Preparing for Virtue
Every day, and over the course of our whole lives, we make countless choices: from those that are significant and life-altering—like what career(s) to invest in, what friendships and romantic relationships to pursue or end, or where to live—to the small choices that make up the fabric of daily life—like what to eat for breakfast, whether to go to bed early, or how to best use our time in the evenings and weekends.
As parents and teachers, we want to prepare children to face this vast array of decisions with confidence and integrity. Whatever our view of what is right and virtuous, we want them to have the capacity to make choices with conviction and to follow through with corresponding action. Yet, Montessori believed the traditional methods for building this capacity, rather than supporting children, stunt them.
Under many traditional models, the child’s freedom to make choices is severely limited or eliminated altogether. In many schools, for example, the child is told when to move and when to sit still, when to speak and when to be silent, what work to do, with whom, and for how long—even when to use the bathroom! Under this model, it is the adult’s responsibility to make good choices for the child and it is the child’s responsibility to comply and emulate good examples.
To illustrate the cruelty and impracticality of this method, Montessori provides an analogy to the child’s physical development, saying:
"It would certainly never occur to anyone that in order to educate the voluntary motility of a child, it would be well first of all to keep it absolutely motionless, covering its limbs with cement (I will not say fracturing them!) until the muscles become atrophied and almost paralyzed; and then, when this result had been attained, that it would suffice to read to the child wonderful stories of clowns, acrobats and champion boxers and wrestlers, to fire him by such examples, and to inspire in him an ardent desire to emulate them. It is obvious that such a proceeding would be an inconceivable absurdity.
And yet we do something of the same kind when, in order to educate the child's "will," we first of all attempt to annihilate it, or, as we say, "break" it, and thus hamper the development of every factor of the will, substituting ourselves for the child in everything. … And we present to his fancy, in the guise of fabulous tales, stories of heroic men, giants of will, under the illusion that by committing their deeds to memory a vigorous feeling of emulation will be aroused and will complete the miracle.”(1)
Montessori believed that we couldn’t expect children to build the capacity to make good choices if they were prevented from making choices in the first place. Instead, she believed it was essential to help the child actively develop his agency—his ability to exercise independent judgment, to make confident decisions, to follow through on his intentions with appropriate action, whether positive or inhibitory, and to persist in his choices across time.
She contends that the child’s developed agency, or will, is fundamental, saying:
“The manner in which we are to make use of our strong will is a higher question, which, however, can rest only upon one basis: that the will exists—that is, has been developed, and has become strong.”(emphasis added)(2)
Her basic point is that before the child can explicitly ask how he should use his mind to direct his actions, determine which virtues he should cultivate, decide whose character he should admire and seek to emulate, or plan the course of his life, he must first develop the capacity to make his own choices and follow them through. Without this capacity, his intentions become lifeless. Like the person who dreams of becoming an accomplished writer but never picks up a pen, the child’s intention to do what is right and good is inconsistently or ineffectually translated into action—it’s hollow.
But, just as the child practices recognizing phonemes in speech before learning to read, practices fastening zippers, buttons, and clasps on dressing frames before dressing himself independently, or masters the binomial cube before learning to perform binomial expansion, Montessori believed the child can also practice the foundational skills that comprise agency. Namely, he can be given an ever-expanding freedom of choice.
Setting the Child Free
Montessori knew that when she declared the child should be given freedom, most people would immediately imagine chaos, saying:
“We are so accustomed to treat children like dogs and other domestic animals, that a "free child" makes us think of a dog, barking, jumping, and stealing dainties."(3)
But after observing children closely, she saw the child and the possibilities of his freedom in a radically new light, asserting:
"We must understand clearly that when we give freedom and independence to the child, we give freedom to a worker who is impelled to act and who cannot live except by his work and his activity. This is the form of existence for living beings, and as the human being is also living, he also has this tendency.”(emphasis added)(4)
Montessori’s idea of the kind of freedom that enables the child to practice and develop his agency, therefore, is far richer than the mere freedom to simply declare his desires or act on his impulses. And it is certainly not the expectation that his parents, teachers, or reality itself will meekly submit and cater to his whims. Rather, the child is given the freedom to connect his choices to his actions in reality. He’s given the freedom to commit.
The 3-year-old in a Montessori classroom, for example, who decides to have a banana and toast for a snack, who projects what he needs to acquire it, who acts resolutely to gather his supplies, and then persists through any difficulties—the banana that is hard to peel, the butter that is difficult to spread—is doing more than professing a desire. He is making a commitment. His choice of snack is not a proclamation made in a vacuum, a goal disconnected from the means to achieve it. Instead, his choice of snack is inextricably linked with all the work entailed in acquiring it. To this child, a choice naturally implies all the responsibility required to make it a reality.
The ability to make this kind of committed choice doesn’t develop automatically, according to Montessori. Nor, once made, are a child’s choices automatically good. An unattended child can easily flit capriciously between possible choices without making a commitment, or he can commit to destructive and dangerous actions. Freedom, while necessary therefore, is not sufficient. What the child needs to support his freedom, according to Montessori, is a prepared environment. He needs a structure that is designed to entice and encourage him to make certain choices and to enable him to follow through on those choices with maximum independence.
And so, in a Montessori environment, the child finds interesting, challenging materials, designed to engage his natural interests and to inspire him toward mastery, and which he can only use for their intended purpose. He finds child-sized implements which enable him to follow through with appropriate action to meet his needs and care for the environment, and which require him to follow logical step-by-step instructions. He finds a teacher and a community of peers that respect his concentration and allow him to think, move, choose, and commit without interference or interruption, and who expect the same respect from him in return. He finds intelligible routines that provide a framework for understanding the world and for acting with security and confidence. He finds, in short, an environment fully prepared for his freedom.
Through the repeated experience of choosing, following through, and persisting within an environment prepared for his freedom, the child develops his agency. And the more developed his agency, the greater amount and complexity of this goal-oriented and mastery-focused work he is able to choose, leading to yet better-developed agency. This recursive process of choice leading to commitment leading to still more challenging choice and commitment is how the child develops the mental resources to face a vast expanse of choices in the adult world. It’s what enables him to make plans on the scale of his whole life, to decide the best actions to obtain his goals, and to act with integrity so that his decisions do not remain mere intentions. It’s how the child builds a personality prepared to later choose and enact virtues.
While there is much to be said about this later development of specific values and virtues, for Montessori, it is the child’s developed capacity for decision-making and follow-through that enables him to acquire any virtues in the first place. It is the child’s developed agency, the ability to choose and commit, which has been bolstered, encouraged, and given abundant opportunity for practice within a prepared environment, that prepares a child for the demands of virtue.
- Montessori, Maria. Spontaneous Activity in Education (p. 129). Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. Spontaneous Activity in Education (p. 131). Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. Spontaneous Activity in Education (p. 134). Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind (Unabridged Start Publishing LLC) (p. 79). Start Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.
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.
- Core Philosophy
Creating a Child’s World
It’s common to recognize that young children are highly perceptive and unusually sensitive to their surroundings. Montessori agreed, and took this a step further: she believed that children take their early experiences and use them to build the very foundations of their minds.
- Core Philosophy
Knowledge as an Achievement
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 as an experiential grab-bag, a disparate and disconnected assortment of facts and skills that can be learned (or not!) at random. 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.
- Core Philosophy
Place-Value as Soulcraft in Montessori
When children learn column addition and multiplication, they understand why it works, because they understand—because it’s been part of their physical environment and activity since they were 2—what place value is.
Why does any of this matter? It adds up.