April 22, 2003

No less then one email flooded in noting my absence yesterday. An American. The mistake I made was that what with the Monday after Easter being a bank holiday, which may not register over there, I was in Sunday mode, and only realised this morning my omission. Apologies to all who had their day ruined by being without their fix of Brian rambling educationally.

However, I have not been ignoring education. Last Friday evening I was given dinner by friends, one of whom is a Montessori teacher. And they also lent me a book on the subject.

Until now, Maria Montessori (1870-1952) has really only been a name. I expect to have more to say about matters Montessorian over the weeks, months and years to come, but in the meantime I note how very influencial this lady's ideas have surely been.

A core Montessori notion is that you mustn't expect to start children straight away with academic 3Rs type teaching. They must instead be allowed to explore their physical environment and to develop their various senses, of sight, sound, touch, and so on. And now that stuff is so cheap and ubiquitous, almost every child in the West now possesses a cornucopia of toys and educational objects of all imaginable shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, children's TV shows have encouraged children to explore their physical capacities and senses by playing with all the useless yets perfectly safe and clean detritus of the modern food and toiletry packaging industry. Here in Britain, the TV show Blue Peter has become the object of endless good natured and nostalgic teasing for its various schemes to convert toilet rolls and fruit juice cartons into houses, dolls and spaceships. I'm guessing that Montessori had a lot of influence on all this kind of learning by playing.

There was, you might say, an interlude between a world in which children lived a rural life surrounded by the stuff of nature, and our own world where stuff also abounds. Unlucky children during this transitional period would sometimes spend their entire early lives in unstimulating places like orphanages, with no stuff to play with and effectively not doing anything, and as a result they grew up permanently stunted. A key Montessori insight is that by "playing" of this sort (although she actually called it "working"), often very repetitively, the child is developing its own brain. Children, said Montessori, have short periods of intense focus on particular topics, so to speak, and if their eagerness to explore colour, for example, meets no response in the form of a colourful environment with colourful stuff in it, their lives are rendered permanently less colourful. (As Montessori realised, a child who grows up without hearing language spoken can never later get to grips with it.)

The book I've been reading is called Montessori: A Modern Approach, by Paula Polk Lillard, and it was first published as long ago as 1972. However, I am already very struck by how many of Montessori's ideas chime in with the latest fashions in evolutionary psychology. I'm also currently reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, and the intellectual overlap is remarkable.

I haven't got to the bit where I learn about Montessori's views about reading and writing, but I'm looking forward to it very much.

Once again, my apologies for the blip in service here. I wish I could be sure that it will be the last. I will leave it at promising that such interruptions will be rare.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:32 PM
Category: Education theory