SOME GENERAL REMARKS ABOUT THE MONTESSORI APPARATUS IN THE AMERICAN HOME
The first thing to do, if you can manage it, is to secure a set of the Montessori apparatus. It is the result of the thought, ingenuity, and practical experience of a gifted specialist. But there are various supplementary statements to be made which modify this simple advice.
One is, that the arrival in your home of the box containing the Montessori apparatus means just as much for the mental welfare of your children as the arrival in the kitchen of a box of miscellaneous groceries means for their physical health. The presence on the pantry shelf of a bag of the best flour ever made will not satisfy your children’s hunger unless you add brains and good judgement to it, and make edible, digestible bread for them. There is nothing magical or miraculous about the Montessori apparatus. It is as yet the best raw material produced for satisfying the intellectual hunger of normal children from about three to six, but it will have practically no effect on them if its use is not regulated by attentive care, supplemented by objective scrutiny of the children who are to use it. This is one reason why mothers find it harder to educate their children by the Montessori system ( as by all other systems ) than teachers do, for they have an age-long mental habit of clasping their little ones so close in their arms that, figuratively speaking, they never get a fair, square look at them.
There are no two plants, in all the infinity of vegetable life, which are exactly alike. There are not, so geologists tell us, even two stones precisely the same. To lump children ( even two or three children closely related ) in a mss, with generalizations about what will appeal to them, is a mental habit that experience constantly proves to be the extremest folly.
There are some general broad principles which hold true of all plants, and which we will do well to learn from an experienced gardener. All plants prosper better out-of-doors than in a cellar, and all children have activity for the law of their nature. But lilies-of-the-valley shrivel up in the amount of sunshine which supplies just the right conditions for nasturtiums, and your particular three-year-old may need a much quieter ( or more boisterous ) activity than his four-year-old sister. Neither of them may be, at first, in the lest attracted by the problem of the geometric insets, or by the idea of matching colors. They may not have reached that stage, or they may have gone beyond it. You will need your ingenuity and your good judgment to find out where they are, intellectually. The Montessori rule is never to try to force or even to coax a child to use any part of the apparatus. The problem involved is explained to him clearly, and if he feels no spontaneous desire to solve it, no effort is made to induce him to undertake it. Some other bit of apparatus is what, for the moment, he needs, and one only wastes time in trying to persuade him to feel an interest which he is, for the time, incapable of.
When we capture and try to tame a little wild creature of unknown habits our first effort is to find some food which will agree with him, and experimentation is always our first resort. We offer him all sorts of things to eat, and observe which he selects. It is true that we do make some broad generalizations from the results of our experiences with other animals, and we do not try to feed a little creature who looks like a woodchuck on honey and water, nor a new variety of moth on lettuce-leaves. But even if the unknown animal looks ever so close a cousin of the woodchuck family, we do not try to force the lettuce-leaves down his throat if, after a due examination of them, he shows plainly that he does not care for them. We cast about to see what else may be the food he needs ; and though we may feel very impatient with the need for making all the troublesome experiments with diet, we never feel really justified in blaming the little creature for having preferences for turnip-tops, nor do we have a half-acknowledged conviction that, perhaps, if we had starved him to eat lettuce-leaves, it might have been better for him. We are only too thankful to hit upon the right food before our little captive dies of hunger.
Something of all this is supposed to go through the mind of the Montessori mother as she refrains from arguing with her little son about the advisability of his being interested in one, rather than another, of the Montessori contrivances ; and these considerations are meant to explain to her the prompt acquiescence of the Montessori teacher in the child’s intellectual strivings. She is not foolishly indulging him to make herself less trouble, or to please him. She is trying to find out what his natural interest is. She sees that her business is to make use of the children’s interest, rather than waste her time and theirs trying to force it into channels where it cannot run ; to carry her waterwheel where the water falls over the cliff, and not to struggle to turn the river back towards the watershed. And anyone who thinks that a Montessori teacher has “ an easy time because she is almost never really teaching,” underestimates the amount of alert, keen ingenuity and capacity for making fine distinctions, required.
The advanced modern educators who cry jealously that there is nothing new in all this, that it is the principle underlying their own systems of education, need only to ask themselves why their practice is so different from that of the Italian doctor, why a teacher who can force, coerce, coax, or persuade all the members of a class of thirty older children to “ acquire ” practically the same amount of information about a given fixed number of topics within a given fixed period of time, is called a “ good ” teacher ? They will answer inevitably that chaos and anarchy in the educational world would result from any course of study less fixed than that in their schools. And an impartial observer, both of our schools and of history, might reply that chaos and anarchy have been prophesied every time a more liberal [i.e. libertarian] form of government, recognizing more freedom to the individual, has been suggested, anywhere in the world.
In any case, the Montessori mother, with newly acquired apparatus spread out before her, needs to prepare herself for an intellectual enterprise where she will need ingenuity and mental flexibility. She will do well, of course, to fortify herself in the first place by a careful perusal of Dr. Montessori’s own description of the apparatus and its use, or by reading any other good manual which she can find. One of the main things for the Montessori mother to remember is that the teachers in the Casa dei Bambini are trained to make whatever explanations are necessary, as brief as possible, given in as few words as they can manage, and with good long periods of silence in between. [“Count your words,” to quote from Dr. Montessori’s book.]
Much of the apparatus is so ingeniously devised that any normally inventive child needs but to have it set before him to divine its correct use. The buttoning-frames, and the solid and plane geometric insets need not a single word of explanation, even to start the child upon the exercise. But the various rods and blocks, used for the Long and Broad Stair and the Tower, are so much like ordinary building-blocks that, the first time they are presented, the child needs a clear presentation of how to handle them. This can be made an object-lesson conducted in perfect silence ; although later, when the child begins to use the sandpaper numbers with them as he learns the series of numbers up to ten, he needs, of course, to be guided in this exercise.
With these rods and blocks especially, care should be taken to observe the Montessori rule that apparatus is to be used for its proper purpose only, in order to avoid confusion in the child’s mind. He should never use the color spools, for instance, to build houses with. Not that, by any means, he should be coaxed to continue the exercises in color if he feels like building houses; but other material should be given him—a pack of cards, building-blocks, small stones, anything handy, but not apparatus intended for another exercise.
In the exercises for learning the difference between rough and smooth, the child needs at first a little guidance in learning how to draw his finger-tips lightly from left to right over the sandpaper strips ; and in the exercises of discrimination between different fabrics, he needs someone to tie the bandage over his eyes and, the first time, to show him how to set to work.
A silent object-lesson, or a word or two, are needed to show him how to separate and distinguish between the pieces of wood of different weights in the baric exercises, and a similar introduction is needed to the cylindrical sound-boxes.
As he progresses both in age and ability, and begins some of the more complicated exercises, he needs a little longer explanation when he begins, and a little more supervision to make sure that he has understood the problem. In the later part of the work with plane geometric insets, and in the work with colored crayons, he needs occasional supervision, not to correct the errors he makes, but to see that he keeps the right aim in sight. Of course, when he begins work with the alphabet he needs more real “ teaching,” since the names of the letters must be told him, and care must be taken that he learns firmly the habit of following their outlines in the correct direction, of having them right side up, etc. But throughout one should remember that most “ supervision ” is meddling, and that one does the child a real injury in correcting a mistake which, with a little more time and experience, he would have been able to correct for himself. It is well to keep in mind, also, that little children, some of them at least, have a peculiarity shared by many of us adults, and that is a nervousness under even silent inspection. I know a landscape painter of real ability who is reduced almost to nervous tears and certainly to paralyzed impotence, by the harmless presence of the group of silent, staring spectators who are apt to gather about a person making a sketch out of doors. Even though we may refrain from actually interfering in the child’s efforts to conquer his own lack of muscular precision, we may wear on him nervously if we give too close an attention to his efforts. The right thing is to show him ( if necessary ) what he is to try to do, and then if it arouses his interest so that he sets to work upon it, we will do well to busy ourselves with something else in the room.
Occasionally a child, even a little child, has acquired already the habit of asking for help rather than struggling with an obstacle himself. The best way to deal with this unfortunate tendency is to provide simpler and simpler exercises until, through making a very slight effort “ all himself,” the child learns the joy of self-conquest and re-acquires his natural taste for independence. Most of us, with healthy normal children, however, meet with no trouble of this kind. The average child of three, or even younger, set before the solid geometric insets, clears the board for action by the heartiest and most instinctive rejection of any aid, suggestions, or even sympathy. His cry of “ Let me do it ! ” as he reaches for the little cylinders with one hand and pushes away his would-be instructor with the other, does one’s heart good.
It is to be seen that Dr. Montessori’s demand for child-liberty and her command to her teachers to let him make his own forward advance does not mean that they are to do nothing for him. They may, indeed, frequently they must, set him carefully on a road not impossibly hard for him, and head him in the right direction. What they are not to do, is to go along with him, pointing out with a flood of words the features of the landscape, smoothing out all the obstacles, and carrying him up all the hills.
More important than any of the details in the use of the apparatus is the constant firm intellectual grasp on its ultimate purpose. The Montessori mother must assimilate the fundamental principle underlying every exercise, the principle which she must never forget in all the detailed complexity of its ingenious practical application. The Montessori exercises are neither games to amuse the children ( although they do this to perfection ) nor ways for the children to acquire information ( although this is also accomplished admirably ). They are means to teach the child how to learn. It is of no great importance that he shall remember perfectly the form of a square or a triangle. It is of the highest importance that he shall acquire the mental habit of observing quickly and accurately the form of any object he looks at or touches. It is of no especial importance that he shall learn quickly to distinguish with his eyes shut that a piece of maple the same size as a piece of pine is the heavier of the two. It is of the utmost importance that he shall learn to take in accurate information about the phenomena of the world, from whichever sense is most convenient, or from all of them at once, correcting and supplementing each other as they so seldom do with us badly trained adults.
A Montessori Mother by Dorothy Canfield Fisher