Montessori once told the story that a woman visited her school and, without understanding Montessori principles, said to a child, “So, this is a place where you do what you like, is it not?” The child answered, “No, but we like what we do!” The child wasn’t running wild in the environment, as many people envision is true at Montessori schools. Rather, she was given an environment so rich with appropriate learning activities and gentle guidance that she enjoyed her education.
In many modern educational settings, children are expected to be obedient as a response to an external motivation. They are asked to “listen to the teacher,” “do what you’re told,” or “follow directions.” The aim is to “curb the will of the child, to substitute for it the will of the adult and to demand obedience from him.” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 216). In the Montessori learning environment, the child’s obedience develops from the inside. In The Absorbent Mind, Maria Montessori writes about obedience as a natural unfolding within the child. She observed and wrote about the three stages of obedience (p. 216-225):
1. A subconscious stage of internal disorder where it is impossible to obey—the child does not have the understanding of what is required or the inner ability to translate it into action. Montessori says the child is psychically deaf. He may perform perfectly, but it is not within conscious control and therefore not repeatable.
2. The child would like to obey and he can—sometimes. You often see a child succeeding once and then he’s incapable of repeating the obedience. He seems now to understand, but doesn’t always succeed. He knows not the joy of obeying.
3. Enthusiastic love of obeying. In the environment where we allow freedom and truly understand the relationship between freedom and discipline, we find the marvelous fruits of freedom. Among these are:
- Individuality—“Montessori liberty,” says E.M. Standing, “is, par excellence, guardian of this individuality” that leads to freedom of thought and action
- Discipline—self-discipline, to be exact
- Powerful spontaneous concentration, the outer aspect of inner development
- True, willing obedience to social norms and both the inner and the outer teacher
- Independent, graceful, social living
Montessori magnificently created an environment in which “children choose their own work spontaneously and, repeating this exercise of choice, develop a consciousness of their actions” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 217).