The Montessori Paradox-Freedom with Responsibility

© 2020 Ezme Davis, All rights reserved

It is a touchstone in Montessori education, and if I have to zero in on one aspect that baffles all new teachers and the best of us for years, it is this.

What many do not realise is that; it is a recipe for disaster in unskilled hands. While we love the first part; that of giving the child freedom, we have to pay heed to Montessori’s advice of balancing this out with responsibility. It is like many other things, a process of learning, for the guide, and the ones she serves. It takes years and requires constant modelling and scaffolding, simply because it is, after all, a paradox. It will require continuous observation and reflection on the adults part to find a balance.

While freedom does mean giving an individual a right to think, act and speak as one desires; it comes with responsibility; the act of being accountable. This evades even many an adult, and so, needless to say, it is a monumental task when it comes to guiding children if misunderstood. Expecting children to see this grey, when it’s all black and white to them (which is absolutely in keeping with neurological development) is a folly.

Once again, we have the tools handed to us. Ones that put the checks and balances into place and help us learn how to do this. Young learners start gaining these skills just by being a part of the prepared environment, having a responsive, observant guide and experienced older members in a community.

The prepared environment makes concrete this idea in many ways, like multi-age grouping; demarcated workspaces; motives for occupation etc. The opportunities to foster responsibility alongside freedom are many. I am, however thinking of one of the first experiences that children have when they step in, of choosing work and putting it away.

Our environments demand that they are in a state of readiness at all times. What this means, is that all learners have the freedom to pick up work they want to do, but, once done, it has to be returned in a state of preparedness. This is common knowledge to most guides; the grey here is that while this may be a fair expectation to set for a child of four, it’s unfair to expect this of a three-year-old. What is required for the younger child is collaboration and a demonstration of this expectation. There will be times when the child does clean up and then return materials to the shelf. There will also be times when this doesn’t happen, and this is where the adult then takes on the role becoming that concrete material, to allow the child to experience and observe freedom and responsibility in action. Consistency from the adult becomes most important at this stage.

Finally, the older, more experienced learners may rise to the occasion spontaneously, and show initiative when it comes to keeping the environment prepared. Many a time I have seen an older child spend a substantial amount of time just walking around and sweeping an area that may feel dirty; carrying material that hasn’t been washed to the sink, so they can wash it, or assisting a younger child in winding up. They too, are modelling and demonstrating freedom and responsibility to their peers and also to the adult.
It is not uncommon for children that have gained skills to sometimes complain about wanting to do so or, to question why you so readily offer your help to the younger child (who isn’t that much younger when compared to the one questioning you). These moments are when the adult has the opportunity to nurture understanding and acceptance. What worked best for me was to say “you know, you were just like x when you were little. You also needed my help, but now you are so good at doing it your self. Would you like me to help you today if you don’t feel like doing so, I would love to?” This response has rarely failed me, and the most rewarding part is to hear this language of acceptance and understanding being parroted by one child to another, in moments that personify authenticity.

This is just one example of how children begin the process of learning how to enjoy freedom while being responsible. Given the nature of our environments the opportunities to learn and practice these life skills are easy to come by. All it requires is a watchful eye and a responsive adult ready to make the most of these moments. If this task seems daunting; fear not, for in all her wisdom nature drives children to play. The opportunities to practice these life skills are abounding here. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then the image i’ve shared in this post speaks volumes. It captures the momentary rest in between the wild free motion of swinging upside down and stopping long enough to regain balance and secure one’s self.

3 thoughts on “The Montessori Paradox-Freedom with Responsibility

  1. Students freely choose what to work on, who to work with, and where to work, but they must choose work. This is the concept of freedom within limits. We give them the freedom to make these choices so that they learn the discipline to work on their own and feel intrinsically satisfied with the work they do. is based on a profound respect for each child as a unique human being. Our approach assumes that children are born intelligent, curious and creative and are ripe to develop a sense of wonder and imagination. Montessori teaches children to think deeply, to think for themselves and to think about others.

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    1. Hello Patrick, thank you for stopping by and taking the time to share your thoughts. I completely agree with you. Every adult comes in knowing that in our environments, all work is freely chosen and autonomy is fostered. It doesn’t, however, always go as planned. Every child is born with their own individual genius; this is what we serve. The guides process of learning how to do this entails understanding that every child brings with them a unique temperament and personality. Understanding these shades of grey comes with time and experience. Herein lies the craft of guiding children. It is this understanding that fosters the formation of peaceful communities. Montessori speaks a lot about the spiritual preparation of the teacher. Real acceptance, faith and the shedding of prejudices of children is an ongoing process. This is simply because of the innumerous variety of children we serve and with every child, new lessons are learnt, I consider them our best mentors. This post is an attempt to highlight and demonstrate how the environment and nature herself supports our work and the child’s work in this process of the formation of man.

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