A good friend of mine and I were recently talking about his new treadmill desk. He can raise and lower it with the push of a button. He can choose to sit, stand or walk, probably even lie down. So far he is averaging about 5 miles per day, moving at a very slow but virtually non-stop pace. Meanwhile, in nearly the exact opposite situation, my 16 year old high school student is expected to sit still at a desk along with 25 classmates for and hour or more through four consecutive blocks of time and almost no break. He’s been expected to behave this way since he started elementary school. Roughly 70% of his young life. My friend is applauded by his co-workers for being healthy while my son is reprimanded and judged harshly by his teachers for the same behavior. I can’t decide which is more upsetting. That this is happening to my child (the second of my boys to attend high school) or that it has been happening this same way to millions of children for 150 years.
It isn’t as if no one has spoken up for them. Neither is it the case that adults are ignorant to the double standard. Of course, not all adult workspaces are as comfy and flexible as my friend’s home office, but just about every adult’s office is more comfortable and free than a standard school classroom. I doubt you or anyone else reading this blog post would argue this disparity is fair or justified for any child. However, in case there is any doubt out there, let’s go back and read what Dr. Montessori said about it in 1912:
“The task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility and evil with activity. As often happens in the old-time discipline. And all this because our aim is to discipline for activity, for work, for good; not for immobility, not for passivity, not for obedience.”
I love that within this perfectly quotable statement, Dr. Montessori references the “old-time discipline.” The irony of reading those words written over a hundred years ago! I like to think this was her version of a shot across the bow, not only criticizing the established teaching methods, but also referring to them as antiquated ideas. It is evidence of just how far ahead of her time she was to recognize prevailing wisdom as already obsolete. The fact that some of those same ideas are still very much alive today casts a blinding light on a short-sighted and unimaginative educational American wasteland.
Is the problem simply that we are looking at children the wrong way? If it is, clearly solving that problem is anything but simple. Dr. Montessori had an idea, though: Let them move. Of course the method for doing so was far more complex and structured than allowing a free-for-all physical jamboree in every classroom. That complexity is not difficult to understand but nearly impossible to apply if working from an inaccurate view of children. In order to get ourselves any closer to the solution, we must overcome years of hard-earned adult bias.
For example, when placed as the only adult in a room full of children, most adults will exhibit some common biases and tendencies. The first instinct is often to assume “control” of the moment by adopting a leadership role. At a minimum, the goal is to attract the attention of all children at the same time, hopefully to create a more homogenized situation. Whether consciously or not, this is due in part to the the adult’s feeling of superiority and general presumption of ownership in his immediate environment. It is also an act of self-preservation, because by controlling the children, the potential for unpredictable consequences is greatly reduced…or so one might think.
Once control has been established, or at least attempted, the adult may begin assessing the room. Which children require immediate attention? In other words, which children are practicing “evil?” Because, of course, that is the focus as opposed to which children are the natural leaders. Imagine you’re the only adult in a room of 25 children. Four of them are moving around the room. The rest are sitting at their desks. Be honest. You would focus on the four. Regardless of what they were doing and whether they have purpose or not, this is where you will devote your attention. Perhaps in doing so, you would discern the purpose of their actions and find reassurance that they too will eventually return to their desks. Maybe not. Either way, the evaluative process you employed was dictated by the adult bias (oversimplified) that child activity is evil and passivity is good. Given the odds, it may ultimately turn out that the children who most need adult attention are among those you initially ignored. Unfortunately, you may not figure that out until it is too late.
This particular adult view, that an active child must be controlled and that a controlled child should be praised as the model student, was and remains blatantly hypocritical. It is the same view that praises my friend’s treadmill desk and penalizes my son for wanting to leave the classroom to take a walk. We expect children to do what is even challenging for adults. The double standard thrives from every traditional classroom through every modern workspace. Facebook and Google have created playlands for their employees. Around every corner is a snack counter and space to relax, collaborate or watch TV. Video game hangouts, gyms, yoga rooms and cafeterias that serve better food than you’ll find in most of the restaurants outside these all-inclusive compounds. All of this, while schools remain the same half-tiled, painted concrete, flourescent-lit, metal and plastic environments of expected non-stop work that they have been for 50 years.
Once again, Dr. Montessori had wisdom to share:
“…It sometimes happens that we must all remain seated and quiet, when for example we attend a concert or lecture. And we know that even to us, as grown people, this costs no little sacrifice.”
Absolutely. Each of us is familiar with the difficulty of sitting still for a long period of time. Some of us may be better at it than others, but we have all been saved by merciful technology. The next time you find yourself in a waiting room, take a look around and notice how many people are scrolling through their phones. In that waiting room, how long can you resist looking at your phone? Is it fair to assume children could do better than us?
And in that waiting room, how would you feel if the moment you got up to stretch your legs, an adult asked you to return to your seat? You might feel as if you were being monitored or that you just did something unexpected or inappropriate. Had the adult not addressed you at all, would you have felt more comfortable in the room? More independent? How would this experience influence your actions in other waiting rooms in the future?
What if you observed this exact situation in a high school classroom? As the child gets up from his desk and the teacher tells him to return to his seat or accusingly inquired “Where are you going?” Would this moment register in your mind at all? Would the same thoughts occur to you as they did in that waiting room? Just because it is standard practice, doesn’t mean it’s appropriate. In fact, the very concept of “standard” practice implies this has become an accepted and expected part of our conceptual teacher/child framework. Also known as bias.
Now, at the risk of continuing this waiting room analogy too far, consider the prospect of returning and sitting in that room every day for 12 years of school. Most teachers, when given the time and opportunity, will observe and note the difference between purposeful and non-purposeful activity. When the latter is observed, the best option for a teacher is to redirect and offer purposeful activity. Unfortunately, in a classroom of 26 desks laid out in neat rows, these options are scarce if not outright unavailable. This leaves the teacher ill-equipped to individually support the child and essentially forces a response that seeks to end the behavior rather than providing a suitable alternative. “Please stay seated.”
All elements of a child’s educational enviornment from the physical space, materials , teaching methods and relative level of student liberty should converge to help the child make the right decision independently the next time. Whatever that decision is. Too often in classrooms freedoms are drastically restricted. Traditional methods may also use punishment and rewards to create repetitive compliance. Instead, we should recognize the value of what Dr. Montessori called “active discipline.” When an individual can “…regulate his own conduct when it shall be necessary to follow some rule of life.” She agreed that practicing active discipline is challenging for adults. She also knew it is even harder for a teacher to comprehend and promote this skill in a classroom of children. Promoting active discipline would be understandably confusing to any teacher where compliance is the goal.
“A room in which the children all move about usefully, intelligently, and voluntarily without committing any rude or rough act, would seem to me a classroom well disciplined indeed.”
Classrooms like this are few and far between in traditional education and main stream preschool or daycare, but this is the description of every authentic Montessori school. Here, from infants and toddlers through high school, children exist in an environment of constant motion and activity. Movement truly is medicine.
Dr. Montessori observed and understood purposeful action of two main types; Outward physical action and less visible internal action. She created the Montessori classroom such that, no matter the child’s age or temperament, there is always a purposeful option. In this way, the physical environment supports the teacher’s methods by empowering her to offer alternative behaviors to every child rather than restricting the child to inaction or passivity.
As Dr. Montessori said, most of the movement observed is useful, intelligent. Each classroom’s energy ebbs and flows throughout the day. That energy is both influenced by and representative of the children’s movement. However, even that follows a predictable pattern, with the period of most intent work occurring early in the morning and the period of greatest distraction and fatigue naturally occurring around 10:15a.m. Admittedly, with groups of children there are almost no absolutes and along with a predictable energy, there will also be anticipated and spontaneous moments of disruptive and yes, “rude” or chaotic behavior. We are talking about young children, after all.
We are also talking about adults. It is we who impose the standards between immobility and action, purpose and distraction. We are better equipped to change our behaviors and perspectives than the children. That is exactly what is needed if we are going to turn back the rising tide of failure in our traditional education system. Let’s just start simply. Give purposeful work that involves movement. Take the class for daily walks. Change the furniture and add some spaces to relax. Teach children to ask for and take rejuvenating breaks from studying. Let’s prioritize movement and action over inactivity and passivity. Give the children what adults receive without asking. Give time. Give space. Let them move.