The Absorbent Mind, Chapter 26: Discipline and the Teacher

NAMC Montessori Absorbent Mind ch 26 boy using juicer
Free choice is one of the highest of all mental processes.
—Maria Montessori
The Absorbent Mind, p. 271.

As a NAMC tutor, I regularly get emails from new Montessori teachers who are struggling, even though they entered the classroom with every good intention. They believe in allowing students free choice in their work, and they have worked diligently in preparing the environment to support student learning. They have modified their ‘inside’ voice, and they move slowly and purposefully in the classroom. They are full of wonder and a sense of frustration then, when despite all their efforts, their Montessori environment is not peaceful. The children, having no sense of purpose, wander aimlessly. In short, the ordered environment is full of disorder.

Discipline and the Teacher — Studying the Works of Montessori: The Absorbent Mind, Chapter 26

This scenario is nothing new. In fact, Dr. Montessori herself encountered it with her teachers over 100 years ago. Like all good theory, what is lacking is the practical application. While the teacher expects order, she forgets that “discipline is something to come and not something already present.” (p. 263) True discipline only happens when the child is fully able to concentrate on the full cycle of work. That is, when he can concentrate on an activity from start to finish, working through both the activity itself and the control of error with which to direct his learning.

NAMC Montessori Absorbent Mind ch 26 boy with nomenclature cards

For this to happen, all obstacles that impede the child’s attention must be removed. The greatest of these obstacles is often the teacher herself. Wishing to correct unruly behavior, she resorts to methods that she herself may have experienced, forgetting what she learned in her Montessori training. She fails to distinguish between the spontaneous activities that come from interest and attention and those activities that spring from impulsivity.

Montessori says that there are three factors that impede the development of self-discipline in children entering the Montessori environment around age three and four:

Disorder of voluntary movement. “The child who is clumsy in his movements will show other traits, such as ill-mannered behavior, jerky actions, wriggling movements and shouting.” (p. 266)
Difficulty or inability to concentrate on real objects. The child who prefers fantasy over reality before they have the ability to think abstractly has trouble focusing. “In the world of fantasy, wherein [the wandering mind] thrives, there is no control of error, nothing to coordinate thought. Attention to real things, with all the future applications that derive from this, becomes impossible.” (p. 266)
The tendency to imitate. “This tendency is the sign of a will which has not prepared its instruments, has found no proper course, but merely follows in the wake of others. The child is not following the path to perfection, but is at the mercy of every wind, like a ship without a rudder.” (p. 267)

The inexperienced teacher feels that she needs to correct and control every error. Instead, she should follow the model of Dr. Montessori and other experienced teachers and turn to the area of practical life. The preparatory exercises of carrying furniture, rolling and unrolling a work mat, walking purposefully around work, removing and replacing works on shelves, and washing tables establish order as the children participate in real, purposeful work. The children become occupied with the task at hand. Gradually, the teacher observes and presents new practical life lessons that assist in the development of motor control and increase focus and attention.

Free choice in work is not given until the children have developed the discipline to work independently.

“It is not possible to speak of free choice when all kinds of external stimuli attract a child at the same time and, having no will power, he responds to every call, passing restlessly from one thing to another.” (p. 271)

This happens frequently in a new Montessori classroom. Children flit from one work to another, never really focusing for any length of time on one particular task. Montessori tells us that the first task to bring about attention and concentration falls again to the teacher. “Before attention and concentration can be attained, the teacher must learn to control herself so that the child’s spirit shall be free to expand and show its powers; the essence of her duty is not to interrupt the child in his efforts.” (p. 272)

NAMC Montessori Absorbent Mind ch 26 boy with parts of fish puzzle

It is difficult to refrain from rushing in and helping. Yet our help stifles the child’s development. As the will develops and concentration increases, the teacher becomes less in the forefront and more in the background. The child relies more on himself and his inner drive than on the will of the teacher.

We must be there with a smile of encouragement, while at the same time realizing that this child is not developing because of us but in spite of us. As his confidence grows, he relies less and less on the approval of authority.

The other day, a friend of mine reminded me of the question, “Who owns the problem?” If we stop and ask ourselves what is the matter with our classes, all too often we will realize that we are the ones who stand in the way.

Works Cited
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Press, 1964.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate


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