There is more to preparing for citizenship than learning civics. We live in times where elections and exercising our citizenship is vital to the preservation of democracy. Schools have an obligation to prepare students for their civic duty, so what constitutes the Montessori way?
While mandated civics instruction is an important component of the curriculum, learning to be a productive and healthy citizen goes beyond basic knowledge of the democratic process and how it works. A well-rounded citizen must not only have an intelligent understanding, but also a sense of social responsibility and strong moral character.
In the Montessori approach, intelligent understanding comes through the study of civics content, and through the perspective of history. The roots of culture emerge in the study of civilizations and the child begins to grasp the significance and interrelatedness of human achievements over time. An appreciation of humanity is awakened through knowledge of human history.
As the child recognizes the essential elements of culture and then acquires these characteristics, the child simultaneously learns how an individual’s actions affect others, a key element in socialization.
Character development is integrated into the Montessori learning process. Moral development is about both the self and the connection of one’s actions and healthy relations with others. A strong moral character grows from the self-discipline and civility necessary to be a participant in the Montessori classroom community. Although the modern definition of civility refers to politeness and courtesy, the root Latin civilitas, was a term denoting the state of being a citizen and hence good citizenship or orderly behavior. This is our expectation for civility in the Montessori classroom.
Through a holistic approach that develops the intellectual, social and moral character of the child, the Montessori method prepares the child for life.
A Smart Citizen – Developing the Intellect
For the 6 to 12 year old, the emergent power of the mind to abstract and imagine become formidable tools for the developing intellect. This dynamic cognitive energy is combined with a great capacity for work, relative good health and stamina, and strong memory. The key characteristic of this age is an unquenchable thirst for information. The child has a great curiosity that goes beyond facts. They are fascinated with the causes, reasons and effects. Logically, a curriculum for this age would approach knowledge in an interdisciplinary and integrated way to meet this need. This would best help to explain the whys and the wherefores that are so critical for this aged child.
This is why Dr. Montessori designed the “Great Lessons” for the elementary. They introduce the five key areas of interconnected studies that form the overarching theme of the Montessori elementary curriculum. History is the core of the Great Lessons. The children see the unfolding of all life from the formation of the planet to the modern day. They study the vastness of space as well as a drop of water, finding their relation in it. The children travel through time with their imaginations and walk the sands of ancient Egypt to the mountains of the moon. They are there when humans discover fire and roll the first wheel. They study current events and compare them. All of this brings an understanding of the great order of nature and ecology.
The content of the Montessori elementary curriculum both stimulates the intellect and provides a context for socialization and moral development. Montessori’s great contribution was a format for study that began with presenting to the child a vision of the whole before the detailed study of the parts. In this way the understanding of the “big picture” renders the details fascinating.
This is the key period in which the child seeks to understand his position in society and the world of nature. During this period an important acquisition of culture and intellectual achievement takes place, and under the right conditions, society as a whole benefits. Montessori realized that the healthy growth of these future citizens could aid in the preservation of Nature and the advancement of culture. It is keenly important to expose children of this age to a holistic overview so they might develop their role as a healthy and constructive member of society. Montessori described each child’s cosmic task, to fulfill his potential in the work of bettering mankind.
History has a way of helping humans to be wiser about how they live. It develops an appreciation of humanity and its achievements that can only come through intellectual study. History provides points of comparison for the complex issues humans have faced for thousands of years, searching for answers to the moral questions regarding survival, and the use of limited natural resources. These studies help the child understand that every person is dependent on others and each must make a contribution to the existence of all. Each individual’s adaptation to society takes the highest form in what special contribution he can make to his fellow man. The approach brings the child to an admiration towards their culture. The goal is to inspire pride and a sense of privilege in belonging to humanity. This sentiment is aroused in the child by showing him the interrelatedness of all things, especially in the world of humans.
A Social Citizen – Learning To Live Together in Peace
The beauty of the multi-age grouping of a Montessori classroom is that the child is naturally acclimated to working within a diverse and dynamic grouping of peers. The governing principle of responsible freedom guides the child in all they do.
In these groupings children internalize what they have learned by teaching the younger children and by being mentors and role models. The children are encouraged to show mutual respect and empathy for others by working together towards common goals. This is the spirit of the community. The mixed age community creates conditions that foster individual differences as strengths, and promotes groupings of mixed abilities. These ongoing experiences develop social skills as a response to conditions, rather than through direct teaching intervention.
In a Montessori approach community values are lived; grace and courtesy are routine; and a common spirit of respect and sharing, hospitality, cooperation, help, and assistance binds the community in noble work.
In this community approach to education, the child comes to understand that each one of us is dependent on others and each must make a contribution for the betterment of all. Participation in a Montessori learning community enables the child to eventually adapt to society, knowing that each individual’s adaptation takes the highest form by the special contribution he can make to his fellow man. In this way the child learns the concept of citizenship. Through living and working daily in a collaborative approach to learning the child finds community membership can be both personally satisfying and socially rewarding.
A Moral Citizen – Finding Balance and Purpose
Among Maria Montessori’s many legacies was her scientific model for observing and analyzing the process of development of the child. She developed a structure of stages of development that defined the needs and characteristics of each age, and then developed ideal educational environments to respond and support the child in their process of growth and change.
In the second stage of Dr. Montessori’s model for human development, one of the key characteristics of the child from 6 to 12 years old is their keen moral sense. As they shift from taking moral directives to guiding themselves they are consciously and constantly questioning situations and issues of fairness and show an inordinate sense of justice. At this age they can often be philosophical about moral issues, and with time and experience they relate questions and answers to real-life situations.
This is a key period in our childrens’ lives for developing character, patterns of behavior and an emergent conscience that will guide them with an internal strength of personality. In the Montessori elementary classroom, we respond by guiding the child so they discover through experience the understanding and impact of their actions on others. They learn to recognize that personal choice falls within the limits of community and individual responsibility.
The child matures through experience and learns that serving others is rewarding and facilitates meeting their own needs. They become aware of their behavior and its effects on others, finding that balance that characterizes the morally developed individual.
This understanding of cause and effect in human relations, both their own and as a participant in a community, is what develops their understanding of justice and sentiments which lead to the passion and commitment necessary for citizenship.
As their character develops a sense of balance emerges and they become more capable of adjusting and valuing themselves in social situations, the child develops an emotional investment in their work and sees the “big picture” regarding the impact of their actions, both in the classroom and in society beyond.
We all embrace Montessori’s reminder, From Childhood to Adolescence “To teach details is to bring confusion, to establish the relationship between things is to bring knowledge.” Let’s remember to apply this to the challenge of preparing the child to join society. Citizenship is truly following this guiding principle, knowing the impact of relationships in a human context and applying them in an informed and humane way. Let our guiding principle in preparing our charges to be that which Aristotle called for when he said “Where the world’s needs and your talents intersect, there lies your vocation”.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead, American anthropologist (1901-1978)