To my way of seeing it, “Montessori” has become a universalized descriptor, signifying a loose collection of progressive educational principles.
In fact, Dr. Maria Montessori developed and documented a thoroughly articulated and richly integrated classroom practice for assisting the healthy and natural development of pre-school and elementary age children. She accomplished this through the systematic formulation and implementation of a discipline she called Scientific Pedagogy,
Montessori’s American publisher refused to print her work under the title Scientific Pedagogy, though, claiming that the books would never sell. Evidently deeming it plausible that the more stuffy-sounding title could keep her insights from gaining recognition among an audience of traditional educators, Montessori conceded to the use of the term “Montessori Method.”
Her acquiescence to naming the method after herself, though, almost necessitated that Dr. Montessori maintain a lifelong grip on the terms of teacher training, classroom implementation, and theory and materials development. This orientation to knowledge creation (all new understandings must be certified by a single person’s prophetic insight and judgment) led teacher training and program development to stray … from the ideal of scientifically-derived assertions, ever open to critical challenge … toward the curation, management, and re-transmission of her collected insights.
After Montessori’s death, the disciples became the masters. Lacking a culture of critical pedagogical discourse, myriad interpretations of the “Montessori Method” sprang up in the global Montessori community, along with half a myriad Montessori training and certifying bodies – each claiming to be uniquely qualified to discern and impart The Method most effectively.
Just as there are (for example) dozens of varieties of Christians, who all call themselves Christians, yet regard other self-proclaimed Christians as embracing un-Christian practices … and just as so-called Mexican restaurants can serve teriyaki if they please … there’s absolutely nothing to prevent self-identified Montessori schools or teachers from offering up anything from Teletubbies to College Prep. Anyone at all can hang out a Montessori School sign.
Unfortunately, critical pedagogical discourse among and between all the presumed Montessori entities has long been discouraged. In the current political climate, funders seeking to promote scalable education reforms have a distaste for the incoherence that obtains when substantive differences prove time-consuming or irreconcilable.
Although one might expect modern Montessori practitioners to turn to logical, systematic, or scientific thinking to advance a common understanding of Dr. Montessori’s work, the various strands of the Montessori community have no tradition or accepted practice of critical discourse and no means of resolving pedagogical disputes. Authority to make unilateral judgments about nuances of implementation has always been vested in those who have been anointed as the masters. Genuine, critical inquiry coming from the lower echelons or disparate certifying bodies is deemed offensive, combative, or disrespectful in the Montessori world.
In the vacuum created by the passing of the final arbiter, disagreements regarding fidelity to the Montessori’s pedagogical imperatives are simply impossible to resolve satisfactorily on logical or empirical grounds.
The result is a modern Montessori community whose single unifying principle is allegiance to common denominators: Whatever we can all agree on is what we shall say we believe; everything else will be written off as a pedagogically insignificant matter of personal preference.
I personally have been – on more than one occasion – mistaken for a Montessori “fundamentalist.” At the same time, I have been accused of failing to demonstrate proper allegiance to the unity of the Montessori community. Presumably, I have behaved in a way that leads people to believe that my primary interest is in the essentially political act of judging unilaterally whether any given classroom practice is being implemented with fidelity to Montessori’s intentions, or being misappropriated in the service of unworthy objectives.
I believe the confusion arises out of a poorly understood distinction between “The Montessori Method” and “Scientific Pedagogy.”
The Montessori Method offers thoroughly documented and internationally field-tested classroom implementation guidance to adults who lead 0-3, 3-6, and 6-12 learning environments.
“Scientific Pedagogy,” on the other hand, is a rigorous discipline that recursively articulates the theoretical rationales and the ensuing processes that led to the development of The Method at those levels.
While The Method has been passed from one generation of Montessorians to the next, Scientific Pedagogy has, for the most part, been left behind.
This is particularly evident at the secondary level. Montessori didn’t live long enough to use Scientific Pedagogy to test and iterate in order to develop the thorough guidance for secondary guides that she provided for guides of younger children. Indeed, she believed the process of developing a secondary Method would take decades.
Unfortunately the development of secondary Montessori programs – all over the world – is currently shaped by precisely the assumptions and demands that must be intentionally suspended in order for a Method to be developed through the practice of scientific pedagogy.
My own compulsion is to redirect our allegiance to the scientific discipline (rather than to the judgments of a master): to revive and promote the clearly articulated scientific process of developing, documenting, and iterating on classroom practice that has the thriving of each child in community as its highest objective.
The fact that Montessori’s methods tended to result in rapid and astonishing student growth was at one time purely an agreeable and affirming by-product of her work. This by-product of generally more child-friendly classroom environments has come to make the Montessori Method the darling of the current education reform movement, and indeed, of the privatization movement.
The discussion as to whether or not governments have the ability to administer effective and efficient education systems is confused by the current insistence of governments on compulsory attendance and on high stakes accountability for standardized outcomes. These two conditions spell the death of any education – public or private.
Unfortunately, the modern education establishment’s obsession with quantifiable academic outcomes has completely occluded the necessary open-endedness of a scientifically guided education for optimal development. Montessori learning communities’ inability to practice scientific pedagogy is a direct function of their willingness to concede to standardized outcomes.
Since her death, Montessori’s “Method”, has, in the vast majority of communities, become a means to achieve the same old narrowly measured outcomes … by processes that, granted, are considerably less stultifying than desks in rows. To the extent that this is the farthest the education establishment will allow itself to be pushed away from absolute standardization, it spells an undeniably better school experience for many children.
However: Montessori’s real genius, in my view, was in articulating the axioms of a discipline – Scientific Pedagogy – through which any inquiring mind has access to the means to replicate and extend the research and theory building that she initiated. It’s a process in which the search for truth is driven by an evolving understanding, to which any and all earnest practitioners are free and welcome to make a contribution.
Diverse iterations and outcomes are expected. No final arbiter is needed.
Margaret Meade didn’t go around telling other anthropologists what they could or could not do to build on her ideas. Piaget made brilliant contributions without micro-managing the further iterations and developments of theory offered by his successors.
My belief is that Scientific Pedagogy offers an enlightened, systematic, and iterative framework for all students of teaching and learning who recognize the urgency of developing new paradigms of schooling, and are, to that end, willing to suspend their unexamined and commonly held assumptions about the goals and means of education.
In the spirit of giving all interested and concerned parties equal authority to participate in evolving the education of human potential, I’ll continue to try to articulate my understanding of the discipline of Scientific Pedagogy.
Photo: The Brown Tower of the feral Montessorian, © Chris von Lersner