In March 2018 several of our EMAS team attended the Montessori Education U.K. and Montessori Schools Association joint annual conference in London. The topic of the conference was “The Child as an Agent of Change”.
Helen Prochazka got the day off to a calming start with an insightful talk on the topic of love. She considered the ways in which the love emanated by small children influences those around them and is reflected back to them. I was particularly affected by her discussion of ‘professional love’. Aside from momentarily thinking we were about to hear about the deep friendships we develop with co-workers, it was fascinating to reflect on the love a teacher has for the children in his/her care. She described this as a very different thing to other types of love but nevertheless a very valid emotion. This underlined the importance of engaging in and with the moment so we may nurture our pupils for the short time they are in our schools and then be able to let them go when they grow and move on. I thought perhaps this is a work in progress in my own practise as rather than let them go I just keep adding levels to our school!
Helen’s key example of professional love was the diligence and care that Montessori guides put in to preparing the environment for children. This is such a powerful tool in communicating to children the respect and trust we wish them to absorb on their journey towards autonomy. It also emphasises the fundamental ways that we transmit a message of peace through our actions.
Helen’s talk was followed by a deeply moving presentation by Dr Scilla Elworthy about her many years as a Peace Advocate. She told us stories of several people who have inspired her work over the years. Dr Elworthy highlighted each person’s willingness to carry out very brave acts of kindness with no real sense of fear. These are people who live, work and choose to remain in some of the most dangerous areas in the world. She described work to educate and negotiate, all crucial efforts aimed at repairing the damage done to young people by traumatic experiences. She also described how the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution works to effect positive life outcomes for these people.
We were asked by Dr Elworthy to take part in a short exercise that forms part of a training in listening and non-violent communication. We had to listen for three whole minutes without speaking or even nodding to a colleague talk about something that angers them. The short task had a profound effect on the adults around the room. It proved exceptionally challenging not to nod when listening and all of us affirmed a real sense of connection with the emotion of the individual to whom we listened. It reminded me of the deep, active listening and sincere interest with which guides engage with children in our classrooms. How lucky our young people are to build their knowledge of the world on experiences such as this. Individuals who regularly feel listened to and valued in this way are far more likely to grow up with the calm, indefatigable self-knowledge that drives those who strive to instigate change.
During the afternoon we considered some practical ways peace education can be promoted in our settings. I gave a short talk on reflections taken from the 1949 publication of Education and Peace (a collection of Montessori’s speeches and writings). I considered how these ideas are addressed in our school and how they form the foundation of a culture of peace. Fitting in the vastness of this topic (or let’s face it, any Montessori topic!) was tricky for me in the given 20 minutes. Below I have tried to summarise and then elaborate on the main points I covered.
From my own point of view peaceful ‘being’ constitutes a way of living that is underpinned by basic respect, trust and empathy. It most certainly does not mean that we always agree or must always get along. If we can facilitate an environment in which the old adage, “To err is human” is embedded within our approach and attitudes, our children are able to begin accessing many of life’s deeper connections without fear of failure. How do we build this attitude of tolerance and feeling of safety despite the unpredictable nature of those around us? Montessori had a few ideas!
I would argue that wisdom, or depth of thought, combined with empathy are values that underpin some of the most considerate people I know. When we consider children in the 3-6 classroom we must remind ourselves that they are still developing the wisdom and empathy needed to underpin joyful social and emotional relationships. For these things to develop every person needs TIME. In our classrooms this means real time to play, to explore, to follow through all the steps in any given task. How do we inspire this type of activity?
Our children need meaningful things to do with their time. Things that challenge them both socially and academically. They need to be trusted to make choices, and to conduct themselves in a way that takes into account the good of the whole group. They need to see others behaving in socially appropriate ways, and when this does not happen as we’d hope, they need clear explanation and guidance on what would be preferable and why. In order that they may learn to express themselves behaviourally within the community’s standard, they need to know what that standard is;
You don’t know what you don’t know!
Imagine how intensely confusing the world could seem to these little people who have been with us on the planet for 2, maybe 3 years! Their insanely powerful brains are working non-stop to make sense of their experiences and develop their own clarity about the world around them. Then along come their caregivers with a million different instructions…every person, every place, every relationship has different rules. It never ceases to amaze me that a tiny child’s brain is actually capable of organising and sorting the millions of impressions it receives every day. In a Montessori classroom we do our best to give the process a helping hand, so that over time, the brain can combine this understanding with the ability to control the body’s motor functions…the child is developing self-control.
For those lucky enough to grow up with plenty of positive nurture, this evolving process results in the ability to listen well, to imagine, to consider and to put one’s thoughts into action; communicating them with others and receiving all the benefits that reciprocal communication brings. There are many ways that people, the world over, journey to this intellectual maturation point. I believe the core commonality that can be found to influence every single one is the gift of time.
In our classrooms, for a few hours each day (a deliberate minimum of 3 hours following Montessori’s observations) our children are given very clear, organised space to find their ‘flow’ (as per Csikszentmihalyi) Their brains’ need for order, pattern, clarity, tangible concept and the graduation from basic ideas to more complex concepts are all provided for. Much of this provision comes from experiences within an environment with an appropriate (not overwhelming) range of things to choose from. A variety of open-ended and self- correcting activities provide a plethora of meaningful opportunities. Work through which children experience a sense of gratification in being able to serve others. Even those with the most diverse social abilities have positive opportunities to connect with friends.
Rather than having to come up with every aspect of an interaction themselves, children are able to find simple, everyday ways to make connection. What could be more straightforward than the chance to prepare a piece of fruit and then politely serve the segments to your colleagues? I would argue that this process of trust, sequence, organisation, service and simple human connection is the cornerstone to building social confidence that is underlined by social conscience. We find similar process and possibility inherent in all meaningful work. The simple steps in the aforementioned task, and the time need to see others undertake them, grow the courage to try them oneself, practise them over and over again; THESE are the things that can blossom if we gift our children time.
It is from this experience of meaningful contribution, connection and reciprocal kindness that children develop their very natural ability to behave in peaceful ways. Are they like this all the time? Well no…. are you? Of course not! But the fact that they are given the type of environment imbued with the love of wonderful guides who trust in their abilities means they are far more likely to find this contented state of being on a regular basis.