On Montessori, Happiness, and Structured Choices

August 31, 2011

Today I became a Montessori teacher.  Or, more accurately, I accepted a part-time job teaching middle school humanities ‑ history, writing, reading, and Shakespeare at a Montessori school.  I don’t have the requisite training and experience to call myself a Montessori teacher, but today I began the “work,” as Montessori teachers would say, of moving in that direction.

In our opening faculty meeting, head of school Dane Peters thanked his colleagues sincerely, outlined his objectives for the year openly, and told us where in the faculty manual to find the procedures for a fire drill. Dane began his career as a Marine, and is now the soft-spoken leader of Brooklyn Heights Montessori School, where everybody calls everybody by their first names.  With all the enthusiasm of a convert, Dane spoke with us about an article about Montessori Education in the International Journal of Wellbeing.

(To think: after all the time and energy I spent in France studying the art of bonheur and bîen-être, I discover I could have simply purchased a subscription!)

The full article is here, and if you like research studies, you should really read the whole thing.  But in case you’d prefer that I digest your intellectual breakfast for you, my take on it follows.

The article is actually titled “Manipulating Happiness.”  I’m pretty sure that the author means to make a pun on the famous Montessori “manipulatives,” but of course he reveals Montessori’s true intent:  by seeking to develop the best way of teaching children, she was in fact seeking to manipulate aspects of the school experience — but towards the goal of student learning and well-being, rather than for her own convenience as a teacher or for narrower goals like higher test scores.

The study’s author, Robert Biswas-Diener, first cites a study that shows that, on the whole, children who attend Montessori schools learn the same amount and content as children who attend equally well-run traditional schools.  While there is some suggestion there that kids at Montessori schools are more creative than their peers in traditional schools, he is forced to do a bit of cherry-picking to prove this point.  (Julia Child attended Montessori — but then again, plenty of equally brilliantly creative people went to regular old schools that emphasize chalk and talk.)

Instead of arguing that Montessori education is “better” in terms of its academic outcomes, the author focuses on the ways in which it creates happier students and happier people.  The author’s thesis is that the principles that Maria Montessori learned through close observation of children in a school setting and then codified into an educational philosophy contribute to an individual’s sense of well-being. These principles are:

  • the creation of a strong bond between children and their teachers,
  • an emphasis on individual mastery
  • a careful limitation of the child’s choices to emphasize activities that will result in a greater likelihood that the chosen activities will lead to high-level learning (as opposed to, say, lead to a lot of games of hangman being played in class.)

I was pleased to see that these are exactly the sorts of priorities that I hold for my own classroom.  (Apparently, without knowing it, I was a closet Montessori teacher.) But while my approach to these goals has been individual and scattershot, Montessori educators elevate these goals to a carefully calibrated art and science.   I have a whole lot to learn.

For example, the study’s author recounts a story about a Montessori teacher whose two and three year old students drink from glass and ceramic containers rather than plastic.  When asked what would happen in the all-too-likely scenario that a young child dropped a cup, the teacher responded, “Then the children would learn about what happens to glass when it hits the floor.”

I never, ever thought of that in those terms.  Apparently, there has been significant educational value in all that spilled milk in my house — and the metaphorical spilled milk of my students’ failures and disappointments over the years.  Certainly I see the benefit of my own failures — and am in the process of writing an entire book about what my failures and misapprehensions in France taught me about being a mother and a human being.

As a social scientist rather than a writer of memoir, Biswas-Diener makes his arguments by showing parallels between Montessori’s goals and psychological research on the ways in which similarly-structured environments in the adult world also make people happy.

According to C.P. Edwards, a biographer of Maria Montessori, children “prefer to learn in an organized but supportive environment that provides a high degree of choice, control, and self-direction, and where children are not distracted by extrinsic rewards and punishments that distort their preferences.”

This is true in a larger sense, Biswas-Diener points out.  Democracies — where people have a higher degree of choice, control, and self-direction — allow for greater happiness among their citizens.  It’s not for nothing that our founding fathers included the Pursuit of Happiness among our inalienable rights.  Montessori agreed.

The author also writes, however, that focusing our choices rather than broadening them has significant consequences for our happiness.  Montessori classrooms do not allow children to use their “freedom” to be cruel to others, to waste time or resources, or to hyper-focus on one classroom activity to the exclusion of all others.  The Montessori teacher fills the room with carefully organized and chosen materials which are organized on the shelves in increasing order of difficulty — top to bottom and left to right.  He or she also creates a set of compelling tasks from which a student can choose.  (Having learned about these strategies, I will now organize my shelves more effectively, and create little baskets of “task cards” from which students can choose the activities that they find most compelling.)

The Montessori teacher’s careful limiting and structuring of choice also, aligns with the research on what makes people happy.  “The message is that we may be free to make any choices we want, but we will be rewarded — both emotionally and socially — for only some of them.”

For example, according to research on the wider world, people who spend their resources on experiences rather than things tend to be happier.  And, people who spend money on others are happier than those who spend a similar amount on themselves.  (How about I get you tickets for a cool trip, and you can get me some in return!  Double triple happiness!)

Researchers have also studied the optimal amount of choice.  Too many choices, and you berate yourself for making the wrong one.   (Stuck in traffic on a one-lane highway?  You will become mildly annoyed.  But if you are stuck in the slowest-moving lane on a three-lane highway, you are likely to berate yourself incessantly for choosing “the wrong lane.”)  According to the study’s author, an emphasis on individualism can translate into the idea that people should have nearly unlimited choices.  Choosing from way too many kinds of breakfast cereal means that you will never be satisfied with the muselix that ends up in your bowl.

And making too many choices can even make you less able to make them effectively, as we learn from new research on what is being called  “decision fatigue.

To extend his metaphors, we could argue that a Montessori classroom is less like a totalitarian state, and less like a libertarian, winner-take-all economy.  Instead, it is like the developed nations that are so famously full of the world’s happiest people:  Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Finland.  Individuals in these nations have a high degree of self-determination, a high degree of social cohesion.  But high taxes and a sturdy safety net also mean that their citizens have more limited choices.  According to the social scientists, democratic socialism makes you happier than the vast ranges of success and failure allowed by total self-determination and rampant, unfettered materialism.

So I am off to the “work” of becoming a more conscious and effective teacher in a brand new setting — one that seems at least at first glance to align with my own values and experiences as an educator.

I have a lot to learn, and I will probably have to drop a few glasses to get the feel of things, but I think I’m going to like it here.

T. August 31, 2011 at 6:42 pm

Sounds like a grand new adventure in a really wonderful place. Best of luck to you!

Christine @ Coffees & Commutes September 2, 2011 at 7:45 am

Well, this is chalk full of things to think about, and is the best introduction to the Montessori school of thought (pardon the pun) that I’ve ever read. I have to say, it aligns quite closely to how my husband and I choose to raise our children: with a less is more, unstructured but structured environment with lots of self-direction. I’m excited to read more about what you learn as you go, do keep us posted!

Launa September 2, 2011 at 7:47 am

It’s been quite an education in just a few days… but I can’t wait until the students show up. Then I’ll get an introduction to teaching middle school. Stay tuned…

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: