Monthly Posting

Mistakes and Freedom

Adults enjoy more freedom than children. We can eat ice cream when we want. We can stay up as late as we wish. We can watch TV until our eyes fall out. We may choose to quit an unsatisfying job or to move to a better house. We may choose to do more of the things that we enjoy, although some of which may not be good for us.

The freedom to do what we want carries with it the burden of making good choices. How do we prepare children for this freedom?

Let’s consider this example.

“The girl will tell you she’s four and a half, and that’s a very important distinction to her. Her brow is creased in concentration as she leans over a rug on the floor. Spread out below her are eight cards, four pairs of opposites which she is trying to organize and label. She’s having trouble. She sounds out the labels again – Up, Down, Big, Little, Dark, Light, Hot, Cold. She knows these words.

But something isn’t right.”

At home, she learned to expect her helicoptering father every time she hits some difficulty. Her challenges are his anxiety – he worries that she’ll become too frustrated and may turn away challenging tasks.

Just yesterday, she was doing a puzzle, and he pointed out where a missing piece went. “I can do it, Daddy!” she tells him time and again. But he distrusts the look of concentration on her face and finds it very difficult not to offer unsolicited hints.

“She is not quitting.

Up and Down were easy peasy. There’s a picture of a funny little man running up or down the stairs on each card, and she can tell which way he is going because of the way he faces.

With the picture of the ice cube, she knows that it has to be cold. And the opposite has to be the hot grill. She knows that grills are hot because her parents have told her many times whenever they cook outback. She must have the cold and hot right. She turns the cards over, and sure enough, they have the same color dot on the back.

But something is wrong with the other opposite cards.”

She doesn’t know it, but in a traditional classroom, there probably wouldn’t have been that dot on the back of the card.

Such a little thing. Such a world of difference. In a traditional preschool or daycare setting, the girl would be expected to raise her hand and wait for an adult – hopefully wise, hopefully friendly, but always busy – to find the time to come over and give her a hand. How can a child learn unless someone teaches her?

“Both the lighthouse and the boat are big, but the lighthouse is bigger. Both pictures had sand, but look, there’s a picture of a toy boat too. It makes more sense for the boats to be big and little.

Her eyes widen, and she relaxes. She sees her mistake. The picture for dark must be the lighthouse at night. She wasn’t sure because it was a silhouette, and there’s more water in that picture. But if she does it this way, then the boats can go together, and the lighthouses can go together.

She arranges the cards and puts their labels underneath. She’s almost sure she has it right now. It all makes sense. She flips all the cards and sees that, yes, the colorcoding all matches.

Satisfied, she completes the work. She randomizes the cards to make the work fun for the next child and returns it to its shelf.”

Children are people, and people make mistakes. Unlike mainstream pedagogy, in Montessori, we cherish children’s freedom to make and correct their own mistakes. We call this process “control of error,” and it lies in every Montessori work. When a Montessori teacher introduces a child to a new activity, the lesson includes the tools the child needs to perform a self-evaluation.

But why is this so important? This is the question we ask today.

Dr. Montessori discovered a secret. This is the secret that the authoritarians desperately hope will never become common knowledge. The secret is that we are all ready for freedom. We always have been. We are not individuals without it. To rob people’s freedom is to reduce their humanity and treat them as puppets. If we cherish our society’s freedoms, we must respect every individual.

Dr. Montessori realized that respecting the child meant acknowledging their personhood. For this reason, she designed classrooms that provide children with the freedom of choice and movement. How can you be free without the ability to make meaningful choices? How can a school help prepare children for the freedom of adulthood without granting them the experience of having freedom?

Of course, freedom also means the capacity to act in error. Authoritarians shudder, imagining that left to their own devices, children will do nothing productive and cause no end of trouble. Of course, this is not what we see. Dr. Montessori said that the work of children was to create the people they will become, and we find that they pursue this task with marvelous diligence.

But children do make mistakes – errors in movement, academics, and judgment. It is the goal of Montessori to assist children in recognizing and resolving their errors on their own. For children are not malfunctioning machines for us to “correct.” They are people, and they deserve the dignity of discovery and self-correction. Humans learn from their mistakes, so we must permit children to make them.

The Montessori materials are designed at their core to incorporate this concept. Every work a child performs includes a tool for control of error. The idea is that a child’s engagement with the material should be sufficient for self-learning, rather than requiring the adult in the classroom to pass judgment.

Not all of the learning in the Montessori classroom is academic. In the social environment, too, we celebrate freedom. Interpersonal conflict is a challenge for children and adults alike, and the Montessori classroom offers both the freedom for these conflicts to arise and a unique environment well-suited to solving problems harmoniously. Activities, such as a peace table or grace and courtesy lessons, are all designed to give children the tools they need to understand themselves and others and to learn to resolve conflicts when they arise.

Outsiders often remark that Montessori children seem so mature “for their age,” and this may be one reason why. Science shows us that emotional intelligence (EQ) is a better predictor for success than any academic measure. A Montessori classroom provides children with an environment to develop their emotional skills.

Dr. Montessori’s secret is that freedom, independence, and dignity are all interrelated. Aging adults often resent the loss of independence represented by moving into an assisted living facility. Both the aged and infirm say they hate “being treated like children.”

Children hate being treated like children, too, because of the way children are traditionally treated interferes with their need for freedom and independence. The safely prepared environment of the Montessori classroom affords children the freedom to correct their errors, develop their individuality, and mature into the adults our society needs.

Are there ways in which your freedom and independence are limited? What are the trade-offs we accept given the greater risks we face as adults?