Friday, April 16, 2010


I won't burden you with details but I've spent time off and on over the last 45 years around people who teach or learn in Montessori schools. Still, never before until today did I actually sit silent and watch what goes on in a Montessori classroom, or, as they call it in the biz, "observing."

I'm gratified to say that on this fragmentary piece of evidence, most of my stereotypes have been confirmed. I'm lookin' at, I think 20 little fireplugs and two adults. The kids are noodling around in what looks like order but, as the as the enthusiasts are at pains to tell you, is nothing of the sort. The point is that all the half-pints appear to be managing their own lives in the sense of finding something to do and doing it. A couple of boys were assembling a map-puzzle (todays teaching moment: Idaho doesn't fit upside down). Another was writing something. Two others with some delicacy carried a puzzle board through the room. Another was folding table cloths. Another was gravely consuming a snack. One girl spent the entire duration of my visit grooming herself, Marie-Antoinette style, before a mirror. And so forth. There was at least one detail that nobody had shared with me before: the particular kind of noise in the room. No, it wasn't a riot. But it wasn't silence either. What you got was sort of a low murmurous hum, of working kids muttering to themselves--and some literally humming--all together into a kind of unobtrusive white noise.

I won't say my presence went entirely unnoticed. A little girl sidled up to my chair and after sizing me up on a friend-or-foe scale, declared "I can whistle"--followed by a demonstration. And then:
--I have a grandmother who hasn't died yet.


--Guess what, I had three play dates in a row.
I said "Ah" again; she gravely nodded a farewell and turned to another task. But take it from me, Overheard in New York has nothing on this crowd.

I suspect the Montessorians are right when they say (as they often do) that they are misunderstood. People think of this as some kind of free school. But Montessori appears to me to be, by contrast, intensely ordered. The point, if it works at all, is to present some fiendishly crafted exercises decide to induce the kid into doing a particular thing, and then to make him think it was his own idea. I really haven't a clue whether they grow up to earn more PhDs or command more Armies than other people. I wouldn't be surprised if they have a comparative advantage at taking initiative and just doing stuff.

Montessorians are all aflutter these days at the news that Larry and Sergey at Google ar confessed Montessorians. No surprise, then that you begin to hear mutterings from the trenches that the Google zillionaires ought to fork over some pocket change. So far no sign of it, and I'm not at all persuaded it would be a good idea. This is a niche enterprise and a niche market in a niche culture, peopled conspicuously by true believers who join fort potluck suppers and drive rusted-out Toyotas. Money would only confuse 'em. And meanwhile, they are free to churn out videos like this.

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