Montessori in the San Francisco Bay Area, September 2023 (Montessori adolescence, and mindfulness with Angeline Lillard)
As I am stopping over for two days on the way to the Netherlands and Romania, my good friend Helen Wills Brown and I were graciously hosted for a day by the staff of Marin Montessori School north of the city.
Here is a picture taken by Helen: Sam Shapiro, head of school; Siri Panday director for the infant communities and primary classes, who I have known for years due to our work in Nepal; and Minnie Wales, the director of education for the elementary classes.
The campus, which overlooks the San Francisco Bay, is even more beautiful than I remembered, but then something very special happened. When visiting one of the elementary classes my eye was drawn to a brightly colored piece of art on the wall that looked very familiar to me. A few feet away was another that looked like a woodcut of one of our most accomplished local artists in Trinidad, California. As Minnie was walking us from this class she asked where I lived and when I said “Trinidad” she replied that one of their teacher’s grandmother was an artist there. Yep, it was my very good friend Connie Butler! Several years ago Connie had given one of my books (Child of the World: Montessori, Global Education for 3-12+) to her granddaughter. And now this young lady is a teacher at Marin Montessori! Ashley and I had met at her grandmother’s memorial but now we were able to share stories, and tears, over lunch with the group.
After lunch Sam drove Helen and me 20 minutes north to the high school campus which opened in 2008. I felt like I had returned to South America as we drove through the fields and trees and came upon the traditional church you see above. The high school leases this beautiful property that was originally an orphanage, founded as Saint Vincent’s School for Boys in 1855 by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul.
The director of the adolescent program is Bill Sneed (seen above), whose passion and love for work with adolescents was obvious as he showed us the schedule of academics following real experience and individual interests. Gradually the young adults, over the year, will be given more and more responsibility for planning and scheduling and so much more. Bill spent several hours taking Sam and Helen and me through all of the classrooms and the farm. In this picture you can see the chart explaining where children, now at the beginning of the year, begin to explore and work together in several areas, such as: general maintenance and harvesting, kitchen and dining hall, music room, building the gym structure, chickens, pantry, garden, market stand prep, jam making, applesauce canning. Before heading to the outside areas we were treated to crackers that had just been made from wheat that the young adults had grown, threshed, winnowed, ground into flour, and baked, and served jam from the raspberries they had grown.
The greenhouse, or hoop house, where there is always time to work together, or to be alone to think.
As I head for Romania, where my friends in Iasi are beginning their own adolescent program, I keep thinking about the work of Angeline Lillard, AMI-trained professor of psychology and author of Montessori, the Science Behind the Genius.
In a recent paper she explains how the traditional TTC (teacher and text-centered) educational model, where children are grouped by ages and taught by breaking up a day into 1 or 1-1/2 hour segments, which she calls the “factory model” first began as an attempt to make learning to read the Bible efficient in monasteries. And in her “Science Behind the Genius” book she explains how this factory model evolved throughout history and how it is in conflict with normal human development and how successful learning actually occurs.
It is heartening to be in a place here in California where young adults are being given more and more choice, responsibility, and time, to think and to use their bodies and minds together, and to learn to function with intelligence and compassion—first in their small society, developing the skills to be successful and contributing adults in the larger society.
I am sharing parts of the chapter that Dr. Lillard contributed to my book, Montessori and Mindfulness. Much of her chapter deals with the comparison of formal mindfulness practice with authentic Montessori practice with young children, but it also applies to the lives of young adults. CLICK: Mindfulness
Mindfulness Practices in Education: Montessori’s Approach
Montessori schooling is a 100-year-old system that naturally incorporates practices that align with mindfulness and are suited to very young children. Here I describe how several aspects of Montessori education, including privileging concentrated attention, attending to sensory experience, and engaging in practical work, parallel mindfulness practices. These aspects might be responsible for some of the socio-emotional and executive function benefits that have been associated with Montessori education, and they could be adapted to conventional classroom methods.
Recent years have seen an increase in research incorporating mindfulness practices in education with the aim of improving children’s well-being. Mindfulness is a quality of focused attention on the present moment accompanied by a non-judgmental stance; its systematic cultivation has been called the heart of Buddhist meditation although it need not be accompanied by subscription to Buddhism or any other belief system.
Mindfulness interventions with adults are clearly related to well-being; by contrast, lack of attention on the present, or mind-wandering, is associated with less happiness.
In both Montessori education and mindfulness practice, concentrated attention is central. In Buddhist practice, meditation is a means to mindfulness. One meditates by focusing one’s thoughts on a single idea or experience like the breath, and this builds the capacity for focused attention. Although trained by meditation, concentrated attention is not confined to meditation but is to be applied throughout life, to listening and to eating, to every act and movement. Hanh recommends that, “When you eat an orange, [you] try to practice concentration” because “Joy and happiness are born of concentration”.
Concentration is also highly valued in the Montessori classroom. Dr. Montessori believed concentration led to a psychologically healthy state she called “normalization”—a term she borrowed from Anthropology that essentially meant “being a contributing member of society” but which also meant that children were constructive and kind in their behavior. Further, she believed that this state is the most important outcome of focused work. Dr. Montessori described the event that brought her to this realization: a child was so deeply engrossed in her work (placing ten graduated cylinders in their correct holes) that her chair was lifted up in the air, and the other children (at Dr. Montessori’s direction, as an experiment) danced and sang around her without breaking her concentration. Once children have begun to concentrate on work, according to Dr. Montessori, they become “completely transformed … calmer, more intelligent, and more expansive,” bringing out “extraordinary spiritual qualities”. “After this phenomenon of concentration the children are really ‘new’ children. It is as though a connection has been made with an inner power…and this brings about the construction of the personality. Children who have come to concentrate are said to behave better, no longer “prey to all their little naughtinesses”.
To support the development of deep and sustained concentration, Montessori education has 3-hour work periods during which a child can pursue a single line of self-focused work. The goal is full absorption. In contrast, conventional schooling is typically organized around shorter periods of work focusing on the external stimulus of the teacher. For example, in elementary school, there might be a 40-min math lesson when the teacher stands at the board, first going over the previous night’s homework then instructing children in a new math procedure. In kindergarten classrooms, activities might change every 10–15 min. Attention spans and the ability to control one’s attention increase with age as the prefrontal cortex develops. Attention is trainable in children, and certain school experiences might serve to provide such training. Having longer work periods focused on interesting, absorbing work is consistent with the mindfulness practice of training the attention, and observation of good Montessori classrooms suggests that when the work is absorbing, challenging, and self-directed, young children do engage in deep and sustained concentration for long periods.
Grounding the Mind in Sensorimotor Experience
Mindfulness training involves particular attention to sensory experience. One mindfulness exercise, for example, is to fully experience eating a raisin or some other food, considering its texture and shape and color, how it feels in the mouth, how it tastes on different receptors on various parts of the tongue, and so on. Attention to all sensory experiences—the sounds of birds, the feeling of one’s chair, the color of a flower—is emphasized. Attention to motor movement, from focusing on how one walks in walking meditation to body flexibility in yoga to one’s movements in activities of daily life, is also prominent. The sensory and motor systems connect the mind and the body, taking sensory information in from the environment and executing motor acts that change one’s position in the environment and the environment itself. Thus when one attends closely to sensory and motor experiences, one integrates body and mind. Hanh writes, “Our motto is: Body and mind together.”
The Montessori curriculum includes “Lessons of Grace and Courtesy,” in which one attends to one’s behaviors and their effects on others.
Mindfulness practice incorporates this same level of care regarding movement. For example, Hanh describes an incident from his days as a novice monk, when his teacher asked him to do something and in his excitement he went out the door mindlessly. The teacher called him back, and he knew it was so he could close the door “with 100% of my being… Since that day, I have known how to close the door behind me”.
In conventional schools, in contrast, activities highlighting attention to sensory experiences and movements are not typically part of the curriculum, except in “specials” like art, music, and physical education or sports. By first grade, most of the child’s school day is spent sitting in chairs listening to the teacher’s words. Even if children are in activity-based classrooms, specific attention to how one moves and what one senses, as goals in and of themselves, is not a key part of the typical early school curriculum, which focuses on literacy, math, science, social science, and art. Montessori education includes all these areas, but incorporates movement throughout and gives equal prominence to sensorial education and “Exercises of Practical Life”.
The Practical Work of Life
Closely linked to grounding in sensorimotor experience is attention to the functional activities needed to sustain everyday life. A Zen proverb states that
one should chop wood and carry water, before and after enlightenment, and Kabat-Zinn suggests that one “attempt to bring moment-to-moment attention to the tasks, experiences, and encounters of ordinary living such as setting the table, eating, washing the dishes, doing the laundry” and so on. An emphasis on finding meaning in everyday activities that sustain life is seen in Montessori education as well, where children from a very young age engage in the “Exercises of Practical Life”. A budding toddler can carry his or her food to the table and clean the table after clearing dishes. In the primary classroom, young children become absorbed in scrubbing furniture, polishing shoes and brass, and arranging flowers. Specific organized steps are followed in carrying out each of these activities. The Montessori adolescent programs often include hard work on farms and nature preserves, as part of community service work. Dr. Montessori observed that, “There is a strict relationship between manual labor and deep concentration of the spirit”. Practical activities are fundamental in Montessori education, and children can engage in them and see their meaning from a very young age. The child needs “activity concentrated on some task that requires movement of the hands guided by the intellect”. Learning to polish a shoe, for example, a child carries out a careful sequence of steps, knowing the goal—the shinier shoe that he or she will really wear—and seeing how each step serves this eventual goal. When society is agriculture-based, probably many more of children’s daily activities have this clear connection between an action and a practical, cognized goal to which young children can relate, connecting body and mind.
The activities of practical life in Montessori education are thought especially important, because they provide a functional (“important to my life today”) goal to which a child can relate and a series of bodily movements—guided by the mind and attentively engaged with—that the child can use to get there.
Conventional schooling has little of this. Instead, children are steeped in abstract mental pursuits or what is provided as relief from them, a recess, with little attention to how body and mind can work together to pursue practical aims. In most American schools, children do not engage in activities to sustain daily functioning—working in the cafeteria to prepare food or do dishes, sweeping the hall, and so on, although in Asia, such practices are common. Instead, conventionally schooled children are told it is important to listen so they can do well on a test so that they eventually can get a degree that might help them get a job to support themselves—distant goals that lack tangible meaning even for adolescents.
Other Points of Similarity
Three other points of similarity across Montessori education and mindfulness practices are an emphasis on simplicity, an avoidance of judgment, and grounding in stories. An additional interesting intersection lies in the training of Montessori teachers.
In mindfulness practices and Montessori education alike, there is a value on simplicity. Mindfulness practice is fundamentally simple: focus on the breath. Pay attention. Be aware. A meditation retreat is an exercise in simplicity: do yoga, sit, eat, walk, sit, do yoga, sit, eat, sit, and so on. Buddhist texts repeat the same material again and again. Through repetition of simple yet profound exercises, one is expected to reach higher levels of engagement and understanding.
To be mindful is to be non-judgmental: one is to notice, but not make good–bad judgments. “Mindfulness is cultivated by assuring the stance of an impartial witness to your own experience. To do this requires that you become aware of the constant stream of judging…and learn to step back from it”. Meanwhile, one needs to learn to “trust in your intuition and your own authority”. Yet, in conventional schooling, we train children that teachers are the judges and will reinforce their judgments with grades, gold stars, and demerits. A child’s own sense of authority is rarely paramount in this setting; rather, they are subjected again and again to adult judgment.
Montessori education avoids extrinsic authority judgments in many ways. Learning takes place within the individual through concentrated interaction with interesting materials; the child becomes his or her own authority. Children do continually make judgments as part of the work—which piece of sandpaper is more rough or smooth, for example—but they are not repeatedly subjected to a teacher assigning grades.
Learning from Stories
Another point of similarity between Montessori education and mindfulness is the use of stories. Buddhism is based in tales— monks tend to educate with
parables, tales of what happened to the Buddha or in their own lives that can instruct us. Stories are a powerful way for humans to learn, as we tend to represent experiences as narratives. Montessori education, particularly at the elementary level, also bases learning in stories. The underlying structure of the elementary curriculum is actually five great stories: the birth of the universe, the beginning of life on earth, the beginning of humankind, and the invention of symbols and math. At five points in the first few weeks of each school year, the teacher seats all the class in a circle for these stories, and tells one of these stories in dramatic style, replete with props (for example, there is often an explosion in conjunction with the Big Bang in the first story). These core stories are followed by several other narratives associated with five core areas of the curriculum (although the interconnection among the different areas is a key component of Montessori education). Montessori’s elementary curriculum is called “cosmic education” and its main underlying point is that everything is interconnected. “To teach details is to bring confusion; to establish the relationship between things is to bring knowledge”. For example, the invention of the Pythagorean theorem might be detailed in a story about Pythagoras on vacation going down the Nile, watching the rope stretchers redraw property lines after a flood. This connects math, history, geography, and language.
In Buddhism as well, stories are repeatedly used to help the students understand, and there is also an emphasis on the interconnectedness of all things—the interconnection of life and death, our own interconnections with all people and things.
Dr. Montessori might have been directly influenced by Eastern philosophical traditions when creating the elementary curriculum, since she designed much of the elementary curriculum during her years in India, where she was establishing a training course when WWII broke out. Because she was unable to return to Europe during the war, she had an extended and productive 7-year-stay in India.
As a final point, in Montessori education, teachers are asked to examine their inner selves, reminiscent of mindfulness training. They are to become aware of their own psychological “issues,” so they can keep them aside and focus on the child’s needs, without allowing their own unsatisfied desires to interfere. “A teacher must prepare himself interiorly by systematically studying himself… A good teacher does not have to be entirely free from faults and weaknesses [but should know what they are]”. The attitude Montessori counseled teachers to have toward the children bespeaks “loving-kindness”—a basic precept of mindfulness. “A teacher … [must be] ready to be there whenever she is called in order to attest to her love and confidence. To be always there—that is the point”. In addition to being always there and always loving, Montessori teachers are asked to be very careful observers of children, tuned in and aware of when a given child would be ready for the next lesson. This Dr. Montessori believed was the most fundamental quality of a good teacher.
In order to help Montessori teachers reach a point in their own development when they can serve children in these ways, their training involves an intensive full academic year with a deeply experienced teacher–trainer (at least as implemented by the Association Montessori Internationale which Dr. Montessori founded to carry on her work). These teacher–trainers have spent at least 4 years as apprentice trainers, after at least 5 years as Montessori teachers and at least one in their own training, thus they are themselves very deeply grounded in Montessori education. In my own Montessori teacher training, every morning for 30 min, we lay on the floor in a darkened room and listened to Pachelbel’s Canon, while the trainer guided us through a relaxation. In all training courses, the trainer also observes emerging teachers working with children and discusses their interactions. Thus Montessori teachers are expected to be transformed, as people in their training to become teachers, in ways that are akin to the changes brought on by engaging in mindfulness practices.
The research on outcomes of mindfulness practices in adults is burgeoning, and there is a growing literature on the outcomes in children and adolescents.
There are four quality Montessori studies whose outcomes parallel those in mindfulness intervention research. Two used an experience sampling method with middle school students who were matched with middle school students from conventional schools. One paper focused on the level of engaged interest, and the other on social relationships and time use in school. A third study compared children at ages 5 and 12, whose parents had entered them in a random lottery to go to a public city Montessori school, when they were 2–3 years of age. Half of the children had been admitted to the Montessori, and the other half was enrolled at other mostly public schools in the district. Children were tested on a variety of social and cognitive outcomes. A fourth study compared 2- to 6-year-old children in classic Montessori classrooms (those following Dr. Montessori’s program very strictly) with children in supplemented Montessori and conventional classrooms. Income, ethnicity, and parent education were the same across classrooms, and the conventional schools were ones that Montessori parents most often said they would send their children to in areas where Montessori is not available. A range of social and cognitive outcomes was tested.
Montessori middle school students report feeling significantly “greater affect, potency (i.e., feeling energetic), intrinsic motivation, flow experience, and undivided interest (i.e., the combination of intrinsic motivation and high salience or importance)” while doing schoolwork than do matched students in conventional middle schools. These findings of improved attention are paralleled in mindfulness research.
Mindfulness training programs encourage loving-kindness and empathy, which would seem likely to improve relationships. Intervention studies with medical professionals have shown social relationship benefits including increased empathy, and therapy with non-distressed couples has been shown to improve relationship quality.
Such findings are also paralleled in Montessori research. For example, Montessori middle school children will more likely claim their schoolmates are also their friends as compared with matched controls. In the random lottery-based study, the 12-year-old Montessori students will more likely report trust in their classmates and choose the most positive option in social problem-solving tests.
Some educators today are interested in how we can incorporate mindfulness practices in education, and Montessori education offers several ideas to consider. Very young children can and will focus attentively on meaningful work that incorporates body and mind. They also will be mindful of their actions when shown how to be so by attentive and loving adults. As education’s goals grow beyond having more children circle more right answers on multiple-choice tests, Montessori education might provide some guidance for an alternative route that can nurture wiser and kinder and also knowledgeable human beings—a far more important goal that is perfectly compatible with doing well on those tests.
And now on to the Netherlands and Romania.
Here are blog posts from those two parts of the world: