THE CHILD ΔΔ
by Maria Montessori
Reprinted from "The Theosophist", December 1941.
Errors of the Past
The House of Children
The Key to All Pedagogy
The New Teacher
ERRORS OF THE PAST
HITHERTO the only aim of the educator, the aim towards which all his efforts were directed, was that of preparing the pupil for that social life in which he would later on be forced to live. Therefore, as what was aimed at principally was that he should know how to imitate the adult, he was forced to suffocate the creative forces of the spirit under he cloak of the instinct of imitation. Preferably he was taught that which was considered indispensable to known in order to be able to live in a civilized community. This forced an absolute assimilation of a form of social life which is not natural to children, and should become natural to them only when they would be adults. In such conditions the real nature of the children could not be appreciated either in the old type of school or in the form of old-fashioned family education. The child was only "a future being". He was not envisaged except as one "who is to be become", and therefore he was of no account until he had reached the stage in which he had become a man.
Yet the child, like all other human beings, has a personality of his own. He carries within him the beauty and the dignity of the creative spirit, and these can never be erased, so that his soul which is pure and very sensitive requires our most delicate care. We must not only preoccupy ourselves with his body which is so tiny and so fragile. We must not think only of nourishing and washing and dressing him with great care. Man does not live by bread alone even in his infancy. Material needs are on a step which is lower and can be degrading at any age. Slavery fosters in children, as well as in adults, inferior sentiments and generates an absolute lack of dignity.
The social environment which we have created for ourselves is not suited to the child. He does not understand it and therefore he is kept busy away from it, and as he cannot adapt himself to our society he is excluded from it, and is given into the care of the school which often becomes his prison. Today we can at last see very clearly how fatal are the consequences of a school where the children are taught by old methods. They suffer on this account not only organically but also morally. It is this fundamental problem of education,the education of character, that has been up to now neglected by the school. Also in the family circle there is the same error of principle. There, also, it is always the tomorrow of the child, his future existence, which is the constant preoccupation. The present is never taken seriously into account. By the present I mean what the child needs in order to be able to live fully according to the psychic needs of his age. At the most, when things have been going well in families which have more modern ideas it is the physical life of the child that has begun to be taken into account in these last years. Rational alimentation, hygienic dressing, life in the open air constitute the latest progress that science has brought, during this century, into the life of the child.
But the most human of all the needs of the child is neglected- the exigencies of his spirit, of his soul. The human being who lives within the child remains stifled therein. To us are known only the efforts and the energy that are necessary for the child to defend itself against us. What we know is the weeping, the shouting,the tantrums, the timidity, the possessiveness, the fibs, the selfishness and spirit of destruction. We commit an error which is even more serious and has more serious consequences. That is, to consider these means of defence as if they were the essential traits of the infant character, and to subdue them, as we consider is our strict duty, to try and eliminate them with the greatest severity, with a sternness which carries us even to the extremes of corporal punishment. These reactions of the child are often the symptoms of a moral illness, and very frequently they precede a real nervous disease which makes its consequences felt for the rest of the individual's life.
We all know that the age of development is the most important period of the whole life. Moral malnutrition and intoxication of the spirit are as fatal for the soul of man as physical malnutrition is for the health of his body. Therefore child-education is the most important problem of humanity.
It is for us a question of conscience to try to understand even the faintest shades of the soul of the child, and to take extreme care in our relations with the world of the small ones. Previously we were almost complacent in performing the part of pitiless judges in front of the children. They appeared to us full of defects when compared with adults, and we set ourselves in front of them as examples of beings overflowing with every virtue. We must now be content with a much more modest role, that required by the interpretation that Emerson gave of the message of Jesus Christ:
Infancy is he eternal Messiah,
which continuously comes back to the arms
of degraded humanity
in order to entice it back to heaven
If we consider the child in this light, we shall be forced to recognize, as an absolute and urgent necessity, that care must be given to childhood,creating for it a suitable world and a suitable environment. We shall have accomplished a great task in favour of man by doing this. The child cannot lead a natural life in the complicated world of adults; also it is clear that the adult by his continuous supervision, by his uninterrupted advice, by his dictatorial attitude, disturbs and thwarts the development of the child. All the good forces which are sprouting in its soul are suffocated in this fashion, and nothing is left in the child but a subconscious impulse to free himself as soon as possible form everything and every one.
Let us therefore discard our role of prison warden, and let instead preoccupy ourselves with preparing an environment in which as far as possible we shall try not to harass him by our supervision and by our teaching. We must become persuaded that the more the environment corresponds to the needs of the child, the more limited becomes the activity of the teacher. But here a very important principle must not be forgotten- giving freedom to the child does not mean to abandon him to his own resources and perhaps to neglect him. The help that we give to the soul of the child must not be passive indifference to all the difficulties of its development. Rather we must second it with prudence and affectionate care. However, even by merely preparing with great care the environment of the children, we shall have already done a great task, because the creation of a new world, a world of the children, is no easy accomplishment. As soon as small furniture is prepared, of which children stand in as much need as adult people (perhaps even more, for to them it is not merely a piece of furniture but a means of development) we see that their movement and activity become incredibly ordered. Before, their limbs seemed to be without any master to direct them; they ran about knowing everything down, jumping here, crashing there. Now their movements seem to be directed by a conscious will They can be left alone without any danger because they know what they want.
The need for activity is almost stronger than the need for food. This has not been recognized heretofore because a suitable field of activity was not there for the child to manifest his needs. If we give him this we shall see the small tormenters who could never be satisfied convert themselves into cheerful workers. The proverbial destroyer becomes the most zealous custodian of the objects that surround him. The noisy and boisterous child, disorderly in its movements and in its actions, is transformed into a being full of spiritual calm and very orderly. But if the child lacks suitable external means, he will never be able to make use of the great energies with which nature has endowed him. He will feel the instinctive impulse towards an activity such as may engage all his energy, because this is the way nature has given him of making perfect the acquisitions of his faculties. But if there is nothing there to satisfy this impulse, what can the child do but what he does - develop his activity without any aim in disorderly boisterousness?
In the preparation of an environment everything depends upon this.
THE HOUSE OF CHILDREN
By now almost every one knows of the House of Children. Small furniture and small simple objects whose aim is to serve the intellectual development of the child are being built in all civilized nations: small furniture brilliant in colour, and so light that when knocked against it falls easily, and that therefore the children can easily move about. The lightness of the colour places in evidence the spots and the dust, and in this fashion any disorder or lack of attention on the part of the child is revealed. But as it is revealed easily it can be as easily corrected with the aid of a little soap and a little water. In our House of Children the furniture is like that. Every child chooses the place which he likes best, and places everything to suit his taste, but he must beware of any disorderly action because, as the furniture is light, every disorderly movement is betrayed by the furniture that scrapes upon the floor. So the child is surrounded by admonishing friends whose voices are not the voices of the adults, and he learns to be careful,to be conscious and to direct the movements of his body. It is for this reason that we place in the environment of the child beautiful fragile little objects of glass or of china, because if the child lets them fall they will break, and he will lose forever those beloved little objects that gave him so much joy and that attracted his eyes and hands every time he came into the room. Gone,lost forever, just because he had not taken enough care in the way he held them, just because he let them slip between his fingers! They are now broken into pieces, dead, no longer there to call him and to smile at him. What greater punishment could the child have than that of losing his beloved objects, that nowhere else was he allowed to touch, except in the small house which had been built for him to suit his size, and his mental development! What stronger voice can there be than that which admonishes the child "Be careful of your movements! Every disorderly movement of yours is a danger of death for one of your beloved friends who surround you? "What great pain the loss of a dear object is for a child, we who have been with him know. And who would not feel the urge of consoling one of these tiny beings who, all red in the face, stands crying before a beautiful little porcelain vase that he has let fall? And if you could see him later! From that time on how concentrated his face is when he carries frail objects, how visible the effort of will to command all his movements in order to achieve their correctness.
So you see it is the environment itself which helps to make the children continuously better, because every error, no matter how small, becomes so evident that it is useless for the teacher to interfere. She can remain a quiet spectator of all the little mistakes that occur around her, and little by little it will seem as if the child heard the voices of the objects that, in their silent language, speak and admonish, revealing to him his small errors. "Be careful. Don't you see I am your beautiful little table? I am all shiny and polished and varnished. Don't scratch me. Don't spot me. Don't soil me!" The aesthetic quality in the objects and in the environment is a great spur to the activity of the child, so that it makes him redouble his efforts. That is why in our House of Children all the objects are attractive. The dusters are gaily coloured, the broom-handles are hand-painted in bright tints,and the small brushes are as attractive as the small pieces of soap which, round or rectangular, are there in pink and blue and yellow calling to the eyes of the child asking to be used. From all the objects that voice must spring forth which says to the child; "Come and touch me, make use of me. Don't you see me? I am the beautiful duster all pink and red. Come, let us go and take the dust off the top of the table." And from the other side: "Here I am, the small broom. Take me in your little hand and let us clean the floor." And still another voice calls to say: "Come, beautiful little hands. Dive into the water and take the soap." From everywhere the bright objects call to the child: they almost begin to form part of its mood, of its being, of its very nature, and there is no longer need for the teacher to say: "Charles clean the room;" and "John wash your hands."
Every child who has been freed, who knows how to care for himself, how to put his shoes on, to dress and undress without help,mirror in his joy, in his merriment, the reflection of human dignity; because human dignity is born of the sentiment of one's independence.
The joy that the small ones feel in their work makes them accomplish everything with an enthusiasm that is almost excessive. If they are shining the brass handle of a door they do it for such a long time that it becomes as shining as a mirror. Even the most simple things, such as dusting and sweeping, are done with an amount of exaggeration.
It is evident that it is not the attainment of an external aim which spurs them to activity, but rather the possibility of being able to valorize and to exercise their latent energies. It is this valorization which decides the duration of the activity and asks for continuous repetition. The repetition of an action,while making the child happy, makes him also accomplish real feats. We see, for instance, children of a very young age dressing, and undressing alone, hooking buttons, making bows, laying a table to perfection, cleaning the dishes. But this is not enough; the superabundance of its energy is revealed in the fact that the child uses what he has just learned to the advantage of those who as yet have not acquired an equal degree of perfection. So we see a child buttoning the clothes of his younger fellow, tying his shoestrings or quickly cleaning the ground if someone happens to upset the soup. If he washes the dishes he cleans those which others have soiled, and when he lays the table he works for the benefit of many others who have not partaken the work with him. And in spite of this he does not consider this work done in service of others as a supplementary effort deserving praise. No, it is the effort itself which is for him the most sought after prize. I have seen once a little girl sit very sad before a steaming dish of soup without even tasting it. Why? Because they had promised to let her lay the table and then had forgotten about it. And the disillusion was so great that even the clamour of the body's needs had been silenced. Her little heart cried louder than her stomach.
In this way that part of the exterior activity of the child which is aimed towards social purposes is developed. The child has an aim which he understands very well and which he can accept with ease. His intelligence seeks for this aim, and we in placing it within the frame of its environment give to the child the freedom of attaining it. Certainly his real nature,his real interest, has much deeper roots, and the child acts as he does, not merely to finish a duty which he has chosen, but to satisfy this desire for activity and to slacken a thirst which obeys the laws of development. And exterior aim, simple and clear, is necessary in order to bring about the satisfaction of this desire. We shall see him wash his hands God knows how many times,not because they are dirty but because he is compelled by a need which requires of him the progressive development of the necessary secondary actions, such as to bring and to pour water, to make use of the soap and of the towel, etc.. The continued and accurate use of all these things, how much work does it all entail? To sweep the room, to change water for the flowers, to place the furniture in the room, to roll the carpets, to lay the table. All these are reasonable activities which are joined to physical exercise. Whoever is in life forced to do this manual work and whoever experiences the fatigue which it causes, he knows how much movement is necessary to accomplish this series of tasks.
Lately much has been spoken of the need of physical exercise. Well, here is an exercise and not of the useless and mechanical kind, but of the type that can be accomplished with clarity of mind and with a purpose behind it. In spite of this, the exercises of practical life that the small ones carry out with so much joy, and that surprise so pleasantly all the visitors of the House of Children, do not as yet represent the essential part. They are but a beginning, an initiation, and form the least important side of the child's activity. It is a well-known fact that scientists give the impression of deep concentration which makes them indifferent to worldly things. All know the anecdote of Newton who forgets to take his food, of Archimedes who does not even notice the furious sounds of the battle for the conquest of Syracuse, and allows himself to be surprised by the enemy intently immersed in geometrical calculations. Well,it is just this sort of anecdote which shows the opposite side,the other phase of this deep concentration. The great discoveries that bring progress for all humanity are not due so much to the culture of the scientists, or to their knowledge, as to this capacity of complete concentration, to the power on the part of their intellect to bury itself in the task that fascinates them, that makes them no longer feel the need of society which they shun, retiring into their house or into some solitary spot.
When the child finds a field of accomplishment which corresponds to the intimate needs of its soul, he will reveal also what else he needs for the development of his existence. He is seeking, for the moment, his relations with the rest of humanity that surrounds him, and he is finding them. There are, however, inner exigencies which, while leading him into his mysterious task, require complete solitude, the separation from all and from every one. No one can help us to reach the intimate isolation which makes accessible to us our most hidden world, our deepest nature, so very mysterious, so very rich and full. If anyone comes to us in such a moment and interferes, he interrupts and destroys this intimate work of the soul. This concentration which is obtained by freeing oneself from the external world must arise in our very soul, and what surrounds us cannot procure its growth,its order and its peace. The state of complete concentration can be found only in great men, and even in them it is exceptional. It is the origin of an inner force, of an inner strength which makes them stand out from among the others. From this concentration springs forth the faculty that the great have of influencing the masses with medidated tranquillity and infinite benevolence. They are men who, after a prolonged separation from the world, feel themselves capable of solving the great problems of humanity while with infinite patience they bear the weaknesses and imperfections of their fellows, even if these rise to the extremity of hate and persecution.
Studying the phenomenon we see that there is a close link between the manual work which is accomplished in common life and the profound concentration of the spirit. Although at first it seems that these two things are opposed, in reality they are deeply united, because the one is but the source of the other. The life of the spirit prepares in solitude the strength which is necessary for ordinary life, and, in its turn, daily life fixes the concentration through orderly work. The wastage of energy is continually replaced from the sources of the concentration of the spirit. The man who sees clearly in himself feels the need of an inner life, just as the body feels the needs of the material life such as hunger and sleep. The soul which no longer feels its spiritual needs is in the same dangerous position as the body which is no longer capable of feeling the pangs of hunger or the need of rest.
But if we find this concentration and this burying of the soul within itself in the child, it becomes evident that the phenomenon does not represent an exceptional state of persons who are especially endowed with spiritual gifts; but it is a universal quality of the human soul which, on account of circumstances, survives in only a few people who have reached adult age. Now if we consider in the children these single glimmers of concentration, a picture is unfolded which is completely different from the one when we spoke of utilitarian tasks that the children performed. An object from which no possible usefulness can be derived suddenly attracts the attention of the child, who begins to fuss around it and move it in all directions. Often they are but small movements, uniform and almost mechanical. Often the hand destroys that which it had constructed but a moment before, in order to start building again. These movements will be repeated so many times that one is forced to think that here is an activity which is not carried out with the special enthusiasm we saw to be the characteristic of the Exercises of Practical Life. It opens a shutter that allows us to glimpse a special phenomenon.
When for the first time I discovered the existence of this aspect of the character of the children, I was surprised and I asked myself if I was not in front of an extraordinary happening; if I was not witnessing a new and marvellous mystery; because I saw being destroyed before my eyes many of the theories that the most renowned psychologists had made us believe. I also had believed that the children were incapable of fixing their attention for a long time upon any task. And here in front of me was a little girl of three years who, with the evident signs of the most intense attention, was placing certain wooden cylinders differing in size within cavities which exactly corresponded to them. She was introducing them with the utmost care, and when they had all been placed she took them out again, to put them back immediately. She did it again and again, taking them out, putting them back, always with the same deep concentration, so that one could not foresee when this would finish. I began to count. When she had repeated this more than forty times I went to the piano and started playing, while I asked the other children to sing. But she, the little one, continued in her useless task without budging from their table, without lifting her eyes, as if she were completely abstracted from what surrounded her. Then she suddenly ceased, and smiling and glad she lifted her limpid eyes. She appeared as though a weight had been lifted from her shoulders, as if she had undergone a period of rest: she smiled as children do when they wake from a beneficial sleep. Since then I have observed this same manifestation hundreds of times.
After any task done with this type of concentration,they appear always rested and intimately strengthened. It seems almost that in their soul a path has been opened for the radiant forces revealing in this fashion the best side of their character. They become then kind to everybody. They give themselves to do in order to be useful to other people and they are full of the desire to be good.
THE KEY TO ALL PEDAGOGY
It has happened sometimes that one of the children has come near to the teacher, to whisper in her ear as if revealing a secret: "Teacher, I am good." These observations have been valorized by others, but they have been specially made use of by me. I saw a law in what was taking place in those souls, and I understood it; and this law gave me the vision of the possibility of solving completely the problem of education. I understood that which the child had revealed. Clear before me arose the idea that order,mental development, intellectual and sentimental life must have their origin from this mysterious and hidden fount; and since then I have done all I could in order to find experimentally objects that would make this concentration possible. And I studied with great care how to produce that environment which would include the most favourable external conditions to arouse this concentration, and it was in this fashion that I began to create my method.
Certainly here is the key to all pedagogy: to know how to recognize the precious instinct of concentration in order to make use of it in the teaching of reading, writing and counting and, later on, of grammar, arithmetic, foreign languages, science, etc. After all, every psychologist is of the opinion that there is only way of teaching, that of arousing in the student the deepest interest and at the same time a constant and vivacious attention. So the whole thing resolves itself in this , to make use of those intimate and hidden forces of the child for his education.
Is this possible? Not only is it possible but necessary. Attention, in order to be able to concentrate itself, needs graded stimuli. In the beginning these will be objects which are easily recognized by the senses and these will interest the smaller child- cylinders of different sizes, colours to place in gradation of intensity, different sounds to be distinguished one from the other, surfaces differing in degrees of roughness to be recognized only by touch; but later we shall have the alphabet, the numbers, writing, reading, grammar, drawing, more difficult arithmetical sums, natural science; and thus at different ages by different stimuli the culture of the child will be built.
THE NEW TEACHER
Consequently the task of the new teacher has become much more delicate than that of the old one, and much more serious. Upon her rests the responsibility, upon her depends whether the child will find its way towards culture and towards perfection, or whether everything will be destroyed. The most difficult thing is to make the teacher understand that if the child is to progress she must eliminate herself and give up those prerogatives that hitherto were considered to be the sacred rights of the teacher. She must clearly understand that she cannot have any immediate influence either upon the formation or upon the inner discipline of the students, and that her confidence must be placed and must rest in their hidden and latent energies. Certainly there is something that compels the teacher to continually advise the small children, to correct them or encourage them, showing them that she is superior on account of her experience and her culture. But until she is able to resign herself, to silence the voice of all vanity, she will not be able to attain any result. However, if she on one side must refrain from interfering directly,her indirect action must be assiduous, and she must prepare the environment with full knowledge of every detail, and she must know how and where to dispose the didactic material and introduce very carefully the children to exercise.
It is she who must be able to distinguish the activity of the child who is seeking the correct way, from that of him who is on the wrong path. She must be always calm, always ready to run when she is called to show her love and her sympathy. To be always ready, this is all that is required. The teacher must consecrate herself to the formation of a better humanity. As were the vestals to whom it had been given to keep pure and clean from ashes the sacred fire that others had lit, so must be the teacher to whose care has been consigned the flame of inner life in all its purity. If this flame is neglected it will be extinguished, and no one will be able to light it again.