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That I am now venturing upon a battleground is evident to me from the note of rather fierce anticipatory disapproval which I hear in the voice of everyone who asks me the question which heads this chapter. It is always accented,  “ Is there any real difference between the Montessori system and the kindergarten ? ”  with the evident design of forcing a negative answer.

Oddly enough, the same reluctance to grant the possibility of anything new in the Montessori method characterizes the attitude of those who intensely dislike the kindergarten, as well as that of its devoted adherents. People who consider the kindergarten  “ all sentimental, enervating twaddle ”  ask the question with a truculent tone which makes their query mean,  “ This new system is just the same sort of nonsense, isn’t it now ?  ;  while those who feel that the kindergarten is one of the vital, purifying, and uplifting forces in modern society evidently use the question as a means of stating,  “ It can’t be anything different from the best kindergarten ideas, for they are the best possible.”

I have seen too much beautiful kindergarten work to have much community of feeling with the rather brutal negations of the first class of inquirers. It is therefore largely for the sake of people like myself, with a natural sympathy for the kindergarten, that I am setting out upon the difficult undertaking of stating what are the differences between a Froebelian and a Montessori school for infants.

I must begin by saying that there are a great many resemblances, as is inevitable in the case of two methods which work upon the same material—children from three to six. Some of the kindergarten blocks are used in Montessori  “ sensory exercises.”  In both institutions the ideal, seldom attained as yet, is for the systematic introduction of gardening and the care of animals. In both the children play games and dance to music ;  some regular kindergarten games are used in the Casa dei Bambini. And yet the moral atmosphere of a kindergarten is as different from that of a Casa dei Bambini as possible, and the real truth of the matter is that one is actually and fundamentally opposed to the other.

The first thing Dr. Montessori requires of a directress in her school is a complete avoidance of the center of the stage, the very desirability  ( not to mention the possibility )  of which has never occurred to the kindergarten teacher whose normal position is in the middle of a ring of children with every eye on her, with every sensitive, budding personality receiving the strongest possible impressions from her own adult individuality. She has always considered that her part is to make that individuality as perfect and lovable as possible, so that the impression the children get from it may be desirable. The idea that she is to keep herself strictly in the background for fear of unduly influencing some childish soul which has not yet found itself, is an idea totally unheard of.

In the beginning of her study the kindergarten teacher is instructed, it is true, as an abstract consideration, what Pestalozzi held and Froebel accepted, that just as the cultivator creates nothing in his trees and plants, so the educator creates nothing in the children under his care. This is duly set down in her note-book, but the apparatus given her to work with, the technic taught her, what she sees of the work of other teachers, the whole tendency of her training goes to accentuate what is already strong in her temperament, a fixed conviction of her own personal and individual responsibility for what happens about her. She feels keenly  ( in the case of nervous constitutions, crushingly )  the weight of this responsibility, really awful when it is felt about children. She has the quick, energetic, instinct to do something herself, at once to bring about a desired condition. Indeed, that she should be required above all things to do nothing, not to interfere, is almost intellectually inconceivable to her.

In spite of the horticultural name of her school the ordinary kindergarten teacher has never learned the whole-hearted, patient faith in the long, slow processes of nature which characterizes the true gardener. She is not penetrated by the realization of the vastness of the forces of the human soul, she is not subdued and consoled by a calm certainty of the rightness of natural development. She is far gayer with her children than the Montessori teacher, but she is really less happy with them because, in her heart of hearts, she trusts them less. She feels a restless sense of responsibility for each action of each child. It is doubtless this difference in mental attitude which accounts for the physical difference of aspect between our smiling, ever-active, always beckoning, nervously conscientious kindergarten teacher, always on exhibition, and the calm, unhurried tranquillity of the Montessori directress, always unobtrusively in the background.

The latter is but moving about from one little river of life to another, lifting a sluice gate here for a sluggish nature, constructing a dam there to help a too impetuous nature to concentrate its forces, and much of the time occupied in quietly observing, quite at her leisure, the direction of the channels being constructed by the different streams. The kindergarten teacher tries to do this, but she seems obsessed with the idea, unconscious for the most part, that it is, after all, her duty to manage somehow to increase the flow of the little rivers by pouring into them some of her own superabundant vital force. In her commendable desire to give herself to her chosen work, she conceives that she is lazy if she ever allows herself a moment of absolute leisure, and unoccupied, impersonal observation of the growth of the various organisms in her garden. She must be always helping them grow ! Why else is she there ?  she demands with a wrinkled brow of nervous determination to do her duty, and with the most honest, hurt surprise at any criticism of her work.

It is possible that this tendency in American kindergartens is not only a result of the American temperament, but is inherent in Froebel’s original conception of the kindergarten as the place where the child gets his real social training.

Now it may very well happen that a child does not feel social some morning between nine and eleven, but would prefer to pursue some laudable individual enterprise. Coercion would be involved in insisting that he join in one of the group games or songs of the kindergarten, coercion employed, even though coated with sweet and coaxing persuasion, and the picture of itself conceived by the kindergarten as a place of the spontaneous flowering of the social instinct among children has in it some pretense.

The kindergarten teacher, set the task of seeing that a given number of children engage in  “ social ”  enterprises practically all the time during a given number of hours every day, can hardly be blamed if she is convinced that she must act upon the children nearly every moment, since she is required to round them up incessantly into the social corral.

The long hours of the Montessori school and the freedom of the children, living their own everyday lives as though they were  ( as indeed they are ) in their own home, make a vital difference here. The children, in conducting their individual lives in company with others, are reproducing the conditions which govern social life in the adult world. They learn, not because it is  “ nice ”  to do this, not because an adored, infallible, lovely teacher supports the doctrine by her unquestioned authority, not because they are praised and petted when they do, but because the find they cannot live together at all without rules which all respect.

In other words, when there is some real occasion for formulating or obeying a law, they obey it from an inward conviction, based on genuine circumstances of their own lives, that they must do so, or life would not be tolerable for any of them ;  and when there is no genuine occasion, they are left, as we all desire to be left, to the pursuit of their own lives. No artificial occasion is manufactured by the routine of the school—an artificial occasion which is apt to be resented by the stronger spirits among children even as young as those of kindergarten age. Crudely stated, Froebel’s purpose seems to have been that the child should, in two or three hours at a given time every day, do his social living and have it over with. And although this statement is both unsympathetic and incomplete, there is in it the germ of a well-founded criticism of the method which many of us have vaguely felt, although we have not been able to formulate it before studying the principles of a system which avoids this fault.

A conversation I had in Rome with an Italian friend, not in sympathy with the Montessori ideas, illustrates another phase of the difference between the average kindergarten and the Casa dei Bambini. My friend is a quick, energetic, positive woman who  “ manages ”  her two children with a competent ease which seems the most conclusive proof to her that her methods need no improvement.  “ Oh, no, the Casa dei Bambini are quite failures,”  she told me.  “ The children themselves don’t like them.”  I recalled the room full of blissful babies which I had come to know so well, and looked, I daresay, some of the amused incredulity I felt, for she went on hastily,  “ Well, some children may. Mine never did. I had to put both the boy and the girl back into a kindergarten. My little Ida summed up the whole matter.  She said,  ‘ Isn’t it queer how they treat you at a Casa dei Bambini !  They ask me,  “ Now which would you like to do, Ida, this, or this ? ”  It makes me feel so queer. I want somebody to tell me what to do ! ’ ”

My friend went on to generalize, quite sure of her ground,  “ That’s the sweet and natural child instinct—to depend on adults for guidance. That’s how children are, and all the Dr. Montessoris in the world can’t change them.”

The difference between that point of view and Dr. Montessori’s is the fundamental difference between the belief in aristocracy, the value of authority for its own sake, which still lingers among conservatives even in our day, and the whole-hearted belief in democracy [laissez-faire].

Ida is being trained under her mother’s masterful eye to carry on docilely what an English writer has called  “ the dogmatic method with its demand for mechanical obedience and its pursuit of external results.”  She is acquiring rapidly the habit of standing still until somebody tells her what to do, and she has already acquired an unquestioning acquiescence in the illimitable authority of somebody else, anyone who will speak positively enough to regulate her life in all its details. In other words, a finely consistent little slave is being manufactured out of Ida, and if in later years she should develop forcefulness, it will waste a great deal of its energy in a wild, unregulated revolt against the chains of habit with which she finds herself loaded.

Sweet little four-year-old Ida, freed for a moment from the twilight cell of her passive obedience, and blinking pitifully in the free daylight of the Casa dei Bambini, is a figure which has lingered long in my memory and has been one of the factors inducing me to undertake the enterprise of writing this book.

In still another way the Montessori insistence on spontaneity of the children’s action safeguards them, it seems to me, against one of the greatest dangers of kindergarten life, and obviates one of the justest criticisms of the American development of Froebel’s method, namely overstimulation and mental fatigue. When I first thoroughly grasped this fundamental difference, I was reminded of the saying of a wise old doctor who, when I was an intense, violently active girl of seventeen, had given me some sound advice about how to lift the little children with whom I happened to be playing :  “ Don’t take hold of their hands to swing them around ! ”  he cried to me.  “ You can’t tell when the strain may be too great for their little bones and tendons. You may do them a serious hurt. Have them take hold of your hands !  And when they’re tired, they’ll let go.”

It now seems to me that in the kindergarten the teachers are the ones who take hold of the children’s hands, and in the Casa dei Bambini it is the other way about. What Dr. Montessori is always crying to her teachers is just the exhortation of my old doctor. What she is endeavoring to contrive is a system which allows the children to  “ let go ”  when they themselves, each at a different time, feel the strain of effort. The kindergarten teacher is making all possible conscientious efforts to train herself to an impossible achievement, namely to know  ( what of course she never can know with certainty )  when each child loses his spontaneous interest in his exercises or game. She is as convinced as the Montessori directress that she must  “ let go ”  at that moment, but she is not trained so to take hold of the child that he himself makes that all-important decision.

It is true that the best kindergarten teachers learn from years of experience  ( which involves making mistakes on a good many children )  about when, in general, to let go ;  but not the most inspired teacher can tell, as the child himself does, when the strain is first felt in the immature, undeveloped brain. And it is this margin of possibility of mistake on the part of the best kindergarten teachers which results only too frequently, with our nervous, too responsive American children, in the flushed faces and unnaturally bright eyes of the little ones who return to us after their morning in the kindergarten, unable to eat their luncheons, unable to take their afternoon naps, quivering between laughter and tears, and finding very dull the quiet peace of the home life.

This observation finds any amount of confirmatory evidence in the astonishingly great diversity in mental application among children when really left to their own devices. There is no telling how long or how short a time any given play or game will hold their attention. Some children are interested only so long as they must struggle against obstacles, and once the enterprise runs smoothly, have no further use for it. With others, the pleasure seems to increase a hundredfold when they are once sure of their own ability.

However long the kindergarten teacher may continue a given game or exercise, it is only too long for some of the children. There are apt to be others whom she deprives, by her discontinuation of the game, of an invigorating exercise which they crave with all their might, and which they would continue, if left free to follow their own inclination, ten times longer than she would dare to think of asking them to do. The pertinacity of children in some exercise which happens exactly to suit their needs is one of the inevitable surprises to people observing them carefully for the first time. Since my attention has been called to it, I have observed this perseverance on unexpected occasions in all children acting freely. Not long ago a child of mine conceived the idea of climbing up on an easy-chair, tilting herself over the arm, sliding down into the seat on her head, and so off in a sprawling heap on the floor. I began to count the number of times she went through this extremely violent, fatiguing, and  ( as far as I could see )  uninteresting exercise, and was fairly astounded by her obstinacy in sticking to it. She had done it thirty-four times with unflagging zest, shouting and laughing to herself, and was apparently going on indefinitely when, to my involuntary relief, she was called away to supper.

In Rome I remember watching a little boy going through the exercises with the wooden cylinders of different sizes which fit into corresponding holes. He worked away with a busy, serene, absorbed industry, running his forefinger around the cylinders and then around the holes until he had them all fitted in. Then with no haste, but with no hesitation, he emptied them all out and began over again. He did this so many times that I felt an impatient fatigue at the sight of the laborious little creature, and turned my attention elsewhere. I had counted up to the fourteenth repetition of his feat before I stopped watching him, and when I glanced back again, a quarter of an hour later, he was still at it. All this, of course, without a particle of that  “ minimum amount of supervision consistent with conscientious child-training”  ( quoting a kindergarten manual ).  He was his own supervisor, thanks to the self-corrective nature of the apparatus he was using. If he put a cylinder in the wrong hole he discovered it himself and was forced to think out for himself what the trouble was.

Dr. Montessori says  ( and I from my own experience )  that nothing is harder for even the most earnest and gifted teachers to learn than that their duty is not to solve all the difficulties in the way of the children, or even to smooth these out as much as possible, but on the contrary expressly to see to it that each child is kept constantly supplied with difficulties and obstacles suitable to his strength.

A kindergarten teacher tries faithfully to teach her children so that they will not make errors in their undertakings. She holds herself virtually responsible for this. With a Puritan conscientiousness she blames herself if they do make mistakes, if they do not understand, by grasping her explanation, all the inwardness of the process under consideration, and she repeats her explanations with unending patience until she thinks they do. The Montessori teacher, on the other hand, confines herself to pointing out to the child what the enterprise before him is. She does not, it is true, drop down before him the material for the Long Stair and leave him to guess what is to be done with it. She herself constructs the edifice which is the goal desired. She makes sure that he has a clear concept of what the task is, and then she mixes up the blocks and leaves him to work by the aid of the self-corrective material.

Dr. Montessori has a great many amusing stories to tell of her first struggles with her teachers to make them realize her point of view. Some of them became offended, and resolved, since they were not allowed to help the children, to do nothing at all for them, a resolution which resulted naturally in a state of things worse than the first. It was very hard for them to learn that it was their part to set the machinery of an exercise in motion and then let the child continue it himself. I quite appreciate the difficulty of learning the distinction between directing the children’s activity and teaching them each new step of every process. My own impulse made me realize the truth of Dr. Montessori’s laughing picture of the teacher’s instinctive rush to the aid of some child puzzling over the geometric insets, and I knew, from having gone through many such profuse, voluble, vague, confusing explanations myself, that what they always said was,  “ No, no, dear ;  you’re trying to put the round one in the square hole. See, it has no corners. Look for a hole that hasn’t any corners, etc, etc.”  It was not until I had sat by a child, restraining myself by a violent effort of self-control from  “ correcting ”  his errors, and had seen the calm steady, untiring hopeful perseverance of his application, untroubled and unconfused by adult  “ aid,”  that I was fully convinced that my impulse was to meddle, not to aid. And I admit that I have many backslidings still.

Half playfully and half earnestly, I am continually quoting to myself the curious quatrain of the Earl of Lytton, a verse which I think may serve as a whimsical motto for all of us energetic American mothers and kindergarteners who may be trying to learn more self-restraint in our relations with little children :

        “ Since all that I can do for thee
          Is to do nothing, this my prayer must be,
          That thou mayst never guess nor ever see
          The all-endured, this nothing-done costs me.”

A Montessori Mother  by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

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