Please go to this link to read this article in Portuguese.
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.
“Liberating Education” by Marsha Familaro Enright, is the final chapter in Common Ground On Common Core. This chapter discusses the history of education in the U.S. since the time of the Pilgrims, and what education would like in a fully free society and laissez-faire market. Click on the link to read the PDF of this chapter.
by Rachel Davison
Oak Farm Montessori School
and Marsha Familaro Enright*
The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute
Teaching Freedom Illustrations
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:
- The teacher is the repository of truth.
- The student is taught one line of reasoning given in the lecture or presentation.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
“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.
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.
Jasper Project on Cognition and Learning. 2000. Vanderbilt University.
Kaufmann, Walter. 1980. Discovering the Mind. New York: McGraw Hill.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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.
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)
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.
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.
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 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
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”
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 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.
“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.
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!
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
- As indicators of emotions
- 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.
- The fulfillment of these needs can be through productive or destructive means; identifying which is which is often very difficult.
- 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
What are these and their relationships? What happens when you’re asleep?
A. The Conscious Mind:
- Is under your control through what you pay attention to.
- 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.
- Can direct the mind’s entire enterprise through consciously identified and thought-out goals – or can be a servant to unidentified ideas and values.
- Is disrupted by strong emotions that fill attention and distract from thinking.
B. The Subconscious Mind:
- Has no ideas in it at birth (the meaning of the “blank slate”), but accesses our in-born abilities, needs, and tendencies.
- Is a repository for vast amounts of information, skills, memories, values, and experiences we have had.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Suppression or repression of emotions.
- 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)
- Lack of cognitive ability/skill to connect ideas.C. The Unconscious Mind:
- 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?
- This includes processes that were once conscious, but have become automatized. For example, understanding what someone else is saying.
- 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
- Self-preservation 6. Movement/transportation
- Orientation 7. Logical/quantitative processing
- Order 8. Social connection
- Communication 9. Nurturing
- Imagination 10. Self-perfection
Ten Human Tendencies, which aim to meet the above needs
- Exploration 6. Self-control-discipline
- Orientation 7. Repetition
- Order 8. Perfection
- Ability to abstract ideas 9. Exactness
- Work 10. Communication
(Nathaniel Branden argues the need for self-esteem is fundamental, but it’s not on this list.)
Website with research and personal tests on Authentic Happiness
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.
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.
Classifying Emotions: Some different systems
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.
Robinson says the three key criteria defining fundamental emotions include theses mental aspects:
- have a strongly motivating subjective quality, like pleasure or pain
- are in response to a real or imagined event or object
- 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
|Related to object properties||Interest, curiosity||Alarm, panic|
|Attraction, desire, admiration||Aversion, disgust, revulsion|
|Surprise, amusement||Indifference, familiarity, habituation|
|Event related||Gratitude, thankfulness||Anger, rage|
|Joy, elation, triumph, jubilation||Sorrow, grief|
|Self-appraisal||Pride in achievement, self-confidence, sociability||Embarrassment, shame, guilt, remorse|
|Social||Generosity||Avarice, greed, miserliness, envy, jealousy|
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.
Parrott’s emotions by groups
A tree-structured list of emotions was described in Parrott (2001).
Plutchik’s wheel of emotions
Human feelings (results of emotions)
|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|
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.”
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.”
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,” 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!”
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.” “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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
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.”
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 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. 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.
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, 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,” 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:
- 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.
- 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
 Kramer, Rita. 1976. Maria Montessori: A Biography. New York, Capricorn Books, 80.
 Garlanda, Federico. 1911. The New Italy. New York and London, 153
 Seguin, Edouard. 1866. Idiocy and Its Treatment by the Physiological Method. New York, 33
 Standing, E.M. 1962. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New American Library: New York, 34.
 Ibid., 26.
 Maccheroni, Anna Maria. 1947. A True Romance: Dr. Montessori As I Knew Her. The Darien Press:Edinburgh, 12-13.
 Standing, 26.
 Ibid., 25.
 Montessori, Maria, Letter to Clara, 1896, quoted in Kramer, 115.
 Montessori, Maria. 1914. Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, Frederick A. Stokes Company: New York, 83
 Later turned into her book The Secret of Childhood.
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/
 Rand, Ayn. 1970. “The Comprachicos,” The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. New York: Signet, 187-239..
Enright, Marsha Familaro and Doris Cox. Foundations Study Guide: Montessori Education.
Montessori, Maria. Works.
Montessori, Maria. Articles and Letters.
Education As If Individuals Matter
Jerry Kirkpatrick, Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism: Educational Theory for a Free Market in Education (Claremont, CA: TLJ Books, 2008), 212 pages, $18.95
Reviewed by Marsha Familaro Enright
Jerry Kirkpatrick, a professor of International Business and Marketing at California Polytechnic Institute, has come out with another book applying his passion for philosophy to the practical world.
Kirkpatrick says that his interest in education theory was launched when, as a high-school sophomore in the 1960s, he refused to cooperate with his teacher’s demand to “just memorize” an out-of-date biological classification system without an explanation of its meaning. This incident launched his quest to answer what evolved into the following question: What type of education properly suits individuals in a free, capitalistic society, preparing them for a life of productive work and the ability to pursue their own interests?
His answer: an educational approach that cultivates independence of judgment and action and that enables the individual to develop purpose in life.
In Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, Kirkpatrick lays out a theory of education that develops and respects the autonomy of the individual. It’s a product of hard study and deep thinking applied across a wide array of subjects, including history, psychology, epistemology, and sociology.
His resulting “Theory of Concentrated Attention” is deceptively simple. It proposes an education that fosters the ability to apply concentrated attention to tasks—an education that leads to independence and autonomy by encouraging the development of long-term purposes. Kirkpatrick argues that educators can develop this capacity in students by teaching according to the students’ interests, because individual interest drives attention and helps to create purpose. Simply put, if a student is interested in a subject or activity, he or she will be motivated to pay attention to it. And the student who learns how to pursue personal interests with concentrated attention will be able to find and pursue lifelong purposes, such as a career.
Ultimately, he argues that the Montessori Method, when properly implemented, achieves these aims of education. Along the way, Kirkpatrick finds that John Dewey’s theory of undivided interest and many of Dewey’s specific practical recommendations for curriculum and teaching integrate well with the proper aims of education in a free society. Of course, the devil is in the details, but Kirkpatrick gives us plenty of them.
Kirkpatrick shows how the coercion of bureaucratic government schooling sets the context for educational practices that undermine the development of student autonomy. It is impossible to consistently develop free, independent human beings under such a coercive system. Its structure and incentives are all wrong, producing followers ready to be told what to do, not autonomous personalities capable of living fulfilling and successful lives in a free society.
This is a little book packed with a wealth of thought and information, stemming from a deeply grasped and integrated knowledge of the nature and needs of education. Expect to hold onto your hat in reading it, because you will be drawn through a hurricane of information and ideas, some fairly arcane for the lay reader. The storm ends in sunshine, when Kirkpatrick lays out a detailed description of his excellent theory of education.
Then and Now
Kirkpatrick opens the book with a quotation from Adam Smith that summarizes the experience of many a student at today’s colleges:
In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.
The discipline of the colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefits of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students, in all cases to behave to him as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability.
It is remarkable how little has changed in more than two centuries since this was written, which supports the author’s contention that educational practices are largely motivated by two factors: deep views of human nature and cognition, combined with a political context.
Kirkpatrick gives a fascinating, sweeping account of educational theory from Plato and Quintillian through the Jesuits, Locke, and Rousseau, to Dewey and Montessori—always with an eye to thinkers who recognized the need for concentrated attention. He does not examine current theoretical writing in any detail, but spends time on Locke and Rousseau because their thinking is seminal to modern theories of education, including those of Dewey and Montessori. “Locke refutes original sin and emphasizes the primacy of nurture. And Rousseau develops the notion of the organic child who must be left free to unfold.” In searching for those who understand the importance of attention to education, he hits the mark a number of times, including Locke’s statement “The great skill of the teacher is to get and keep the attention of the scholar.”
Dewey: Friend or Foe of Independence?
According to published comments, early in his intellectual career, Kirkpatrick attended private lectures in which John Dewey and the Progressive Method of education must have been excoriated. For this book, he started reading Dewey with great trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised at what he discovered. Throughout Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, he refers to Dewey’s great knowledge of learning, his recognition of the importance of “undivided interest,” and his concern for the individual child’s well-being. And although Progressive education was roundly criticized for promoting method over content, Kirkpatrick found that Dewey himself criticized Progressive schools for their content-light approach.
However, I had to ask myself why, if Dewey’s ideas about education were so good, the schools following his philosophy have been so unsuccessful. I asked Dr. Kirkpatrick about this in a telephone interview. He posited that government-run schools make it impossible to implement the Progressive Method successfully. However, this doesn’t explain the same problems in private Dewey-Progressive schools, such as the University of Chicago Laboratory School, founded by Dewey in 1896. This school suffered “content-light” complaints early in its existence.
Perhaps the answer lies in the deeper philosophical foundations of Dewey’s theory, especially in his basic moral values. Dewey’s deepest philosophical debt is to Rousseau, revealed in “My Pedagologic Creed,” in which Dewey states, “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.”
Dewey’s Creed is straight out of Rousseau’s Social Contract, in which “personal desires must be subordinated to the General Will.” With this, Rousseau throws down the gauntlet against the individualism of the Enlightenment; Dewey picks it up in the late nineteenth century and implements it with the socialistic principles of twentieth-century Progressive education.
Like so many anti-individualist theories, Dewey’s addressed important issues and thereby seduced many to accept his whole package. For example, children are stimulated to develop many of their powers due to their social context: a normal human child will learn language without instruction, but only if placed among those who speak. And most toddlers are happy to repeat and repeat a new skill when they see their parents’ delight at the accomplishment. This lent plausibility to Dewey’s emphasis on socialization.
Another seductive aspect of his theory is his rebellion against the practice of learning abstractions removed from action, a tendency encouraged by the German philosophy that was so influential in nineteenth-century education theory. In the context of the high abstractions of German Idealism, such as Kantian thing-in-itselfism and Hegelian Worldwill, Dewey seems refreshingly sensible and this-world-oriented. His ideas seem appealing—until we remember that he was one of the founders of the philosophy of Pragmatism. In his writing, Dewey makes clear his Pragmatist view of human nature: that action precedes thought and action is what is most important. Action before thought? Perhaps the unruliness in Progressive schools is the logical consequence of this view?
As Dr. Kirkpatrick discovered, Dewey was a very insightful philosopher, teacher, and observer of learning processes. He enunciated many of the principles which enable successful learning to occur. Still, the larger political issue, which Kirkpatrick recognizes, is that Dewey wanted to use this knowledge to shape the child for social, collectivist purposes.
By contrast, though Maria Montessori was a political socialist, her goal was deeply individualistic: a method aimed at developing the individual mind of the student to create an independent human being. While she incorporates many principles and skills for social interaction in her program, every fundamental principle of instruction and action incorporates deep respect for the individual nature, needs, and aims of the child. Children emerging from Montessori schools know how to function well as productive, responsible, rational, civil, self-disciplined, and independent human beings who deeply respect the rights of others.
It’s therefore no accident that Dewey’s staunch adherent and highly influential follower, William Heard Kilpatrick, criticized the Montessori Method for its individualism in his book The Montessori System Examined. Still, Dr. Kirkpatrick’s experience in reading Dewey underscores the importance of first-hand knowledge in making a judgment about any thinker. A thinker’s odious purposes do not negate his real knowledge and accomplishments—or what we might learn from him. Nazi engineers achieved some amazing feats, for example, the V-2 rocket. (See the review of Von Braun in this issue. —Editor.) If the United States had ignored their discoveries simply because they used them for evil purposes, would we have gotten to the Moon?
The Roots of Education Theory
Kirkpatrick devotes considerable time presenting the philosophical and psychological ideas he believes underpin his theory of concentrated attention—a theory based on his view of the good life:
Success in human life requires the expert use of consciousness to guide one’s choices and actions. At root, therefore, education is intellectual, meaning that the knowledge, values, and skills acquired in school consist primarily in the accumulation of concepts and principles and in the application of these concepts and principles to concrete situations. “Intellectual” here does not mean that learning is an end-in-itself disconnected from practical action. It means that abstractions and, especially, their use in everyday life are prerequisites to living a happy, independent life in a free society; it means that mind and body are one integrated unit, but that bodily action is controlled and directed by the mind.
He emphasizes the active nature of the mind, and his arguments are anchored in Ayn Rand’s theory of concept-formation, which he explains at length. The abstraction and classification of data from awareness of concrete, specific things is an active process. The primary action of the conscious mind is differentiation, finding the differences between and among things. In contrast, the primary action of the subconscious is integration, a dynamic connection-making process. In this view, the conscious mind distinguishes one thing from another, while the subconscious discovers their relations.
According to Kirkpatrick, the subconscious tends to overgeneralize. Consequently, “the key to learning and, more generally, to the correct identification of the facts of reality, would seem to be differentiation . . . .[L]earning, therefore, can be described as a process of greater and greater differentiation, an act controlled by the conscious mind. . . [T]he crucial role of the conscious mind is to direct and control the subconscious.”
He goes on to explain the importance of “thinking in principles” and “thinking in ranges of measurement.” By the latter, he seems to mean the habit of keeping many examples in mind when thinking about an issue. In his sweeping account, Kirkpatrick also includes his views on emotions, values, and subconscious processing. He examines the problems of repression, defense mechanisms, how values are developed, how self-esteem is nurtured or crushed, creativity, imagination, and volition in their relationship to learning.
There are many valuable ideas and insights incorporated in this discussion of foundational ideas. However, I have questions about many of his claims. Just to name one area: his ideas on the nature of the subconscious, differentiation, and integration.
Primitive peoples, for example, are known to conceptualize only themselves as “people,” regarding everyone else as “others”—especially if the foreigners are quite physically different. Think of the Aztecs encountering Cortez and the Spaniards on horses, and their belief that the Europeans were some different kind of being, perhaps gods. Is this an error of integration? Or of differentiation? I think it could be argued both ways. Further, I’m not sure how consciously these people formed their concept of “people.”
That’s just one example. I don’t presume to know the answers to my own questions—that would require some difficult and extensive research on how people go about forming concepts and ideas. All I know is a case can be made for several different explanations of such processes, which Kirkpatrick does not address.
Don’t get me wrong: His exposition contains a mound of useful ideas and information. It’s not that his discussion of the subconscious and the psychological foundations of learning is generally wrong-headed. I merely think he sometimes overstates his case, not considering enough possibilities or offering sufficient evidence.
Learning with Purpose
After laying extensive groundwork, Kirkpatrick presents his views on the best principles, methods, and environment for learning.
“Three concepts—interest, attention, and independence—form the core of the theory and constitute the criteria of educational accomplishment. If successful, the education will have enabled the young to choose values that will give their lives meaning and significance,” he writes. “What drives concentrated attention is interest, and concentrated attention, in turn, drives independence . . . by directing effort to the achievement of a goal.”
Developing the capacity to pursue goals over extended periods of time enables an individual to attain life’s most important values, such as productive achievement, successful personal relationships, and even excellent health and well-being.
The biggest failure of traditional education is in capturing the interest, and therefore the attention, of the student, because traditional education uses external motivators—punishment and reward. Rather than a taskmaster demanding performance, in Kirkpatrick’s view the parent or teacher should be a kindly guide, showing the child the way to intellectual and emotional maturity. As Montessori puts it, parents and teachers should make their basic dictum “Help me to help myself.”
To that end, he proposes that parents and teachers provide an environment rich with the knowledge and activities needed for development, surrounded by “guardrails” of guidance. Within this environment, the child is encouraged to actively explore and absorb the mental and emotional nutrients required for excellent growth. The Montessori principle “freedom in a prepared environment” sums it up.
Further, he hones in on the inherent problems with the command-and-control approach to child-rearing and teaching. For example, the toddler who is constantly rebuked or slapped while exploring breakable objects implicitly concludes that he will get in trouble for pursuing his natural interests, and he can become withdrawn and passive. The rebellious teenager whose parents impose arbitrary rules instead of reasoned principles doesn’t have the chance to exercise her assertiveness appropriately if all she hears is “Go to your room! You’re grounded!” when she breaks adult rules. Nor does she learn how to resolve conflicts.
By contrast, concentrated attention is a superior means of learning because it integrates a child’s natural interests with his developmental needs. Kirkpatrick distinguishes this kind of attention from other intense forms, like meditation and what he calls “defensive attention,” i.e., in difficult situations, focusing on some object or activity like a videogame or book, to forestall feelings of fear and anxiety.
For me, Kirkpatrick’s Theory of Concentrated Attention immediately brought to mind the theory of “Flow.” That’s the name Positive Psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has given to that state of intense, complete concentration resulting from optimally enjoyable activities, activities pursued for their own sake. Indeed, Kirkpatrick recognizes “flow” as a form of intense concentration and accurately describes the theory. Though he acknowledges that “flow and concentrated attention have much in common,” he dismisses its relevance to his theory, saying that “the goal of education is not to achieve flow experiences; flow is just a pleasant consequence sometimes achieved as the result of concentrated attention.”
I think he might have missed the significance of flow to learning. Over time, the repeated pleasure derived from flow experiences becomes a driving force in maintaining a person’s interest in an activity. We cannot always account for a person’s initial interest in something—likely there are some inherent tendencies to fixate upon one object or activity over another, which vary from person to person. But individuals remain interested in an activity only if it brings some pleasure—or forestalls some pain. The experience of flow is a major motivator. It keeps a person coming back for more.
Montessori recognized this phenomenon about a century ago. She found that new students tended to flit from one activity to another until they hit upon something that caused them to become deeply engaged. She advised teachers to present new students with different activities and to observe carefully which caught and held their interest. Once the young student experiences deep involvement and attention in an activity, he becomes remarkably self-disciplined and purposeful.
Kirkpatrick turns to the intellectual conditions that result in optimal learning. He argues that real learning requires conceptualization, not just memorization—understanding the principles of the matter, not just remembering some facts or procedures. Students learn most from well-prepared presentations that help them focus on essentials. And self-correcting activities are the most valuable, because they prepare the student for adulthood. In adult life, there’s no one hanging over your shoulder, telling you when you’ve made a mistake; you have to figure that out yourself and learn how to fix it.
He also discusses the emotional and social environment necessary for good learning, an environment in which the student’s independence is supported and respected. Here he pulls together a bevy of ideas from insightful thinkers including Maria Montessori, Haim Ginott, Thomas Gordon, and Alfie Kohn.
As for the content of education, Kirkpatrick presents only an outline, stressing that any educational system should be content-rich and emphasize cognitive skills that can be used to acquire any type of knowledge. These include generalization, evaluation, application, introspection, and execution. Thinking in principles, thinking in ranges of measurement, and forming definitions are essential skills. So is learning logic. In addition, skillful introspection allows a person to be more fully in control of his consciousness—to know what he’s thinking, doing, and feeling, and why. And while all educational systems convey values, with a superior education, students become highly conscious of what values they are learning and why.
Kirkpatrick goes into more detail about the principles of learning and teaching than I can possibly convey here. My only regret is that he did not provide more concrete examples for his excellent discussion of the teaching and learning processes.
Bureaucracy and Education
After presenting his theory, Kirkpatrick shows how economist Ludwig von Mises’s theory of the nature of bureaucracy applies to education under government control. However, he points out that today’s private schools are subject to so many governmental regulations that they, too, are often deformed into bureaucracies.
From first to last, Kirkpatrick is opposed to government-run schools. Only a free market will truly serve children. Frankly, from my own study, I concluded that when public schools succeed, they often do so only through the drive and ambition of achievement-oriented families.
Kirkpatrick speculates that a real free market in education would produce a cornucopia of new approaches. However, it is unlikely we will see such a flowering, given the continued use of force through the gigantic, ever-consolidating government education bureaucracy we now have. Supported by taxes, its tentacles reach from preschool to graduate school. Centralization of power, bureaucratization of systems, and decreases in quality are the more likely future.
Kirkpatrick closes his book with a thoughtful consideration of the need for independent judgment in a free society—and an examination of the psychological reasons that people may have difficulty with independence. He contends that children need to learn “a healthy disrespect for authority” and “to be taught how to differentiate true expertise from the specious varieties and how to react to all forms of adult thoughtlessness, intimidation, and coercion.” The alternative—the mindset of obedience to authority—results in “mental passivity . . . a lack of ability and willingness to make first-hand judgments about the world, other people, and oneself and, more importantly, a lack of ability and willingness to stand by and act on the judgments made.”
Given what students will encounter in school, especially in college and graduate school, they need such abilities more than ever.
Picking a Few Nits
While I highly recommend this book as thought-provoking, original, and educational, I had a few difficulties in reading it.
For one thing, I’m not sure what audience Kirkpatrick is aiming for. The text is at a middle level of abstraction: neither crammed with specific detail, references, and factual research nor, for the lay reader, unapproachably abstruse. Consequently, the reader can follow Kirkpatrick’s reasoning—if he has his own adequate supply of examples or personal knowledge about the issues of education and factual experience of classroom practice.
One problem is that he makes many conclusive statements about theories and historical issues without a great deal of argument or factual support. Often, I agreed with his statements because I had sufficient knowledge of the issues to validate them or supply the qualifications that would make them more exactly true. Other times, I thought his statements were interesting and intriguing and sounded as if they could be right, but I wondered about their full justification, or found myself disagreeing.
Moreover, I wished he had cast his statements in a more persuasive style rather than the teacherly-academic tone he tends to use. Further, he chose to save many examples and references for footnotes, leaving the text somewhat dry. On almost every page, I had to stop reading the text to note his supporting data and mull his side-bar comments. This was distracting. It was as if he was torn between writing for the general public and writing for an academic journal. I think his story and arguments would have been more compelling if he had interwoven his many interesting facts and specific comments into the general text. Paul Johnson’s book The Renaissance and Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation are good examples of this style.
In the main, his argument is a philosophical/psychological one, supported by some references to developmental research and his own experience. Happily, the research evidence of which I am aware, plus my long Montessori experience, also support his theory. However, inclusion of more of the psychological research in his book would have bolstered Kirkpatrick’s arguments.
Finally, the book could have profited from some additional editing. On and off, I found slight syntactical mistakes, such as “newly unpublished” when he seems to have meant “new, unpublished.”
But these are minor flaws in comparison to his achievement in bringing together a vast amount of historical, philosophical, and psychological material to present a truly original theory of learning. Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism will educate you about the kind of education suitable to members of a free society—and educate you far beyond your expectations.
First published in The New Individualist, April, 2008.
Marsha Familaro Enright has been attracted by the pleasures and problems of education since the third grade. Trained in biology and psychology, she has written research articles on psychology, neuropsychology, development, and education for a number of publications. She founded the Council Oak Montessori School near Chicago in 1990 and has served as its president since then. Recently, as founder and president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, Marsha and her colleagues have been developing a new college informed by the Montessori Method, the Great Books, Ayn Rand’s ideas, and classical liberalism. Information about that project can be found at its website, www.rifinst.org. Marsha also contributes articles and reviews to The New Individualist, including popular profiles of famous authors such as James Clavell, Cameron Hawley, and Tom Wolfe. Recently, she spent time with TNI contributing writer Sara Pentz to discuss the state of modern education, the prospects for its reform, and her own college project.
TNI: How did you get into the field of education?
Marsha Enright: When I was a kid, I loved school and I loved to learn. I looked forward to it everyday. But I was frustrated by the many kids around me who were miserable in school and often disrupted things. There was a lot of teasing and ridicule. I did not understand why that was happening, especially why the smart kids were not interested in learning. I vowed to myself that I would find a system of education that would really support kids in their learning and be a good environment for my own kids when I grew up. That is how I got interested in education.
But, ironically, that is not what I decided to go into when I went to college. At first, I wanted to be a doctor, like my dad. I was a biology undergraduate. After a while, I got interested in psychology, and toward the end of my college years, I decided that that was really where most of my interest lay. So I went on to graduate school and got a Masters in psychology at the New School for Social Research.
In high school, I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and got very interested in her ideas. And in one of her journals, The Objectivist, there were some articles about the system of education called the Montessori Method. They were by a woman named Beatrice Hessen; I think she owned her own Montessori school. When I read those articles, I said, “Wow, this sounds like a fantastic system.” I read all the books that I could get my hands on about the Montessori Method, and I visited many Montessori schools to observe how they worked. I determined that that was what I wanted for my children.
So, when I started having my children in the early 1980s, I looked around for a Montessori school. There was one in the neighborhood for pre-school, three- to six-year-olds. I put my kids there, and I was very happy with it. When it came time for elementary school for my son, I found a Montessori school in a nearby suburb that he went to for three years, but then it closed. I wanted to make sure that he and my other children could continue in Montessori, so I organized some of the other parents to open a Montessori school in our neighborhood. And that is how I got started as an educator, running Council Oak Montessori School in Chicago.
TNI: What interested you about Maria Montessori and her approach?
Enright: Montessori was a great scientist. She was trained as a medical doctor, the first woman doctor in Italy, and she approached human learning as a scientist, observing in great detail what children did and trying out different materials and activities with them to see what would work best.
Her method is very concerned with the individual child. She started out working with retarded and autistic children. And she became almost instantly famous around the world in the early part of the twentieth century because, after working with these children for a year and applying her observations and her methods, they were able to pass the exam for normal children.
But while everyone thought this was wonderful, she was thinking, “My gosh, if my poor retarded children can pass the exam for normal children, what is happening if normal children are only being asked to learn up to that level?” That is when she started working with normal children. And there, again, her results were so phenomenal that she gained even more fame.
Because motivation is so important in learning, she focused on the proper conditions to keep that fire burning. If you look at children who are one or two or three, you can see that they have tremendous motivation to learn everything they can—crawling around the floor, putting things in their mouths, looking at every book, following what their moms are doing, imitating. They are just balls of energy when it comes to learning everything they can about the world, about objects in the world, about how to move, how things taste, smell, look, about what people are doing with each other.
Montessori noticed, for example, that if she could get a child to concentrate on an activity and really be involved in it, when the child eventually stopped the activity he would be happy; he would be calm; he would be tired, but in a very contented way. And that would keep him interested. The next day, the child would want to learn and do more. So it became a self-feeding process.
TNI: What, besides motivation, is really important to learning?
Enright: Well, I see learning as acquiring the knowledge and skills that you need to function in the world—to be productive, happy, and successful. Just like a flower: If you put a flower under a rock, it is going to struggle around that rock to try to reach the sun and water, but it is going to become deformed. But if you put it in the right kind of soil with plenty of water and sunshine, it is going to be beautiful and flourishing. A child is like that, too. Montessori called the child “the spiritual embryo.”
TNI: What did she do to nurture that “embryo”?
Enright: Her method became famous in 1907 in Rome when she set up what she called the House of Children—Casa de Bambini—where she worked with slum children. It was a wonderful environment for learning that respected the individual child’s interests and his natural learning tendencies. It used the teacher as a guide to learning and had the children collaborate with each other, but very respectfully.
Their behavior changed so markedly that people came from all over the world to train with her, and soon her method started spreading globally. Alexander Graham Bell’s wife became interested and opened the first Montessori school in the United States in 1912.
TNI: That’s remarkable.
Enright: It was remarkable, because she was able to get three and four year olds to concentrate for long periods of time.
She had a famous example of a little girl working on what is called the knobbed cylinders. It is made of a bar of wood with cylindrical pieces of different widths in it. Each cylinder has a knob on it for grasping, and the child has to take all the cylinders out of the bar and then put them back into the right-sized holes. If they do not put them in all the right-sized holes, then one cylinder is left over, and the child knows that he made a mistake.
This is what we call, in Montessori education, a “self-correcting” material. The goal, as much as possible, is to help the child see for himself if he achieved the goal or not, if he “got the right answer.”
TNI: So they are not constantly being corrected by someone else?
Enright: Exactly. If you want the child to be an independent individual when he reaches adulthood, he has to be able to know on his own when he has achieved something or when he has failed—to judge that independently.
In this example, the girl working on the cylinders was so engrossed in her work that it did not matter that Maria had a crowd of children around her singing, or that she moved her seat around or anything; the child just kept focusing on the cylinders for forty-five minutes.
TNI: That’s impressive.
Enright: You see this in Montessori schools all the time—this incredible concentration, which, interestingly, Montessori figured out back at the turn of the century, was a key to learning and self-motivation. More recent psychological research by professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, on the optimal conditions for the most enjoyable kinds of experiences, independently and completely supports her original observations and conclusions. Csikszentmihalyi called this kind of experience of engrossing activity “flow,” because when he first discovered it, he was studying artists in the ’60s who would be totally engaged in what they were doing. And they said, “I’m just in the flow.” They would forget where they were, they would forget what time it was, and they totally enjoyed what they were doing. In sports, it’s “getting in the zone.” When the Montessori people read his books and contacted him, he recognized what was going on in the Montessori classroom—that Maria had created this optimal flow environment for learning.
TNI: And the focus was on the individual.
Enright: Exactly—that we are all individual human beings with human wants and needs.
Montessori schools spread all over the States, and they were spreading all over the world, too, when along came this very influential professor from Columbia University Teachers’ College, William Heard Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick decided to “scientifically” analyze the Montessori Method. He went to some schools, he interviewed her, and he wrote a book called The Montessori System Examined. His book basically gutted the Montessori Method, discrediting it with the academics.
You see, Kilpatrick was a staunch advocate of John Dewey’s “progressive” method of education. Dewey’s method, if you look at its basic principles, is actually almost the opposite of Montessori—although a lot of people think that it is very similar because it emphasizes experiential, “hands on” learning.
For one thing, Dewey opposed the development of the intellect when a child is young; he considered it stifling to the imagination. Whereas Maria said, “Well, you cannot really do imaginative work until your mind has some content.” So, the imaginative work goes hand-in-hand with learning about the world.
In addition, Dewey focused on the socialization of the child. For him, the school was about teaching the child how to get along with other people and be a part of society—this was the crux of his “pedagogic creed.” You can see it in his famous declaration about the purpose of education, first published in The School Journal in January 1897. Dewey wrote, “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling, and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.”
TNI: At that time, there was a big push for socialism in all aspects of our society. Anybody who promoted individualism was in the minority.
Enright: Exactly. Even Montessori herself was, politically, a socialist. I mean, it was generally believed that socialism was the most advanced political point of view. She understandably would have been seduced by all those ideas. That was not her field.
Now Maria Montessori’s method does teach social skills as a conscious element in the curriculum. We call it “the grace and courtesy aspects” of the curriculum. But contrary to Dewey’s approach, hers is about how people properly interact with each other to be productive and happy individuals, in the course of developing their minds.
You can see this in the whole system, starting with the very way that children are allowed to work with the materials in the classroom. They can go to the shelf where the materials are, select something, bring it to their own space defined by a rug or a desk or a table or wherever they wish to sit, and work on it. They can work by themselves with the material as long as they want; the children are taught to try not to disturb each other. They can share the material with the other children if they want to, but they are not forced to. Consequently, what happens is that they tend to be very happy to collaborate with other children.
TNI: How interesting.
Enright: And when they are done, they are required to take the material and put it back on the shelf where it was so that the next child can use it. To me, all of these principles taught in the Montessori classroom train children how to behave in a free society with other responsible individuals.
TNI: I can see that.
Enright: Montessori’s is not a focus on “You must get along with other people no matter what.” The focus is very much on intellectual development, on the individual trying to learn, to develop himself, and to interact in a respectful way. In some respects that is the opposite of the collectivist idea that Dewey had of how we should interact. One result is the consistent reports we get from upper-level teachers and employers that Montessori students stand tall in what they think is right.
Anyway, Kilpatrick said that the Montessori Method was based on an old-fashioned theory of faculty psychology. Now, at that time, 1918, the ascendant theory—the so-called “scientific theory of psychology”—was behaviorism, whose basic tenet is that you cannot scientifically say that there is a mind, because you cannot see it; you can only study behavior.
As a consequence of Kilpatrick’s books, the Montessori schools started closing down. Only a few remained over the long haul, and they were quite small. Students going to teachers’ colleges were discouraged from going into Montessori because it was considered old-fashioned—too much focus on the intellect, not enough on imagination; too individualistic, not the proper kind of socialization.
But the Method was rediscovered in Europe in the ’50s by a mother, Nancy McCormick Rambusch, who was very dissatisfied with education in the United States. She brought it back to the U.S. and eventually started the American Montessori Society. Ever since, it has been a grassroots, parent-driven movement, not an approach promoted out of the universities.
TNI: At that point, education was inundated by the ideas promoted by Dewey. Is that correct?
Enright: Right. You have to remember that traditional education was mostly either self-education or education of the wealthy, who could afford to hire tutors. The problem of mass education arose because a republic like ours needed an educated populace. But because not all parents could pay for school, public education started with the basic problem of how to educate so many people on a limited budget. To solve that, they came up with the factory model, which is to have everybody in one room doing the same thing at the same time. The teacher is the one lecturing or directing everything that the children are doing.
TNI: Sort of like mass production.
Enright: Right. And in some respects, it worked. I do not think it would have worked so well if not for the fact that many children going into this system were highly motivated immigrants—because motivation is the key to learning. Even today, as bad as some of our public schools are, you will find reports about immigrants from Somalia, Serbia, Poland, China, all doing fantastically in public schools where other children are failing.
People look back at nineteenth-century traditional education and early parts of the twentieth century and say, “Look at how well people were educated then, compared to now.” Yes, we have many examples of remarkably high-achieving people from all levels of society at that time, but what proportion of the population were they?
Actually, discontent with public education runs back a long way. There is a book from the ’60s by Richard Hofstadter called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. He has a chapter called “The School and the Teacher,” in which he talks about the American dedication to education, how it is the “American religion,” and the concern, going back to statements of Washington and Jefferson, that we have an educated populace. He documents that objections to the kind of education received in public schools goes back to 1832—objections by Horace Mann in Boston, among others—and the complaints sound remarkably similar to what you hear today! Complaints such as: Not enough money being spent on students or teachers; teachers not getting the kind of social recognition they should for their important work; too many people apathetic about what was happening in the public schools.
So there were serious criticisms of traditional, factory-model education early on. But today there are serious problems with education as a result of the mass influence of Dewey’s philosophy of education and the ideas of leftists so deeply incorporated into the system of learning.
TNI: How do the ideas of leftists undermine education?
Enright: Well, the most serious problem is caused by the philosophical ideas of egalitarianism that became embedded in the system starting about thirty years ago. Egalitarianism is basically just a new variation on the socialist ideas which drove Dewey’s educational philosophy.
In the United States, we believe that people should have equality of opportunity. In other words, they should not be hampered by unequal treatment under the law, or by other people forcibly preventing them from pursuing what they want to do. Egalitarianism, however, takes the view that everybody should be made actually equal—not equal before the law, but materially and personally equal—that everybody should have the same amount of money, everybody should have the same abilities—
TNI: And opportunities.
Enright: Yes, and opportunities, regardless of their own effort. That these opportunities should be provided for them. This socialist permutation of Marxism was incorporated into the educational system in the way we spend public education money. Nowadays, we cannot spend more money on students of superior intelligence or talent than we do on students who have a lot of problems. We must focus instead on lifting kids with problems to the same level as everybody else. So a lot of money has been poured into “special education”—euphemistic code words for the education of poorly functioning children—and it is sold to the American public with the argument that we should give these kids an even break. In other words, it’s sold with an individualist spin: Since it’s government money, and since the government should be promoting equal opportunity, we should give problem kids extra help so that they can get on par with everyone else.
TNI: It’s easy to see how people can agree with that view of equal opportunity.
Enright: And it is true that we do need an educated populace. But there is a disjunction between the customer and the person paying, because public education is paid through government. So you have all of this conflict over what is going to be taught in the schools; and you end up having political pressure brought to bear by whoever has the dominant philosophy, influences the teacher’s colleges and education departments, or controls the local governments that run the educational programs.
There are two obvious consequences of introducing egalitarianism into the system. One is this idea that we must spend all kinds of money to raise the level of children with problems. As a result, a lot of money has been taken away from programs for what are called “gifted” children; after all, they’re already at a high level, so it’s not “equitable” to spend more to raise them higher.
The other consequence is the multiculturalism movement. That’s the idea that everybody should be considered equal no matter what their beliefs, or their racial, cultural, family, or ethnic background. Of course, as Americans, we think that you should not judge somebody based on his background or race, whatever group he is in, or anything like that, right? We think we should judge people as individuals. So, multiculturalism was floated in American society with an individualist twist.
But it is not about individuals. It categorizes everybody according to what social and cultural group he belongs to. And with egalitarianism comes cultural relativism: Every culture is equal to every other, none is better than any other. You throw out objective standards of what is good and what is bad.
So now, we are supposed to respect everybody regardless of what his culture or background brings to the table. If your culture believes in cutting off heads and ripping out hearts—well, it’s all relative!
TNI: And you have to be so careful about what you say, where you say it, and how you say it, in terms of being politically correct.
Enright: Exactly. And why is that? The egalitarians do not want anybody’s feelings to be hurt. They do not want people’s self-image to be hurt by the fact that they are not a white male, an Olympic athlete, or something like that. They have elevated a person’s self-image to being the main consideration, instead of what the person has actually achieved: We’re going to make everybody feel equal, even if they are not. Whereas our usual American approach to equality is: We do not care what your background is. If you have achieved something great, we are going to recognize and reward that.
TNI: We see the effects of this kind of philosophy, for example, in the “No Child Left Behind Act.”
Enright: Yes. No Child Left Behind is a way that conservative policymakers have tried to deal with the bad effects of egalitarianism in public education. They said, “See what this egalitarian approach to education, where everybody is worrying about hurting somebody’s feelings, has done to education. It has gotten teachers to give kids social promotions, which means that even though they have not mastered third-grade material, they are still promoted to fourth grade. We need to impose standards on public schools to make sure children are being educated to a certain level.”
So they imposed a centralized, top-down testing system for all schools, to try to make sure everybody was up to the same standards. This reflects the traditional way education is organized, because it is all about making everybody do the same thing at the same time.
TNI: And advance through the grades.
Enright: Right, advance through the grades. The other use of the term “grades” has to do with the evaluation of the child’s work on a task, essay, or project. Did you know that the use of the term “grades” came from the idea of grading shoes and saying that “this group of shoes is the best group, this group is just okay, this group is not too good, and that group must be thrown out”? What’s bothersome about this is that, as educators, our job should be to craft an environment to help each child, whatever his ability or background, so that he can learn and achieve as much as he can, so he can fulfill his best potential as a unique individual.
But in the grading system, you are thinking about how to decide whom to pass and whom to fail. In the traditional view, failing was the child’s fault, not the educational system’s—the child just didn’t try hard enough. One thing that traditional education was criticized for, and one reason why these newer methods were incorporated, was that we were losing all this human potential. But that truth was twisted through egalitarianism.
TNI: Then, at some point, there are classes where no grades are given at all, so nobody gets his feelings hurt? Or like the Little League where no score is kept?
Enright: Right. Nobody is labeled a winner or a loser.
I think that for young children, this is not always a bad idea, because grades and scores focus on competing with other people. In Montessori schools, we do not generally keep grades. We focus on whether or not the child is mastering the material. And each child is evaluated separately. A child also learns how to evaluate himself. “Have I mastered this material? Can I go on to the next level?”
TNI: And this is easily determined by the teacher?
Enright: Easily. Because the teacher knows the curriculum well; she knows what the child should be working on. And we have a general idea, from the scientific study of development, at what level children usually should be functioning at a given age. Not everybody will fall into the statistically normal sequence of development, because there is so much individual variation in human development and potential. We use a very broad category of what is objectively normal development.
TNI: This is also based on the biology of the child?
Enright: Exactly. One of the reasons we do not use grades in Montessori is that we recognize that education is, at root, self-education. Our job is to guide children in their self-education; we are very concerned that each child be concerned with doing his best and challenging himself. This only happens in the right educational environment because, you see, human beings are naturally very competitive. That, I think, comes from our nature as social animals competing in the social hierarchy, and it is very easy to let that trump the desire to learn.
So, when you introduce grades and all those comparisons in the early ages, children tend to focus on comparing themselves to each other and determining who is on the top of the heap and who is not. Their focus tends to be, “What is my grade? Am I pleasing the teacher? And am I better than the next guy?” They do not tend to focus on “What am I actually learning? Am I understanding what I’m doing? Do I know how to use it?”
TNI: That can be very dangerous. And it can undercut their self-esteem.
Enright: In the sense of undercutting their real self-esteem, their deepest sense of self-confidence. “I’m not good at math—I can’t do it as well as Johnny.” But maybe he’s just a late bloomer. Einstein was supposed to be a mediocre math student in the early grades. Being constantly compared to others can cut a child’s motivation to persevere and keep learning something, even if it’s difficult. So, we are very concerned to downplay that kind of competition. Competition happens anyway, but to a reduced degree. A child will look at what another is doing and say, “Hmm, I want to be able to do that.” If there is not a lot ofpressure to compete, this natural tendency will actually motivate him in a good way.
TNI: It’s more of a healthy, inner competition—
Enright: —than something externally directed. You want to encourage this intrinsic motivation to learn and achieve that we see in the two year old, because when you become an adult, you want to be self-motivated—to achieve things yourself and to know what you enjoy doing, in order to be happy.
TNI: Why do conservatives not like the Montessori Method?
Enright: Well, I do not know if I can speak about all conservatives. Some send their children to Montessori schools. But, politically, the conservative approach is, “Let’s go back to what was done before.” They tend to think in the paradigm of what was done traditionally in education. That ends up being the factory method.
And they want to reintroduce standards, since egalitarians following the Dewey method took standards and mastery out of the picture because they did not want to hurt anybody’s feelings. So, since nobody is learning or acquiring the skills needed to succeed, the conservatives’ response is, “Well, let’s reintroduce standards.” Their way of doing it is by using these tests. It is ironic that conservatives, who seem to want a more free-market approach to things, should introduce the federal Education Department’s top-down, one-standard idea about what everybody in the whole country should be doing.
My teacher friends now call it the “No Child Left Standing Act,” because of the tremendous focus on producing higher test scores at all costs. The money that schools get is so tied to the test scores that the focus of teachers and administrations is almost solely on whether the children are passing these tests at the designated levels—not whether the children are really learning things. As we all know, it is very easy for many kids to learn only what they must for the short–term, to pass the test, but in the end they know very little about the subject.
TNI: It’s the old practice of “cramming for the test” until the last moment, taking the test, and then forgetting everything.
Enright: Exactly. Whereas real learning is about gaining the knowledge and skills that you need, relating these to other things you know, figuring out how you can use it all in your own life, and understanding how it affects the world.
The conservatives wanted to revert to traditional testing to assess what the child was learning. But, unfortunately, a test is not generally an authentic measure of what the child understands. Many smart kids are encouraged to compete to get good grades and learn to “game the system.” The kids who succeed the most in school oftentimes are the best at doing whatever the teacher tells them. They know what they need to do to get good grades, to get into the good high school and college. We see students who do fantastically on the SAT and may even do well in college, but they do not know how to think well. They just know how to play along by other people’s rules. When they get out into the real world, they are not necessarily especially successful or great employees.
TNI: They don’t succeed in reality.
Enright: No. Sometimes they are tremendous failures.
There was interesting research done on millionaires by Thomas J. Stanley. He discovered that quite a few of them got under 950, total, on their SAT scores, and yet they are fantastically successful in business. Obviously, their talents were not served or assessed well in school.
TNI: So, it is ultimately an issue of learning how to think, is it not?
TNI: And that is never taught, is it?
TNI: What about the kids of single parents or kids from minority homes lacking the usual advantages—kids who may not be instilled with much motivation to learn? Also, why do children from some ethnic groups, such as kids from India, seem to be more motivated to learn?
Enright: Indian culture really emphasizes education.
TNI: As does the Chinese culture.
Enright: Yes. So your question is: What can we do to motivate children who come from less-supportive backgrounds? Well, for one thing, research finds these children tend to do very well in Montessori classrooms.
Also, speaking of motivation—I remember a John Stossel TV special some years ago. There was a segment about Steve Marriotti, a former businessman who decided to teach in a Harlem high school. And he just had an awful time. Almost the whole year, the kids made fun of him and caused trouble.
Just before the end of the year, as he was about to quit, he asked his class, “If I did one thing right, what was it? If one thing I did was interesting, what was it?” And he said, “A fellow at the back of the class, a gang leader, raised his hand and said, ‘Well, when you talked about how you ran this import/export business and how you made it successful.’” Right there, this gang leader basically reconstructed Marriotti’s income statement for him. Obviously, he was an intelligent student—he had absorbed all the facts about the economics of Marriotti’s business.
It dawned on Marriotti that what would really motivate these kids to rise out of poverty was to learn how to become entrepreneurs. So he instituted a program that is now worldwide, to teach kids how to be entrepreneurs—the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. One thing he found is that children from these backgrounds are used to tolerating uncertainty and risk, which you must be able to do to be a good entrepreneur.
Enright: But people from a very stable background will not easily have that ability. In fact, we have an opposite kind of problem nowadays. We have so many kids from wealthy families that they lack the motivation to make money, and they do not have any direction. Their parents do not instill in them enough sense of purpose and drive. They end up being profligate, drunks and drug addicts, just spending money—Paris Hilton or whatever.
Because we are such a wealthy society, that is another reason why teaching our children in ways that nurture their intrinsic motivation right from the get-go is so important.
TNI: Back to an earlier point. If conservatives don’t have the right approach to education, what about libertarians?
Enright: The libertarians have mostly been encouraging school choice—the idea that parents should have a right to decide where their child goes to school. Encouraging school choice is a good idea; it is certainly a step away from this monolithic public education system we now have and towards a more individualized educational market.
TNI: That means supporting the voucher system, right?
Enright: I have to say, the voucher system scares me, in this respect. With the government paying for private-school education through vouchers, on the scale of money we’re talking about, there will inevitably be corruption. And then political people will say, “Well, if these private schools are going to take government money, we have to have government oversight and control.” It is a real, dangerous possibility that the government will step in and standardize everything, and that will be the opposite of a free market in education. It’s what happened in the Netherlands.
TNI: Is that where libertarian educators are moving?
Enright: What I understand is that libertarians originally were encouraging tax credits for education. Milton Friedman talked about that, years ago. Individuals could take money off what they had to pay in taxes in order to use it for private-school tuition. Also, non-parents and organizations could give money to educate others, like poor children, and get tax credits. If there weren’t enough monies that way, I imagine that you could set things up so that children whose parents did not pay enough taxes would get some kind of voucher.
But, at some point, many libertarians decided that that was not going to fly, politically, and so they turned instead toward vouchers for everybody. But the politicians will end up regulating private schools that use vouchers, maybe saying that all voucher-accepting schools have to have state-certified teachers or curricula.
TNI: So this may put Montessori out of business.
Enright: Yes. Because once the government begins to issue vouchers, the schools are going to have to accept them—except, perhaps, for the schools of the very wealthy. All the other private schools, where middle-class and lower-middle-class students go, will either have to accept them, or they will go out of business.
TNI: Ah, yes.
Enright: So, the libertarians are encouraging a free market in education, which is a good thing. The thing I do not hear from them, however, is much talk about what kind of education is objectively best for human beings. That is because most libertarians believe in a free market, which is the political end of things, but they think that your moral standards and ethical beliefs are entirely private and subjective.
Okay, I do not think that the government should be regulating morals, either. However, although I think that what is right and wrong is often a complex question, I also think that you can look at human nature and reality and say, “Just as certain things are good for human health, certain actions are good for human education.” It is a matter of science and experience to figure out what is objectively good in education. But libertarians do not discuss objective standards of education very much; it is something they leave by the wayside.
TNI: I know that standards and discipline in education are important to you.
Enright: They are. But there is a good side to them and a bad side. The conservative view of education tends to be that children need to learn certain things, and we must make them learn them because they are not necessarily interested in learning those things right now. I call this the “Original Sin” view of education, because it fits many conservatives’ ethical views: They think children tend to be naughty and would rather play, so you have to discipline them to make them learn.
TNI: Force them.
Enright: Force them to learn, right. And what Maria Montessori discovered was that theylove to learn, if you give them the right environment, and they will do it of their own free will. You, as the adult, just have to be clever enough to give them what they need at the right time. You have to be the right kind of guide in their learning process, in their self-education. So, what tends to happen in the well-run Montessori school—and this is one of the things that is remarkably different about them—is that the children are very well-behaved of their own accord.
TNI: Because they are focused on learning and their own self-fulfillment—on intrinsic competition, as opposed to getting the best grade, fighting with others, and worrying about their self-images.
Enright: Exactly, exactly. What is so striking when you enter a Montessori classroom is this busy hum of all these children doing their own individual work all around the classroom. They are working on things; they are excited about what they are doing and sharing it with each other, but quietly. They are allowed to talk to each other. Maria said, “We learn so much through conversation as adults. Why do we stop children from talking to each other?” Well, that happens in traditional education because children end up talking about things that are different from what the teacher is directing them to pay attention to, right?
Enright: People often ask me, “How do you know that a Montessori school is better than other schools?” And here is some of my proof: Over the years at my school, I cannot tell you how many children have lied to their parents, saying that they are not sick when they really were, because they do not want to miss school! We get notes from parents all the time about this.
TNI: That’s fascinating. It’s also fascinating that you have taken these concepts and have decided to put together a college for young adults. Why did you decide to do that, and how it is going to work?
Enright: It is well known that leftist philosophy dominates academia. Stories about how people with conservative or libertarian views are kept out of the academy are common. Furthermore, on campuses you have a proliferation of anti-cognitive, anti-free-inquiry ideas, like political correctness. The kids are not allowed to talk about things in certain ways because it might offend somebody. If they hold politically incorrect views and express them, they are ridiculed. In many instances students are punished with bad grades by professors who do not like what they write—not because it is poorly done, but simply because the teachers do not like the content. Well, that strangles debate. That strangles the reasoning mind. That strangles independent judgment.
TNI: It’s all too common.
Enright: Plus, it concerns me that the many students coming out of college are not able to think well. These people will take over the leadership of our society; yet they cannot think for themselves, and they have been encouraged to strangle their minds with political correctness.
So, I thought to myself, maybe it is time to start another kind of college, one consciously devoted to reason, to individualism, and to encouraging students to learn how to think for themselves—not only by the ideas that we’d teach, but by the very methods that we’d use to teach those ideas. A school where the teachers are not authority figures telling you what the truth is, and you are just absorbing it and spitting it back to them on the tests. Instead, a school where the teachers are expert guides to the best knowledge and ideas in the world—where reasoning skills are emphasized in every classroom, whether it is science or art, whether it is mathematics or history.
TNI: And you are going to find teachers able to do this—and wanting to do it?
Enright: Yes. I do not think it is going to be a problem to find teachers, because I have so many highly qualified people approaching me, saying they would be interested. It would be a matter of finding those with the right combination of skills, attitudes, and knowledge to properly implement the curriculum we have created.
TNI: Talk a little about that curriculum.
Enright: It is going to use what are called “The Great Books” as its foundation. These are group of classics first identified in the late 1920s and ’30s. Robert Hutchins, a far-seeing president of University of Chicago, was concerned, back in the ’20s, that college was getting too professionalized—that everybody was focusing on just getting a job, and that they were not being educated well enough in the great ideas of our world to understand what was going on around them.
So, he put together this committee of experts in ideas, works, and education—Mortimer Adler, a philosopher at U.C.; Richard McKeon and Mark Van Doren from Columbia; Stringfellow Barr from the University of Virginia—a number of people. They picked a group of books that they thought were the most influential, the best-reasoned, the most important works in Western civilization, and they called these “The Great Books.” Since then, the list has been expanded to include titles from civilizations around the world.
A person educated in these books knows a tremendous amount about the ideas, history, and people who have influenced the world we live in today. So, we are going to use that list of books, plus a select group of more contemporary ones, such as the works of Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Richard Feynman, and others. These will form the basis of our curriculum.
We will also incorporate philosophical questions in all classes—very reality-oriented philosophical questions. When the student is learning mathematics, he will also learn, “Why am I learning mathematics? What does it teach me about how to think? How can I use it in the way I live? How does it affect our society? What place does mathematics have in the marketplace?” So, when he graduates, he will have a firm grasp of the relationship between what he learned in school, and the workforce, and his life, and history, and political goings-on—all of these things. We will give him much stronger, more integrated knowledge of the world than does the usual curriculum.
TNI: And he will be independent.
Enright: And he will be independent. He will consciously know how to question and analyze. Through encouragement, reasoning skills, excellent philosophical knowledge, and the way the teachers will guide him, his independence will be highly nurtured. He will be much more confident of his own point of view because he will have thought it through so well. And whatever work he chooses, he will be able to be a confident leader promoting freedom.
Since I’ll bring Montessori principles up to the adult level in this school, a large component of the curriculum will be a “practical life component,” where the student not only intellectually grasps relationships between ideas and what is going on in the world but gains practical experience with that, too. We’ll give students an opportunity from their freshman year on to get involved in outside internships, research projects, and other activities where they can learn about whatever they might be interested in doing. They can try different kinds of work—
TNI: —actually working alongside business people, or interning with scientists?
Enright: Yes, precisely. The internship program will also demonstrate to people how well the students are doing, as they display their excellent thinking skills, their work ethic—all the kinds of things we are going to encourage and nurture.
TNI: Do you know for a fact that people out there would be willing to bring these interns into their environment?
Enright: Oh, yes. I know quite a few businessmen who are involved with me in this project, and they are very excited about the idea. You know, businesses today have a great deal of trouble with employees who are not prepared to work in the right way.
TNI: So, is this college going to be a reality?
Enright: If I have anything to do about it.
TNI: How are academics throughout the country responding?
Enright: I have quite a group of enthusiastic academics on my advisory board. When I go to conferences of the Liberty Fund and the National Association of Scholars and tell them about the college, many people are extremely interested. And, as I said, there is a lot of interest from professors who would like to work there.
TNI: You sound like an educational optimist.
Enright: I am. I think the basic principles of education—and educational reform—are now well-established. You have to remember that when Maria Montessori started, she basically taught slum children.
TNI: And proved that, given the right kind of education, these kids could rise out of poverty and become successful.
Enright: Absolutely. Every day, through a combination of factors, including drive and their own free will, people emerge from the worst of backgrounds and succeed. But what you want to do, of course, is to make it possible for more of them to succeed. And that is what education should be about: crafting a learning environment that allows the greatest number of children to develop themselves.
TNI: Well, it is a fascinating subject—and as your own project develops, I’m sure that we will talk with you about it again. Best wishes, Marsha.
Enright: Thank you, Sara.
When I was in grammar school in the late ‘50’s, I loved school. I eagerly looked forward to learning every day. But by the time I was eight I noticed this wasn’t true for everyone. No. In fact, many, many of the other children were confused or defiant or scared or just plain bored. I could understand the confusion of children who were having trouble keeping up with what was being taught – although I didn’t understand why they were having trouble. And I was simply outraged at the kids who got their jollies from picking on other children. But what really puzzled me were the smart kids who just hated to come to school and who caused all kinds of trouble. Why didn’t they find learning fun? Why did they misbehave constantly, rather than focus on their school work? Why were they so bad?! Why was school such a miserable experience for so many of my schoolmates? What was wrong?
I vowed that I would not let this happen to my own future children, and that they would go to a school that they loved. That vow sent me on a decades-long mission to discover a better way of education.
In 1971 I had the good fortune to read an article on the deepest problems of modernist education, in which the author recommended the Montessori Method as a brilliant alternative1. This led me to read Beatrice Hessen’s article “The Montessori Method,”2 and I was hooked!
The deepest insight Dr. Montessori taught me was: don’t blame the children, question your assumptions. In other words, when you see unhappy children, misbehaving in school and having difficulty learning the material, ask yourself: “what should I do differently? What is frustrating that child?” It’s a simple question that any gardener asks when her plants don’t thrive. This is exactly what Maria asked herself in the first years of the 20th century – and answered by careful, scientific observation of children. And this is the essence of the Montessori Method.
But we don’t seem to have learned that lesson well enough. After twenty plus years of crisis, education pundits are still dithering over what’s wrong. Activists want to throw ever more money into a failing system. And politicians demand we revert to old methods of rote learning and testing. But scientific research shows these very methods are merely mediocre in judging learning, achievement and potential! Ironically, it was the failures of traditional systems that led to the early 20th century explorations in education of John Dewey, Rudolph Steiner and Maria Montessori almost 100 years ago.
What most parents and even most educators don’t know is that the traditional method of education is based on the factory model. Centuries ago, mainly the rich were educated, because their families could hire private tutors for one-on-one lessons. With the advent of the U.S. as a democratic republic, a need arose for mass education to ensure that citizens had enough knowledge and understanding to effectively participate in a free society. Most people couldn’t afford to hire their own teachers, so factories for learning were set up all around the country. Large numbers of children were taught to learn the same thing at the same time in the same way: letters, numbers, reading and history lessons ‘by the book’. To facilitate mass production in education, children were ranked by the same system as shoes: in grades.3
This helped many to acquire basic skills in reading and arithmetic, history and geography, mathematics and maybe a little science. Bright but poor children were at least exposed to the realms of knowledge through these schools, and many bootstrapped themselves to later success. The well-to-do were able to get a richer education in private schools. However, wherever traditional methods were used, the emphasis was – and is – on acquiring as much information as possible. The systematic growth and development of the individual was usually left to chance.
A century ago, most jobs required rote learning and rote work – in factories and farms. Today is a far, far different story. More than ever, working individuals need to be highly motivated and capable learners, able to find out what they need to know and figure out what to do with that information. They need to be able to think well and to judge complex situations using the latest technology. And they need to interact with people all over the world in the vast global markets.
Most jobs today require knowledge workers, not just arms or legs to put parts on an assembly line. Our factory workers use some of the most complicated, computerized equipment the world has ever seen. The phenomenal productivity of the American worker is made possible by his or her ability to run the complex machines that now do the physical labor. Even artists need to learn technology – for animation, sculpture, film – a whole host of media. How can people of widely varying abilities and intellects get a solid educational foundation of knowledge and still be able to develop their individual gifts to the fullest? How can we expect to consistently nurture capable, knowledgeable, highly motivated individuals in a factory system? What education today needs is a truly innovative approach to individual education.
What’s really needed is right in our backyard, thriving since the early ‘60’s through a grassroots movement but largely ignored by educational theorists. It requires an entirely new way of thinking about education, a way that recognizes and respects the needs of the individual child. And that is the Montessori Way. It is a remarkably dynamic modern approach that’s almost 100 years old!
These are the reasons many more parents and teachers need to understand the Montessori Way. Fortunately, The Montessori Way by Tim Seldin and Paul Epstein has recently been published to help them. This book does a brilliant job of translating Dr. Montessori’s deep insights into 21st century terms for parents, teachers and educators of all kinds. It relays the Method’s exciting history and successes as well as recent research that supports her findings and the century of experience at Montessori schools around the world.
It shows how Montessori practices enable each individual child to develop his or her own unique powers while respecting others. It illustrates why a good Montessori school is one of the best environments for children to learn the responsibilities that come with freedom and the respect of others that is necessary for true independence.
This book is written in very clear, accessible language, with beautiful illustrations and photos. And it is comprehensive in its scope. Anyone unfamiliar with Montessori should be able to come away from reading this book with a clear picture of what the Montessori Way is about and how it works.
With all its advantages, why hasn’t the Montessori Method swept the country as a model of educational reform? There are several concrete answers to that question which the authors, Tim Seldin and Paul Epstein explore. But one of the deepest reasons is a matter of outlook: To understand the Montessori Method requires a change in thinking as revolutionary as the United States War for Independence.
That war was fought for a new idea of Man: the idea that life was best lived when each human being had the right to determine his own choices and actions, and follow his own path. It was a war for the freedom of the individual over the tyranny of other men.
The Montessori Way requires a similar revolution in thinking about the individual with equally revolutionary consequences. It requires parents and teachers to understand that each child has a principle of self-growth and self-determination within him. This principle will lead him to shrivel or to flower, depending on his educational environment. Just like a garden, if we make the physical and psychological environment serve the needs of the individual child, he will thrive.
It is truly an “Education for a New World.”4 Parents and teachers here in the New World and everywhere around the world need it more than ever to help children become productive, effective individuals, capable of working happily at the highest levels of creativity and success. This book should go a long way to showing why the Montessori Way can make that happen.
This book is only available directly from the publisher, the Montessori Foundation in the bookstore of its website,
- Rand, Ayn. 1971. The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. New York: New American Library.
- Chattin-McNichols, John P., ed. 1983. Montessori Schools In America. Lexington: Ginn Custom Printing. Seems to be out of print, but may be available from Dr. Chattin-McNichols. orThe Objectivist 1966-1971 by Ayn Rand.
- William Farish: The World’s Most Famous Lazy Teacher
- Montessori, Maria. 1946, 1989. Education for a New World. Clio Press: Oxford.
Copyright © 2003 by Marsha Familaro Enright. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the author and inclusion of her byline.