When Dr. Montessori first began to apply her method, she met with widespread acclaim and wonder. The “astonishing” success of her pupils – their abilities, behaviour, level of development – led some to proclaim she was in fact transforming children to a higher state through some hitherto unknown mechanisms of education. She rebuffed all such claims. Then and now, in Montessori education, we do not seek to change or somehow improve anyone, but only to help them return to their natural state – to help them become normal.
The word normal is not used here in the meaning of average or statistically common, but in the meaning of natural, orderly, without deviations. This forms the paradigm of the Montessori educational philosophy: the firm belief that each human being is born with immense positive potential and capacity for development, needing only appropriate experience in the environment in order to fulfill its destiny and take its rightful place in the world.
Developmental deviations, problems and challenges arise, believed Dr. Montessori, only rarely through some error in the make-up of the child: rather, they are created as a reaction to an inappropriate, inadequate, or downright inimical environment. Like a painful blister that forms in an ill-fitting shoe, so we form psychic deviations as a response to an external hurt: an environment that doesn’t meet our needs.
Life finds a way, and the key characteristics of humankind is our extraordinary ability to adapt; but by adapting to a faulty environment, we create fault lines in ourselves. Thus children learn to be lazy, mean, misbehaving, or any number of undesirable things, and grow into adults who are the same and more. But, and this is crucially important, none of these things are innate or normal to people. And furthermore, as these deviations were learned, they can also be unlearned, compensated, healed – more readily in childhood than in adulthood, of course. This process of returning to our natural state is what we call normalization, and enabling it is one of the key functions of the Montessori classroom.
“Normalization is the single most important result of our work.”
Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
So what are the most common challenges to human development, those that Montessori education seeks to compensate for on our journey to normalization?
First, each person must form the two “psychological legs” that inform our attitudes and experiences throughout life. Those are the basic trust in the environment, and the basic trust in the self. Simply put, they provide the underlying belief and attitude that firstly our world is a good place in which a life is worth living; and that secondly, that we are ourselves equipped to interact with it and affect it for good. These are both primarily formed through our experiences in infancy, based on the responses and interactions we received from our parents and our home environment. Needless to say they continue to develop, refine and be affected throughout life (though never with the power of the first days, weeks and months of life).
For those psychological “legs” to be a strong foundation to stand on, we must experience love and affection, acceptance, security, but also external faith in our abilities, and opportunities to practice independence and gain confidence. All too often, overly protective upbringing may give us the message that the world is dangerous, or that we are weak and unable to meet its challenges; not having opportunities to exert ourselves or act independently may make us question our own abilities, or learn to suppress ourselves.
This is why, in Montessori, we encourage children to act independently, and we do not offer help until truly necessary; we allow the child to struggle, to make mistakes and experience frustration but also to experience eventual success. Through providing gradually increasing experiences of independence and accomplishment, each child is reminded over and over that they are capable and competent. At the same time, our communities are safe and loving: we show (and teach children how to do likewise) care and respect for each of our students. Even when we reject wrong behaviour, we never reject the child.
It is also important to remember that the human being is an integrated complex of the mental and the physical – one part cannot exist without the other. Dr. Montessori referred to the dual “streams of energy” which must develop in harmony in order to develop well. The physical stream is the child’s ability to control and use her body, to move, and the mental stream are the potentials of the absorbent mind, the guiding force of the Horme, and the developing intelligence. As such it is crucial that the child has opportunities to exercise both in tandem.
All too often, children’s movement is restricted to the point that its harmonious development becomes all but impossible (and the child’s bound energies manifest in inappropriate or uncontrolled behaviour); or on the other side of the spectrum, the child’s movement is accepted as senseless silliness with no opportunities to be applied to meaningful work. In Montessori, we purposefully train and refine the senses, exercise motor skills and control of movement in service to educational goals; we introduce and practice concepts and ideas through hands-on materials, and encourage productive movement and work as not only complementary but indeed essential to the work of the mind.
Normalization is not something we can request, demand, or impose. It is a state that the child reaches through experience, exercise, practice and repetition: in other words, through work. Dr. Montessori described it as an invisible process within the child, one that we get to glimpse when the child begins to manifest (even briefly) its main characteristics: love of work, concentration, self-discipline, and sociability.
Only “normalised” children, aided by their environment, show in their subsequent development those wonderful powers that we describe: spontaneous discipline, continuous and happy work, social sentiments of help and sympathy for others… An interesting piece of work, freely chosen, which has the virtue of inducing concentration rather than fatigue, adds to the child’s energies and mental capacities, and leads him to self-mastery… One is tempted to say that the children are performing spiritual exercises, having found the path of self-perfection and of ascent to the inner heights of the soul.
Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind