The Artistry of a Montessori Teacher

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The Artistry of a Montessori Teacher


Do not copy or distribute without permission of Montessori360, LLC.

Published by Montessori360, LLC with written permission from Phyllis Pottish-Lewis.

2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis



To achieve his goal, that of a producing a masterpiece, the artist is beholden to a set of principles that governs his artistic domain no matter in which field he engages, be it the visual arts, dance, music, poetry, literature, or drama. In the consideration of one’s artistry in whichever arena, the artist must acquire and truly understand the basic elements and principles that govern his discipline if he is to be successful. Thus, an artist must be knowledgeable about and conversant with the fundamentals that pertain to his sphere of interest, as these guide his expression and skills that contribute to his achieving effectively his goal. Not only must he understand and appreciate the fundamental principles that govern his field of art, he must apply these principles assiduously. The identified principles of each discipline have often been described as the “language” of that sphere, and the artist must be able to understand, speak and convey that language in his work.

2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


In the case of the visual artist, he must recognize the essential relevance and significance of elements, such as color, line, value, texture, space, etc. Wassily Kandinsky put it pithily when he stated, There is only one road to follow, that of analysis of the basic elements in order to arrive ultimately at an adequate graphic expression. Those elements are then put into play through the adroit application of the principles of design resulting in a “graphic expression” that is balanced, harmonious and unified. The recognized fundamentals in the world of music include a large spectrum of qualities consisting of rhythm, form, pitch, dynamics, timbre, harmony, and melody, all of which when combined and employed effectively, produce a piece of music that “expresses the sound of the universe itself,” as described by the artist Robert Genn. These universal fundamentals are the “language of music” that is introduced to everyone who undertakes the study of musical expression and appreciation. Plato in the 4th Century BCE comments on the importance of understanding the language of music when he states, Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the secret places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul graceful of him who is rightly educated, or ungraceful of him who is ill-educated. It becomes obvious, then, that before one can truly succeed at expressing oneself artistically, he needs to know the words and grammar of the language of his art, all of which are the intrinsic fundamental underpinnings of his chosen artistic expression. Furthermore, he must employ them faithfully. As one considers the construction of the individual as a creative endeavor, which is exactly what Dr. Maria Montessori did as she contemplated the growth and development of the child, his unfolding can be seen in the same light as any artistic expression that has been brought to life through the implementation of the applicable guiding principles. Through her great powers of observation and her prodigious genius, Dr. Montessori formulated essential guiding principles, that if followed unfailingly, an adult could use to assist in the construction of a developing human being. “Musical training is a These principles constitute “the language of the Montessori Approach”. If the Montessori more potent instrument teacher applies them faithfully according to the than any other, because precepts identified by Montessori, she can be rhythm and harmony find viewed, not only as an aid in the creative development of the child, but also as an artist, their way into the secret thereby joining the lofty ranks of those artists places of the soul… who have made a contribution to humanity in 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


some artistic arena. There is no doubt that it takes artistry along with hard work to succeed as a Montessori teacher. Dr. Montessori was well aware of the importance of the preparation required by the adult before she can succeed in this creative endeavor. She states, If we wish to become successful teachers in this new educational method, we must reconsider our task, and our personality as teachers. We must take upon ourselves the mission of bettering the condition of education. The main task is not to learn the method, but to open a new and better way of life for the child. Therefore, it is necessary for the teacher to have an inner preparation.1 Although Dr. Montessori did not describe metaphorically the teacher as an artist, she did comment on the elevated status a teacher achieves when she works to assist the child in his personal development. She also recognized the Herculean effort a teacher must make before she can consider herself an effective Montessori teacher. She has said, The teacher is thus the hope, the consolation, and the guide of the child who is trying to elevate himself. In order to realise this task allotted to her, the teacher finds herself in a more elevated place, a place really difficult to be in. It is wise for the teacher who wishes to undertake this new task, of leading the child to a superior life, to realise the difficulties that she must meet. Sometimes the teacher in our schools succeed very quickly and very easily. Very often she succeeds in practice, only after long experience. This depends upon the nature of her spirit. She may need a long period of training in order to change her spirit and give it another form.This comes with practice, contact with children and experience. After all, the teacher needs to know herself. 2 Those teachers who have succeeded very quickly and easily of whom she speaks, no doubt as a part of their “inner preparation” have wholly understood and accepted the guiding principles as identified by Dr. Montessori that govern the child’s development and, accordingly, have implemented them effectively. Additionally, this teacher obviously has faith in both Dr. Montessori’s teachings as well as faith in the developing potential of the child. Montessori underscores this notion when she states, The teacher must have faith - that the child will become calm, that the child is good and not bad, that the child will one day do marvellous things. If the teacher has no faith, she must make an effort to repeat to herself – “Yes, here is the truth. I believe in it!”3


Montessori Maria, Creative Development in the Child: Volume II. 104. Ibid. 104-105. 3 Montessori Maria, Creative Development in the Child: Volume II. 112. 2

2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


Without faith in the child as well as the Montessori principles and a complete acceptance of them in their entirety, the teacher is doomed to fail at the desired goal of artfully applying them. Furthermore, when there is failure or deviation from the administration of the prescribed principles for the creative development of the child, just as it is with other artistic expressions when the fundamental principles are disregarded for whatever reason, the Montessori teacher will fail at her task; no masterpiece will be achieved.

Montessori Guiding Principles

To avoid such a quandary let us clearly delineate generally the fundamental principles that contribute to our field of “art” that preside over our efforts when assisting the elementary child in his creative development. In her wisdom Margaret Stephenson has put it quite clearly. What did Dr. Montessori consider to be the role of the adult in the service of the child? How do we ensure that the child is free to operate as a cosmic agent? Our responsibility is to keep in mind that our service to the child is to enable him to serve in his turn. It is that theme of service that runs through Cosmic Education, and that we unfold to the child in the elementary class. The adult has to take into account the universal human tendencies, the psychological characteristics, the planes of development. She needs to recognize the importance of freedom given in a prepared environment. It is liberty in a prepared environment that allows the individual to make use of the human tendencies to conquer the environment and make an abstraction of it.4


Lecture on The Construction of Man. Montessori Institute of Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1991. 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


As we parse Miss Stephenson’s words, we can discern easily those fundamentals that govern our artistic arena. These are the principles we must recognize, accept and utilize to their fullest in our efforts to assist the child in his creative development, the very ones that necessitate the full application of our artistry and skills in order to provide an authentic Montessori experience for the child, and thus result in an individual who has fulfilled his potential, our masterpiece, so to say. They are, • • • •

the universal tendencies the psychological characteristics at each plane the planes of development freedom offered within a prepared environment

As trained teachers we have encountered these essential ideas before. The crux is how to truly understand them and ensure that they are fully operative within our prepared environments, because their vital operation is the measure of the Montessori teacher’s artistry. Consequently, we must be ever vigilant to observe and analyze the workings of our class to ensure that the children are allowed to behave and function independently in accordance with the human tendencies and the psychological characteristics that pertain to the specific plane of development with which we are working. Thus, we must ensure that our children are free to explore, discover, imagine, communicate their findings and their ideas to others, and work repeatedly with their minds and hands on those endeavors they have envisioned, all completely independent from adult interference and intrusion. These are the universal tendencies at work, and it is through their operation that the child makes his intellectual construction. Steven Pinker asserts that there is, …overwhelming evidence that the mind is the activity of the brain. 5 And when our children are left free to use their brains by thinking for themselves and engaging their intellects in relation to some self-designed task, they are learning a myriad of skills that include problem solving, finding solutions, thinking logically, making decisions, and eventually accomplishing their goal. Pinker recognizes that this process is crucial for the developing intellect. He states, Intelligence, then, is the ability to attain goals in the face of obstacles by means of decisions based on rational (truth-obeying) rules.6 What is the overarching fundamental principle, then, that must guide our performance in this aspect of the creative development of the child? It is the offering of freedom within a prepared environment.

5 6

Pinker, Steven, How the Mind Works. 64. Ibid. 62 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


Dr. Montessori boldly asserts this. She says, Only through freedom and environmental experience is it practically possible for human development to occur. 7 The offering of freedom balanced by responsibility is the most essential principle to achieve and the most difficult for many teachers to master. One’s ability to apply this principle effectively is the true measure of a Montessori teacher’s artistry. Without the ability to offer freedom to the children and the unfettered expression of the tendencies and the psychological characteristics, the Montessori teacher will be unable to attain the goal of assisting in the child’s complete, natural, and creative development. The balance between freedom and responsibility is delicate, and it is the successful achievement of this balance that testifies to the teacher’s artistry. But too often this ability proves elusive to the Montessori teacher. This capability takes many years to perfect and can be mastered only when the teacher consciously applies her understanding of Montessori principles to the children with whom she works. When freedom is offered without expectations and responsibility, license is granted and chaos reigns in the classroom. When freedom is restricted or limited, other than through the counterbalance of responsibility, we are faced with a situation in which the children must abide by the dictates of the teacher, which stifle and stunt the child’s creative development. Both cases can contribute to the disruly, disobedient and deviated behavior of the children. In either case we have been unsuccessful in producing the desired results envisioned by Dr. Montessori. Thus, it becomes imperative that the Montessori teacher constantly evaluates her efforts in the context of those precepts formulated by Dr. Montessori, the ones that should guide her in her work with children. This is a never-ending task, even for veteran teachers, because without constant vigilance and attention to how one administers her class, the teacher may easily and inadvertently form bad habits. No one can become complacent and rest on her laurels. Hence, the Montessori teacher must evaluate and reevaluate every “good idea” she has that she thinks will benefit the child, and she must measure this “good idea” against the essential idea of freedom and the fostering of intellectual independence. This is crucial, because often teachers wanting to enhance their curriculum 7

The Absorbent Mind. 89-90. 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


or the workings of their classroom design systems, requirements or materials that are antithetical to Montessori’s idea of freedom and the cultivating of intellectual independence. Imposing work, giving spelling tests, utilizing workbooks, and scheduling outside classes for the children, are just some of the activities that fall into the “good idea” category, but in fact, are traditional educational approaches that are completely alien to Montessori principles, and have no place in Dr. Montessori’s “new educational method.” No matter our years of experience in the classroom, it always behooves one to revisit Montessori’s words and by so doing, garner pieces of wisdom that may have been forgotten or fallen by the wayside. If our intent is to perfect our artistry while working with children, we must constantly return to the primary source and seek out continual inspiration from her words. They will serve to guide and remind us of what we are about and what we wish to achieve, especially in regards to assisting the child to become responsible and physically and intellectual independent. To wit, another of Dr. Montessori’s quotations: If he is going to be a man, he must be a being who must work and function for himself. Let us encourage the child to work. The child instinctively works under suitable conditions. It is our duty to prepare an environment suitable to the child, to offer him conditions in which he may exercise himself through his own experiences, to furnish him with the means of activity and to leave him to accrue his natural potential. 8 Suitable conditions in a prepared environment include offering freedom to the children that is balanced by responsibility and is offered in such a way that the universal tendencies and the psychological characteristics are free to express themselves.

Psychological Characteristics of the Second Plane Child As we all know, the psychological characteristics of the first plane child that allow that child to make his individual construction are no longer functioning at the second plane. Rather, a new set is emerging during this plane to permit the elementary child to make his new construction, which is that of an individual amongst a society of people. To this end it is critical that the Montessori teacher recognize, understand and allow these characteristics full expression. Her ability to do this effectively testifies to her comprehension of the guiding principles that underpin her goal of assisting the child’s development and reveals her talent and ability to implement the Montessori approach. As a reminder, those burgeoning characteristics are the imagination, 8

Creative Development in the Child – Volume I. 63. 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


the ability to reason, group worker and learner, the capacity for great work, and moral development. These can all be exemplified in techniques that we elementary teachers use when giving a presentation. The presentations that the elementary teacher must be prepared to give must encompass all subjects, since Dr. Montessori’s admonition was to give the older child the universe. One never knows which bit from which subject will pique the child’s interest moving him to explore and discover for himself; therefore, she must be prepared in all areas. Dr. Montessori herself recognized that this was no easy task, since it is the rare person who possesses all of the knowledge attributed to the “Renaissance Man” that an elementary teacher must command in order to give the universe. When describing the efforts, a teacher must make if she is to be successful at her task, Dr. Montessori remarks, …the teacher’s task is no small or easy one! He has to prepare a huge amount of knowledge to satisfy the child’s mental hunger… He (the teacher) has himself to acquire a reasonable acquaintance with every subject, and even then, only the outer shell of the problem will have been pierced. But let him take courage for he shall not be without help and a scientifically devised and tested plan. .9 A Montessori teacher can take heart in knowing that she need not know everything of every subject, just a “reasonable acquaintance,” since she will not be called on to impart everything. Nor, indeed, should she, since she is limiting what she gives, which is a part of the “scientifically devised and tested plan” of which Dr. Montessori speaks. However, it is her responsibility to learn and know enough to introduce and expose these children to all aspects of the universe. Attaining this knowledge so that she can serve the children is her responsibility and is another measure of her ability to artfully assist in the child’s construction. Appealing to the imagination and the reason Since the elementary children are group learners, lessons or presentations are planned for small groups of children rather than for individuals and are presented in such a way that they take into account both the imagination and the reason, two essential elementary psychological characteristics. This means that concepts from all subjects are introduced through stories, demonstrations and impressions that appeal to the imagination.


To Educate the Human Potential. 8. 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


Additionally, a part of the lessons includes the asking of salient questions to provoke the children’s reasoning abilities, but some of which will remain unanswered so that the children will be induced through curiosity to find out more for themselves. Furthermore, we limit our information in these lessons to ensure that the children will be inspired to pursue independently those aspects that, as yet remain unanswered and unknown. This is a strategy not only used by elementary Montessori teachers, but also by those in the traditional system who are concerned with using the best techniques to improve learning in children. When studying these techniques, Alfie Kohn relates the remarks of students when they were asked about what learning really means. Their response was, We thought exploring to find the answer on our own instead of the teacher asking questions and giving the answer.10 As one can see, it becomes imperative that always we employ diligently our Montessori strategies when giving presentations to the children if we want children to develop naturally. Once the lesson has been given and interest has been kindled, the children themselves must decide exactly how they want to explore that which has been left unknown. Dr. Montessori guides us when she says, He (the child) must have absolute freedom of choice, and then he requires nothing but repeated experiences which will become increasingly marked by interest and serious attention, during his acquisition of some desired knowledge.11 Alfie Kohn’s observations and remarks again correspond to those of Maria Montessori: Students learn most avidly and have their best ideas when they get to choose which questions to explore. In fact, this proposition follows rather predictably from another unsurprising fact: all of us tend to be happiest and most effective when we have some say about what we are doing. If we are instead told what to do (or, in the case of schooling, deprived of any opportunity to make decisions about what we’re learning), achievement tends to drop – right along with any excitement about what we’re doing.12 Why, when you stop and think about it, should a teacher unilaterally determine all these things (the course of study) and impose them on the students?13


The Schools Our Children Deserve. 158. To Educate the Human Potential. 7. 12 The Schools Our Children Deserve. 150. 13 Ibid. 151. 11

2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


Group Work

Once the Montessori lesson culminates, the children should not leave until they preliminarily have formulated an idea regarding their projected work possibilities and the group with whom they want to work. When teachers foster, rather than discourage, children working collaboratively together, they are allowing that innate faculty to express itself and contribute to the natural way that elementary children learn and develop. In The Schools Our Children Deserve, Kohn comments, …(educators should) take the affirmative step of helping students learn with and from one another. The bottom line is that students generally learn better when they learn together.14 As it was with Dr. Montessori, it has become apparent to many educators that children must have the opportunity to work together in order to learn from each other and to learn how to work together. It is not uncommon for certain children to prefer to work solitarily, since by doing so they need not consider other’s ideas or preferences but solely their own. These children are the very ones who most need collaborative work opportunities. Besides 14


The Schools Our Children Deserve. 154. 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


learning the art of compromise and how to be considerate and responsible to a working collective, they will also receive those benefits that are derived from children working with children. Among educators outside of the Montessori realm collective work projects in educational settings by children have been recognized as the best way for children to learn. Alfie Kohn remarks, Any number of theorists have argued that learning at its root is a social rather than a solitary act. Some have even suggested that the very idea of intelligence is best applied to what goes on among people rather than what happens in each person’s head.15 The real learning, then, takes place when children do work jointly. Without gratuitous advice from an adult, children are fully capable of taking charge of their learning. Through these collective experiences children discuss, articulate their ideas, design, anticipate problems, argue, debate, listen, learn to compromise, and eventually make a decision. Wisely, Kohn observes, Children learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. Besides, this model represents the ultimate in taking kids seriously, putting them at the center, helping to generate the interest that fuels excellence.16

15 16

The Schools Our Children Deserve. 153. Ibid. 151. 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


In discussion with Deborah Meir, who with colleagues founded the highly regarded Central Park East schools in New York City, Alfie Kohn reports that Ms. Meir has focused on what her group has called the five “habits of mind”. These are evidence, point of view, connection, supposition, and relevance; all aspects that align closely with those that are developed when Montessori children collaborate in their work. Kohn remarks, To develop these habits of mind is to spend a fair amount of time in conversation and, inevitably, in disagreement with other people. The constructivist premise that learning is based on conflict meshes nicely with the idea that the best classrooms are those where people argue a lot. Of course, they argue in a way that’s friendly rather than nasty.17 Again, it falls to the artistry of the teacher to orchestrate this process. Initially, she may have to propose, but not impose, suggestions about the possibilities of activities until the children realize that they are free to exercise their imaginations, intelligence and reasoning independently in the creation of some constructive follow-up activity. And initially she may have to help devise productive work groups, until the children become accustomed to and bond with one another and are capable of choosing for themselves. But once they make a decision about their projected work and their proposed groups, they must be left free to exercise their choices as long as they are gainfully and harmoniously occupied. Furthermore, when the children are free to engage in activities of their own design and amongst like-minded peers they work indefatigably and constructively. Again, it is just as Dr. Montessori advised. When the child is left free to work in an environment prepared for him, when he is free to act, he has the tendency to organise a set of movements around an idea, which constitutes a definite aim – work.18 Thus, it is essential that the Montessori teacher apply her talent and understanding to encourage the children to work in groups. Promoting group work is another principle that often is misunderstood and requires experience and vigilance to properly foster it. For this reason, the Montessori teacher must understand that true group work is that which results, for the most part, in a single creation or final piece of work. Group work is not two children sitting sideby-side, each working individually on 17 18

The Schools Our Children Deserve. 141-142. Creative Development in the Child: Volume I, 60. 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


his own project, even if that work is on the same subject. Work of this nature is individual and deprives the elementary children of all the benefits and the opportunities they need for making their social and intellectual development. Furthermore, the teacher has not succeeded at promoting group work in her classroom if only a few are engaged in collective endeavors while the majority is engaged in solitary activities. Undoubtedly, another adjustment that teachers must accustom themselves to when children work together is that group work is a noisy proposition. When children, who often have their own ideas, are working together on one project, they disagree with one another. Debate, discussion and argument are a natural outcome of such an endeavor and as such can raise the sound level of the class. Because it is this collaborative process that allows the children to truly learn and develop their human potentials, the constructive elevated sound level must be tolerated even though it creates a seemingly boisterous classroom. Teachers, who do not truly understand this process and its importance, sometimes become concerned that the “noise level” in the classroom is excessive. But, in fact, if one stops to think about it, a lively and energetic classroom is a classroom that is implementing artfully Dr. Montessori’s principles. Therefore, a perfectly functioning classroom should be noisy. In the words of Margaret Stephenson, “There should be a ‘buzz’ of productive discussion and activity when children are engaged in their collaborative endeavors.” 19 Montessori elementary classrooms that are quiet reveal the teacher’s lack of understanding of the true nature of the elementary child and how he learns best, and as such, do not assist the children in their natural human construction. Great Work With personally selected partners and a projected activity in mind, the children are now equipped to leave the lesson to execute their grand plans. It is from being allowed to work with comrades that gives birth to great ideas and great work. And when the teacher trusts to the spontaneous developing intellect of the child and has faith in the Montessori principles, her mind should be at ease that the children will not only work to capacity but might even achieve something glorious that even she could not have foreseen. It is exactly that which was revealed to Dr. Montessori herself when she observed the work of the children. The teacher begins to see that children do things that perhaps in a different fashion than she expected. This is a valid experience, an experience led by the teacher’s own consciousness. The child’s progress is not due to the merit of the teacher, but the result of the inner development of the child. truth and even learned it by heart. Yet it is quite different to of as phenomenon and quite another to have it happen in front of her eyes.20 19

Lecture on Freedom and Responsibility. Montessori Institute of Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1991. 20 Creative Development in the Child: Volume II, 113. 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


But our work is not yet done. The next step in the process is as important as the first, if not more so, and again, requires artistry and faith to ensure it happens. It is critical that the children not be interrupted in this creative developmental opportunity. Once they are industriously and constructively engaged in an independently, self-designed activity, they should be protected from interference from any quarter. This period of independent collaboration is perhaps the most developmental for this socially minded child. Because these children have the tendency and the capacity to envision, create and design great works, they must be granted the uninterrupted time they need for this manifestation of another elementary psychological characteristic. The children need time to design, formulate, strategize, re-evaluate, execute and assess their plans. This creative process takes time, and this time should be protected, because interruptions short circuit the developmental process in its myriad of forms. Dr. Montessori was aware of the importance of allowing the children to work constantly on their endeavors when she writes, The real aim of all children was revealed as constancy in work and spontaneity in choice of work, without guidance of teachers.21 Too often, with the best of intentions but lack of true understanding of the developmental process, Montessori teachers allow the children’s work to be interrupted. If children are, in fact, to be granted freedom, then they need to be able to work on their endeavors as long as necessary without intrusion. The creative process requires time, and that is the very course in which children are engaged when they are working on their self-conceived projects. Recognition and appreciation of the phases of creativity may assist Montessori teachers with their role to protect tenaciously the child’s work period. The first phase is the preparatory phase in which the children will engage in discussing and deciding the avenue they wish to pursue. Then they must explore, collect information, read and make written plans before they can finally decide on the ultimate expression of their interest. The second phase, the period of incubation, is a time when the initial ideas are evaluated, re-evaluated and shuffled about to arrive at the best idea. Creative ideas cannot be forced. Because the children in a Montessori class should not be bound by rigid schedules, they are left free to ponder and reflect on their ideas, and the period of incubation can proceed according to its natural timetable. 21

Education for a New World, 78. 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


In his wisdom Alfie Kohn also notes, It takes time to design, set up, and carry out a clever experiment that will tell you what you really want to know. It takes time to learn.22 Following the period of incubation is the illumination phase in which all the pieces come together to complete the envisioned project. This is a time when the children work incessantly together developing and refining their plans until they correspond suitably to their original ideas. The last phase is that of verification when the intellect and the judgment complete the work that the imagination has begun. At this time the children measure their work against their inspirations, their objectives, their results, and their performance. Children know when their work is worthy and good, and it is from this process that they learn to self-assess and evaluate their abilities and effectiveness. Children frequently emerge from this work with a sense of accomplishment and competence, which is another desired outcome of constant concentrated work on an activity. Understanding that these four phases are vital in the process of the developing human being, one can understand why the children should never be disrupted when they are working constructively, productively and beneficially. To do so, is to impede the creative development of the child. Thus, it is imperative that the teacher be aware of and removes all of the obstacles that potentially threaten this construction. Among those obstacles specialist classes and teachers prove to be one of the most serious impediments to developmental learning, learning that cannot be bound by the schedules of outside classes or teachers. Further, interrupting the children’s work to attend these specialist classes breaches the whole notion of granting the children freedom. This freedom to work endlessly provides fuel for the children’s passion, the passion needed to drive the project to completion. Take the freedom away and you extinguish the passion. It is then that the child will lose interest in his task. Csikszentmihalyi concurs when he suggests that without a burning curiosity, a lively interest, we are unlikely to persevere long enough to make a significant new contribution. He also describes the state that one enters when allowed to work constantly without interruptions, This optimal experience is what I have called flow, because many of the respondents described the feeling when things were going well as an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness.23 22 23

The Schools Our Children Deserve, 60. Creativity – Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, 110. 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


When children are incessantly interrupted for one reason or another, they rarely achieve the state of “flow” as described by Cskiszentmihalyi and experienced by those of us who have been granted the luxury of time to engage in a pursuit without interference and until we are satisfied, sated and fulfilled. He goes on to say, After creative energy is awakened, it is necessary to protect it. We must erect barriers against distractions, dig channels so that energy can flow more freely, find ways to escape outside temptations and interruptions. If we do not, entropy is sure to break down the concentration that the pursuit of an interest requires. Then thought returns to its baseline state – the vague, unfocused, constantly distracted condition of the normal mind.24 Dr. Montessori also firmly believed, that once a child was engaged in such an activity, he should never be interrupted by well-meaning adults. Interruptions to constructive work of any kind, she believed, are impediments to the child’s development. In The Creative Development in the Child Volume II, as well as in many of her other books, she mentions rules that the teacher must obey, and one of those rules she manifestly states is, She (the teacher) must not interrupt the child who is working.25 Thus, the Montessori aphorism, “Protect the Child’s Work Period.” Moreover, interruptions are an impediment to the development of the child’s work ethic, and ultimately to his self-construction. She has said, It is necessary to work, not according to the command of another individual but according to one’s natural tendencies.26 And, to underscore the idea that adopting traditional approaches in which specialty teachers and classes are part of the program, and not part of Dr. Montessori’s design for our children, let us remind ourselves that she said that, …a Montessori teacher must be created anew, having rid herself of pedagogical prejudices.27 Dr. Montessori observed that genuine interest in the child could never be forced. Genuine interest comes about when children freely choose their work. When they are ushered off to specialty classes, the adult has chosen for the child and Dr. Montessori has repeated again and again that this is wrong. 24

Creativity – Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, 351. Creative Development in the Child: Volume II, 307. 26 Creative Development in the Child: Volume I, 101. 27 Education for a New World, 86. 25

2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


Another problem that arises when groups of children are interrupted in their work, is when some of their members are taken off to a specialist class and the work groups are disturbed. Because the children are loathe to continue without all of the contributing members present, the entire work shuts down and no great work ensues. Given all of the imprecations arising from instituting specialty teachers and classes one can comprehend and recognize why Dr. Montessori did not advocate them and therefore, in an authentic Montessori experience they have not been adopted. Responsibility to the Freedoms Offered Rather than praising or criticizing children, our aim is to offer them opportunities to assess for themselves their responsibility, their productivity and their effectiveness. To make them consciously aware of the success or their lack of success is essential in that it will, in the first case, serve as positive reinforcement that will promote more successes; and in the latter case the children will be able to recognize in which areas they need improvement and can take steps to do so. If we follow the Montessori approach and recommendations, she gave by implementing the systems designed to allow the child to assess himself, rather than to have the teacher judge him, then again, we are exhibiting our mastery and artistry in our work with the elementary child. Through this process the children can recognize for themselves how responsible they have been in relation to the freedom accorded them. The three aspects of this assessing system was first outlined by Mario Montessori in the 1958 London Elementary training course and have been called by Miss Stephenson “The Three Metaphorical Pieces of Material.” These aspects work together in tandem to allow the child to assess his level of responsible conduct. Our aim is to allow the children to manage themselves and these three pieces of material provide a structure around which the children can independently direct and evaluate themselves. Those three pieces of “metaphorical material” are the public-school curriculum, the keeping of record books/ work journals and regular meetings with the teacher. A Montessori elementary class must have present in some form the public-school curriculum, since this is the program for which the child would be responsible for learning had he been enrolled in a traditional public school. The children and the teacher should access this curriculum only when it is needed, rather than relying on it to guide the children’s work and insisting the child use it as a check-list, ticking off each item once it had been worked upon. Using the public-school curriculum in this fashion is a serious misunderstanding, a breach of its use that limits their intellectual growth. In this case the list is dictating what they learn, rather than leaving them free to choose those subjects that they wish to investigate. 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


The second metaphorical piece is the record books that the children should be expected to keep throughout their entire time in the elementary classroom. These record books seem to be the most misunderstood piece of the “metaphorical material” and the most difficult to implement correctly. These record books, or work journals as they are sometimes called, are records that the elementary child keeps of the work that he does throughout the day. In this record book he records the date, the time his work begins, the quantity, the specific work he does, and the time that he finishes with the work. This record allows the child to precisely assess how much time has been spent on how much work; in other words, a measure of what he has accomplished and how productive he has been. Thus, one can see that used correctly, the record book becomes a valuable tool for measurement of the child’s performance. If the children do not keep these records, and if the teacher does not encourage and insist that they be kept, the children are deprived of a necessary, indispensable tool to measure independently how responsible they have been to the freedom allotted them. Further, when teachers ignore or distort the use of these record books, they are revealing that they truly do not understand the mechanisms by which children can self-assess their work and efficiency.

To better understand how a record book is used, it is helpful to recognize how a record book should NOT be used. A record book is not an instrument in which the children record their reflections on their work or their day; that reflection takes place in collaboration with the teacher at individual meetings. It is not a book where the children record their feelings about their work. A record book is not a place in which the children should write a list of what they plan to accomplish for the day. In fact, no such list should be generated, let alone recorded anywhere if the teacher is artfully implementing Dr. Montessori’s principles. Also, the record book is not a place to note a “To Do” list, and it is not a system to be used only in the lower elementary and then to be “melded” into a To-Do list in the upper elementary classroom. Without the proper and correct administration of this second “metaphorical piece of material”, we are left with no valid means by which the child can apprise independently his responsible management of time. Just as the paintbrush is the tool of a painter, so the record book and its implementation is one of the tools for implementing Dr. Montessori’s principles, and without proper use of that tool, true artistry is denied the person wielding the tool. 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


The third and last “metaphorical piece of material” is the regular meetings the teacher has with individual children. These will vary in frequency and time depending on the age and abilities of the children. What is important to understand about these meetings is that this is the time during which the child and teacher work in partnership to allow the child to assess and see for himself how responsible he has been to the freedoms he has been proffered. By looking at the child’s work and his work journal, together the teacher and child can reflect on his work and assess his productivity, as well as the quality of his work. Additionally, together they can make plans for his future choices and endeavors. It is during these meetings that the teacher guides the child’s development. Upon discovering areas that need improvement, in collaboration with the child she can make plans for future lessons and presentations. At this time, she can offer encouragement and any support that the child requires. These meetings indicate to the child that the teacher is fully aware of his work and progress and that she cares for him and his progress, which is evident by her efforts to assist him in his personal construction. From examination of these three aspects, these three metaphorical pieces of material, one can see, that they are not only crucial to implementing precisely the Montessori principles, but that they work in concert with each other in order to effectively allow the child to make his creative development. The proper implementation of these aspects as well as allowing the tendencies and psychological characteristics to express themselves freely, speaks volumes about the teacher’s ability and talent to artfully bring about the desired results, that of the construction of a capable, well-rounded, considerate individual who one day will recognize his personal talents and offer them as a gift to humanity.

Conclusion Dr. Montessori had it right when she said, “The teacher’s task is no small or easy one!” To succeed at this chosen vocation of being a Montessori elementary teacher requires faith, trust, hard work, self-evaluation, determination, courage, and tenacity. Not everyone succeeds. Sometimes this happens only because the teacher unwittingly has strayed from Montessori principles. For this reason, it bears reflecting on and studying the underlying tenets repeatedly that have been so clearly laid out for us by consulting and reviewing Dr. Montessori’s books in order to revisit and analyze her words. Margaret Stephenson frequently urged teachers to execute “Dr. Montessori’s Montessori,” rather than resorting to variations, compromises and divergences that insidiously, erroneously and frequently crop up. I am put in mind of this idea when I ponder the words of the renowned Polish harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska, when speaking to a fellow musician, “Oh, well, you play Bach your way. I’ll play him his.” Let’s take heed from Ms. Stephenson’s words and “play” Dr. Montessori’s principles her way, not anyone else’s way. When we can do this, we can truly claim that we have artfully applied the principles of our calling, and by so doing have contributed to the creation of a masterpiece while perfecting our artistry as a Montessori teacher. 2013, 2021 Phyllis Pottish-Lewis


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