“Preventing conflict is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education.”[i] M. Montessori
Maria Montessori, born in 1870, was an Italian physician who taught that children can “develop inner peace as a prerequisite to external peace” after becoming “normalized,” or exhibiting many positive (Christlike) attributes including kindness, patience, helpfulness, empathy, joy for the success of others, inner discipline and self-confidence. Normalization occurs “through concentration upon developmentally appropriate, freely chosen, hands-on individual work” and cannot be induced or forced.[ii] Montessori also believed that “without joyful learning experiences, internal peace, the prerequisite to external peace, cannot be achieved.”[iii] Normalization is expected for most children between the ages of 3 and 7, when the right circumstances are provided.
A Prepared Environment
Montessori believed that the right circumstances include a “prepared environment,” or an ordered space with specific, attractive learning materials, extended, protected time and space to work, a trained guide, and a mixed age group of peers. Children in a normalized classroom interact well with others, and they practice tools for conflict resolution and creating peace, which are explicitly woven into the Montessori classroom experience. Young people in a Montessori classroom experience freedom within appropriate limits, examples of which are highlighted in every part of the prepared environment. According to Montessori, freedom and discipline are two sides of the same coin.[iv]
A Place with Learning Materials
The first important piece of the prepared environment is a comfortable place to work. Furniture is child-sized, and the room is clean and orderly, “with everything in its place, dusted, bright and cheerful.”[v] Each learning material belongs in a particular location, and a student can only use it if it is available, which means “on the shelf” or “not being used by someone else.” There is only one of each Montessori material, and students practice waiting when a material or person is not available.[vi] Before using a learning material, a child must have a lesson. Lessons are done in sequential order to decrease the likelihood of frustration. Items may be used as long as needed, and then they must be returned to their locations. If a material is not returned properly a guide may remind a student to put it away because other students are shown respect when materials are ready to use[vii]. Adults do not put materials because they do not want students to believe adults should clean up after them. Similarly, a student would not be forced to clean up after another student.[viii]
Time to Work
Another element of the prepared environment is the work period, a three hour block of time during which students can make choices and concentrate on learning through doing. Montessori taught that “what children need are opportunities to concentrate deeply on work that will enable them to bring their capacities together.[ix] They need to physically practice behaviors, not just listen to instructions. Examples of specific tasks include handwashing, dusting, sweeping, preparing food, and tying shoes.[x]
Students can use their three hour work periods as they choose, without adult interference or other interruption. Children choose when to begin and end tasks and when they would like to move around. The needs of others are always a consideration, however. “The liberty of the child ought to have as its limits the collective interest of the community in which he moves; its form is expressed in what we call manners and good behavior. It is our duty then to protect the child from doing anything which may offend or hurt others, and to check the behavior which is unbecoming or impolite. But as regards all else, every action that has a useful purpose, whatever it may be and in whatever forms it shows itself, ought not only to be permitted, but it ought to be kept under observation, that is the essential point.”[xi]
A Montessori guide is another essential part of the prepared environment. “Montessori believed that the basis of all work with children was primarily spiritual - that is, the love, respect, understanding, and patience of the teacher must awaken the spirit of the child. [They] considered the moral preparation of the teacher to be the key to successful teaching.”[xii] A guide greets the children as they enter the classroom, presents lessons, and helps during emergencies. Montessori guides strive to make all their communication respectful, positive, and constructive. They give information about what is expected, instead of a long list of what is not allowed. Except during emergencies, they avoid the word “no.”[xiii]
The guide is careful to intervene as little as possible to foster concentration and self-sufficiency.[xiv] Instead of telling students how the world works, a guide allows students to learn through hands-on experience with the materials in the classroom. Montessori materials, or manipulatives, are designed to teach specific attributes (like length, color, texture, or shape) and are self-correcting, which means students receive feedback from the materials and can understand when they have put them in proper order. Fragile items teach students to be careful. When they are not, students learn through natural consequences.
The final element in the prepared environment is the other students. The ideal mix of students in a Primary classroom is 25 to 40 3-6 year old students with approximately ten students of each age. Peers in a mixed age classroom support each other in a cooperative setting. Older students practice leadership skills and younger students learn to listen. The environment is most valuable when students spend three full years in a Montessori classroom where they learn a variety of roles and skills over time.
Practice Solving Relationship Problems
The Montessori environment is designed to enable young people to learn how to positively relate with others. Lessons are given in appropriate behavior. Individuals are taught how to define and protect individual boundaries. Young people learn to work out problems they have with others. A guide practices positive alternatives to using rewards and punishments to promote prosocial behavior. Cooperative group activities teach social cohesion through shared experience.
Grace and Courtesy
A safe, peaceful environment for working is created in part by an explicit focus on teaching conflict resolution. In order to prevent conflict, short, context-specific instruction in good manners, common procedures (such as how to ask for help), and peaceful conflict resolution are periodically given. Grace and Courtesy lessons help children learn what behavior is expected in a social situation and how to avoid the unpleasant consequences of disrupting those expectations. Lessons on behavior are not used as a punishment for mistakes, and students are not singled out by receiving lessons right after an incident. Problems are resolved in a way that preserves dignity and avoids shame.
The first part of a Grace and Courtesy lesson is a short description of what will be presented, such as “What to do when you have a disagreement with someone.”[xv] Examples of issues that might come up include others standing too close to a student’s work, someone hurting a student or her feelings, and someone calling a student a name he doesn’t like. The guide may wish to model a problem-solving conversation with an older student that demonstrates using a calm voice, sharing facts & feelings, and avoiding accusations or name calling.[xvi]
The Montessori model seeks to equip young people with real conflict resolution skills, such as discussing problems and making amends,[xvii] instead of just enforcing conformity with behavioral expectations. It is more effective to resolve conflicts than to merely give an insincere apology and move on. “The ability to engage in diplomacy begins with students learning how to take turns verbally articulating needs, wants, and limits to their peers in a peaceful, meaningful, and thoughtful manner.”[xviii]
Grace and Courtesy lessons help students acquire tools for protecting their space and work.[xix] When others challenge their boundaries, students are taught to use a tool called a three part message. “The message should be clear, direct, and immediate. A student should name the problem, tell the person what he wants them to do, and make it clear that the behavior should not be repeated.” “You hit me. I don’t like that. Don’t hit me again.”[xx] After a three part message, a student should walk away and mention what happened to a teacher. While using “Please” is a polite way to make a request, students do not use it when enforcing their personal boundaries.[xxi] After being called a name one doesn’t like, for example, he could say, “My name is…That’s what you can call me.”[xxii]
Mediation and the Peace Table
Many classrooms set aside a table for peaceful reflection or conversations between people who need to work something out. There are often items on the table that inspire peace, such as a dove. Beautiful items (such as a flower or a picture) and calming items (such as an hourglass or sand tray) may also be present. A student might invite another person to the peace table or a teacher might notice contention and recommend that students work it out in the peace area. Young people take turns sharing what happened and how they feel about it.
It can be helpful for students to use an object, such as a stone, to help with conversation turn-taking. Only the person holding the object has permission to speak, which can remind students not to interrupt or speak at the same time. When it is difficult to discuss the matter without help, a student or teacher may act as a mediator. It can be helpful to acknowledge that it is OK for students to see things differently.
Young people who are engaged in meaningful work in an emotionally healthy social environment tend to interact positively with each other. “Grace & courtesy, diplomacy, negotiation, making amends, and resolving difference of opinion by agreeing to disagree rather than issuing reward and punishments are the tools used to help create and maintain” the environment.[xxiii] Disruptions are dealt with calmly and constructively.
Montessori classrooms do not depend on rewards or punishments, praise or criticism to control behavior.[xxiv] Children in an environment of reward and punishment are distracted from their work by feeling compelled to get constant feedback from adults. “Soon they turn to others to know what they are supposed to do and say. Rewards and punishments socialize children into the conventional social order, but they drown out the inner voice that guides them toward the full development of their potential.”[xxv] Social cohesion, wanting what is best for one’s classmates, is “not developed as the result of an external force such as the enforcing positive behaviors.”[xxvi]
According to Dr. Montessori, children cannot be isolated in school but must see their interrelatedness.[xxvii] Nevertheless, she maintained that, “collective order could be established only after individual self-discipline developed through the child’s work, revealing itself in respect for the work of others and consideration for their rights.”[xxviii] At that point the teacher could instruct the child in how to be still by introducing the “silence game,”[xxix] which is the creation of silence by a group voluntarily concentrating on being very still and quiet together.
Another way to help students become aware of others and work together cooperatively is with an activity such as Walking the Line, a “series of fun, age-appropriate rhythm and equilibrium (balance) games” that take place on “The Line,” an ellipse that is commonly drawn on the floor with tape.[xxx] After learning how to stand on the line, a young person spreads out his arm to be sure he has space between himself and others. As they walk, each person observes that the activity works more smoothly when they walk at the same pace in the same direction. “When students spontaneously work together to achieve a common goal, such as being able to use The Line for an activity, positive social traits begin to develop and strengthen naturally as a foundation for peace.”[xxxi]
Montessori explained that, “If true social freedom only appears with the acceptance of social responsibility, true emotional freedom will only be present when there is a sense of empathy for others.”[xxxii] One way to help children appreciate and understand others’ differences is to teach that people have many ways to meet the needs that we all share as human beings. We can learn to see the benefits and advantages of different foods, different houses in different geographical locations, and different cultures, including art and music.[xxxiii]
Montessori believed that young people are able to develop inner and outer peace by freely working within appropriate boundaries in carefully crafted physical, social, and emotional environments. Trained guides and peers in different stages of growth help students to practice and develop the behavior that leads to pleasant interactions and cooperative achievements.
Other Prepared Environments
The attributes and guiding principles of a Montessori classroom can aid in understanding other prepared environments. Prepared environments includes the Earth and each person’s home.
The Earth is a prepared learning environment. The way communities care for the Earth affects their surroundings and their ability to act and interact in a place that encourages growth. A lifetime is each person’s period for accomplishing work. Both physical and political law, as well as social custom, provide consequences for action.
A home is also a prepared learning environment. The time, place, and circumstances of each person’s life affect his learning, as well as his or her personalized physical environment and influential people. Children are born into families, and their parents act as guides. Parents and children interact in a shared social unit that provides many opportunities to practice relating and solving relationship problems.[xxxiv] After a time, children grow up, and they leave the home environment to create new prepared spaces for their families. The freedom of making choices after leaving home creates learning opportunities.
A United Community
As people labor in each environment, they become the kinds of people who can live as one in societies governed by just laws. A community can work together to benefit the lives of all. All are blessed by sharing, caring, teaching skills, and building and defending cities. When people focus on the good of others, large societal obstacles, such as crime and social inequality based on income, education, or family can be reduced. Separation of families and peoples, including war, can begin when people place more emphasis on material possessions and lose sight of priorities such as loving their neighbors.[xxxv]
Prepared environments allow us to learn through experience with the help of guides and interaction with others. The work we do, within the limits of boundaries, teaches us how to become better people. We can practice creating prepared environments and, along with our children, prioritize the welfare of others and build a more peaceful world.
[xix] Ibid. 89
[xx] Ibid. 74
[xxi] Ibid. 69
[xxii] Ibid. 75
[xxiii] Ibid. 81-82
[xxiv] Ibid. 83
[xxv] Culture 171-173/ Montessori 1972, 14-18
[xxvi] Peace Table 85, Mont. 212
[xxvii] Peace 101
[xxviii] Culture 39/ Montessori Method 94; Advanced Mont. Method 93
[xxix] Ibid. 39
[xxx] Peace Table 88
[xxxi] Ibid./ Mont. 204-205
[xxxii] Culture 127
[xxxiii] Peace 101 7
[xxxv] Ibid. 97
Da Prato, Mary. The Peace Table, 2015 [Peace Table].
Loeffler, Margaret. Montessori in Contemporary American Culture, Heinemann Educational Books, Inc. 1992 [Culture].
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind, Trans. Claude Claremont Vol. 1. Oxford: Clio, 2004 [Mont.].
Thrush, Ursula. Peace 101 – The Introduction of Education for Peace as a mandatory Subject of the Montessori Teacher Education Curriculum, 1993 [Peace 101].
[i] Peace 101, Edu for Peace
[ii] Peace Table 66/ Mont. 183 (Author is quoting M. Montessori)
[iii] Ibid. 28/ Montessori. Creative Development in the Child. Editor Ramachadran 2007, 152-153
[iv] Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind Limits accessed 4/22/2019
[v] Culture, 35
[vi] Peace Table 28
[vii] Ibid. 89
[viii] Ibid. 89
[ix] Culture, 175/ Montessori 1967, 203
[x] Peace Table
[xi] Montessori, M. Discovery of the Child Limits accessed 4/22/2019
[xii] Culture 154
[xiii] Peace Table 82
[xiv] Ibid. 89
[xv] Ibid. 81
[xvi] Ibid. 75
[xvii] Ibid. 69
[xviii] Ibid. 69