View Point

Saturday, March 6, 1999

The magic of

By Jyo Bridgewater


AS a Montessori educator, I often find myself confronted by skepticism. How can a philosophy of education developed more than 100 years ago continue to have relevance in a world rapidly advancing toward the 21st century?

Skepticism gives way to healthy respect when I explain the logic and effectiveness of Maria Montessori's approach to the development of a child's academic skills.

Education must be active and authentic. A child cannot be taught independence and self-discipline. They are achieved through experience. The child who has never learned to act alone, to direct actions, to govern one's will, grows into an adult easily led by negative influences.

Info Box Montessori based her ideas on meticulous observation and an abiding faith in human potential. Every aspect of a child's development was important.

For Montessori, the great lessons of science, mathematics, language and social studies were designed to "not merely make the child understand, and still less to force him to memorize, but so to touch his imagination as to enthuse him to his inmost core."

She rejected a world view that saw self-preservation and self-interest as the sole aim of evolution. She wrote eloquently of the beauty and importance of everything to an integrated whole.

For most living things, this world of mutual generosity is not motivated by a conscious awareness. It is man's unique gift and responsibility to rise above merely responding to the vicissitudes of nature and instead actively work to create a better world.

This "cosmic view," expressed by Montessori in the 1950s, is consistent with the shift toward "systems thinking" in today's world. This view recognizes the interdependence of all things and focuses on the relationship between elements of a system rather than on the elements themselves. It finds expression in work done in areas as diverse as ethics, chaos theory, deep ecology, cosmology, anthropology and biology.

Montessori's cosmic view is also consistent with current thinking about evolution. The American Association for the Advancement of Science held a ground-breaking interdisciplinary conference in the winter of 1997. The conference brought together experts in many fields to discuss "The Epic of Evolution," beginning with the creation of the universe itself and culminating in a multi-faceted look at the future of humankind.

What was most fascinating were the things that all speakers agreed on: that humankind can choose the kind of future we desire; that we must rethink our relationship with the Earth and with our fellow living creatures; that education is the key to this new thinking about the role of humans; and that humans learn best through the use of story.

As an observer at the conference, I was struck by the resonance between what was being said by these individuals on the cutting edge of intellectual inquiry and the Montessori philosophy. Speakers reiterated that humans were the only species that did not have to mutate to change. Like Montessori, they spoke of the freedom and responsibility that came with human intellect and consciousness.

Especially interesting was the discussion of language as a means of complex learning. It is through language, particularly stories, that we learn and are able to change. The Montessori elementary curriculum relies on the story form as the primary means of presenting lessons.

Thomas Berry, a distinguished historian, theologian and environmentalist, was the concluding speaker at the conference. "The desolation of the Earth doesn't have to be the destiny of the planet," he stated. "The urgency of our time is to reinvent humanity at the species level by reflection within the community of life systems and by means of the story and the dream."

He said that the kind of story that could provide the fresh vision he had in mind had already been created by a great teacher, and he read from the teacher's "marvelous" writings. That teacher? Three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Maria Montessori.

Jyo Bridgewater is a is a certified Montessori
elementary teacher and Honolulu resident.

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