The Montessori Education System and the Desire to Learn
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire talks about what he calls the banking system of education. In the banking system the student is seen as an object in which the teacher must place information. The student has no responsibility for cognition of any sort; the student must simply memorize or internalize what the teacher tells him or her. Paulo Freire was very much opposed to the banking system. He argued that the banking system is a system of control and not a system meant to successfully educate. In the banking system the teacher is meant to mold and change the behavior of the students, sometimes in a way that almost resembles a fight. The teacher tries to force information down the student’s throat that the student may not believe or care about.
This process eventually leads most students to dislike school. It also leads them to develop a resistance and a negative attitude towards learning in general, to the point where most people won’t seek knowledge unless it is required for a grade in a class. Freire thought that the only way to have a real education, in which the students engage in cognition, was to change from the banking system into what he defined as problem-posing education. Freire described how a problem-posing educational system could work in Pedagogy of the Oppressed by saying, “Students, as they are increasingly posed with problems relating to themselves in the world and with the world, will feel increasingly challenged and obliged to respond to that challenge. Because they apprehend the challenge as interrelated to other problems within a total context not as a theoretical question, the resulting comprehension tends to be increasingly critical and thus constantly less alienated”(81). The educational system developed by the Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori presents a tested and effective form of problem-posing education that leads its students to increase their desire to learn as opposed to inhibiting it.
Freire presents two major problems with the banking concept. The first one is that in the banking concept a student is not required to be cognitively active. The student is meant to simply memorize and repeat information, not to understand it. This inhibits the students’ creativity, destroys their interest in the subject, and transforms them into passive learners who don’t understand or believe what they are being taught but accept and repeat it because they have no other option. The second and more dramatic consequence of the banking concept is that it gives an enormous power to those who choose what is being taught to oppress those who are obliged to learn it and accept it. Freire explains that the problems lies in that the teacher holds all the keys, has all the answers and does all the thinking. The Montessori approach to education does the exact opposite. It makes students do all the thinking and problem solving so that they arrive at their own conclusions. The teachers simply help guide the student, but they do not tell the student what is true or false or how a problem can be solved.
In the Montessori system, even if a student finds a way to solve a problem that is slower or less effective than a standard mechanical way of solving the problem, the teacher will not intervene with the student’s process because this way the student learns to find solutions by himself or herself and to think of creative ways to work on different problems.
The educational system in the United States, especially from grade school to the end of high school, is almost identical to the banking approach to education that Freire described. During high school most of what students do is sit in a class and take notes. They are then graded on how well they complete homework and projects and finally they are tested to show that they can reproduce or use the knowledge which was taught. Most of the time the students are only receptors of information and they take no part in the creation of knowledge. Another way in which the U.S. education system is practically identical to the banking system of education is the grading system. The grades of students mostly reflect how much they comply with the teacher’s ideas and how much they are willing to follow directions. Grades reflect submission to authority and the willingness to do what is told more than they reflect one’s intelligence, interest in the class, or understanding of the material that is being taught. For instance, in a government class in the United States a student who does not agree that a representative democracy is superior to any other form of government will do worse than a student who simply accepts that a representative democracy is better than a direct democracy, socialism, communism, or another form of social system. The U.S. education system rewards those who agree with what is being taught and punishes those who do not.
Furthermore, it discourages students from questioning and doing any thinking of their own. Because of the repetitive and insipid nature of our education system, most students dislike high school, and if they do well on their work, it is merely for the purpose of obtaining a grade as opposed to learning or exploring a new idea.
The Montessori Method advocates child based teaching, letting the students take control of their own education. In E.M Standing’s The Montessori Revolution in Education, Standing says that the Montessori Method “is a method based on the principle of freedom in a prepared environment”(5). Studies done on two groups of students of the ages of 6 and 12 comparing those who learn in a Montessori to those who learn in a standard school environment show that despite the Montessori system having no grading system and no obligatory work load, it does as well as the standard system in both English and social sciences; but Montessori students do much better in mathematics, sciences, and problem solving. The Montessori system allows for students to be able to explore their interests and curiosity freely. Because of this the Montessori system pushes students toward the active pursuit of knowledge for pleasure, meaning that students will want to learn and will find out about things that interest them simply because it is fun to do so.
Maria Montessori started to develop what is now known as the Montessori Method of education in the early twentieth century.
The Montessori Method focuses on the relations between the child, the adult, and the environment. The child is seen as an individual in development. The Montessori system has an implied notion of letting the child be what the child would naturally be. Montessori believed the standard education system causes children to lose many childish traits, some of which are considered to be virtues. In Loeffler’s Montessori in Contemporary American Culture, Loeffler states that “among the traits that disappear are not only untidiness, disobedience, sloth, greed, egoism, quarrelsomeness, and instability, but also the so-called ‘creative imagination’, delight in stories, attachment to individuals, play, submissiveness and so forth”. Because of this perceived loss of the child, the Montessori system works to enable a child to naturally develop self-confidence as well as the ability and willingness to actively seek knowledge and find unique solutions to problems by thinking creatively. Another important difference in how children learn in the Montessori system is that in the Montessori system a child has no defined time slot in which to perform a task. Instead the child is allowed to perform a task for as long as he wants. This leads children to have a better capacity to concentrate and focus on a single task for an extended period of time than children have in the standard education system.
The role which the adult or teacher has in the Montessori system marks another fundamental difference between the Montessori s Method and the standard education system. With the Montessori Method the adult is not meant to constantly teach and order the student. The adult’s job is to guide the child so that the child will continue to pursue his curiosities and develop his or her own notions of what is real, right, and true. Montessori describes the child as an individual in intense, constant change. From observation Montessori concluded that if allowed to develop by himself, a child would always find equilibrium with his environment, meaning he would learn not to mistreat others, for example, and to interact positively with his peers. This is important because it leads to one of the Montessori Method’s most deep-seated ideas, which is that adults should not let their presence be felt by the children. This means that although an adult is in the environment with the students, the adult does not necessarily interact with the students unless the students ask the adult a question or request help. Furthermore, the adult must make it so that the students do not feel like they are being observed or judged in any way. The adult can make suggestions to the children, but never orders them or tells them what to do or how to do it. The adult must not be felt as an authority figure, but rather almost as another peer of the children.
The consequence of this, not surprisingly, is that a lot less ‘work’ gets done by the students. Nevertheless, the students’ development is dramatically better in the Montessori system than in a standard education system. But how can students who have no obligation to do any work possibly compete with students who are taught in the standard system and do much more work in class and at home? I believe the answer lies in that while students taught in the standard way are constantly being pushed towards disliking school and doing things mechanically without really thinking about it, Montessori students are led to actively explore their interests and enjoy doing so. Furthermore, Montessori students are constantly engaged in cognition. They are continuously learning to think in different ways and creating solutions to problems from scratch, as opposed to students in the standard method of education who only solve problems with the tools or information that the teacher gives them to use.
The final important aspect of the Montessori Method is the environment in which the student learns and explores. As mentioned before, it is of utmost importance that the children feel like they are safe and free to do what they want for as long as they want. It is also important for the children to have a variety of didactic material to play and learn with. These can be as simple as cards with different letters which the students use to make different words with. In this way the student can get the idea of the letter being a physical object which can be moved and manipulated to formulate words as opposed to simply an abstract concept which he must write repeatedly on a piece of paper. Montessori describes a copious amount of didactic materials that she used. She also describes how effective they were at helping the children grasp concepts such as the formation of sentences, square roots, and division. The didactic materials do not just help the students grasp the concept of different abstractions from reality, they also make learning a game and this makes students develop a natural joy for learning and thinking about abstract concepts. In The Montessori Revolution in Education, Standing talks about a young girl who was learning to read and played a game in which she attempted to read words from cards containing different words marked with different levels of difficulty. Standing states about the girl, “She was fairly rushing at this intellectual food. But even in Set 2 most of the words seemed beyond her. At last she had made out one, M – A – N, MAN. How delighted she was! With what joy did she place the card triumphantly under the picture of the man!”(173). This aspect of the Montessori method, in which children are left to play different learning games at their will, creates a hunger and excitement for learning.
Especially at a young age, it is much easier and enjoyable for children to learn with didactic materials instead of simply sitting in a classroom and taking notes when the children are wishing they were somewhere else or doing something else the entire time they are meant to be learning. With the use of didactic materials and by allowing students to use them or not use them whenever they want to, the Montessori system gives the students the freedom to learn what they want to when they want to. This is especially important when we think about how the standard method of education, like the banking system, forces students to ‘learn’ even when the students don’t want the information being shoved down their throats, and this leads to a form of artificial learning where students memorize information or to a mechanical process where students do not internalize the information and forget it as soon as they are not being graded on it.
Montessori criticized the standard method of education greatly. In addition to seeing it as inefficient and outdated, Montessori, like Freire, believed that it was oppressive to the students. In her book The Montessori Method, Montessori writes, “The principle of slavery still pervades pedagogy, and therefore, the same principle pervades the school”(16). Montessori then goes on to describe a simple example which illustrates her point. She talks about how chairs are especially designed for classrooms. These classroom chairs, Montessori posits, are made to restrict as much movement as possible, force the children to look forward towards the teacher, and make them as visible as possible to the teacher so the children always feel like they are being watched and must behave properly.
Montessori views the standard method of education as an antagonistic model in which the teacher is basically fighting the student, constantly trying to control him and repress his childish behavior while attempting to force feed him knowledge that the student does not want. Despite the many studies which have shown that the Montessori Method is more effective and humane than the standard method, and even though more than 100 years have passed since it was introduced to the United States, very little has changed in the way children are educated here.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire says that education is used as a tool to manipulate and control masses. He proposes that the banking system of education exists and persists not because of its effectiveness at getting students to learn, but rather its effectiveness at indoctrinating children into believing something that the people who control the schools want them to believe. This leads to an important question. What is more important for the United States: that children grow up being able to think for themselves, or that they grow up believing what others deem correct? Here, especially in public high schools, there is a strong emphasis on nationalism and many ideas are taught as inherently inferior to others. For example, it is not only taught in schools that capitalism is better and more humane than, for instance, socialism and communism, but rather students are also taught to fear these concepts and to fear the very idea of questioning or thinking about social structures other than capitalism and economic models other than the free market. Furthermore, teachers often promote the false portrayal of the United States as the hero and police of the entire world. The U.S. education system is not meant to liberate students and inspire them to seek knowledge, but rather it is meant to keep them in line and is used as a tool to shape a kind of person who thinks only as far as is socially acceptable. How much our education system is manipulated by the interests of the people who control it is questionable. However, it is clear that whether or not our education system is being used to control the masses, it lends itself well to do so and can be used to sway people’s opinion and repress ideas that might go against the establishment.
Our current education system is closer to the banking system than to something like the Montessori Method in which the development of the child is put first and children are presented with a form of problem-posing education. It is likely difficult to change to a way of teaching that allows students to learn for themselves and be inspired to actively seek knowledge. A good place to start would be to use didactic materials to the extent that is possible and to present students with differing sides of arguments in a judgment-free manner. Another important point is that creative thought should always be encouraged and dissenting ideas should be welcome and debated thoroughly. By making the transition to an education system that is problem-posing, students would be encouraged to think critically and create different, unique and inventive ways to solve problems. This change would lead to enormous growth in innovation and scientific development, as well as giving students a more humane and interactive way of learning.