teach by example and guidance through difficult material. To encourage the development of particular values and virtues in students, faculty become essential as role models. For example, by embodying great thinking, respect for independent judgment, and deep appreciation of individual freedom, the faculty model the very values of a free society, reason, individualism, and freedom.

While it is possible to be competent in communicating information and in conveying some of these traits long distance, in-person interaction is the most compellingly effective method. It’s important to have a program that actively uses technology of all kinds to creatively facilitate learning and collaboration and make scholars and public intellectuals from around the world accessible to students. But in-person classes with skilled, specially trained role-model teachers are indispensible for a great education.

Let’s examine some ways teachers influence students.

Teachers and Activation Energy

Csikszentmihalyi notes that human beings have limited mental resources and energy when it comes to paying attention (focusing on material), and these should be used wisely. Hence, a good program keeps these factors in mind and seeks to facilitate attention. And interest is one of the key ingredients to minimizing the use of attentional energy.

A small group of people, like concert violinist Rachel Barton Pine, seem to find riveting interests when they are mere toddlers. This kind of person often barrels full speed ahead in what they want to do; but most people are not as definite or enthusiastic about any particular interest. Teachers can make a difference in the subjects in which students become interested and even their choice of profession.

Often, a passionate teacher triggers an individual’s interest in a new subject. A previously unknown, boring, or distasteful field becomes the person’s area of professional interest through their teacher. I’ve seen many a student with no previous interest in, or maybe even a repulsion to, cicadas or worms, become enthralled with them after an enthusiastic teacher shows them the fascinating parts of the worm, the weird way the cicada flies, or how to eat it. The teacher fuels what research psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls “activation energy,” i.e. the energy invested in learning to do something new.

Many complex and deeply engaging areas of knowledge and skill require an enormous amount of unrewarding work before they become enjoyable. Ballet dancing, mastering physics, or successfully managing employees are a few examples. Initially, the learner must expend intense mental energy in order to focus on the learning and become interested in the subject or skill: this is the “activation energy.” Learning a musical instrument is a good example: the student spends hours practicing physical movements and enduring awful sonic productions before acquiring enough skill to make enjoyable music!

In the early 20th century, Montessori noted the same phenomena and realized its connection to teaching: “I believed that at the start the teaching material had to be associated with the voice of the teacher which called and roused the [students] and induced them to use the material and educate themselves,” Maria Montessori.

A great teacher like the character of Edward James Olmos in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” or Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” helps students through difficult material with contagious excitement and the ability to make it dramatically interesting and well-related to students’ deepest needs and values. This goes back to the principle that human interest drives learning.

Long-time Montessori teacher, Pat Schaefer, summed it up, “First: we must inspire, not just inform. Second: It is in relationship that the secret of [human learning] power is released.”

Teachers and Great Questions

On the precipice of full adult life, the college student needs answers to the great questions: “Why am I here?” ”How should I live?” ”How should I deal with other people?” “What should I do with my life?” If the student is not already asking himself these questions, it is his teacher’s job to show him how to ask them and how to find good answers.

Knowing how to pose the right questions can lead to a great awakening with unforeseen, amazing consequences. Forestry Consultant Charles Tomlinson often regaled friends and family with stories of his experience at The University of the South (called “Sewanee”) with “Abbo.” Charles claimed himself a rather complacent product of a middleclass Southern family when he encountered “Abbo,” English Professor Abbott Cotton Martin. Abbo spent considerable hours poking holes in everything Charles took for granted, from football to religion, with some English literature thrown in for good measure. This was Abbo’s stock-in-trade.

Abbo taught Charles to thoroughly question and examine what he thought he knew, as well as his beliefs. But Abbo didn’t just throw students in the water of quandaries, he made himself available to talk all during the week, not just during Sunday office hours. Charles learned to “check his premises” through Abbo’s prodding as well as reading Ayn Rand. The other wonderful teachers at Sewanee helped too. They inspired him to demand more of himself, leading to a long, creatively productive, exciting life.

This included deeply influencing many, many people, including Jaroslav Romanchuk, a major figure in the opposition to Belarus’ authoritarian government.

Active Listening and Independent Judgment

“Be “careful not to ask [your] questions of the [students]. Only when [students] seek to answer questions which they themselves ask, do they commit themselves to the hard work of finding answers that are meaningful to them…give only as much guidance and encouragement as is necessary to elicit the [students’] interest.” — Maria Montessori

Inspiration is the fundamental mission of the teacher, because of motivations’ deep importance to learning. Active Listening is a powerful teaching tool which promotes an inspiring relationship between teacher and student. For one thing, Active Listening conveys deep respect for the individual’s independence in thought and value.

Active Listening is a key skill enabling teachers to nurture independent judgment. The Active Listener authentically tries to understand what the other person means, empathizing with the other’s point of view by working hard to grasp his or her full context. This means trying to understand the other person’s level of knowledge about a subject, their age, what emotional issues may be affecting their thinking, and the set of ideas they are using to grasp the subject.

Active listening promotes the spread of truth. Only by Active Listening do we end up having a full idea of what the other person means and thereby gain the opportunity to respond with appropriate facts and reasoning.

Used in teaching, this means the Active Listener asks clarifying questions about the student’s terms, respectfully allowing the student time to finish what he or she is saying before responding and, importantly, conveying an attitude of alert interest in what the student says.

The Active Listener must try to leave aside any personal feelings about the subject and squash the desire to assert and forcefully drive home the rightness of his or her own opinion. These actions only serve to distract a student from deep thinking and learning by bringing in issues of social hierarchy, personal power, and self-worth (i.e., do I know enough, what does the teacher think of me, he’s got more status than I, I should listen to him). These issues elicit powerful, distracting emotions.

Further, the Active Listener tries to sense any motives in the student’s statements beyond the informational. For example, if a student in a class on Freud asks “What if a son is extremely fond and affectionate toward his mother—does that mean he has an Oedipus complex?” The teacher needs to be aware that the student’s study of Freud may have caused him to feel anxiety about his love for his mother. The teacher needs to respond with gentleness, general reassurance, and kindness.

Independent judgment is the well-spring of real choice, and good discussions nurture true individuality and judgment.. Unfortunately these days, teachers sometimes find it difficult to conduct good discussions because students have been led to believe all opinions are equal in value and everyone should open their mouths to babble whatever they wish, no matter how inaccurate or trivial. Resulting from the reign of the Post Modernist attack on objectivity, this belief cripples students’ minds by encouraging them to think that any opinion is acceptable, regardless of foundation, as long as it is theirs.

While stoking their egos by making them feel whatever they think is important, this practice stops them from learning that true, valuable opinion must be grounded in facts and good reasoning.

Postmodernist ideology further deforms a student’s concept of self by equating diversity with group membership. In the Post Modernist schema, one’s diversity depends on race or ethnic background or sexual preference rather than considered, ideological judgment. It promotes a collectivist concept of tribal or social diversity rather than true ideological difference.

In contrast, Active Listening in the classroom conveys a deep respect for the independence of the other person’s mind: the Active Listener takes the student’s ideological point of view seriously and tries to respond to it carefully. The aim of Active Listening is full understanding of what the other is saying in the service of arriving at truth. Just imagine the kind of productive political discussions we all might have if we used these principles!

Some people have a rare, natural ability or tendency to listen like this, but since it can be learned, there’s hope for the rest of us. It is also typical of the Montessori teacher, because of his or her deep training in careful observation of students.

For university students, we can bring together all the elements I’ve discussed through a special way of crafting curriculum by a special methodology which the teachers can use.

 

Part IV. Socratic Practice: A Methodology That Serves Young Adult Needs

“It is a sign of crudity and indigestion to throw up what we have eaten in the same condition it was swallowed down; and the stomach has not performed its office, if it has not altered the figure and shape of what was committed to it for concoction…Let the tutor make his pupil thoroughly sift everything he reads, and lodge nothing in his fancy upon mere authority…To the fragments borrowed from others he will transform and bend together to make a work that shall be absolutely his own; that is to say, his judgment. His education, labor, and study aim only at forming that.” — Michael Montaigne

Socratic Practice is a formidable discussion methodology that, when used properly, incorporates Active Listening at its best and nurtures reasoning skills and independence powerfully. Classrooms using Socratic Practice are active learning environments, intellectually, socially, and physically engaging. By encouraging the learners to ask their own questions of what they are studying, the motivating power of individual interest is harnessed. Furthermore, because they are so engaging, Socratic Practice discussions don’t tax attentional resources, making learning much easier and enjoyable; students often get into a Flow state, forgetting how much time is passing because they are engaged.

I am referring to a very specific, carefully crafted methodology of teaching, which I will describe shortly. Some of you may have been to classes called Socratic Seminars which are quite different from what I mean. In these, a teacher might ask a question like “What is justice?” and then proceed to tell students they’re wrong when they give an answer the teacher doesn’t want. Well, that’s wrong; Socratic questioning is meant to develop the student’s ability to think about a subject, not to test them and catch them when they are wrong or call them on the carpet for the right answer.

Teachers looking for the right answer encourage students to focus on pleasing the teacher, not on thinking for himself or herself. But the truly excellent teacher aims at helping students learn how to find the right answer themselves.

Students often view school as the place to feed back the answer the teacher wants to hear, not learn new knowledge in order to figure out the truth with their own powers. Teachers skillfully using Socratic Practice often have to spend time rehabilitating students after a lifetime of being told what to learn, what is the “right” answer—or that any answer is right, with no standard of truth.

Consequently, in the beginning of a program using Socratic Practice, the teacher (often called “tutor,” i.e. guide to learning) must work especially hard to shape the learning environment. Just as in any Montessori school, the prepared environment is a key to success in developing the thriving, independent-minded learner.

For the college level, these are the conditions that foster good discussion and develop excellent reasoning and social skills, as well as a strong sense of autonomy:

Physically, the environment must be quiet. All participants are required to respect the appointed time of discussion, with no phone calls, text messages, etc. They sit in a circle facing each other. Attention must be on the discussion, and all participants are expected to have read the assigned text.

Psychologically, the tutor shapes the environment by many principles. He or she requires a formal politeness among discussants, to encourage rational, civil discourse. Sometimes participants must address each other by title and last name (e.g., Ms. Smith and Mr. Murphy).

The tutor picks a text or work that has rich meaning and is well-made. It is most often a text but can be other things such as a painting, sculpture, building, or experiment. The Great Books classics are often used because they embody “The best that has been thought and said” and because they powerfully combine ideas and knowledge from multiple domains, aiding the work of integration. The right piece elicits many interesting thoughts and questions in the participants’ minds. This becomes the meat to explore in the discussion. The goal of the discussion is to reason together about the material, in order for each person to arrive at his or her own, independent judgment about the piece and the ideas and values discussed. Participants think together to think independently. The tutor guides the discussion by evidence-based rules as follows:

  1. Ask questions of the text and each other.
  2. Cite the text to give evidence for your ideas and interpretations.
  3. Try to make connections between the ideas in the text and what other participants say, and your life.
  4. Each person takes responsibility for his or her own learning and for the quality of the conversation; if you would like to change the direction of a discussion, please feel free to ask the other participants if they are okay with that; then if they are, proceed.
  5. Treat the other participants respectfully.
  6. References to material outside of the text must be cogently linked to the text and discussion at hand, and explained in general principle, comprehensible to general reasoning. References dependent on knowledge not available to every participant are not considered cogent to the discussion.
  7. Be concise.
  8. In the discussion, reason is the only authority. This means no person is the authority on the text, but each must use logic and facts to support their opinions.

Unless a student starts the discussion, the tutor leads off with a thoughtful question about the reading—or often a factual question if the material is mathematical or scientific. The tutor always finds a question to which he or she genuinely wants to know the answer. This initiates a real inquiry. Students recognize leading questions requiring prescribed answers—which cuts off the student’s own thinking.

Learning to reason objectively about complex material requires the willingness to entertain possibly incorrect ideas in order to examine them fully, to measure them against the facts, and to analyze their rational foundation.

The tutor skillfully encourages questions and comments evincing an earnest search for truth, while discouraging or disallowing talk in which the student is proving his knowledge or disingenuous agreement with the tutor.

For example, during a seminar on Aristotle’s Politics, the tutor might deflect a student who says “Richard McKeon says that Aristotle’s politics…” from lecturing about these details by a question such as “What does Aristotle say that makes you think that is true?” The tutor aims to bring the discussion back to the facts of the text studied, plus the student’s own experience and reasoning. In order for the discussion to be excellent, all participants should be able to judge the facts discussed for themselves, firsthand. If a participant brings up a lot of facts and claims he alone knows, how can anyone else examine those claims firsthand? Instead, the tutor encourages observations of the facts, generalizations closely derived from the facts, and conclusions reasoned from the facts of the work the entire class is studying together. Any outside material must be explained in general terms, understandable to general reasoning.

The tutor must walk a fine line, skillfully encouraging excellent reasoning while being careful not to discourage students from talking because they might have errors in their arguments. If a student is too fearful of looking foolish or feeling humiliated when caught in an error, he or she won’t explore complex ideas thoroughly enough to find out if they are true.

To help students be more consciously aware of how to reason well, both inductively (e.g., how to make an accurate generalization) and deductively (e.g., how to derive a conclusion from already-given facts and ideas) the tutor gives students extra, explicit instruction in reasoning skills and logic. Sessions on logical fallacies especially valuable in sharpening students’ awareness of reasoning’s pitfalls.

When Socratic Practice is implemented well, the group engages in excellent objective reasoning, learning from each other because each person brings their understanding and thoughtful interpretation of what the text and its implications mean. The tutor doesn’t aim at a “right interpretation,” yet it is common to see well-functioning groups reasoning together arrive at solid conclusions, conclusions an expert would reach, about the meaning of very difficult texts, whether Plato’s Meno, Einstein’s Relativity, or Mises’ Human Action.

An excellent seminar leader asks intriguing, deep questions respectfully, keeps discussion on important topics but lets students diverge from the set topic if it means exploring something important and meaningful to them. Clearly, much art and judgment is involved, which is why extensive training is necessary.

To be a good listener, a teacher must be a careful observer. As a scientist, Maria Montessori, incorporated the scientific method into her teacher-training program. She urged her teachers to spend time every day sitting back and watching the students work, interact with each other and deal with problems. In this way, teachers learn a great deal about each student, their interests, abilities and difficulties, thus enabling the teacher to guide him or her well. Observe, empathize, respect—these are the basics of good teaching.

The only way teachers can learn these methods is by intensive questioning and self-reflective experience. Guidance by mentors with great knowledge and skill, plus plenty of experience, helps. Such training should be a key component of every teacher’s education—yet few university professors get any training in teaching at all. Good professors know their area of expertise, from philosophy to physics. But whether they know the subject of human learning and development is idiosyncratic.

The evidence that the methods of Socratic Practice, consistently applied, increases cognitive skills is strong. Our advisor, Michael Strong, extensively discusses these methods in The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.

Strong established remarkable programs in four high schools around the country. He measured program outcomes with the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, a cognitive skills test correlated with performance on intelligence tests and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. Administering this instrument before, during and after a year at school, he found cognitive skill gains ranging, for example, from 30% to 84%. The mean score of one school’s 9th grade group moved from below the national 9th grade mean to above the 12th grade mean in one year, while one inner city student who scored at the 1st percentile on the initial test, scored at the 85th percentile by the end of four months. While more work is needed to fully validate his results, they were consistent from school to school. Any teacher would be proud to so deeply help students learn to think well.

Professor John Tomasi implemented this method in his hugely successful special program, The Political Theory Project at Brown University. He says: “Kids are sick and tired of being told what to think. They want to make up their own minds. They want to be challenged.” The kind of work done through Socratic Practice discussions of the Great Books does exactly that.

Scott Buchanan, architect of the Great Books program at St. John’s College, voiced the ultimate goal: “Have you allowed adverse evidence to pile up and force you to conclude that you are not mathematical, not linguistic, not poetic, not scientific, not philosophical? If you have allowed this to happen, you have arbitrarily imposed limits on your intellectual freedom, and you have smothered the fires from which all other freedoms arise.”

The Delicacy of the Young Spirit

Achievement and success require the vision of the possible and the ability to weather the actual.

To navigate the stormy waters of life, the difficulties, the disappointments, the setbacks and the failures, students need cognitive skills and plenty of encouragement and emotional fuel. They need great examples of other human beings who have successfully dealt with many difficulties.

As the scientific findings of Positive Psychology have recently identified, knowledge and cognitive skills integrate with emotional habits and character traits. Healthy, successful, happy people tend to have cognitive habits that deeply influence their emotional tone in a positive direction.

Models are particularly important as they provide concrete experience and A higher education program should always include instruction about human achievement and what makes it possible, both existentially and psychologically. Further, the teachers should implement his or her best attributes:

  • commitment to clearly knowing what he or she knows and doesn’t know (the first step on the path of objectivity);
  • passion for learning new material and integrating it with other knowledge;
  • commitment to modeling the highest virtues of the free person, including honesty, responsibility and respect for the rights of others;
  • commitment to the restless pursuit of personal improvement and growth;
  • willingness to submit to careful investigation and evaluation in order to improve.

Through embodying these virtues, the teachers inspire students to the highest ends of the free man and woman.

To prepare a young person for life as a free, autonomous individual, capable of making his or her own choices and putting them into action, an excellent curriculum should endeavor to educate the student in the full range of ideas, history, and knowledge. This means using the works of the Classics as well as modern science, and significant modern works, which should include the usually neglected works of the liberty movement. The curriculum should include the study of philosophy as the basis of all knowledge and self-understanding, but also take into consideration findings in scientific psychology and neuroscience. And the teachers and other staff should be available to help students in many aspects of their lives.

This way, students come away from their education armed with inspiring and invigorating knowledge, skills, experiences, and habits that help them achieve their goals.

Published originally at TheSavvyStreet.com, Spring 2015

The Problem With Selfishness

by Marsha Familaro Enright

Abstract

Ayn Rand argued that “selfish” is the correct designation for a person living according to the Objectivist Ethics, that selfishness is a virtue.

The accuracy of this claim is examined along with the meaning of “selfish,” the wider implications for the Objectivist Ethics, and ethics in general. Alternatives to the term are suggested.

 

Originally published in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Volume 14, No. 1 (July 2014), pp. 38-54, this paper is available on Academia.edu at

https://www.academia.edu/27018179/The_Problem_with_Selfishness_

The Habit of Hope

For most of man’s existence on Earth, the universe has been anything but benevolent. Famines, floods, and earthquakes have destroyed whole populations. The plague ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages. Even in the nineteenth century, two out of three people died as children. On the frontier, starvation was not that uncommon after a long winter or a drought.And these horrors do not even begin to take account of man’s inhumanity to man.What is my point? That for most of man’s existence, he has had only a tenuous power over his life, physically and politically. Life was full of uncertainties and anxieties, which helped to give rise to religions promising happiness in this life or an afterlife. Religion gave people a much-needed sense of hope.

Power versus a Sense of Power

That largely unchanging situation underwent a revolution after the Renaissance. The rediscovery of the power of reason and the development of technology enabled men to bring about a vast expansion in their power over their lives, and they came to expect that the future would see still further increases. And, in fact that is what happened. In the twentieth century, medical technology lengthened the average life-span from four decades to seven. Today, in the free world, men are able to control much of the impact of natural disasters. From an economic and technological perspective, no one in a capitalist society need go hungry.At the same time, however, the Enlightenment took away religion’s assurance that a benevolent force would look over men in times of helplessness and hopelessness and would compensate them hereafter for their sufferings. We became responsible for our own happiness

What can we do to sustain a rational optimism?

And what has been the upshot? Evidence indicates that for many, man’s increase in power has not brought a sense of efficacy. If we consider those women born before World War I, those born around 1925, and those born in the Fifties (the Baby Boomers), we find that there is a quadrupling in depression from the first group to the second, and a doubling from the second to the third. Why should this be, if people have continued to acquire more control than ever over their lives in the twentieth century?

One reason, I suspect, is the nihilism of modern philosophy: the lack of answers about the meaning of life and human purposes; the moral relativity that says it doesn’t matter what you do; the draining away of the sense that human beings are capable and worthy. I think these ideas have infiltrated the culture to such an extent that they are affecting the psychological outlook of a lot of people. In this respect, you may personally have experienced Ayn Rand‘s ideas as a great antidote. Rand tell us that life has meaning and purpose and that living as a human being can be a noble activity. Through the story of The FountainheadRand gives us one long argument against Dominique’s belief in the triumph of power-lust and toadyism over the true, the rational, and the beautiful.

Learned Optimism

Rand’s ideas, such as the efficacy of reason and the successful nature of life, certainly help us to be hopeful about our lives. But is there a specific technology of the soul that can increase our hopefulness and thus our motivation and our success? If so, how can we implement it in our daily lives? Are there specific psychological processes that we can adopt? Are there methods we can apply? And are there ways we can make those methods more permanent in our minds? I think there are, and I think the research of psychologist Martin Seligman, at University of Pennsylvania, helps provide some of that technology.

Seligman did some interesting experiments back in the seventies on what he called “learned helplessness.” He worked with two sets of dogs. One he put in a cage that they could not get out of. The other he put in a cage that they could jump out of. And then he shocked both of these sets of dogs. The ones that could escape their cages did so, and got away from the shocks. The ones that could do nothing to escape the shock became passive; after a while, they just lay down and took it.

You cannot directly change your emotions but you can change what you pay attention to.

Then, when he took the dogs who could not escape the shock in the first experiment and put them in a cage where they could get away from the shock, they still did nothing. And when he tried to teach them to get out of the cage, he had to spend a lot of time showing them they could escape. To be accurate, there were always some dogs who did hardly anything once they found themselves trapped, and there were some dogs who had been trapped but quickly learned later to escape. But the results I am talking about were averages.Seligman was fascinated with these results, because he thought the dogs had learned to be helpless, and a sense of helplessness is a key component of depression. So he asked if he could “immunize” dogs from this learned helplessness. He took a group of dogs and let them hear a tone before the shock went off. And he gave these dogs the opportunity to jump out of the cage when they heard the tone. The fascinating result was: these dogs never became passive. When they were put in a cage from which they could not escape, they never stopped trying, and they escaped immediately when they could.

Why? They had acquired a sense of efficacy with regard to the shocks.

Seligman thought this was an interesting model to apply to human beings because of the common feeling in depression that there is nothing that can be done that will make a difference. So, he asked: Could humans likewise be immunized against feelings of helplessness and hopelessness? To test this, Seligman put human beings in situations similar to that of the dogs: The subjects would get shocked, but some did not have control over it and some did. Fascinatingly, he found that some people always tried to get control and some did not. Seligman posited that the difference lay in the way the people explained the cause of their failure: whether they blamed it on themselves or on circumstances.

Explanatory Styles

Out of this, Seligman developed a theory of explanatory styles. According to this theory, there are three dimensions to an explanatory style: the permanence with which you think a cause exists; the pervasiveness of the cause, in other words, how universally true or how limited it is; and whether the cause lies within you or outside.  Seligman argues that these explanatory styles give rise to what we conventionally call optimists and pessimists. And he has developed an Attributional Style Questionnaire by which to test people. You can see more information about explanatory styles here.

In terms of the dimensions of these styles, I think the character of Howard Roark from The Fountainhead is a model of the optimistic attributional style. He does not believe that evil is permanent. He does believe that there are people he can reach by persuasion and by demonstrating what is good in his buildings. And he certainly does not think that failure is his fault.

You can pay attention to your possibilities. You can take an entrepreneurial attitude towards your life.

But I would like to examine one other aspect of the research in relation to the psychology of hope. In some experiments, people rated optimists and pessimists have been given tests in which they sometimes are and sometimes are not in control of an event, such as a light’s turning on. Pessimists, and depressed people in particular, tend to have a very accurate sense about whether they are actually in control. Optimists, however, consistently overrate their control. If the light does not turn on, they have some explanation for it; if the light does turn on, they think they did it. This suggests that optimists, if they are going to be rational optimists, must guard against a temperamental disposition to over-optimism.

On the other hand, I believe there is clearly a sense in which pessimists are also unrealistic. They may make accurate judgments about when they do and do not have control over an event, but I believe they make inaccurate judgments about when they could and could not get control over an uncontrolled event, because of their belief that their helplessness is permanent, pervasive, and personal. Unfortunately, I do not know of any laboratory experiments that have attempted to test this hypothesis.

The Real and the Possible

This brings me to the heart of my lecture. What can we do to sustain a rational optimism?

I think that fundamentally there is one important fact that offers us two keys. The important fact is that you cannot directly change your emotions but you can change what you pay attention to, at least to a large extent. This enables you to make yourself more alert for opportunity.

Thus, the first key is: You can carefully focus on the facts about your situation and yourself. Is this the way things have to be or is it just the way they happen to be? Is this the way of the world or just the way things are in my immediate surroundings?

The second key is: You can pay attention to your possibilities. Is this something you can change or not? You can take an entrepreneurial attitude towards your life.

Do not accept impossibility without overwhelming evidence.

To me, these are the two elements involved in having a habit of hope. Make it your habit to pay attention to exactly what is the case and what is not; what is good in your life and what is not. And make it a habit to ask: What are my possibilities? Be especially alert to whether there are possibilities for change which you failed to see before.

People can have a lot of limitations when it comes to what we would consider leading a normal life and yet have a very hopeful attitude. That has to do with what they are paying attention to. Are they looking at what they cannot do or at what they can do? Are they looking at what they do not control or at what they do control? In this respect, I think that success is: functioning up to your fullest capacity and being alert to all the facts and possibilities within your personal context. This means recognizing the barriers to your control: Are you a healthy human being or not? Are you living in a relatively free society or a relatively unfree society? In judging your success, you need to take these contexts into account.

To be sure, the conditions of success can be very complex. It is often hard to know what is possible, both positively and negatively. And this is one of the things that optimists and pessimists disagree about the most: the realm of the possible. The optimist says “I’m going to keep looking. I’ve got this idea and I think I can do it.” The pessimist has a million reasons why something isn’t going to work.

To say that is not to declare that the optimistic attitude is always the right one. As much as we want to have control and want to know that we can do things, it may be that we do not know-after all, we cannot know everything. But we can turn that truth around and make it an optimistic statement: “Well, yeah, I don’t know everything and I don’t know for sure I can do it. But I don’t know for sure that I can’t do it. And I know for sure that if I don’t try, nothing’s going to happen.”

Ten Habits of Hope

Following are some suggestions to help you develop a habit of hope:

1. Check your generalizations about the world for an “explanatory style” that is pessimistic, or unjustifiably optimistic.

2. Remember that, ultimately, you are in control of how you act.

3. When trying to determine a course of action, ask: What is the range of the possible? This is the most difficult judgment to make, especially when one is attempting something new. If the range is too restricted by one’s conception of the world, your hopes will be too few and too small, and your imagination and motivation curtailed: you won’t adequately explore the possible. If the range is too unrestricted by facts and reason, your hopes will be impossible and time will be wasted.

4. Do not accept impossibility without overwhelming evidence. For many, many situations, we do not and cannot have complete certainty about the outcome. But that alone is not reason to give up on a course of action. Develop a habit of looking for alternative means of achieving your goals.

5. Be alert to when you do not have control over external events, so that you can think of ways to get control.

6. Once you have a specific goal, identify obstacles to your success and the possibilities of overcoming them. Ask: What is the adversity here? What are my premises? Are they true? Am I making a pessimistic judgment or an unjustifiably optimistic judgment? Do not rule out a judgment just because it sounds pessimistic. Remember that you want to be “rationally optimistic,” not Pollyana-ish.

7. If you find yourself giving up, ask: What is my reason? Am I sure it is a good reason?

8. But ask about the chances of failure, too: What would be the true cost of failure? Can I bear it? Be sure to ask these questions early, before you have invested too much emotion in success.

9. De-catastrophize. Learn to judge the facts of your situation precisely and to take into account the available alternatives rather than leaping to the conclusion that all is lost.

10. Stop ruminating. If you fail, sit down purposefully and learn the lessons of the failure. Decide how to do things better. Then put the failure behind you.

Originally published in 1999 for The Atlas Society.

Teaching Freedom: Incorporating the Principles of a Free Society into Pedagogy

by Rachel Davison
Oak Farm Montessori School

and Marsha Familaro Enright*

The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute
Teaching Freedom Illustrations‎

Abstract

Free Enterprise educators are urged to examine their educational principles and align their classroom practice with their advocacy of liberty by providing a classroom environment that develops the virtues as well as the ideas needed to live in liberty. Such pedagogy has a direct benefit to the educator.  When freedom and autonomy are directly experienced, students become more engaged, interested, and enthusiastic learners and more often adopt the ideas and values of liberty. Combining empirical evidence from Socratic practice and Montessori education with research on development and optimal learning, the authors suggest ways to create such a classroom culture.

 

“To consider the school as the place where instruction is given is one point of view.  But to consider the school as a preparation for life is another. In the latter case, the school
must satisfy all the needs of life. ”
Maria Montessori (1994, p. 5)

I. Schooling Versus Autonomy

When we think of free societies, we often think of industry, free markets and minimal government. But real freedom starts within, with self-understanding, self-responsibility, self-direction, determination, and a nimble ability to adapt to life’s challenges.

If young people are schooled in the facts about the overwhelming advantages of a free society, and how to reason well about them, and they study the full range of great ideas, the likelihood that they will be convinced of the ideas underpinning a free society goes up greatly because the facts are on the side of freedom.

Yet, it’s one thing to be lectured to about liberty and the virtues needed for it; it’s another to know how to act in freedom. It’s valuable to know the ideas of liberty, but can you apply them in your life? Where do you learn how? As Aristotle said: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” (Book II, Chapter 1)

It’s one thing to believe in the ideas abstractly; it’s another to experience what such a society would be like—and to be motivated to achieve it.

To build a free world, we need people at many levels of society and in many areas—

business, the trades, the arts, medicine, journalists, as well as intellectuals and professors—with the ideas, values, and habits friendly to liberty. This is where a sound, liberal education is essential.

With history as the measure, it’s clear that free society advocates don’t need to be a majority to significantly change the culture. But they need to be a significant, knowledgeable, and active minority. Such a minority made the progress towards full freedom and individual rights possible in Britain; such a minority in the American Colonies was instrumental in achieving independence from Britain.

Unlike the American Colonists, none of us has been raised in a highly self-reliant society of the Enlightenment Era—did we have the chance to develop the habits needed to embody its values? To act in our families, among our friends, in our towns and cities, the way a free person should act? To have the skills and force of personality to implement the changes needed to make our lives better and freer, whatever our professions, associations and interests?

Educators familiar with the facts, history, and ideas of free societies and spontaneous order understand the value of dispersed and localized knowledge and the prosperity and flourishing that results from individuals peacefully collaborating as trading partners.

What they might not have considered is the way in which the classroom is a micro-society in which students learn how to behave in the larger world and whether their classrooms reflect the social relationships, the virtues, and the psychological conditions that sustain and advance the behavior of free people. Educators have the opportunity to craft an experience in which students learn how to behave as self-reliant, independent, self-responsible individuals.

The modern classroom, from grade school to graduate school, relies heavily on a structure of a single arbiter of knowledge, often in the position of lecturer, discussion leader, knowledge authority, and director of learning. Directed group lessons in traditional grade school and lectures in higher education are favored methodologies of the traditional method of education.

The teaching paradigm encourages an authority to convey the “right” answers to the waiting student-receptacles. Yet, this top-down environment is counter-productive to conveying the ideas, values, and virtues of a free society.

In the traditional teaching model, students are considered passive empty vessels, to be filled with knowledge by the academic authority, rather than active agents in their own learning.

This model is a legacy of the movement to economically mass-educate the populace and is literally based on factory organization, i.e. everyone doing the same thing at the same time for mass production.

How is a young person supposed to learn to be an autonomous individual if he or she is being treated like an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge? What opportunities are students give to learn and practice the skills of a self-reliant, independent, and self-responsible individual?

If we are aiming to foster a society driven by free enterprise, shouldn’t the pedagogy of our classrooms align with those values?

Traditionally, “learning” is measured by the amount of information the instructor has offered which the student is able to reiterate on tests and in papers. How does the instructor know if real understanding has been achieved? Whether the student has deeply incorporated the instructor’s information and ideas into his or her thinking? Whether the student can use this information in his or her life?

Consider the psychological effects of the traditional methods of teaching in which:

  1. The teacher is the repository of truth.
  2. The student is taught one line of reasoning given in the lecture or presentation.
  3. The student is the receiver, not initiator of learning.

In this paradigm:

How does the student learn how to arrive at truth himself?

How does the student learn that there are multiple ways of approaching a problem?

How does the student learn to find subjects of interest to himself, individually, and know how to go about the process of learning new material?

If students have no skills in these processes, how can they grow into autonomous individuals, arriving at their own conclusions and navigating all the choices and opportunities which freedom presents?

“‘Autonomy’ suggests, strictly speaking, that one gives or has given laws to oneself; that one is self-governing; that in essentials one obeys one’s own imperatives.” (Kaufmann, 1980,15).

The conditions of freedom cannot be consistently and sufficiently conveyed in a traditional, lecture-based environment because it does not provide the individual with opportunities to learn how to be a free, autonomous person.

Advocates of reason and freedom understand that the mind cannot be forced to accept truth. Nor does the social pressure of authority or peers result in a real understanding of truth, and certainly not the first-hand comprehension and autonomy of the innovator. Neither does a top-down environment cultivate an independent person’s ability to fight for his or her individual freedom.

To acquire truth, each person must observe and reflect on facts for him- or herself. Each person must compare and contrast, analyze and synthesize those facts, for him- or herself. Each person develops ideas, from those facts within him- or herself. Each person must integrate one set of facts with another, one set of ideas with another, for him- or herself. This is the only way to arrive at truth, since an understanding of truth cannot be transferred directly from one mind to another.

If a classroom structure can serve as the sandbox in which to practice how to live as a free person, then the independence of rational inquiry and the development of rational judgment, need to be incorporated into that sandbox.

Advocates of a free society understand the value and power of the dispersed and localized knowledge of the individual within the structure of a market, the creativity it unleashes and the flourishing that results.  In turn, the micro-society of a classroom structure that endeavors to encourage the exchange of ideas between individuals, while still incorporating the guidance and expertise of the educator, mirrors the creative process of the market. This is impossible in a strictly lecture structure, and difficult in many discussion structures.

Free society educators can endeavor to construct a classroom structure parallel to a market with a productive exchange of ideas between individuals, while still incorporating the guidance and expertise of the educator.

Such a classroom offers the student the opportunity to develop and practice the skills of rational independence, creative thinking, collaborative exchange, honesty, objectivity, justice, and honor—all skills and virtues valuable and necessary in a free society.

 

II. The Principled Pedagogy of Freedom

“The greatest [obstacle for] an attempt to give freedom to the child and to bring its powers to light does not lie in finding a form of education which realizes these aims. It lies rather in overcoming the prejudices which the adult has formed in this regard.”

Maria Montessori (1955, p.48)

Developmental and cognitive research, plus over 100 years of experience using the Montessori philosophy of education argues that optimal learning occurs through freedom within a structured environment, where the following conditions are present (Lillard, 2005, passim):

  • The instructor is informed about and alert to the developmental needs of the young adult student,
  • Questions are actively encouraged by classroom methodology,
  • Instructor’s activities are modified based on the interests of the students, within the limits of the studied material,
  • Activities are crafted with optimal learning conditions in mind, ones that engage the needs, attentions, and interests of young adults.

Methodologies rooted in the Montessori educational philosophy encourage individualism and self-reliance, foster individual development, unfettered creative discovery, exploration, and integration of newideas. In support of this claim, researchers have recently identified the unusual number of highly creative people who were Montessori students (Sims, 2011).

Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, French cooking evangelist Julia Child, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are among the many unusually creative and capable people with a Montessori background. Some insist this type of education was instrumental in their radical creativity.

For example, Brin and Page have identified the individually-driven exploration of the Montessori classrooms as a major source of their willingness to try new things and think out of the box again and again. (Goodwin, 2012)

The environment created in a Montessori classroom relates to the well-known facts of spontaneous order: The discovery of truth, the correct identification of life-supporting facts, is not a centralized, top-down procedure. Instead, it results from a complex process of discovery and argument, demonstrated through the history of thought and the progress of civilization.

Socratic practice, short lesson-lectures and self-selected research projects are examples of classroom strategies for higher education which encourage individual autonomy and contribute to fostering attitudes that are receptive to the complex ideas of freedom.

III. Specialized Discussion Methods and Individualism

“Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is     an individual annihilated, not disciplined.” Maria Montessori (1912, p. 86)

The classroom is a micro-society in which the social order emerges through the exchange of ideas and values, explicit and implicit, and from the way in which participants interact with each other according to the discussion principles.

The term “Socratic Seminar” is used variously. We are using it here to mean a very particular discussion format and methodology in which students are engaged in examining, analyzing, and discussing the material themselves, first-hand. They are synthesizing the information themselves, rather than having it handed to them. It is an active learning environment. Michael Strong’s book, The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice well describes this particular methodology and its benefits.

Socratic Practice harnesses important and powerful social-psychological elements that encourage a freedom-oriented classroom culture while increasing learning. It is a process of collaborative inquiry which develops fact-based reasoning, objectivity, listening skills, and team work for problem-solving.

Seminars run by the principles of Socratic Practice function as a market of ideas, where reason, combined with the invisible hand of individual self-interest, results in greater knowledge, reasoning, and social skills for all. As a collaborative learning experience, it taps into all the advantages of learning by imitation; it’s an opportunity to see multiple ways to reason on the same materials. Research by the Jasper Project on Cognition and Learning at Vanderbilt University shows meaningful group problem-solving results in superior learning (Jasper Project, 2000).

“One particular thing that I learned at Queen’s [College]—both from faculty and students—was how to work collaboratively with smart people and make use of the Socratic method to achieve commonality of purpose.”  Billionaire founder of Paypal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk

This method requires each participant to focus on what exactly is said in the text, and what can be surmised from it; the instructor guides the discussion with incisive questions and by requiring the participants to stick to the facts of the work when arguing their opinions.

  • All opinions must be grounded by reference to the work studied, developing the habit of fact-based judgment and objectivity.
  • The teacher acts as a facilitator, encouraging the students to use their own minds to find the meaning of the text; the teacher does not act as an authority on the text.  The best reasoning is the highest authority.
  • The teacher demonstrates and encourages questions and thinking in different ways when approaching the material. The points of view and questions of the different participants demonstrate how material can be approached in a variety of ways. This outcome encourages creativity by illustrating many ways to reason about the same issue. Consequently, not only excellent deductive reasoning, but creative, inductive reasoning is encouraged.
  • Participants effectively trade their knowledge and skills by example.

These elements work together to strengthen student reasoning skills and instantiate the value of individual differences.  Displays of inordinate knowledge about a subject are irrelevant and discouraged because each discussion member cannot verify them. This reduces non-productive jostling for social position. Reason’s authority is the great equalizer and students come to appreciate each other as helpers in their learning. This results in a psychologically safe environment, which encourages exploration and creativity.

At the end of every Socratic seminar, the instructor guides a “debrief,” a self-reflective discussion in which each participant comments on what went well and what could be improved. The beneficial effects are:

  • Significant improvement in the discussions from one session to the next by raising conscious awareness about participant actions and interactions,
  • Participants learn to be equally responsible for the quality of the inquiry,
  • A culture of equality among peers is established, including the instructor; the instructor and other participants values each individual’s thoughts and reactions, while the best reasoning remains the highest authority; Mastery Learning research on how individuals acquire mastery in knowledge and skills found that the attitude of the teacher seriously affects the students self-image and motivation, (Dweck, 1999, passim),
  • The validation of the person of each individual because each person’s participation with rational arguments adds value for the other participants,
  • The encouragement of the habit of taking responsibility, giving validation to the virtues of others, and working together in a rational way.

The discussions improve radically from one session to another because of the awareness generated by the debrief, and the expectation of achievement and cooperation. These methods benefit from the strengths of peer-learning and exchange (Brown, et al., 1989, Orr, 1987).

In Socratic Practice, the teacher uses his or her expertise to craft the entire environment of the class:

  • Physical:
    • Every participant sits in a circle facing all the others as equal intellectual explorers.
    • The room is well-lit and comfortable to enhance concentration.
    • No phones or outside distractions are allowed.
  • Cognitive:
    • Works are chosen and taught in a purposeful order, so that students can discover their meaning and connections themselves and find joy in doing so. They are invited to engage with the material rather than passively receive it.
    • Focus is on paying attention to the deepest meaning of the works studied and each other through questions of clarification, i.e. what does the other person mean?
    • Solid evidence and reasoning are required for all opinions.
  • Social:
    • The instructor takes a limited role and gives feedback in a way that is kind, but honest, encouraging student awareness of each other, and cooperation through self-moderated exchange.
    • Students are encouraged and enlightened as to how to respectfully listen by the instructor’s sincere attempts to hear and understand what the other is saying, before replying.
    • Students are responsible for their own contributions and encourage contributions from others.
  • Psychological:
    • Reflection at the end of the discussion about what went well in the discussion and what can be improved generates a high level of self-awareness and self-generated improvement in learning from session to session.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research on Flow, the psychology of optimal experience, shows that attention is the most limited cognitive resource (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). But it’s husbanded very well in this type of seminar.

  • Every person’s reasoned contribution is valued; being active makes it easier to pay attention,
  •  The specially selected texts are of deep interest about issues of importance; this makes it highly motivating to pay attention to the discussion.

These skills are enormously practical: a 2014 study by Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems analyzing Census Bureau data of 3 million U.S. residents found “the overwhelming majority of employers are desperate to hire graduates who have a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.” (Samuelson, 2014)

Lastly, students report that these seminars require the best of them; their best thinking, behavior, and awareness of others.

 “You see how much value you have to offer and to add to your own thinking. It’s not a zero sum game like in traditional education where you’re trying to compete with each other and there’s one answer. It’s not “the right answer”; it’s better and better answers. Everyone’s building a mosaic of truth together. We all study one text but there many objective truths in it, you’re benefiting from hearing all these different ways to understand things objectively and truly. And you realize you have something to contribute. It doesn’t have to be the perfect thing, but together it fits with what other people are saying.” –   Michael Natividad, junior, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

 

IV. Conclusion

“Be careful not to ask [your] questions of the [students]. Only when [students] seek to answer questions which they themselves ask, do they commit themselves to the hard work of finding answers that are meaningful to them…give only as much guidance and encouragement as is necessary to elicit the [students’] interest.” Maria Montessori (1937, p. 26)

Comparing this method to the regular educational system, this unavoidable feeling of frustration comes up: Why, with such a fantastic method, isn’t there a change? The passion in learning that everybody had is proof of this seminar’s effectiveness.”  Tobias Mihura, junior, Clarin High School, Buenos Aires

The authors are sure they have not communicated all the ways in which teachers of free enterprise can encourage the values of a free society in the classroom micro-society. We welcome suggestions and wish to learn from the skills of others. But we urge such teachers to reflect on what kind of habits they are encouraging in their students. We hope that we have triggered reflection on how to develop the virtues needed for freedom.

 

References

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 1, Moral Virtue http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.2.ii.html

Brown, J.S., Collins. A. & Dugid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, Jan/Feb, 21-42.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. 1991. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

Dweck, C.S. (1999).Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press/Tarylor & Francis.

Goodwin, Danny. August 31, 2012. “Maria Montessori Google Doodle: How Montessori Education ‘Programmed’ Google’s Founders.” Search Engine Watch.

http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2202181/Maria-Montessori-Google-Doodle-How-Montessori-Education-Programmed-Googles-Founders

Jasper Project on Cognition and Learning. 2000. Vanderbilt University.

Kaufmann, Walter. 1980. Discovering the Mind. New York: McGraw Hill.

http://books.google.com/books?id=iDIs2uDBaW4C&pg=PR33&lpg=PR33&dq=text+the+discovery+of+the+mind+Kaufmann&source=bl&ots=5XKEarOA2L&sig=jMucreJHHLLo8F_WSr-i4yRXetk&hl=en&sa=X&ei=LF48U6bLKuim2AXp9oCQDQ&ved=0CEcQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=text%20the%20discovery%20of%20the%20mind%20Kaufmann&f=false

Lillard, Angeline. 2005. Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Montessori, Maria, translated by Anne Everett George. 1912. The Montessori Method, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/montessori/method/method-V.html

Montessori, Maria. 1938. The Secret of Childhood. Bombay: Orient Longsman.

Montessori, Maria. 1989 (1955). The Formation of Man. Oxford: Clio Press. http://www.moteaco.com/abcclio/form.html

Montessori, Maria, 1994 (1948). From Childhood to Adolescence. Oxford: Clio Press.

http://www.moteaco.com/abcclio/childhood.html

Orr, J. (1987). Talking about Machines. Palo Alto: Xerox PARC.

Samuleson, Scott. March 28, 2014. “Would You Hire Socrates?” The Wall Street Journal.

Sims, Peter. April 5, 2011. “The Montessori Mafia.” The Wall Street Journal.

http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/04/05/the-montessori-mafia/

Strong, Michael. 1997. The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. Chapel Hill: New View Publications.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. January, 2014. “Liberal Arts Graduates and Employment: Setting the Record Straight.” http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/nchems.pdf


Acknowledgements

Ms. Enright would like to thank Rachel Davison for initiating the idea of the presentation leading to this paper as well as for her lovely work on the presentation, and K.R. for his encouragement and help with the ideas and vision.

Originally published at the conference site of the Association of Private Enterprise Educators. http://www.etnpconferences.net/apee/apee2014/User/Program.php?TimeSlot=12

 

 

 

 

Flourishing Through Education in the Creative Destruction of Capitalism: The Science and Educational Principles of The Great Connections Program

By Marsha Familaro Enright
President, The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute,
sponsor of The Great Connections Program

The Economic Stage is Set

In recent decades, the creative destruction of capitalism has changed the face of the U.S. economy, destroying many former giants of industry like TWA and Montgomery Wards, integrating others into colossal conglomerates, like GE. Simultaneously, thousands of new, small businesses grew from the work and talent of retired, outplaced workers. These developments were made possible by the adaptability and creativity of Americans.

Thomas Friedman’s 2005 runaway bestseller about globalization, The World Is Flat, argues that our remarkably cheap, worldwide communications technology is changing the nature of work even further. Internet email, Web sites, satellite links, and the rapidly expanded use of computer technology to automate many functions are unleashing change as fundamental as that of the Gutenberg press.

At root, these changes are empowering individuals around the globe. Most apparent is the ability of millions of people with good technical skills in faraway lands to offer excellent work for half or less of U.S. labor prices. “Global Outsourcing for the Little Guy,” in the Chicago Tribune (5/29/2006) reports on this phenomena. Web site designs that cost thousands of dollars in the U.S. can be created for $750 in India. India’s system of IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and the powerful ambition of its long-impoverished people make their huge population an awesome pool of talent.

Elance.com, a job-bidding Web site also mentioned in the article, empowers individuals and small businesses in the U.S., too. This website especially helps those with the creativity, adaptability, and great collaborative skills that have kept U.S. business in the forefront of innovation—and rich. These key ingredients enable individuals to offer unique skills and products to the market, thereby maintaining a market edge.

The Gartner Group, the technology consultants, coined a term to describe the trend in the information technology world away from specialization and toward employees who are more adaptable and versatile. The group calls the employees ”Versatilists.” Building employee versatility and finding employees who are already or are willing to become Versatilists “will be the watchword for career planning. “…Versatilists are capable not only of constantly adapting but also of constantly learning and growing,” says Friedman. These are people who have the ability to master technical knowledge and can easily adapt and move from one area of expertise to another.

The highly adaptable Versatilist can effectively move from a job requiring one skill set to another, like Marcia Loughry, whom Friedman interviewed. As her former functions became outsourced or obsolete, she moved from an Electronic Data Systems (EDS) word-processing job in 1978 to four other jobs, taught herself Novell Netware and acquired other skills and knowledge. Eventually she rose to one of the highest positions at EDS—enterprise architect—all through curiosity, learning, excellent reasoning skills, and a willingness to adapt.

“The deep technical skills around math and science are going to get you in the door, but they are not what are going to keep you there or make you wildly successful. What will keep you there is developing a broader view,” said Loughry.

What fosters a broad view? The ability to continually learn. How can we use education to nurture young people so they will be well prepared for a life of versatility? At root, human developmental needs and psychological tendencies must be respected. Teaching methods honed to fit learning and development can make all the difference.

The Montessori Approach

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori

This is not a new puzzle to those familiar with the Montessori Method. Maria Montessori used almost 50 years of observation and experimentation deeply informed by science to hone her ideas and methods on education. These methods stoke individual curiosity and ingenuity while ensuring that students master basic skills and effectively ingest huge amounts of information.

Although, in the U.S., Montessori schools are known mainly as preschools, many Montessori schools go through 8th grade and some even through high school. In the past 20 years, these schools have grown rapidly throughout the country, due to their superior system for producing knowledgeable, happy, highly motivated, and capable students.

University of Virginia psychology professor Angeline Stoll Lillard’s 2005 book, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, succinctly explains Montessori’s principles and the research evidence supporting them. The Great Connections’ approach grows out of the application of Montessori principles to the adult level of education.

“When you have solved the problem of controlling the attention of the child, you have solved the entire problem of education.” Maria Montessori

When it comes to attention and learning, Montessori could have been talking about anyone, not just the child. Without attention, there is no learning. Attentional resources (focus) are limited. They must be used well to efficiently learn the most possible.

Further, the developed ability to concentrate on work and goals and to self-maintain interest and focus allow a person to succeed in long-term projects and purposes. In Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, Jerry Kirkpatrick calls this “Concentrated Attention.”

Cskiszentmihalyi

Mihály Csíkszentmihály

In his studies on intensely productive and creative people, University of Chicago research psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi found that certain conditions elevate the ability to pay attention, and pay attention deeply for long periods of time. He also recognized that specially designed practices in Montessori classrooms provide these conditions throughout the school day. His research group, including the work of Kevin Rathunde, has found many exceptional outcomes from these Montessori practices.

The use of the Three-Period Lesson is a case in point.

 

Layers of the Earth Lesson

Layers of the Earth Lesson

Much scientific research shows that humans learn best if:

1. They are highly motivated to learn the material for some personal end.

2. They are physically engaged.

3. They understand the application of the material to their lives.

The classic Montessori Three-Period Lesson ingeniously engages human attention. With small groups of students, teachers (or “Guides” as we prefer to call them in Montessori) demonstrate learning materials specially designed to focus attention on an important concept, such as rates of change in calculus. Pictures, objects, sounds, and machines make the idea vivid. These Montessori materials engage the student’s whole intellect, sensory, motor, and conceptual, thereby powerfully imprinting memory.

The Guide gathers one to four students ready for the particular lesson, seats them in front of the materials, and then demonstrates their use with as few words as possible.  For example, the Guide might use fraction circles to demonstrate the addition of fractions. (see picture below)

Fraction Circle Montessori Material

Fraction Circle Montessori Material

These are sets of metal, pie-shaped circles cut into different quantities of wedges with little knobs on each wedge. For example, one circle consists of 4 wedges, another of 12, to demonstrate fourths and twelfths. There are numerous kinds of problems possible with these circles, including all the operations of arithmetic. In the most basic, the child can literally see the relationship of different proportions to each other by taking the wedges out of the circles and putting them back in—in different combinations. Each lesson demonstrates one possible use of the materials.

During the lesson, the Guide speaks little, allowing the student to focus and observe the demonstrated examples carefully. The Guide encourages questions from the student; she also, models curiosity, and triggers discussion with questions of her own when students are not forthcoming. Truly successful teachers are exceptional at listening to students’ questions, surmising what students need to know, and modeling and encouraging thinking.

After the fraction demonstration, the Guide asks the student to explain what to do with the materials to solve the next example and moves the materials according to the student’s instructions. Finally, the Guide asks the student to demonstrate the material, turning student into teacher and thereby requiring a more complete level of understanding for the student’s performance.

After the lesson, the student is free to pursue more problems right then or use these materials later to practice until the material is mastered, at a time when the student feels interested in working on the material (on the principle that one learns best when one is intrinsically motivated).  The Guide regularly takes notes while observing the children in her class and if she finds a child avoiding some material, she makes it her job to think of a way to interest the child in the work.

A key to the Montessori Method’s success is ensuring that the amount of material conveyed at one lesson is not overwhelming. More frequent, shorter lessons with follow-up exercises are preferable to one long demonstration. Of course, preparing shorter, pointed lessons is far more taxing to the teacher, but the Montessori Method has systems to make this aspect of teaching less time consuming.

The Three-Period Lesson can be fruitfully adapted to many college-level subjects. In fact, some college classes, such as chemistry, often use a version of the Three-Period Lesson, with the experiment as the final student demonstration. However, as with most excellent methods, the devil is in the details, which is why The Great Connections’ guides are trained in Montessori principles.

Lectures in Their Proper Place

If organized well, lectures can distill a vast amount of information down to a few principles and key examples. A lecture can be an economical introduction to a subject. The best lectures essentialize the subject matter conveyed by the lecture.

However, as a method, lectures are designed to be easy for the teacher, not the student. They allow the teacher to recount his or her knowledge without feedback or interrupting questions and side issues from the listener. Although sometimes necessary, lectures are usually a difficult way to learn because they frequently run counter to human learning tendencies.

For several reasons, students must exert an enormous amount of effort to stay focused on what the speaker says during lectures. A lecture requires the learner to mostly listen and look a little. Unlike learning methods that make learning easy, the lecture usually does not engage the whole mind, including vivid perceptions and imagination, or the body of the student. Listening and looking during a lecture involves little sensory-motor work, which normally helps cement learning in memory.

One of the reasons visual aids such as Microsoft® Office PowerPoint® are preferred for lectures is because they offer sensory stimulation, providing at least some perceptual imagery to associate with the ideas being conveyed. Although, like books, lectures can have illustrations, the student cannot study the illustrations in a lecture as long as he or she wants.

Human interaction usually helps to increase interest as well as physically engage the student, but during a lecture, there is very little interaction between student and teacher. Often the lecture is aimed at a large or general audience and thus cannot address individual student goals, interests and comprehension difficulties.

A student cannot stop the lecture to ask a question or request a further, clarifying explanation or replay what the lecturer said. Once confused, the student may find the rest of the lecture very difficult if not impossible to follow. Consequently, students often miss the important points and substantial content of the lecture.

In a lecture format, the best teachers attempt to address human learning needs by weaving their information into a story. Stories incorporate drama, character, values, passion, meaning, purpose, a climax and resolution. Winston Churchill was a master at this. This method utilizes human tendencies to search for meaning and purpose, to connect knowledge acquired to personal circumstances, and to remember people, places and things more easily than abstract ideas.

Excellent lecturers use plenty of concretes to make the information vivid and connected to real experience and, at least in imagination, to stir perceptual memory and bodily feelings of the listener. Imaginative work and bodily feelings help the student feel much more engaged in the material. Exceptional lecturer MIT physics professor Walter Lewin spends 30 hours and three practice trials developing each of the lectures for his remarkable classes.

The best learners are active learners. They can gain from almost any lecture; they come to a lecture motivated to learn for their own reasons. They expend extra effort in imagining their own examples in order to concretize the ideas they’re hearing. As they listen, they maintain an internal dialogue of questions with the lecturer, noting what they don’t understand and with what they take issue. They also tend to seek answers to their questions after the lecture.

Many teachers recognize that this kind of student is rare and usually has high intelligence, strong intellectual ambition, and great self-motivation. For the most part, traditional education methods do not nurture internal motivation and inherent interest in acquiring knowledge—qualities essential in the new global economy.

A long school career of lectures, drills, memorization, and teaching methods out of tune with learning needs usually turns most students away from enthusiastic learning at school. They are only too often motivated mainly by external rewards of grades, adult approval, superior social position and the acquisition of credentials.

Unfortunately, lectures are so difficult to pay attention to, and psychologically painful for most students, that students work hard to avoid them. During lectures, young students often goof around; consequently, they learn that they are “bad” and “undisciplined.” They are expected to know how to force their attention on boring material.

Older students attempting to pass their courses seek low-energy ways to fulfill requirements while maximizing grades, such as the use of tape recordings, buying others’ lecture notes, or passing multiple choice tests without attending lectures.

These students aren’t inherently bad, they are responding to the high psychological costs of traditional education in a psychologically economical way. They more profitably spend their limited attentional resources elsewhere.

Sadly, they often feel guilt, frustration and anger for failing to live up to the traditional classroom’s expectations, with a nagging disappointment for what they’ve missed—or should have gotten—from education. Many students desperately need help to become “active learners,” interested in the material and in charge of their own education.

These are some of the reasons we at The Great Connections program are so bent on instituting the best learning environment possible. The best methods result not only in superior knowledge but also in the development of highly needed motivation and self-confidence.

Integration

What college graduates do with the information they learn will now, more than ever, determine their competitive edge. Consequently it is imperative that education teach how to think, create and integrate. Broad knowledge and capability to learn combined with the ability to deftly integrate new material into one’s repertoire is essential to the adaptable Versatilist. The liberal arts and sciences studied at The Great Connections program is specifically designed to develop these qualities in students, even if they’ve endured a lifetime of lectures.

Developing broad knowledge is directly related to the work of integration. Before valuable information and ideas can be stored in the mind’s subconscious, they have to pass through the conscious mind, which usually can handle only about seven discreet items at any one time (see George A. Miller’s 1956 psychological classic “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information“) If you’ve ever wondered why you need a list to remember what you have to do, here’s the reason, and it’s one of the reasons for our limited attentional resources.

Ideas—abstractions—are the primordial human inventions that circumvent this limitation, because ideas incorporate myriad data into a single audio-visual concrete, a word or symbol. All instances of babies are integrated into the idea of “baby,” and you can apply what you know about babies to any individual baby you encounter. Voila! You’ve saved a lot of time and energy.

Ultimately, the integration of simple ideas, like those of colors or types of animals, into more abstract groupings like “mammal” make the human mind extremely powerful. Imagination and integration work together to produce the torrent that is human creativity. Integration of information into ideas and actions into skills is the psychologically economical way to use our limited conscious resources when thinking and solving problems.

The person who is a master at the careful, fact-based integration of knowledge is a highly effective thinker.

This is the reason the curriculum of The Great Connections emphasizes work on subject matter across domains of knowledge, studying books that integrate philosophy with economics, epistemology with poetry. Further, integration is encouraged by the consistent emphasis on asking students to relate what is learned in one class and course to another.

Creativity

Integration of knowledge across broad ranges of subjects is a characteristic of creativity—and versatility. Research consistently finds that highly creative people tend to have very broad, as well as deep, interests and knowledge. They apply unconventional information and ideas to problems, integrating information in unusual ways across conventional subject areas.

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman

Famed physicist Richard Feynman is a case in point. Think of his brilliant demonstration of the space shuttle temperature problem, Challenger’s O-Ring: by dropping an O-ring in an ordinary glass of ice water, he simply and directly proved it could not stand up to low temperatures. His demonstration integrated an esoteric, bedeviling engineering problem with a mundane experience.

He was also famous for his wide-ranging interests, which included samba bands and experiments on ants. He put no limits on his curiosity about the world. Feynman’s measured IQ was in the high range—124—but not what IQ test-makers consider genius (135+). Contrary to traditional thought but consistent with research findings, most recognized geniuses do not have IQ’s in the 135+ range. (No one knows how individuals acclaimed as geniuses because of their work, such as DaVinci and Newton, would have scored on the test. Given the findings with current individuals, the results of an actual IQ test on Newton might surprise us!) Measured IQs of people considered to be geniuses are 116 or higher, apparently making an above average IQ a condition—but not a sufficient one—for high creativity. (Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity).

“What I cannot create, I do not understand” Richard Feynman

Unfortunately, IQ tests—and most tests—cannot measure working creativity and intelligence. In other words, they don’t adequately measure how intelligence is put into life’s service by creatively solving problems .

The number of highly creative and successful business people who score average to low on SAT tests, for example, is indicative of the test’s inadequacy in measuring working intelligence.

Besides IQ, other conditions seem to be equally important to the development of creativity, conditions which we can create in educational settings, thereby enabling education to make a significant difference.

For example, the tendency to amass information from close, first-hand observation

Michael Faraday

Michael Faraday

is very important. Michael Faraday, pictured here, exhibited this tendency par excellence as a young man: he had no formal education and knew only arithmetic, but discovered the laws of electromagnetism through fascinated observation of and experiments on nature.

A mind that is curious and constantly problem solving is another characteristic of the creative. Take the inventor of VELCRO, George Mestral, for instance. He and his dog became covered with burrs during a walk. Examining how the burrs use microscopic hooks to stick to the loops of his pant fabric, he realized he could make a new type of fastener. A little nature hike turned into a billion-dollar industry.

What’s needed in education to develop creativity?

We cannot change what nature gives our students in terms of basic intelligence. However, we can offer a program that nurtures those abilities and habits of mind that are known to be needed for creativity and productivity such as:

  • Develops their objective reasoning skills, not just in science and math, but all domains of knowledge, including such areas as art, history, and literature.
  • Not only informs students, but provides them with a broad array of information, ancient and modern.
  • Guides them in connecting information and ideas from one domain of knowledge to another (the way highly creative people do), by:
    • Teaching through works that are cross-domain, like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a work of moral philosophy that founded the study of economics
    • Guiding them to draw cross-disciplinary connections by example; pointing out examples of the way in which original thinkers do this.
  • Encourages their curiosity by:
    • Encouraging their questioning
    • Modeling enthusiasm and curiosity in what is being studied
  • Encourages their careful observation of the world through:
    • Demonstrating careful observation and the relation of any idea to the facts on which it rests
    • Questioning the observational/factual basis of their ideas
  • A curriculum infused with deep questions about meaning and purpose, which connects knowledge to living by:
    • Always asking what any given fact or idea means to human life
    • Asking of any knowledge: to whom is this information valuable and how will it be used?

Using the Great Books, our curriculum schools students in timeless ideas, useful in any era or place, by the best thinkers in civilization. These works are extremely influential today. They include works from philosophy to economics, mathematics to literature, history to science and more. Simultaneously, the the Great Books’ authors and their ideas serve as examples of the highest in creative thinking skills.

Properly schooled to think deeply about these works, a student economically recognizes patterns, trends and influences everywhere in culture, from art to business, from job trends to medical discoveries.

One small example: Did you know that there was a time when people were confused about how something could be one thing now and another thing in the future? How could something be an acorn now and yet the very same thing is an oak tree later? They could not figure out how that worked. I’m sure you all take for granted the idea that something can actually be one thing yet potentially another—like a baby is potentially an adult human.

However, it took the genius of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle to resolve this problem with the identification of the concepts of “actual” and “potential.” Try to imagine our world without these ideas—how could we think about science and technology, among many other things.

Our students learn about such great ideas as Aristotle’s breakthrough, along with the important fact that so much we take for granted in our great civilization was invented by creative individuals all through the ages. Further, reflecting on concepts that we take for granted raises the students’ analytic thinking skills. This is just one benefit of studying the Great Books.

Knowledge Across Categories

Through use of the Great Books coupled with assignments posed by our teachers, our classes purposefully integrate knowledge from one domain to another and encourage students to find connections between seemingly disparate material, just like creative thinkers such as Feynman and Mestral. Teachers urge students to constantly seek connections among these great ideas and between the ideas and our contemporary world. Unfortunately, most college curriculums and faculties make no attempt to execute these crucial tasks.

Discussing the place that a fact, idea or theory has in human life is a constant aim. Teachers consistently require—and offer–—proof for statements and beliefs and explicit logical arguments. Everyone checks their premises. Facts and truth, however unpleasant, are the standard. By modeling and emphasizing these practices, our faculty encourage our students to have excellent observational skills.

How to deal with unpleasant facts without denying them is also a highly encouraged skill. Teachers who model such thinking teach volumes. Our special teacher training ensures these aims.

Ultimately, students will learn the skills needed to think objectively.

Collaboration and Teamwork

With the special methods we use, an elaboration of Socratic Practice (Collaborative Inquiry methods), students learn to deeply understand others’ points of view and communicate their own clearly. These skills are crucial to successful teamwork in any profession, as well as life in general. Our Advisor Michael Strong is an international expert in this method.

When The Great Connections is implemented as a full time program, students will participate in collaborative research work and business internships throughout the year. Explicitly tied to the curriculum and to individual professions that students want to explore, these internships will greatly enhance teamwork skills.

These activities and more will give students a breadth of experience as well as a breadth of thinking so important to the creative Versatilist.

Lastly, the close, in-person interaction of students and faculty as well as outside experts and special guests in and out of class facilitate development of these skills and further nurture the kind of deep, thoughtful examination of ideas, thinking, purposes and assumptions that  are so radically life-changing and empowering.

“First We Must Inspire, Not Just Inform”

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori

By embodying great thinking, respect for independent judgment, and deep appreciation of individual freedom, the faculty model the very values on which the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute is founded.

The student is a “spiritual embryo,” with his or her own innate pattern of growth ready to unfold, delicately and amazingly, given the right psychological and physical environment. The teacher’s role in this unfolding cannot be underestimated.

Maria Montessori said: Teachers “have to conquer minds stirring up the great emotions of life,” to achieve real learning in students. In other words, teachers must tap into students’ deepest desires and values, such as love, joy, and pride, to motivate students. And, although Aristotle’s dicta “All men by nature desire to know” captures the human species’ trait of curiosity, curiosity can be squashed through ridicule or sapped through boredom by teachers—or coaxed into riotous flowering.

Great teachers are often transformative to the student, helping him or her learn to love knowledge and serious work, to acquire heightened reasoning skills, to look at many sides of a problem, to gather information from far-reaching domains in order to find solutions and to be self-reflective and reasonable – all important ingredients to future success.

Famed investor Warren Buffet, who did not want to go to college, said of his time achieving a master’s degree at Columbia University, “But I didn’t go there for a degree, I went for two teachers who were already my heroes.”

These principles necessitate teachers of the highest order: those with the utmost respect for their students, who can teach by example and guidance through difficult material.

While it is possible to be competent in communicating information and in conveying some of these traits long distance, in-person interaction is the most compellingly effective method. We actively seek technology of all kinds to creatively facilitate learning and collaboration and make scholars and public intellectuals from around the world accessible to our students. However, classes are in person with skilled and specially trained teachers.

Let’s examine some ways teachers influence students.

Teachers and Activation Energy

Csikszentmihalyi notes that human beings have limited mental resources and energy when it comes to paying attention (focusing on material), and these should be used wisely. Hence, our program keeps these factors in mind and seeks to facilitate attention.

A small group of people, like concert violinist Rachel Barton Pine, seem to find riveting interests when they are mere toddlers. This kind of person often barrels full speed ahead in what they want to do; but most people are not as definite or enthusiastic about any particular interest. Teachers can make a difference in the subjects in which students become interested and even their choice of profession.

Often, a passionate teacher triggers an individual’s interest in a new subject. A previously unknown, boring, or distasteful field becomes the person’s area of professional interest through their teacher. I’ve seen many a student with no previous interest in, or maybe even a repulsion to, cicadas or worms become enthralled with them after an enthusiastic teacher shows them the interesting parts of the worm or the weird way the cicada flies. The teacher fuels what research psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls “activation energy.”

Many complex and deeply engaging areas of knowledge and skill require an enormous amount of unrewarding work before they become enjoyable. Ballet dancing, mastering physics, or successfully managing employees are a few examples. Initially the learner must expend intense mental energy in order to focus on the learning: this is the “activation energy.” Learning a musical instrument is a good example: the student spends hours practicing physical movements and enduring awful sonic productions before acquiring enough skill to make enjoyable music!

In the early 20th century, Montessori noted the same phenomena and realized its connection to teaching: “I believed that at the start the teaching material had to be associated with the voice of the teacher which called and roused the [students] and induced them to use the material and educate themselves,” Maria Montessori.

A great teacher like the character of Edward James Olmos in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” or Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” helps students through difficult material with contagious excitement and the ability to make it dramatically interesting and well-related to students’ deepest needs and values.

Long-time Montessori teacher Pat Schaefer summed it up, “First: we must inspire, not just inform. Second: It is in relationship that the secret of [human learning] power is released.”

Teachers and Great Questions

On the precipice of full adult life, the college student needs answers to the great questions: “Why am I here?” ”How should I live?” ”How should I deal with other people?” “What should I do with my life?” If the student is not already asking himself these questions, it is his teacher’s job to show him how to ask them and how to find good answers.

Knowing how to pose the right questions can lead to a great awakening with unforeseen, amazing consequences. Forestry Consultant Charles Tomlinson often regaled friends and family with stories of his experience at The University of the South (called “Sewanee”) with “Abbo.” Charles claimed himself a rather complacent product of a middleclass Southern family when he encountered “Abbo,” English Professor Abbott Cotton Martin. Abbo spent considerable hours poking holes in everything Charles took for granted, from football to religion, with some English literature thrown in for good measure. This was Abbo’s stock-in-trade.

Abbo taught Charles to thoroughly question and examine what he thought he knew, as well as his beliefs. But Abbo didn’t just throw students in the water of quandaries, he made himself available to talk all during the week, not just during Sunday office hours. Charles learned to “check his premises” through Abbo’s prodding as well as reading Ayn Rand. The other wonderful teachers at Sewanee helped too. They inspired him to demand more of himself, leading to a long, creatively productive, exciting life.

This included deeply influencing many, many people, including Jaroslav Romanchuk, a major figure in the opposition to Belarus’ authoritarian government.

Active Listening and Independent Judgment

Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.
Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952)

Inspiration is the fundamental mission of the teacher, because of motivations’ deep importance to learning. Active Listening is a powerful teaching tool which promotes an inspiring relationship between teacher and student. For one thing, Active Listening conveys deep respect for the individual’s independence in thought and value.

“Be “careful not to ask [your] questions of the [students]. Only when [students] seek to answer questions which they themselves ask, do they commit themselves to the hard work of finding answers that are meaningful to them…give only as much guidance and encouragement as is necessary to elicit the [students’] interest.” Maria Montessori

 

Active listeningActive Listening is a key skill enabling teachers to nurture independent judgment. The Active Listener authentically tries to understand what the other person means, empathizing with the other’s point of view by working hard to grasp his or her full context. This means trying to understand the other person’s level of knowledge about a subject, their age, what emotional issues may be affecting their thinking, and the set of ideas they are using to grasp the subject.

 

Used in teaching, this means the Active Listener asks clarifying questions about the student’s terms, respectfully allowing the student time to finish what he or she is saying before responding and, importantly, conveying an attitude of alert interest in what the student says.

The Active Listener must try to leave aside any personal feelings about the subject and squash the desire to assert and forcefully drive home the rightness of his or her own opinion. These actions only serve to distract a student from deep thinking and learning by bringing in issues of social hierarchy, personal power, and self-worth (i.e., do I know enough, what does the teacher think of me, he’s got more status than I, I should listen to him). These issues elicit powerful, distracting emotions.

Further, the Active Listener tries to sense any motives in the student’s statements beyond the informational. For example, if a student in a class on Freud asks “What if a son is extremely fond and affectionate toward his mother—does that mean he has an Oedipus complex?” The teacher needs to be aware that the student may be feeling anxiety about his love for his mother and respond with gentleness, general reassurance, and kindness.

Active Listening promotes the spread of truth. Only by Active Listening do we end up having a full idea of what the other person means and thereby gain the opportunity to respond with appropriate facts and reasoning.

Independent judgment is the well-spring of real choice, and true individuality and judgment is well-developed through good discussion. Unfortunately, these days teachers sometimes find it difficult to conduct good discussions because students have been led to believe all opinions are equal in value and everyone should open their mouths to babble whatever they wish, no matter how inaccurate or trivial. Resulting from the reign of the Post Modernist attack on objectivity, this belief cripples students’ minds by encouraging them to think that any opinion is acceptable, regardless of foundation, as long as it is theirs.

While stoking their egos by making them feel whatever they think is important, this practice stops them from learning that true, valuable opinion must be grounded in facts and good reasoning.

Postmodernist ideology further deforms a student’s concept of self by equating diversity with group membership. In the Post Modernist schema, one’s diversity depends on race or ethnic background or sexual preference rather than considered, ideological judgment. It promotes a concept of tribal or social diversity rather than true ideological difference.

In contrast, Active Listening in the classroom conveys a deep respect for the independence of the other person’s mind: the Active Listener takes the student’s ideological point of view seriously and tries to respond to it carefully. The aim is full understanding of what the other is saying in the service of arriving at truth. Just imagine the kind of productive political discussions we all might have if we used these principles!

Some people have a rare, natural ability or tendency to listen like this, but since it can be learned, there’s hope for the rest of us. It is also typical of the Montessori teacher, because of his or her deep training in careful observation of students.

Socratic Practice

“It is a sign of crudity and indigestion to throw up what we have eaten in the same condition it was swallowed down; and the stomach has not performed its office, if it has not altered the figure and shape of what was committed to it for concoction…Let the tutor make his pupil thoroughly sift everything he reads, and lodge nothing in his fancy upon mere authority…To the fragments borrowed from others he will transform and bend together to make a work that shall be absolutely his own; that is to say, his judgment. His education, labor,and study aim only at forming that.” Michael Montaigne

Socratic Practice is a formidable method that, when used properly, incorporates Active Listening at its best. Some of you may have been to classes that mimic this style of teaching. In these, a teacher might ask a question like “What is justice?” and then proceed to tell students they’re wrong when they give an answer the teacher doesn’t want. Well, that’s wrong; Socratic questioning is meant to develop the student’s ability to think about a subject, not to test them and catch them when they are wrong or call them on the carpet for the right answer.

Teachers looking for the right answer encourage students to focus on pleasing the teacher, not on thinking for himself or herself. The excellent teacher aims at helping students learn how to find the right answer themselves. They help students use the facts and best theories available while learning to think well.

Teachers skillfully using Socratic Practice often have to spend time rehabilitating students after a lifetime of being told what to learn, what is the “right” answer— or that any answer is right, with no standard of truth. Students often view school as the place to feed back the answer the teacher wants to hear, not learn new knowledge in order to figure out the truth with their own powers.

Consequently, in the beginning of a program using Socratic Practice, the teacher (often called “tutor,” i.e. guide to learning) must work especially hard to shape the learning environment. Just as in any Montessori school, the prepared environment is a key to success in developing the thriving, independent-minded learner.

Physically, the environment must be quiet All participants are required to respect the appointed time of discussion, with no phone calls, text messages, etc. They sit in a circle facing each other. Attention must be on the discussion, and all participants are expected to have read the assigned text.

Psychologically, the tutor shapes the environment by many principles. He or she requires a formal politeness among discussants, to encourage rational, civil discourse. Sometimes participants must address each other by title and last name (e.g., Ms. Smith and Mr. Murphy).

Unless a student starts the discussion with a question about the study material, the tutor leads off with a thoughtful question about the reading—or often a factual question if the material is mathematical or scientific.

At our program, students are given extra, explicit instruction in reasoning skills and logic, to make them more consciously aware of how to reason well, both inductively (e.g., how to make an accurate generalization) and deductively (e.g., how to derive a conclusion from already-given facts and ideas). All these practices serve to develop student reasoning skills.

The tutor must walk a fine line, skillfully encouraging excellent reasoning while being careful not to discourage students from talking because they might have  errors in their arguments.

Learning to reason objectively about complex material requires the willingness to entertain possibly incorrect ideas in order to examine them fully, to measure them against the facts, and to analyze their rational foundation.

If a student is too fearful of looking foolish or feeling humiliated when caught in an error, he or she won’t explore complex ideas thoroughly enough to find out if they are true.

On the other hand, students are not allowed to have bull sessions and their opinions are not all equal. Only those opinions arrived at objectively through facts and reasoning are considered worthwhile.

The tutor must skillfully encourage questions and comments evincing an earnest search for truth, while discouraging or disallowing talk in which the student is proving his knowledge or disingenuous agreement with the tutor.

During a seminar on Aristotle’s Politics, if a student who says “Richard McKeon says that Aristotle’s politics….” is deflected from this line of discussion by a question such as “Do you think that is true? What does Aristotle say that makes you think that?” The tutor aims to bring the discussion back to the facts of the text studied, plus the student’s own experience and reasoning. In this way, the tutor encourages observations of the facts, generalizations closely derived from the facts, and conclusions reasoned from the facts.

Our Advisor John Tomasi implemented this method in his hugely successful special program, The Political Theory Project at Brown University. He says: “Kids are sick and tired of being told what to think. They want to make up their own minds. They want to be challenged.” The kind of work done through Socratic Practice discussions of the Great Books does exactly that.

The Habit of Thought

Questions and questioning of a special type are central to great education. The evidence that the methods of Socratic Practice consistently applied increases cognitive skills is clear. Our advisor, Michael Strong, extensively discusses these methods in The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.

Strong established remarkable programs in four high schools around the country. He measured program outcomes with the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, a cognitive skills test correlated with performance on intelligence tests and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. Administering this instrument before, during and after a year at school, he found cognitive skill gains ranging, for example, from 30% to 84%. The mean score of one school’s 9th grade group moved from below the national 9th grade mean to above the 12th grade mean in one year, while one inner city student who scored at the 1st percentile on the initial test, scored at the 85th percentile by the end of four months. While more work is needed to fully validate his results, they were consistent from school to school. Any teacher would be proud to so deeply help students learn to think well.

Teachers and Observation

“Our care of the [student] should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” Maria Montessori

To be a good listener, a teacher must be a careful observer. Maria Montessori, the quintessential scientist, incorporated the scientific method into her teacher training program. She urged her teachers to spend time every day sitting back and watching the students work, interact with each other and deal with problems. In this way, teachers learn a great deal about each student, their interests, abilities and difficulties, enabling the teacher to guide him or her well. Observe, empathize, respect—these are the basics of good teaching.

The only way teachers can learn these methods is by intensive questioning and self-reflective experience. Guidance by mentors with great experience, knowledge and skill helps. Such training will be a key component of a special two-month teacher training course and apprenticeship for every teacher at the full-time Great Connections program.

In this course the teacher will both study and practice the programs specific methods, as well as experience the breadth of the ideas and the excitement and challenge of examining the great works used in our curriculum.

Teachers at The Great Connections

The in The Great Connections program are highly educated individuals, consistently willing to engage in discussions of the great questions inside and outside their domains of expertise. An excellent seminar leader asks intriguing, deep questions respectfully, keeps discussion on important topics but lets students diverge from the set topic if it means exploring something important and meaningful to them. Clearly, much art and judgment is involved, which is why extensive training is necessary.

Program focuses attention on human achievement and what makes it possible, both existentially and psychologically. We require our teachers to implement his or her best attributes: commitment to clearly knowing what he or she knows and doesn’t know (the first step on the path of objectivity); passion for learning new material and integrating it with other knowledge; commitment to modeling the highest virtues of the free person, including honesty, responsibility and respect for the rights of others; commitment to the restless pursuit of personal improvement and growth; willingness to submit to careful investigation and evaluation in order to improve. Through embodying these virtues, the teachers inspire students to the highest ends of the free man and woman.

As Scott Buchanan, architect of the Great Books program at St. John’s College, said: “Have you allowed adverse evidence to pile up and force you to conclude that you are not mathematical, not linguistic, not poetic, not scientific, not philosophical? If you have allowed this to happen, you have arbitrarily imposed limits on your intellectual freedom, and you have smothered the fires from which all other freedoms arise.”

The Delicacy of the Young Spirit

Achievement and success in life require the vision of the possible and the ability to weather the actual.

To navigate the stormy waters of life, the difficulties, the disappointments, the setbacks and the failures, students need cognitive skills and plenty of encouragement and emotional fuel. They need great examples of other human beings who have successfully dealt with many difficulties.

As the scientific findings of Positive Psychology have recently identified, knowledge and cognitive skills integrate with emotional habits and character traits. Healthy, successful, happy people tend to have cognitive habits that deeply influence their emotional tone in a positive direction.

Our curriculum teaches the works of the Classics “The best that has been thought and said” as well as modern science and the usually neglected works of the liberty movement. In addition, students do special work on the skills of logic, introspection, and self-knowledge, and the achievements of great human beings. Students are armed with inspiring and invigorating knowledge that help them achieve their goals. We apply philosophical principles as well as recent findings in scientific psychology and neuroscience. And these teachers and other staff are available to help students in many aspects of their lives.

To implement this plan, we seek individuals who are exceptional in their learning, their self-knowledge, in their passionate curiosity, and in their character, who can serve not only as guides but as inspiring examples to the students. To see the complete curriculum plan, see www.rifinst.org.

An earlier version of this article, predicting the outcomes of our curriculum and methodology, was published in 2009 online.

The Psychology and Practice of Introspection

by Marsha Familaro Enright, July 2013 for The Great Connections Seminar

 Introspection as Freedom

To be able to make truly free choices, we need to know ourselves, be in control of ourselves, and to protect ourselves from the control and influence of others so that we can make the best, most objective, most life-advancing decisions and take the best actions.

Real freedom starts within ourselves, with understanding our deepest thoughts, feelings, and values. By being masters of ourselves. But this is a difficult task, not least because it is so hard to untangle and identify what goes on inside ourselves – and understand what goes on in others.

Our “inner landscape” is, in some respects, the “final frontier” – one of the most mysterious aspects of the universe.

Unidentified needs, conflicting or unwanted feelings, unexamined ideas and values, and preconceptions can cause extra difficulty in identifying what’s going on inside.

This means authenticity is very important, i.e. knowing what we feel, think, need, and want honestly, without barriers to the truth. Without acknowledging the truth about ourselves, we can’t accurately decide what’s best to do.  Real self-knowledge is the gateway to achieving what we want, to achieving happiness in life.

But achieving real self-knowledge can be difficult for a variety of reasons.

Introspection is hard because:

  • Internal experience is one integrated sum of undifferentiated feelings, thoughts, memories & images.
  • Internal experience is not sensory and doesn’t appear to have many separate entities or objects except for symbols and images, unlike the external world which is filled with objects and entities.
  • WHAT is in the mind is easier to identify than HOW it operates; many processes are outside of conscious awareness.  And a once-conscious operation can become automatic, too, such as learning to drive a car.
  • We use the very tool we’re trying to study; if it’s impaired, it’s like a broken tool trying to fix itself.

Learning how to effectively introspect is an essential skill for achieving self-awareness and authenticity. I hope to give you a few tools from the introspection toolbox that you take away from here and learn to use well. This will be only a bare beginning!

Introspection tools

I.         Knowledge of the levels of awareness in the mind

II.         Understanding of the nature of emotions, their causes, their relationship to the reasoning mind, and how to change them if they are clearly an inaccurate response to the facts (and identifying whether they are inaccurate can be tricky).

III.         Awareness of bodily feelings

  1. As indicators of emotions
  2. As indicators of needs

IV.         Knowledge of human needs – your own and others’ – and their role in inner experience. As a living being, the mind’s function is to serve life. A corollary to this is that almost every action, word, and thought is motivated by a real need, no matter how irrational the action, word, or thought might appear.

  1. The fulfillment of these needs can be through productive or destructive means; identifying which is which is often very difficult.
  2. Understanding other people depends on recognizing this principle and trying to identify the real needs they are attempting to fulfill when they appear perplexing.

I. Levels of awareness in the mind

Conscious mind

Subconscious mind

Unconscious mind

Body processes

What are these and their relationships? What happens when you’re asleep?

A. The Conscious Mind:

  1. Is under your control through what you pay attention to.
  1. Can only hold about 7-12 discrete pieces of information in it at one time. Words and symbols enable humans to consciously manipulate vast amounts of information held in the subconscious by abstracting the information and integrating it into one mental entity.
  1. Can direct the mind’s entire enterprise through consciously identified and thought-out goals – or can be a servant to unidentified ideas and values.
  1. Is disrupted by strong emotions that fill attention and distract from thinking.

B. The Subconscious Mind:

  1. Has no ideas in it at birth (the meaning of the “blank slate”), but accesses our in-born abilities, needs, and tendencies.
  1. Is a repository for vast amounts of information, skills, memories, values, and experiences we have had.
  1. Is very logical, given whatever principles we put in it – or accept without examining (which we all do as children, since we don’t have the mental capacity to examine them in childhood).It reveals this logic when we experience conflict; conflict is a clue that we’re holding some contradictory ideas and/or values that need to be examined and resolved.
  1. Is a never-ending integration process: Given the conditions and rules we put in it, in combination with our inherent needs and tendencies (both universal and individual), it is constantly, logically connecting input to input, to literally “incorporate it” into our minds/brains. This means it is constantly connecting what we think and value in one area of thought/knowledge/interest/experience, etc. with others.
  1. Produces emotions as a consequence of an automatic evaluation in response to information from the conscious mind.

The reality-oriented logic of subconscious processing can be disrupted by:

  1. Suppression or repression of emotions.
  2. Conceptual structures we have accepted which don’t consider one area of information and thinking in relation to another area (matrices of knowledge don’t interlink)
  3. Lack of cognitive ability/skill to connect ideas.C. The Unconscious Mind:
  1. Refers to mental processes which are opaque, i.e. completely inaccessible to conscious awareness. For example, other than deciding to remember something, how do we get information, e.g. a word we want, from memory?
  1. This includes processes that were once conscious, but have become automatized. For example, understanding what someone else is saying.
  1. Seems to particularly include voluntary physical processes. For example, how do we merely think of what we want to say and we’re able to type the words? Decide to play racquetball and all of our skills and strategy come to bear?

D.  Body processes: Those physiological processes that affect the mind, i.e. hormones, electrical activity, circulating levels of nutritive substances. These aren’t strictly part of the mind – and yet they are insofar as they produce the physical substrate of it.

II. Understanding Emotion

What is emotion?

A very succinct definition is: “the psychosomatic form in which man experiences his estimate of the beneficial or harmful relationship of some aspect of reality to himself” (Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, 1969, 64)

Emotion is the result of a combination of the ideas and values which we hold (acquired by conscious choice and thinking, or incidentally accepted) and our inherent needs and tendencies, in response to some event. Since, as mentioned in the above section, emotions are a result of an automatic process originating in the subconscious, they cannot be directly controlled.

At most, they can be suppressed, or, if suppression becomes a habit, repressed.

Suppression and Repression

In a variety of situations, it may be beneficial to suppress an emotion. For example, if a tiger is stalking you, it is beneficial to suppress your desire to scream, turn and run, because this will trigger the tiger to attack. Instead, if you can suppress your fear and think about what to do to protect yourself, you have a better chance of survival.

However, it’s only too often the case that painful, perplexing experiences, especially ones in which we seem to be powerless, lead to a habit of suppressing a feeling. Suppressed too often and an emotion becomes repressed.

That is, the mind automatically suppresses the particular feeling – it becomes an automatic process of the subconscious. And this puts the most of the information leading up to the feeling out of conscious awareness, and therefore conscious control.

Unfortunately, as children, we’re often subjected to situations that are contrary to our needs, irrational, and painful. The only way to psychologically survive in such situations is to suppress our feelings.

For example, if, as a child, you pointed out that something was factually wrong with a story your father recounted, and he typically hit you in response, or told you to “shut up, don’t contradict me” – or merely belittled you with a comment such as “what do you know, you’re just a kid,” or “you’re such a nerdy know-it-all”, what was your response? Hurt, anger, a desire to retaliate? Yet, was it safe to be angry or retaliate? You might be physically punished or you might fear losing his love. So you suppress the feelings of hurt, disappointment, and anger.

When you’ve done this over and over, your emotional response becomes repressed. And you don’t feel as strong and assertive as you could; it undermines your motivations.

Or perhaps you allow yourself to feel anger, and even plot revenge. You turn the situation around and use your fantasy to develop a fictional world, and you become a writer. But you repressed your hurt and now you don’t understand why it’s difficult to feel love also.

That’s because the process of suppression involves the dampening of all feeling. To stop yourself from feeling something – to suppress – you must:

  • Ignore some aspect of what you were thinking about
  • Tighten your body against the feeling, i.e. hold your breath, squeeze your shoulders, stiffen your muscles.

This affects everything you’re feeling. If this becomes automatic and turns into repression, it becomes much more difficult to be aware of what you are feeling in that situation, and even in many others.

Practices that help identify emotions

Taking the attitude that whatever you are feeling are facts of nature, not within your control and something to accept,is a first step in identifying what you are feeling. In other words, working to have no internal censorship. The most productive practice is to first allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling, then analyze it.

To identify why you reacted in a given way and what it means, try to describe the triggers, the quality, and the exact bodily feelings of the emotion you are having. Here are some useful questions:

When did the feeling begin?

What was the last thought I had before it started?

What was I paying attention to when it started?

What was I looking at, imagining, remembering, doing, saying?

What immediately happened to my body after the feeling started?

Where were the feelings in my body? Where were they in my body?

Were they sharp, dull, slight, great – what would be a good way to describe them?

Among other difficulties, you may need to overcome a prejudice as to what is okay to feel – e.g. you shouldn’t be attracted to your brother’s wife; you should want a high powered career, but you love children so much, all you want to do is have babies.

Feelings of conflict and discomfort will bring this kind of thing to your attention. For example, if you want to call a friend but simultaneously are resisting contacting him, you are feeling a conflict. If you want to apply for a job but you never get near the phone to call, you are feeling a conflict.

Lastly, you may not understand something about your own nature and needs. For example, you may have an introverted disposition (this is often inborn), which makes too much interaction with other people overwhelming. But you don’t realize this, so you think there’s something wrong with the fact that you don’t like to go to parties.

A helpful practice is to write down your thoughts about any conflicts you are having in a log or journal every morning, using the above questions for your reflection. That is, make a diary of your feelings and thoughts about the situation. At the end of the week, look over what you wrote and see if you can glean any new understanding from it; see if you can relate them to events during the week.

For example, you stayed up really late and were exhausted on Wednesday, and you see that you felt especially bad about a mistake you made. Or you ran into an old friend on Tuesday and you noticed that you felt out of sorts all day.

III. Awareness of bodily feelings

Being aware of what’s going on in your body is key to identifying what’s going on in your mind. However, highly intelligent, intellectual people often spend a lot of time “in their heads” and not in awareness of the physical world.  They tend to be excellent at focusing on something they’re thinking or working on, but often lack in awareness of their environs or what’s going on in their bodies.

Yet such awareness is not only a gateway to much pleasure and value, but to greater awareness of your self, your body, preferences, responses, and needs.

Developing your sensory acuity, noticing the physical details of your surroundings – the smells, sounds, sights, and feels – is beneficial. Furthermore, it aids in emotional awareness and even understanding, as you can more easily connect your emotional reaction to what just happened to you.

For example, you’re in the elevator and a man gets on with you while you’re busy texting a friend. He stands behind, to the left; doesn’t move or say anything. You find yourself getting more and more tense while you continue your text conversation; you arrive at the fifth floor and exit the elevator; a great wave of relief comes over you. You stop texting and reflect on the experience. You realize that when he got on, he had an odd expression on his face, which you couldn’t make out. You weren’t sure if it meant he could be threatening or not, but you were distracted by the texting, so you didn’t think the whole thing through. Instead, your subconscious put two and two together and made you worried. If you were more alert to your body’s reactions, you might have been able to consciously assess the situation better – and protect yourself another time, if someone were indeed threatening.

Increasing your awareness of your body’s reactions, no matter what you’re concentrating on, can expand your ability to understand your emotional reactions. Many physical disciplines like yoga aim to increase your bodily awareness.

IV. Human Needs

A basic principle in understanding human motivation is:  what real need does that behavior fulfill?

In understanding perplexing things about yourself or others, this is a crucial question to ask.  Combined with an understanding of the most fundamental human needs and tendencies, it can be extremely useful.

For example, going back to the scenario with your father’s inaccurate stories. What need of his could account for his nasty behavior? What did your action make him feel?

The hard part is understanding the range of human needs and how they interact in a given situation. That takes a bit of study and experience. Also, just as people vary on their ability to be aware of their own feelings, they vary on their ability to perceive and analyze others’ emotional expressions and demeanor.

It turns out that humans have the ability to directly, internally imitate the experience of what other people are feeling through “mirror neurons” which reside in the frontal lobes of the brain.

“A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate and other species including birds.”

Researchers “argue that mirror neurons may be important for understanding the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation. Some researchers also speculate that mirror systems may simulate observed actions, and thus contribute to theory of mind skills, while others relate mirror neurons to language abilities. Neuroscientists such as Marco Iacoboni (UCLA) have argued that mirror neuron systems in the human brain help us understand the actions and intentions of other people. In a study published in March 2005 Iacoboni and his colleagues reported that mirror neurons could discern if another person who was picking up a cup of tea planned to drink from it or clear it from the table. In addition, Iacoboni has argued that mirror neurons are the neural basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy.” Wikipedia

There is a raft of evidence that the natural ability to easily be aware of one’s internal states and those of others varies considerably from person to person, and that women tend to be naturally more skilled at grasping their own internal states and those of others. Of course, ultimately, the degree of inborn ability is individual, just like intelligence. Further, just like intelligence, it’s a skill that can be practiced and enhanced through purposeful observation, reflection, and analysis. This ability is highly pertinent to identifying human needs.

The following are sets of ideas about needs and emotions that are useful to consider.

Maria Montessori’s List of The Universal Needs of Humans

 

  1. Self-preservation                                         6. Movement/transportation
  2. Orientation                                                  7. Logical/quantitative processing
  3. Order                                                           8. Social connection
  4. Communication                                           9. Nurturing
  5. Imagination                                                  10. Self-perfection

Ten Human Tendencies, which aim to meet the above needs

  1. Exploration                                                  6. Self-control-discipline
  2. Orientation                                                  7. Repetition
  3. Order                                                           8. Perfection
  4. Ability to abstract ideas                              9. Exactness
  5. Work                                                         10. Communication

(Nathaniel Branden argues the need for self-esteem is fundamental, but it’s not on this list.)

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Website with research and personal tests on Authentic Happiness

http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu

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Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization at the top. While the pyramid has become the de facto way to represent the hierarchy, Maslow himself never used a pyramid to describe these levels in any of his writings on the subject.

The most fundamental and basic four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs” or “d-needs”: esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. If these “deficiency needs” are not met – with the exception of the most fundamental (physiological) need – there may not be a physical indication, but the individual will feel anxious and tense. Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs. Maslow also coined the term Metamotivation to describe the motivation of people who go beyond the scope of the basic needs and strive for constant betterment.

The human mind and brain are complex and have parallel processes running at the same time, thus many different motivations from various levels of Maslow’s hierarchy can occur simultaneously. Maslow spoke clearly about these levels and their satisfaction in terms such as “relative,” “general,” and “primarily.” Instead of stating that the individual focuses on a certain need at any given time, Maslow stated that a certain need “dominates” the human organism, and the satisfaction Thus Maslow acknowledged the likelihood that the different levels of motivation could occur at any time in the human mind, but he focused on identifying the basic types of motivation and the order in which they should be met.

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Suggested Definitions

Mind: the set of cognitive faculties of consciousness that enables perception, memory, imagination, evaluation, and reasoning, characteristic of humans.

Cognition: the awareness and identification of reality.

Emotion: “the psychosomatic form in which man experiences his estimate of the beneficial or harmful relationship of some aspect of reality to himself” (Branden 1969, 64)

Introspection: the examination of one’s own conscious thoughts and feelings, i.e. one’s mental states and physical states in as much as one is aware of the physical through the mind. Introspection is contrasted with external observation. Introspection generally provides a privileged access to our own mental states, not mediated by other sources of knowledge, so that the individual experience of the mind is unique. Introspection can encompass any number of mental states including: sensory, bodily, cognitive, emotional and so forth.

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Classifying Emotions: Some different systems
(source: Wikipedia)

Robinson’s criteria contrasting basic emotions

The following table identifies and contrasts the fundamental emotions according to a set of definite criteria according to D. L. Robinson.[1]

Robinson says the three key criteria defining fundamental emotions include theses mental aspects:

  1. have a strongly motivating subjective quality, like pleasure or pain
  2. are in response to a real or imagined event or object
  3. motivate specific types of behaviour or actions

According to Robinson, combinations of these attributes distinguish the emotions from sensations, feelings and moods.

Kind of emotion

Positive emotions

Negative emotions

Related to object properties Interest, curiosity Alarm, panic
Attraction, desire, admiration Aversion, disgust, revulsion
Surprise, amusement Indifference, familiarity, habituation
Future appraisal Hope Fear
Event related Gratitude, thankfulness Anger, rage
Joy, elation, triumph, jubilation Sorrow, grief
Relief Frustration, disappointment
Self-appraisal Pride in achievement, self-confidence, sociability Embarrassment, shame, guilt, remorse
Social Generosity Avarice, greed, miserliness, envy, jealousy
Sympathy Cruelty
Cathected Love Hate

 

HUMAINE’s proposal for EARL (Emotion Annotation and Representation Language)

The emotion annotation and representation language (EARL) proposed by the Human-Machine Interaction Network on Emotion (HUMAINE) classifies 48 emotions.[2]

Parrott’s emotions by groups

tree-structured list of emotions was described in Parrott (2001).

Primary emotion

Secondary emotion

Tertiary emotion

Love Affection Adoration · Fondness · Liking · Attractiveness · Caring · Tenderness · Compassion · Sentimentality
Lust/Sexual desire Desire · Passion · Infatuation
Longing Longing
Joy Cheerfulness Amusement · Bliss · Gaiety · Glee · Jolliness · Joviality · Joy · Delight · Enjoyment · Gladness · Happiness ·Jubilation · Elation · Satisfaction · Ecstasy · Euphoria
Zest Enthusiasm · Zeal · Excitement · Thrill · Exhilaration
Contentment Pleasure
Pride Triumph
Optimism Eagerness · Hope
Enthrallment Enthrallment · Rapture
Relief Relief
Surprise Surprise Amazement · Astonishment
Anger Irritability Aggravation · Agitation · Annoyance · Grouchy · Grumpy · Crosspatch
Exasperation Frustration
Rage Anger · Outrage · Fury · Wrath · Hostility · Ferocity · Bitter · Hatred · Scorn · Spite · Vengefulness · Dislike ·Resentment
Disgust Revulsion · Contempt · Loathing
Envy Jealousy
Torment Torment
Sadness Suffering Agony · Anguish · Hurt
Sadness Depression · Despair · Gloom · Glumness · Unhappy · Grief · Sorrow · Woe · Misery · Melancholy
Disappointment Dismay · Displeasure
Shame Guilt · Regret · Remorse
Neglect Alienation · Defeatism · Dejection · Embarrassment · Homesickness · Humiliation · Insecurity · Insult ·Isolation · Loneliness · Rejection
Sympathy Pity · Sympathy
Fear Horror Alarm · Shock · Fear · Fright · Horror · Terror · Panic · Hysteria · Mortification
Nervousness Anxiety · Suspense · Uneasiness · Apprehension (fear) · Worry · Distress · Dread

Plutchik’s wheel of emotions

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

 

Robert Plutchik created a wheel of emotions in 1980 which consisted of 8 basic emotions and 8 advanced emotions each composed of 2 basic ones.[5]

Basic emotion

Basic opposite

Joy Sadness
Trust Disgust
Fear Anger
Surprise Anticipation

 

Human feelings (results of emotions)

Feelings

Opposite

Optimism Anticipation + Joy Disapproval
Love Joy + Trust Remorse
Submission Trust + Fear Contempt
Awe Fear + Surprise Aggression
Disapproval Surprise + Sadness Optimism
Remorse Sadness + Disgust Love
Contempt Disgust + Anger Submission
Aggressiveness Anger + Anticipation Awe

 

Maria Montessori: The Liberator of Children

By Marsha Familaro Enright
Originally published in Free Voices, Spring 2013

One hundred and thirty two years ago last August in Chiaravalle, on the northeast coast of Italy, a baby girl was born who became the founder of a liberation movement: the liberation of children. Her work ignited interest around the world and is controversial to this day.

Maria Montessori was the highly precocious daughter of civil servant Alessandro Montessori and his wife, Renilde Stoppardi. Maria wanted to study engineering but graduated in 1890 at the age of 20 from the Regio Instituto Technico Leonardo da Vinci in physics and mathematics because she had decided to go into medicine instead—a shocking career for a woman in late nineteenth century Italy.

Over the objections of her father and the disapproval of her professors, she applied to the University of Rome where she went on to get a “diploma di licenzi” which qualified her for the medical school. There she, at first, endured shunning and contemptuous disapproval from the all-male students, and was required to dissect cadavers in a room separate from the men, due to the Age’s morals concerning the naked body. Yet, she was still able to win the sought-after Rolli prize of a thousand lire (a considerable sum in that time), and later, the coveted position of assistant at the hospital while only a medical student. The doors of achievement were open enough to this young, intelligent, self-confident woman that she slipped through.

Despite her difficulties, Montessori’s brilliance and perseverance enabled her to triumph, becoming the first woman doctor in Italy. At 26, she was chosen to represent Italy at an international women’s congress in Berlin and electrified her audience with her passionate, extemporaneous speech.

She was a feminist from the start, but so delicately feminine as to disarm, so charismatic as to enchant—without mincing words. To the theories of eminent male thinkers concluding that women were incapable, infantile, physiologically weak, she said “’It is certainly true that men lose their minds over women.’ Attempting to prove the absurdity of the feminist position, they had ended up making themselves ridiculous.”[1]

A reporter commented that she was well-chosen to represent Italy: “The delicacy of a talented young woman combined with the strength of a man—an ideal one doesn’t meet with every day.”[2]

In 1897 she took a position in the Psychiatric Clinic of Rome, working with mentally disabled and autistic children, which set the course of her life. The condition of these children in the asylums of the day were hideous, stuffed into barren rooms with only each other for company. Through her observations of them, she had one of her first pedagogical insights: these poor, deficient children were craving sensory experience. They sought it out through the little stimulation they had, their food, fondling the crumbs, savoring the tastes of their bread.

Improving their condition became her focus. While working in the clinic she studied anthropology and the history of education its theorists of the previous centuries including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Jean Itard, and Edouard Seguin.

Seguin’s dictum “Respect for individuality is the first test of a teacher,”[3] was to be an essential of Montessori’s approach, as were his many materials, used to develop the sensory ability and motor movement in children. Montessori used his materials and created new ones to aid the deficient children.

She joined the newly formed National League for the Education of Retarded Children, and was chosen to go on a lecture tour that galvanized national interest in improving education for the retarded. In describing the changes needed to make life better for these children, she argued that technological progress would liberate women from the need to do menial labor, enabling them to achieve equal rights and the freedom to live as they wished.

Despite being a socialist, here, as in the rest of her life, Montessori recognized the liberating and individualist role of work in the marketplace. Indeed, her vision was for each person to find a professional place in the economy, a place that would valorize the ego of each. In her view, by productive achievement and peaceful exchange, individuals all over the world would be lifted out of poverty and enabled to flourish. Sound familiar?

In 1900 the League opened the Orthophrenic School to train teachers of deficient children, which Montessori directed with Dr. Giuseppe Montesano. She applied her newly-developed methods and materials to these children and the results were astounding: her eight year old deficient children were able to pass the state exam for normal children.

“the boys from the asylums had been able to compete with the normal children only because they had been taught in a different way…While everyone was admiring the progress of my idiots, I was searching for the reasons which could keep the happy healthy children of the common schools on so low a plane that they could be equalled in tests of intelligence by my unfortunate pupils!”[4]

However in 1901, right at the moment of her triumph, she quit the Orthophrenic school and took a leave. Although it’s not certain, it’s likely that her illegitimate pregnancy by Dr. Montesano was the reason.  Exactly when her son Mario was born and why Maria didn’t marry Montesano isn’t clear, but the baby was sent to live with a wet nurse in the country. Maria would visit him, but he wouldn’t know who she was. However, at the age of 15, he announced to her “You’re my mother,” and demanded to go with her, which he did.  Eventually, he would become her constant companion and successor to her movement, taking her name instead of his father’s.

In 1901 she returned to study pedagogy and anthropology at the University of Rome, and studied Seguin’s methods in more detail, translating his 600 page book. Later, she became a lecturer at the Pedagogic School of the University of Rome where she established scientific pedagogy as a discipline and inspired the young teachers of abnormal children.

Her work brought her to the attention of the Instituto Romano di Beni Stabili, a group of real estate investors who had a complex in the impoverished San Lorenzo district of Rome. Although they had carefully chosen only married couples as tenants, their buildings were being defaced by the unsupervised children who lived there, left at home while their parents worked.

Once again bucking the conventional, Montessori took on the task of educating these children. The owners gave her a small room and free rein, but almost nothing else until she insisted on food, and enlisted Society women in raising funds for furniture and equipment.

And there began the first Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, in January of 1907. Within one year, the wonders that transpired in that house were famed throughout Italy; within five, throughout the world.

So what happened with this group of dirty, disheveled, mostly uncivilized, and completely uneducated children, ages two to six, from illiterate factory-worker families, that brought her such fame?

A transformation through principled freedom, unprecedented in educational history.

Montessori and the Society women brought in toys, dolls, paper and colored pencils—

and the materials she had developed for the deficient children. The room had a few tables and a cabinet, and she found an untrained woman living in the building to watch over them, under Montessori’s guidance and supervision. “I placed no restrictions upon the teacher and imposed no special duties.”[5] “I merely wanted to study the children’s reactions. I asked her not to interfere with them in any way as otherwise I would not be able to observe them.”[6]

Montessori was busy with many other projects; she stopped in once a week and over the course of the month, observed astonishing changes taking place. Leaving the toys aside, the children were drawn to the didactic materials, riveting their attention. They built towers with the cubes, fit the geometric shapes into their frames, and placed wooden cylinders in their holes, over and over, revealing powers of concentration hitherto completely unsuspected in children at all.

Remarkably, the children became healthier, with no change in their diet or exercise. “From timid and wild as they were before, the children became sociable and communicative. They showed different relationships with each other. Their personalities grew and they showed extraordinary understanding, activity, vivacity and confidence. They were happy and joyous.”[7]

Montessori observed one little girl of three completely absorbed in working with the knobbed wooden cylinders, taking them out of their frame, mixing them up, then putting them back in the proper holes. No amount of noise or activity around her got her attention. At one point, Montessori had her lifted onto a table and the children dance around it, “As I lifted the chair she clutched the objects with which she was working and placed them on her knees, but then continued the same task…she repeated the exercise forty-two times. Then she stopped as if coming out of a dream and smiled happily. Her eyes shone brightly and she looked about. She had not even noticed what we had done to disturb her. And now, for no apparent reason, her task was finished. But what was finished and why?”[8]

Unbeknownst to her, Montessori had discovered the phenomenon of optimal experience, now called “Flow.” Given a physical and psychological environment proper to their developmental needs, and the freedom to explore it according to the mysterious inner bio-psychological plan of each individual, the children flourished.

Their self-motivated interest in learning abounded, creating a self-discipline more rigorous than any adult could impose. Their desire for self-mastery knew no bounds. “I decided to give the children a slightly humorous lesson on how to blow their noses. After I had shown them different ways to use a handkerchief, I ended by indicating how it could be done as unobtrusively as possible. I took out my handkerchief in such a way that they could hardly see it and blew my nose as softly as I could. The children watched me in rapt attention, but failed to laugh. I wondered why, but I had hardly finished my demonstration when they broke out into applause that resembled a long repressed ovation in a theater.”[9]

Rather than amusement, they were grateful for the lesson; they were frequently in trouble or humiliated because of their runny noses. Once again, Montessori had helped them be independent and self-reliant, civilized individuals. And they took this home with them: the order, beauty, and cleanliness the children learned at school caused them to demand it at home; their poor, uneducated parents began learning from them.

“Help me to do it myself” is the core of the Montessori classroom, where the physical and psychological environment is carefully structured so that the students can have as much freedom as possible to follow their needs. Its purpose is to enable individuals to learn at their own pace; to develop sensory-motor abilities, and knowledge, academic, social, and personal. They learn self-responsibility and how to behave in civil society, respecting property rights and the rights and individuality of others—in short, everything needed to become a successful, well-functioning adult. She recognized that only through the development of this kind of “new man” would we have peace in the world.

“The didactic material, in fact, does not offer to the child the ‘content’ of the mind, but the order for that ‘content.’…The mind has formed itself by a special exercise of attention, observing, comparing, and classifying…which leads them to become active and intelligent explorers instead of wandering wayfarers in an unknown land.”[10]

Within a year of opening the Casa dei Bambini, it was famous worldwide. People flocked from Europe, the U.S., China, Japan, New Zealand, South America, and India to see this new “method” for themselves, and many begged to learn it.

By  1911, Montessori schools were established all over the world. Maria quit her position as lecturer at the University of Rome and devoted herself full time to the schools. A book describing her system was published, Il Metodo della Pedagogia Scientifica applicator all’educazione infantile nella Casa dei Bambini and by 1912, an English translation, The Montessori Method, had been prepared through Harvard’s education school. Within six months, it was in second place for the sale of non-fiction books. The international Montessori movement had begun. Despite World War I, by 1916, the book had been translated into English, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Catalonian, Polish, Rumanian, Danish, Dutch, Japanese, and Chinese.

Soon, she toured all over the United States, hosted by luminaries from John Dewey to Helen Keller. In 1915, a working Montessori classroom was one of the most popular exhibits at the San Francisco Exposition. Children worked on their materials, undisturbed by the marveling crowds around them.

However, the movement was not to last too long in the U.S.: strife was building between various Montessori groups and Maria over who should have control and the final say over the training and credentialing of Montessori teachers, and who was authorized to write about the philosophy. Further, William Heard Kilpatrick, the “million dollar professor” of education at Columbia University and a close associate of progressive theorist John Dewey, had visited the Casa dei Bambini in Rome and written The Montessori System Examined in 1914. He dismissed her system as based on 19th century notions, not in keeping with the “scientific” work of the nascent Behaviorists.

At the top of the pyramid as a teacher of teachers, his criticisms spread throughout Academia. By 1920, American respect for and interest in Montessori was dead. It wasn’t  until the ‘50’s when a young parent, Nancy McCormick Rambusch, rediscovered it in Europe and brought it back to the U.S. that it was revived. She was instrumental in establishing the American Montessori Society in 1960.

It’s been a grassroots, parent-driven movement ever since.

The power of her method to change the lives of whole families was illustrated during the Spanish Civil War. The Method had been brought to Catalonia in 1916 and flourished there for decades. After Montessori fled Mussolini’s fascist Italy, she was invited to live in Spain. She gave a series of lectures[11] on the Radio Associacio de Catalunya in 1936 to educate the public about the nature of children. Poor people began calling the radio station to thank Dr. Montessori. “It is true what you say. My child does the same things! I used to beat him because I though he was bad. Poor little one: It was I who was bad.”

However, in the midst of this work, the new republic erupted into chaos and the anarchists were burning and slaughtering Catholics and Italians (whose government had been suspected in helping the fascists). As Mario Montessori recounted the events, Maria was alone in her house with her grandchildren, watching the carnage from her veranda when anarchists approached with rifles in their hands, bandoliers of bullets across their chests, shouting and raising their arms in the Communist salute.

“The ‘militianos’ came straight to her door, but they did not ring. They…began to paint something over it with a black, dripping brush. The others, intense, stood watching. Soon it was finished. They all looked up, saw her at the window, raised their hand in salute, and marched away.

“The children and she ran down to see.

“On the wall, in large black letters, was the caption: ‘RESPECT THIS HOUSE. IT HARBORS A FRIEND OF THE CHILDREN.’ Under it was the sign of the hammer and sickle. The Child had paid its debt to its Knight.”

Fortunately, despite World War I, World War II and myriad local conflicts, the Montessori movement continued all over the world. During World War II, Maria and Mario Montessori were interned in India as enemy aliens and this led to a thriving Montessori movement in that country and those surrounding it, including the creation of many Montessori training centers.

She continued opening training centers and giving training sessions, observing schools and children everywhere. Over and over, she was struck by the universality of human nature and the variety of individual development. She used her sharp, scientific observational powers to further understand human needs and development, eventually encompassing adolescents. She called them the Erdkinder, children of the earth.[12] Montessori lectured worldwide from 1916 to her death in 1952, and published many, many books about her method.

Montessori eventually called Amsterdam her home and it is the headquarters of the Association Montessori Internationale and the Laren Montessori Training Center. Mario worked closely with his mother. In 1961, he established the Centro Internazionale Studi Montessoriani for elementary level training in Bergamo.

Today, in the U.S. there are about 4-5,000 Montessori schools, ranging from simply Children’s Houses (3-6 year olds) all the way to high schools; worldwide, the estimate is 20,000 and growing.[13]

Scientific research on the Method, through Mihalyi Cskiszentmihalyi’s and Angeline Lillard’s work has bolstered its profile. And, there’s been a spate of articles, such as “The Montessori Mafia” in The Wall Street Journal blog,[14] in the past few years regarding the unusual number of former Montessori students who head very innovative companies, such as Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia.

In the ‘70’s, Montessorian Beatrice Hessen (wife of libertarian historian Robert Hessen), wrote a series of articles about the Method in Ayn Rand’s The Objectivist journal. These, combined with Rand’s article “The Comprachicos,”[15] in which she contrasts the Montessori Method with Progressive Education, introduced thousands of liberty-loving people to Montessori. Many, many stayed and are involved in the movement to this day.

In 2007, the Montessori movement celebrated its 100th anniversary with a grand conference in Rome, over 1,000 representatives from countries all over the world attending. Among other national publications reporting on the anniversary, The Washington Post featured “Montessori, now 100, goes mainstream.”

However, the Montessori Method is rarely included in the national debate on education reform. Movies concerning the dire situation in public schools and the search for alternatives, such as “Waiting for Superman,” glaringly lack any mention. Although there are a number of government-run Montessori schools, and growing, my guess is that two major factors mitigate against Montessori in the public debate:

  1. Montessori education requires a radical Gestalt-shift in perspective on the nature of education and the role of the teacher, from a top-down, collectivistic, directive approach to a radically individualistic, child-centered approach. The teacher’s role is as observer, expert guide, and servant to the child—not a very acceptable to most traditional teachers.
  2. The education bureaucracy of government schools clashes impossibly against the radical freedom and individualism of Montessori philosophy and practice.

For additional information on the relationship of Montessori and capitalism, see my review of Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism: Educational Theory for a Free Market in Education by Jerry Kirkpatrick

Endnotes


[1] Kramer, Rita. 1976. Maria Montessori: A Biography. New York, Capricorn Books, 80.

[2] Garlanda, Federico. 1911. The New Italy. New York and London, 153

[3] Seguin, Edouard. 1866. Idiocy and Its Treatment by the Physiological Method. New York, 33

[4] Standing, E.M. 1962. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New American Library: New York, 34.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Maccheroni, Anna Maria. 1947. A True Romance: Dr. Montessori As I Knew Her. The Darien Press:Edinburgh, 12-13.

[7] Standing, 26.

[8] Ibid., 25.

[9] Montessori, Maria, Letter to Clara, 1896, quoted in Kramer, 115.

[10] Montessori, Maria. 1914. Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, Frederick A. Stokes Company: New York, 83

[11] Later turned into her book The Secret of Childhood.

[12] http://www.montessori.org/sitefiles/montessori_way_HS.pdf

[13] http://www.montessori-namta.org/FAQ/Montessori-Education/How-many-Montessori-schools-are-there

[13]Sims, Peter. April 5, 2011. “The Montessori Mafia,” The Wall Street Journal blog, http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/04/05/the-montessori-mafia/

[13] Rand, Ayn.  1970. “The Comprachicos,” The New Left:  The Anti-Industrial Revolution.  New York:  Signet, 187-239..

References

Enright, Marsha Familaro and Doris Cox. Foundations Study Guide: Montessori Education.

Montessori, Maria. Works.

Montessori, Maria. Articles and Letters.