Not the Montessori Method: the Scientific Method

Maybe, the above intrigues, pleases, shocks the reader. Maybe, all at the same time. Maybe, we are willing to be sold on the idea that the Method is interesting and has valuable things to bring to the table.

Jul 26, 2018

By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry
Maybe, the above intrigues, pleases, shocks the reader. Maybe, all at the same time. Maybe, we are willing to be sold on the idea that the Method is interesting and has valuable things to bring to the table. But that is not the claim I make. My claim is that Montessori is vastly and unquestionably superior to the alternatives. According to a plethora of studies, including randomised controlled trials which have the highest evidentiary power in social science, Montessori children do better at reading and math but also outperform other children on a whole host of other indicators, including social skills, self-regulation, creativity and their sense of “justice and fairness.” The effect is more pronounced with minority and lower-income children. As far as I know, no other method has been shown to outright erase the income achievement gap — except Montessori. And the latest developments in neuroscience are just now catching up to Dr Montessori’s theory of the child developed a century ago and confirming it.

Studies are not perfect. We all know that. Science evolves and one paradigm replaces another.

But I have not yet gotten to the core of my argument.

People typically introduce the Method by talking about the materials or about the philosophy behind it.

Sometimes they talk about the life of Dr Maria Montessori. And it is easy to see why, because it is such an inspiring story. She was the first woman doctor in Italy; she was a polymath who studied everything from mathematics to anthropology to philosophy at advanced levels; she designed her first materials for mentally disabled children, a starting point whose symbolism a Christian can only see as providential. But in a sense, this approach is misleading. You cannot hope to understand the philosophy of, say, Descartes without understanding at least a bit of his biography, but you do not need to know anything at all about Isaac Newton’s life to test the validity of his theories. The most important thing about Maria Montessori is that she never used the term “Montessori Method.” She always referred to her “method” as “scientific education” or “scientific pedagogy.”

Why is this important? Every pedagogical method, whether “alternative” or “mainstream,” “progressive” or “traditional,” starts with an abstract theory (sometimes only implicit) of what a child is, how her mind works, how she learns. And it is starting from that theory that it deduces a practical method. Dr. Montessori, who was a scientist by training and never claimed to be anything more, worked the other way around. She started tinkering with materials, first in a hospital setting with patients, and then in her first school, whose original iteration had a rigid class schedule and almost none of the distinctive attributes of today’s Montessori schools, like child-size furniture and free access to activities. Those aspects were introduced over time and tested, and they worked.

The same was true with the activities. From her findings, Dr. Montessori developed theories, of course, but then put the implications from her theories to practical tests. That is, in a word, the scientific method. The Montessori Method is the only pedagogical method that was completely developed and refined through the scientific method. And here lies the qualitative difference.

The sum total of what humans could learn about pedagogy did not end when Maria Montessori died. But, unfortunately, her spirit of rigorous experiment was, for the most part, not carried on. To take just one example, in my experience most Montessori advocates are opposed to children using digital devices. But given the real Maria Montessori’s enthusiasm for, well, almost anything, there can be no doubt that had she been alive for the computer revolution, she would have started experimenting with electronic devices and with software, probably ending up with something for which we have no equivalent today.

The Opportunity Catholicism Missed

Maria Montessori was a deeply devout Catholic and a daily communicant. She believed her method was firmly grounded in the Gospel even as it was based on science, since indeed the two could never contradict each other, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught. She fostered the development of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a religious instruction programme using her methods, which has also shown amazing results in bringing children to know and love the Lord.

And the Method is indeed grounded in the Gospel. All of Montessori education is geared toward promoting “positive freedom” or the idea that “freedom” does not mean the power to do whatever you want to do but, rather, freedom from the negative tendencies that would lead you to the wrong choices, giving you the ability to do what you have been called to do. A Montessori classroom is the living embodiment of the Catholic truism that true freedom can be exercised only in an ordered framework. Dr. Montessori saw her goals as moral education, scientific education and artistic education — or education for the good, the true and the beautiful. The Method is incarnate; it reaches the soul through the body. And, of course, with those beautiful objects and precise rituals, it is liturgical.

So, as we must ask of the world, we must ask of the Church: Why did we ignore Maria Montessori? Why isn’t Montessori education as associated with Catholicism in the public mind as the rosary and fish on Fridays?

Imagine for a second if the Church had adopted Montessori education as its blueprint early in the 20th century. Imagine first the countless lives that would have been transformed, the people who would never have reached their full potential in a traditional school. Then imagine the greater robustness of the Church. (How many have left the Church because of angry teachers or utterly boring catechism lessons?)

Catholics keep wondering what they have to give the modern world that it does not already have. Imagine what it would have meant for the Church’s witness if, by the 1950s, it was a commonly known fact that Catholics were those strange people who, for example, did not hit their children at school (and everyone could see that it was because they simply did not need to).

Why didn’t we do it? We did not think we could make a difference.

By the end of the 19th century, the Church had been the biggest educational institution in the world by far, continuously for centuries. Indeed, it had literally invented the school, as well as the university. But by that time, modern nation-states had taken over mass public education. The Church could not compete. Modern states had infinitely more money and resources, and they could make school free for everyone and compel attendance, which certainly helped turnout. They were just more “modern.”

And suddenly, countries were faced with the question of pedagogy for the first time. Most of them ended up copying the Prussian model. The vast majority of schools, public and private, across the West, despite some variations due to history and geography, still follow the same basic model invented by a militaristic dictatorship in the 19th century. As Prof Angeline Lillard recounts, what we think of as the “default” sort of school (tables, students of the same age, whiteboard) is the product of a very specific historical time frame and of very specific philosophical assumptions that are either questionable or, from a Catholic perspective, downright heretical.

This comes from the era of the Industrial Revolution, when schools were explicitly modeled on factories, with children as inputs. Bells were introduced to mimic the bells on the factory floor that signify breaks.

Learning was induced through a reward and punishment system. (Germany and other European nations were also anticipating mass warfare, and schools needed to produce disciplined future soldiers.)

The approach made practical application of philosophical assumptions. This form of schooling is based on the Lockean tabula rasa view that we come into this world as blank slates, as simple receptacles for information, and on the Cartesian dualism between mind and body. Accordingly, the best way to learn something is to receive it in a disincarnate way. Those are assumptions contrary to the wisdom of the Catholic tradition.

Against the Lockean view, Montessori supports the authentic Christian view that every child has a unique, God-given identity and gifts and must, by grace, develop them. As opposed to the Cartesian view, this approach rejects mind-body dualism. So why didn’t the Church embrace it when it came along?

Because we did not — we could not — believe we could do better. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the pace of technological change was much faster than it is today, and the overall sense of the unstoppable nature of technological and organisational progress was pervasive. There was no sense born of world wars and environmental catastrophes that technology could also bring forth tragedy. In philosophy and theology, perhaps, the Church was standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” But it was still impressed by all those engineers and industrialists and organisational experts who, collectively, embarked on the most ambitious school-building programme in all of human history. They were the scientists. We were amateurs next to them. Of course the best we could do was copy.

And so here we are. --America Magazine

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