Gunhild Haydu trained with Maria Montessori in India, and with those of us who knew her when she was still alive she freely shared her recollections and insights. These are notes transcribed by Helen Wheatley of a lecture Mrs Haydu gave on the St Nicholas Advanced Course in 1986.
Children are products of their nearest surroundings, parents, home. They have reacted with joy or anger, fear, frustration. We do not meet an empty page when they come to school at 3 – far less when they have reached age 6 because the age span 3-6 is the one when the seeds of all future development, interests, knowledge, attitudes in all directions can be sown. This is the aim of Montessori schools, and this is why it is essential that the child comes at 3, while he still has the great power of the absorbent mind in full swing.
At age 6 the child changes – he now becomes a very different being. The power of the absorbent mind by now is still applicable to language, e.g. acquisition of foreign languages and enrichment of his native language, but on the whole learning hereafter is a matter of the individual’s own effort, driven by his interest and helped by his power of imagination.
So, for Montessori teachers:
- It is this great power of imagination which we now will regard as our ally in teaching the child over 6.
- Interrelation of subjects: We will also, in our teaching of the over 6s, keep in mind how closely the cultural subjects of Geography, Biology and History are interrelated. They cannot and should not be separated in our teaching of the ages up to 10, 11, 12, depending on how long and how high in their ages we have the children. At the secondary stage of their school career, these subjects will be broken up, and they will have to make a choice themselves of which they wish, or according to their specific course, to which they have to give preference.
- Creativity: The child is always active after a lesson. However here and now we shall deal with the subjects one by one, but take opportunities to find relationships between them, an attitude which will be the permanent one in our actual teaching.
So, History. Why should we include History and why at so young an age? History helps us to obtain a perspective on our own life, the lives of other people, the lives of Nations – the development of different religions, philosophies and political creeds. Above all, History is about people and what it was that occupied their minds. What was their inspiration? What drove them? Not always guns and lust for power. We have to let the children meet human beings, flesh and blood, as alive as we, with problems perhaps not of our own times – circumstances matter. But on the whole it is amazing how many times we meet in History the Human Soul coming to the same crossroad as so many others – as we ourselves. We recognise – we admire, or we are filled with apprehension, sadness, horror. They… what did they do?….What would we have done? Dr Montessori said in one of her Advanced Course Lectures to us when I was with her in India, ’Nothing matters so much to a young person, as to meet great people. They need great people.’
Certainly we now very much consider every individual as having inherent powers, potentialities of greatness, and so we do, in our history study with the children, not only dwell on the kings and queens, the generals and admirals, the great explorers and inventors, the great scientists, doctors, philosophers and freedom fighters, the torchbearers of Humanity. We also think very much of the common man and what, for example, the ravages of war meant to him, his wife and children, toiling in the fields in the pathway of the oncoming armies.
Feudal System: What did the feudal system mean to mankind during the Medieval Age? The downtrodden peasant population were mainly slaves. Sweden never submitted to the feudal system. The peasants twice rose up against it, once represented by the Danes, who conquered Sweden and also once during the reign of a German King of Sweden, Albrecht of Mecklenberg.
One Hundred Years War: The Hundred Years War, which brought the whole of France to ruin – physically – by burning the fields with harvest, slaughtering cattle, burning villages, the whole of France being one battle ground during the hundred years.
Thirty Years War: The Thirty Years War with its frightful slaughter again demoralised the world. In the wake of the wars followed all the time also famine and pestilence, typhus and all the epidemics thinkable. Let us also think of the living conditions, not only for the peasants who were the worst off, but everywhere: the complete lack of hygiene, of facilities, for example for getting fresh water during a siege, bad housing, lack of drinking water and the nearly total lack of medical knowledge – we can only ask ourselves, ‘How did this man survive the Middle Ages and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?
There is very little space for creativity if teachers steadily build their teaching on the textbooks week after week, and with the same tempo for all pupils. For individual activity, an experimental way of studying is necessary. Usually only the most clever pupils come on to the textbook style of working and the others remain as stressed spectators. There is never time to deepen an interest in a special part of the course set out, as the bell rings, preventing perhaps comparisons between two geographical territories or history epochs…
There can never be a chance for creative thinking. ‘The examination of a detail triggers the study of the whole.’ (Montessori, 1973:40) This is just where the traditional schools make their mistake, urging the poor pupils to sweat over fixed compendia, without ever getting a chance to dig more deeply into interesting details, and so they get bored and their study leads to the death of any interest. They only meet the main dry features of every subject and never get the thrilling sensation of knowing very much about some special interesting nook and corner. The teacher feels very anxious about not having driven the pupils throughout the whole of the compendium.
There must be a reciprocity between real knowledge and imagination that builds upon the curiosity aroused by a stimulating surrounding, that gives us the base for creativity. ‘All men should come under the influence of the scientific method; and every child should be able to experiment at first hand, to observe, and to put himself in contact with reality. Thus, the flights of the imagination will start from a higher plane henceforth, and the intelligence will be directed into its natural channels of creation.’ (Montessori, 2007:188-89)
Being ‘taught’ the experimental and scientific way of studying we will be encouraged always to try to bring things a step further on to help to develop methods, inventions, artistic creation – never stagnate. We will learn to estimate and maintain Nature, and work done by earlier generations, and all kinds of people, and so feel how everything, all things everywhere, are dependent and connected with playing our part in the Cosmic Plan.
Montessori, M 1973 From Childhood to Adolescence: Including ‘Erdkinder’ and The Functions of the University, Schocken Books, New York.
Montessori, M 2007 The Advanced Montessori Method, vol. 1 (Spontaneous Activity in Education), Montessori-Pierson Publishing, Amsterdam.