Today I had the supreme pleasure of giving a talk to my own colleagues at school. The subject was freedom, the human spirit and the child’s soul as seen through the vision of Maria Montessori. I emphasized Montessori’s faith in the inner guides of the children that get their hands working and their minds forming.
At the end, a teacher asked how Montessori’s ideas compared to A.S. Neil and Summerhill, who also had faith that kids were naturally curious and would guide their own learning. And though it probably had its place briefly in the lives of some children and opened up some needed conversations, it was a clear failure as a viable pedagogy. What was the difference?
And that’s when it struck me, as it has occurred to me so many times before, that freedom is dependent on and grows from and gathers strength from the limits of structure. Montessori emphasized the wisdom of children’s instincts, but meticulously prepared an environment that gives them limited choices of specially prepared material to work with. The material itself evolved from the trial and error of what children were consistently attracted to, it was no random, whimsical choice. But the repetition of mastering the challenges of each piece of material is what ultimately granted children the only freedom that counts, the freedom of their competency and mastery and pleasure in achievement.And all of this contained within an ordered schedule that grants a different kind of freedom, the kind born from a rhythm that follows the body and gives focus.
There can be no Montessori Summerhill. Summerhill was like Montessori with no materials, with no schedule. There was nothing offered by adults to rise to, no models of mastery at work, no rhythms that brought the world into focus each day with repetition. It was a big, amorphous waterbed and as some people might remember from college, some activities suffered without some solid ground to push up against (wink, wink).
The xylophone is the Montessori material of Orff. The practice of zazen meditation is the Montessori material of Zen Buddhism. The blues changes are the solid structures through which the jazz musician develops his or her freedom of expression. All exist within structured time, from the micro 12-bar blues progression to the macro seven-day meditation retreat or the 12-year Orff program. All demand the body’s participation to partner with mind and heart and create freedom through concentrated effort. Then all our inner guides and innate curiosities and inborn desires for mastery have something to push up against, some resistance that helps shape and form them.