Lately, humanity seems to be on display across an ever widening spectrum from life-affirming to horrifying. Unfortunately, most of the stuff that makes the headlines is terribly depressing. It makes me think of the world and the future my children will face, but then I remember what educators do (or at least what we should be doing) and for a moment, there’s a break in the clouds. We make better humans.
Building a better human has been our evolutionary goal since the dawn of our existence. Teachers have always been on the leading edge of the movement. We’re not the only ones doing it, but our motivation as Montessorians is a little different. We don’t just want to create contributors to the economy, big thinkers, innovators or even nobel laureattes. We want to enable children to join humanity in their own unique way to change the world for the better.
Up to now, the notion of what is best for humanity and the ideal humans to acheive it has been the source of great debate and massive, bloody conflict, which continues to rage around the world. In fact, if you put five people in a room together -even five people from the same family, anywhere from 300,000 years ago to the present, you’ll still have disagreement on the qualities of a better human. Thankfully, Montessori teachers have a road map. Dr. Montessori’s vision clearly recognized the foundations that will always endure. She understood that better humans lead the way toward greater understanding of the world and each other. Better humans create better humans. So we need more of them. A lot more.
Given the historical precedent and the divisive, anger-fueled social climate out there, it seems even less likely that our society could ever agree on a single definition of a better human -let alone how to create one. We can still try, though. Cant we? To me, that’s what education should be about. Yes, reading and writing are important. Math and the ever-popular multi-billion dollar generating acronym STEM have their value. These things are foundational and necessary for a growth mindset. However, it is really what are now known as the “soft skills” that fully connect the dots between all this learning and what makes a better human.
The interesting thing about “soft skills” is that no one really thinks of them as “soft.” Problem solving, creativity, adaptability, interpersonal skills and more. It is a broad skill-set, each with its own list of sub-skills like empathy, patience, resilience. I’ve never seen anyone refer to these things as “soft” without using air quotes. In addition to these character traits, in order to influence humanity in a meaningful way, teachers and parents must consider what new character traits the child may need to adapt to our rapidly changing society. The list will likely be very long, so the next task of education will be finding the right mix of the traits and skills we already know are important and then building upon that.
“The most valuable currency in life is what you do for other people.”
I will not presume to speak for all Montessorians, but if you ask the MAB faculty for an ethos around making better humans, they’ll probably tell you that the most valuable currency in life is what you do for other people. When seeking out that currency becomes a habit, things get better. Everyone grows. That’s a long term goal we share for each student. From there, we attempt to retro-fit the supporting skill-set to essentially create a recipe for each child. This is where those “soft” skills show up, and while some are innate and many may be learned concurently in varying amounts for each child, there is often a a sequence involved at the foundational levels; Patience leads to awareness, which leads to responsibility, which leads to confidence, which leads to independence, which leads to communication, which leads to empathy, which leads to leadership, which leads to a desire to elevate others.
It is not necessary that every single person must leave an obvious mark on the world. What makes our work so rewarding is that when children embody the right combination of character traits, their very presence in the world cannot help but improve it. So when I hear the latest distressing world news or read about the struggles faced by so many, I remember that there is a way through and that there are people doing their best to make it happen. I’m priviledged to work with a few of them. Then, I look at the smiling faces of children as they work to build themselves and I am inspired by the contributions they will one day make. They are already better humans and they already make this world a better place.