Some Good Thoughts on "Meaningful Work"

At October’s Community Circle gathering, Children’s House Directress Gretchen Silverman gave a very thoughtful talk on the central role of “meaningful work’ in Montessori practice. This is particularly germane as we launch our Middle School, where we put ‘meaningful work’ to practice in the environment of a working farm. I’ve posted it here and hope you will take a few minutes to read it.

Child of Wonderment
You are but a newborn babe
Yet your wings begun to sprout
Let your inner light be my guide
And never shall I doubt
Behold such delicate wings
So easily crushed
Speak to me of your wonderment
Never to be rushed
Soon you’ll fly away
On wings secure and steady
It is nature that shall call you forth
But only when you are ready
From here on firm ground
I’ll watch you rise and soar
Blessed to have had this glimpse
Yet never asking for anything more
                -Gretchen Silverman 2005

I recently saw a study that stated that the majority of the jobs and occupations that our children will have don’t even exist yet. So the question is how do we prepare them for success in the future when we don’t know what that future will hold. The answer is we must offer them an education where they can become confident, resourceful, responsible and productive in an environment that supports their physical, moral and spiritual growth.

Traditional schools are currently not fostering these skills. Traditional schools were originally designed around a factory model and not intended to recognize the needs of each child as an individual. To satisfy today’s need to hold teachers accountable for performance, standardized tests have become one of the most influential motivators for the content our young people are offered in the classroom. Extracurricular offerings where children are free to explore their personal interests have been widely eliminated in favor of more classroom time where children can be prepared for the “Test.”  Various employers were recently surveyed about which skills young people who are entering the workforce will require for success in the 21st century. The survey identified 7 major skill sets that are needed and are currently lacking in individuals currently entering the workforce.

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurship
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination

It’s interesting to note that 70% of this survey’s participants cite deficiencies in skills such as professionalism, work ethic, and effective work habits like punctuality, working
productively with others, and time management.

The science about how children learn has only recently begun to catch up to the forward vision of Maria Montessori. While she didn’t have the assistance of today’s technology, Maria Montessori learned through observation that children learn through their interaction with the environment, that they delight in engaging in purposeful work –washing real dishes, cutting and peeling real vegetables and caring for the environment. She noticed the child’s concentration while performing these tasks and the unmistakable signs of joy at having completed such work to his or her satisfaction. Maria Montessori believed that the hand was the path to the brain and that, through movement and engaging in the prepared environment, the child would be the steward of his own education. This differed greatly from the educational theory of the time that looked at very young children as uneducable. Formal education didn’t begin until children reached age 6 and then children were viewed as vessels that needed filling with information.

We Montessori teachers know this is entirely false. From the moment our youngest students enter our school, they are learning. The classroom environments are carefully prepared to foster independence at each developmental level. Through their purposeful work in each environment, children build confidence in themselves and their own abilities as well as a lifelong love of learning. Often when a young Montessori child, who has just learned to read, is asked, “Who taught you to read?” it is not unusual for them to respond, “I taught myself.” The child does not realize that all of the language materials that she has been introduced to by the directress and then freely explored on her own, have prepared her for the moment of successfully reading a book. At every level of Montessori education, children are guided in their interaction with the environment and each other. In this way, Montessori children are naturally developing the skills needed for a successful future.

In the YPC, the children are taking their first steps toward independence by forming positive relationships with adults and peers outside of their home environment.  As Maria Montessori noted, they are in their sensitive period for language acquisition.  The prepared environment offers them a rich language experience and many opportunities for independent exploration and freedom to “do it myself.”

The Children’s House environment continues to foster independence in a growing community where children are now beginning to look outward at the needs of others. The preparation of snack is only one example of the opportunities children have to find pleasure in providing for the needs of the group. The other day I observed an exchange between two children in my classroom who realized that there was no more snack on the serving table. One happily announced, “I will make some more carrots, and maybe you can make some more cucumbers!” to which the other child energetically agreed and then set to work. They are just beginning to look outside themselves and to consider the needs of their peers. They enjoy working together and older children find many opportunities for leadership in guiding their younger classmates.

The elementary years continue to build on the foundation that is set in the primary years. Elementary children are blossoming socially and must learn how to manage their work responsibilities as well as their friendships. Montessori believed that these are the years where imagination explodes and so created the Great Lessons to inspire awe and wonder within each child. From these Great Lessons, children’s curiosity will lead them to explore the various academic areas of the classroom, as they search for answers to their many questions.

Upper elementary children become concerned with social responsibility and fairness. They are developing respect for each other and learning to value their differences as well as to celebrate their similarities. They are developing a trust within their community where they can look to each other for support and guidance in tackling many challenges, both personal and academic. The upper elementary student is coming to the realization that with freedom and privilege also come responsibility and natural consequences for the choices he or she makes. The opportunity to experience disappointment and failure in such a nurturing and supportive environment allows the child to become more resilient. These hurtles encourage creativity and adaptability in order to reach a successful outcome. It is through these struggles and triumphs that the child builds his or her own confidence and self-esteem.

Thus far, through a Montessori education, we have trusted the child to be an independent and self-sufficient learner, carefully guided by caring adults. By the time the child leaves the upper-elementary classroom they have become confident, caring, capable learners ready to take on the new challenges of early adolescence. They are ready for more challenging responsibilities and eager to have more freedom and independence as they seek to find their purpose and place in our society.

Toward the end of her life, after observing and working with children for over 50 years, Maria Montessori began to envision an educational program for the adolescent.  She felt that adolescence was a time of great physical change, inner turmoil and transformation for which traditional school settings were not adequately organized to help the child on his/her journey of self-discovery. During this period of increased physical energy and restlessness as well as a need for establishing more independence, traditional schools hampered development by limiting the adolescent’s movement within the four walls of the classroom. Subject areas were compartmentalized offering little opportunity to make connections between classroom learning and the real world.  Maria Montessori’s solution to these fettered adolescents was to provide an environment in which they could live and work together, while applying their wealth of academic knowledge to purposeful work and commerce. She felt that the farm provided an ideal setting for adolescent development and education.

In her own words…
"Men with hands and no head, and men with head and no hands are equally out of place in the modern community...Therefore the work on the land is an introduction both to nature and civilization and gives a limitless field for scientific and historic studies...The rural atmosphere offers students a kind of ‘place apart'-a safe and healthy environment to promote their transition into adulthood" (From Childhood to Adolescence, Maria Montessori).

David Kahn, Executive Director of the North American Montessori Teachers’Association, and founding program Director of the Hershey Montessori Farm School in Ohio, writes, “…Montessori education views adolescence to be at the height of self-construction, parallel to early childhood, a stage of profound transformation—not merely the fabled storm and stress. Yes, Montessori acknowledges looming challenges in the adolescent personality to be overcome: doubts and hesitations, [turbulent] emotions. But along with a realistic view, she presents a vision of the positive side of adolescence: Adolescents are experiencing what she called a second birth, a social rebirth. Adolescents have such a keen sense of justice that they thrive when they do service—with the elderly, in soup kitchens for the homeless, in projects that help protect the environment.  Montessori understood young adolescents, their spiritual attraction, their keen humanistic tendencies, their sense of world solidarity, their creative expectations, and their deep absorption of the values and circumstances around them.” (David Kahn – AMI Congress Paper 2005)

Once again today’s experts are still trying to catch up to the genius of Maria Montessori. John Bransford – Professor of Education and Psychology at the University of Washington and author of “How People Learn” cites these criteria for natural learning to take place:

  • Context - real world learning
  • Caring - Intrinsic motivation
  • Construction - Mental and virtual model building
  • Competence - Multiple pathways to expertise
  • Community - Learning socially in groups and teams

Christopher Dede professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education states that “Students learn more deeply when they are taught in the context and environment where that learning [naturally] occurs, such a solving a real-world problem”.

Maria Montessori’s vision for education incorporates all of the criteria for successfully preparing children to be independent, life-long learners, capable of taking on the growing challenges of an ever-changing landscape. We at LMS are proud to offer your children the next prepared environment to give them the tools they need to take the proverbial leap from the nest out into the great unknown.-Gretchen Silverman

LITCHFIELD MONTESSORI SCHOOL 5 Knife Shop Road • Northfield, CT 06778 • 860-283-5920 •
LITCHFIELD MONTESSORI MIDDLE SCHOOL 741 Steel Road • New Hartford, CT 06057 • 860-283-5920 •
© 2016 Litchfield Montessori School. All Rights Reserved. Site Design: Good Design, LLC