Knowledge as an Achievement
From the moment a newborn first gazes out at the world, at that “blooming, buzzing confusion,” he begins coming to conclusions about it. Gradually, over days and weeks and years, he notices similarities, makes associations, and starts to generalize. Bit by bit, his knowledge grows. Bit by bit, he looks out at an increasingly intelligible universe. And this process need not ever stop. The adult, too, can continually observe the world and come to new, deeper conclusions. New information presents itself that can be connected to past knowledge, transferred and applied to new situations, updated and discarded when new facts are discovered.
By necessity, much of this lifelong process of gaining knowledge is messy. The world is one complex, jumbled whole, not a neatly laid out index. There is no instruction manual in nature demanding what experiences one must have, what details must be paid attention to, or where to look for new clues in order to gain a particular piece of knowledge. The young child, who is simultaneously mastering a language and coordinating the movement of his body, is gathering a tangled and disjointed array of experiences from which he must later form wide-seeping conclusions about the world he lives in and what’s possible in it.
Alluding to the inner state of the child at this stage, Montessori remarks:
"The little child of three years old carries within him a heavy chaos. He is like a man who has accumulated an immense quantity of books, piled up without any order, and who asks himself "What shall I do with them?" When will he be able to arrange them in such fashion as to enable him to say: "I possess a library"?"(1)
The goal of education, according to Montessori, is not only to provide the content—the core skills, knowledge, and virtue—with which the child will build his life. It also provides a method of organization, a systematic model of how to keep knowledge organized, connected to reality, and related to everything else one knows. Not because one can’t (or won’t still) acquire knowledge in the messy way begun in infancy, but because a proper, methodical approach is nimble, efficient, and powerful. It, like the gears on a bicycle, multiplies one’s efforts, allowing one to go further with less strenuous effort. It, like the bicycle again, can be used to traverse the well-ordered lanes of the knowledge learned in schools or to navigate the treacherous switchbacks and muddy trails of the knowledge gained by experience in the wider, messy world.
The goal, in short, is twofold: it’s for the child to have a library and for it to be his. It’s to have an orderly mind that can observe, evaluate, and make decisions. And it’s for this order and organization to be fully real to the child. Not as parroted incantations or robotically performed algorithms, but as hard-won, first-handed triumphs.
Montessori, unlike the centuries of educational tradition before her, did not view knowledge as a lump sum that can be gifted wholesale to a child, filling his mind as one would fill an empty vessel. Neither did she view knowledge, like many of her progressive contemporaries, as an experiential grab-bag, a disparate and disconnected assortment of facts and skills that can be learned (or not!) at random. The traditional approach gives the child access to a library, but one that isn’t his. This model, if consistent, doesn’t produce knowledge that is an active, living force in the child’s mind, but a bug trapped in amber, frozen in time, inaccessible. The progressive approach gives the child knowledge that is his, but no library with which to organize it. This model, if consistent, doesn’t produce knowledge that is an expansive, sweeping vista from which the child can direct his life, but traps him in the narrow hallway of his limited experience. Instead, for Montessori, knowledge is an achievement. It’s an effortful process that can be accelerated and whose product can be amplified by following a specific path.
The path Montessori offers a child will guide him, often indirectly, step-by-step from experience, to generalization, to principle. Under this model, the child’s principles stay grounded, tethered to countless real-world applications, and his experiences gain wings, unmoored from trivial detail and able to be understood and connected on a far-reaching scale.
For Montessori, this process follows two parallel progressions: a succession of gathering observations and a crystallization of those observations through language into broader categories and principles.
In this progression, the child is nearly wholly independent. Rather than listening to a lecturing adult, the child is working on his own to gather observations about the world. Importantly, though, the observations aren’t left up to chance, but are presented in a systematic, orderly way. The clearest example of Montessori’s progression is her curriculum for the “education of the senses.”
Stage 1: Recognizing Identities
The first step, whether the child is preparing to learn the colors, shapes, or musical notes in a scale, is for him to recognize their individual identities—that is when two things match, when they are the same. Typically, this means he first works with sets of dissimilar items which differ only along one dimension: items that are identical in shape but vary in color, or items that only vary in shape, or only in weight, etc. This is because what makes red, red or what makes a triangle, a triangle is easier to see and understand when isolated in direct comparison with another color or shape that is altogether different.
To fully concretize the knowledge and thus make it real, the child’s observations are paired with physical experience as much as possible. He is asked not just to look at and match the drawings of shapes on pieces of paper, but to trace the outline of solid objects with his fingers and hold them in his hand. Because the child is working with physical objects, activities can be self-correcting. It is the information in the world and the child’s own observations that inform him of any errors, not a teacher. The child can see that the red tablet does not match the blue, he can feel that the rough sandpaper does not match the smooth, he can see and feel that the square inset does not fit into the triangular slot.
Stage 2: Recognizing Contrasts
Once the child has become adept at identifying these individual characteristics, he now works to recognize contrasts in the items of a series. For example, he will be given eight colored tablets all in shades of red. He will arrange them in order from darkest to lightest by observing the full set and always looking for and selecting the darkest shade remaining in the group. Similarly, he will arrange the multi-sized cubes that form the pink tower, one on top of another, always by looking for the biggest in the group.
At this stage, the child is further refining his ability to observe and make judgments. He knows what a square is in relation to a circle. But now he works to generalize, to see the different sizes of squares as both different and the same: different in size, but essentially the same in shape. He can then look and see that they are all squares despite trivial differences in size.
Stage 3: Discriminating Similarities
The final, and most difficult, stage in this progression is for the child to discriminate between fine gradations of similar things. In the colored tablets, for example, the child now works with all sixty-four shades, eight for each color, arranging them all in order from darkest to lightest. At this point, the child may have refined his observational skills to the point where he can be given a random shade and quickly find the match among all the tablets.
The child is also working to make the similarities more abstract: first by matching solid plane insets to their slots, to matching the insets to cards with drawn and solid shapes, to cards with bold outlines of shapes, to cards with thin outlines of shapes: gradually, the level of abstraction increases. The child who held the circle inset in his hand and traced its outline with his fingers, can now see its similarity with a 2D picture of the same shape. Not only are all solid circles still circles, but he can see how abstract representations are also circles.
Crystallizing Observations through Language
If all the child ever did was observe and interact with the world, his learning would be incomplete under this model. Montessori’s view is that the child is best served when given the tools to “fix” what he’s learned in his mind, and the way he does this is by learning a word. A whole mass of observed information is then condensed and sealed into his mind as one unit. Instead of an unwieldy stack of papers that he must lug around, he can now hold a title that condenses a whole book. For this part of the process, the adult plays a more direct role in guiding the child.
Once the child has worked with and understood a material, once he flawlessly matches red-to-red or square-to-square for example, the adult can take him aside and begin what’s called a “3 period lesson” to help fix the information in the child’s mind.
Period 1: Naming
The first step in the sequence is to simply name the shape, color, size, etc. With as few words as possible, the adult will give the child the word to sum up his experience: “This is red,” “This is a square,” “That is thick.” It’s important to note that this, like the child’s observations, is repeated several times to prepare him to move on to the next stage. Hearing the words many times in connection with the objects he’s familiar with enables them to become fully fixed and secure in his mind.
During this period, few extraneous words are used so the child can focus only on the most important information. The words are precise, matching the isolation of the quality in question. The longest of the rods, which only vary in length, for example, would be associated with a phrase such as “This is long” rather than “This is big.” The stairs which vary in thickness, but not length, would be denoted by “This is thick” or “This is thin.” Only the largest of the cubes comprising the pink tower, which vary in all 3 dimensions, would be described by “This is big.”
Period 2: Recognition
After the child has had ample experience with hearing the new words, he can be asked to demonstrate his understanding. This does not yet mean reproducing the word. Instead, the child takes some concrete action which shows that he understands. For example, the adult might say “Show me the blue one” or “Give me the thickest one.” The child might then point or grab the item to clearly show that he has connected the word to the object.
This period of silent understanding mirrors the learning of language more generally. Babies often understand what their parents are talking about on some level long before they can use the words themselves. This period of learning is similar. The child can demonstrate his understanding before he is able to articulate it. This period, too, is not rushed. The goal is for the child to have a sense of comfort and ease with this task before moving to the final period. Very young children who aren’t yet talking, for example, may stay on the 2nd period for months or years before progressing to the final period.
Period 3: Pronunciation
Once the child has heard the word frequently, can consistently demonstrate his understanding of the concept through pointing or grabbing items, and can speak, he is ready to begin providing the word himself. At this stage, the adult might point or grab an object and ask, “What is this?” The child can then say for himself, “Triangle” or “Blue.”
Because the child is only asked to produce these words after having time to hear them repeatedly and after making the connection between the word and his experience, his knowledge is on solid ground. He is not mimicking the adult like a parrot or fulfilling a command in order to earn a treat or avoid punishment. Instead, the gaining of a word gives the child a profound sense of satisfaction. Now, he can say, all his experiences have summed to this. He knows what he has learned, he can hold on to it all, not in the form of a vast array of experience, but as one word that seamlessly ties it all together into one neat package. And critically, it’s fully his.
The Child’s Grasp
The child learns more through all of this than just the concrete names of the shapes, colors, or dimensions. He’s learning to follow a systematic path to knowledge. He’s amplifying his experiences and multiplying his efforts, going further and on steadier feet than he otherwise would. He’s learning to use his mind. Montessori remarks:
“The aim is not an external one, that is to say, it is not the object that the child should learn how to place the cylinders, and that he should know how to perform an exercise.
The aim is an inner one, namely, that the child train himself to observe; that he be led to make comparisons between objects, to form judgments, to reason and to decide; and it is in the indefinite repetition of this exercise of attention and of intelligence that a real development ensues.”(2)
For Montessori, knowledge, the kind that is organized neatly and is fully accessible, is an achievement. There is no shortcut.
The adult cannot transfer knowledge to the child through drill-and-kill lecturing like in the traditional classroom. This is disjointed, disconnected knowledge at best and pale mimicry at worst. Neither can the child make full use of what he’s learned if it’s done randomly, simply “by doing”, as in many progressive classrooms. This creates disarray in the child’s mind, every piece of knowledge isolated on its own internal island, disconnected from other knowledge and from the rest of his life.
The achievement of organized, secure knowledge which, all too often, happens haphazardly and unevenly, can instead happen systematically through a specific process. This process guides the child methodically, from gathering concrete experience to formulating abstract generalizations. It gives him space to hone his skills of observation and provides him with just the right amount of support to help him crystallize his discovery into a framework. He can then use this model to understand the world and set out on his own path in uncharted waters. The child who follows this process creates an orderly mind: a mind that can observe, reason, decide. The child that does this can scan the catalog of his mind and declare proudly: “I possess a library!”
- Montessori, Maria. Spontaneous Activity in Education (p. 139-140). Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook (p. 71). Schocken Books.
Samantha Blaisdell earned a B.A. in Secondary Education with a focus on Spanish and ESL from Spring Arbor University and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Idaho. After working as both a brick-and-mortar and online teacher and as an engineer, she discovered and fell head over heels for the ideas and method of Montessori. Samantha lives in Idaho and, in her free time, enjoys reading, spending time outside, and playing with her cats.
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