by Letty Rising
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One of the hardest aspects of guiding a Montessori classroom is helping the children understand how to balance freedom with responsibility. In fact, this very concept is often woefully misunderstood! It often is the tendency that beginning teachers will veer in one direction or another favoring freedom OR responsibility until eventually the middle path is found.
It is often the case that it is easy to be a person who holds sacred the freedom aspect of the environment, following the child’s moment to moment impulses to the point where the children aren’t expected to be responsible or exist within a set of community norms. It is also the case that it can be easy for a guide to swing far to the other direction, holding a rigid container of expectations on what the children do, and how they do it, leaving no room for spontaneous, student-initiated work or interactions.
The sweet spot, finding that balance of creating an environment where children can exercise their freedom, but within a container that guides and supports the children, is often elusive to the new guide, and even to seasoned guides. In fact, in the case of experienced teachers, it is also the case that during difficult seasons of classroom life, such as pandemics, changes in leadership, a lot of new students enrolling at once, etc, you will slip back towards the direction that is most comfortable, and your class may become overly chaotic or overly oppressive.
It requires constant vigilance to maintain that middle path, that seemingly complex paradox of having a free environment with limits. After all, it’s easy to be completely open and have no limits. It’s also easy to be closed with total limits. But to be open, with limits? It takes some practice if you haven’t lived it, and it takes conscious effort to maintain when classroom life isn’t flowing smoothly.
What does Maria Montessori say about freedom?
Maria Montessori has some strong statements about freedom. The point in case is the following quote.
“To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.”
— Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
Maria Montessori recognized that an environment where a child hasn’t developed a sense of inner discipline or responsibility is not a free environment for the child, but rather, a restrictive environment, because the child is moving throughout the environment according to whims and momentary impulses, quite possibly causing a path of destruction and disturbance along the way. Instead, we need to think of freedom as an internal quality that we are trying to cultivate and grow within the child.
Freedom is not a gift to be given and then taken away
It’s important to remember that freedom is not something that the adult gives to the child as a reward for good behavior, and nor is it something that the adult takes away from the child as a punishment for bad behavior. It’s easy to fall into this pattern of thinking and action, however, as schools since the dawn of time have granted freedom as such.
If your goal is to set up a respectful and responsive environment where children have the opportunity to develop a sense of internalized freedom, you will need to transform the mental model of “If you do this and that, I will give you some freedom.” This is often seen when children enter into Montessori schools in the elementary years after being a part of a traditional schooling system.
The children think that when they finish work, they are “done” and the reward, or freedom, is “I get to rest.” It happens pretty quickly that they notice that the environment is one of continuous industriousness, and that work is the reward in and of itself, but it takes the support of a patient guide to help the child develop this inner sense of freedom.
What does it mean when we say “follow the child?”
When we say “follow the child,” this doesn’t mean that we follow them to the ends of the earth, or, worse, follow them off of a cliff! It means that we follow their holistic development.
What it means is that we follow the child’s life-affirming impulses that help them flourish and thrive both alone and with others, and we follow their path of development in a respectful way that both meets them where they are while providing interesting, engaging, and challenging work that satisfies where they are in their current stage of development. We follow their needs, their interests, and their abilities.
We follow their needs.
Through frequent and continuous observation, we see what the child needs, and we provide opportunities for these needs to be met. Does the child need some new writing lessons to help them uplevel their essays and reports? Does the child need some reinforcement of division with a one-digit divisor before moving on to division with a multi-digit divisor? Does the child need a quiet space for the day because mom is in the hospital due to illness? Does the child need to find a peer group to work on a project?
We follow their interests.
Again, observation is our best friend as we identify what children are interested in, and support these interests. What does it mean if they are throwing paper planes in the classroom, you say? That could be an interest, but we don’t have to provide for all interests in the classroom environment.
However, with some creative thinking, you might be able to incorporate a child’s love of paper planes into meaningful work! What about suggesting that they write about the history of paper planes, the types of paper planes, and then give a presentation to the other students when the research and report are complete? This gives the child freedom to make those paper planes, but within a container so that it doesn’t happen that he’s making endless paper planes and throwing them all day every day, or worse, it becomes like a virus that infects the entire class!
We follow their abilities.
Montessori is not a pedagogy that offers whole group instruction that caters to the average student. We personalize and individualize lessons according to student ability so that we rarely find ourselves in situations where children are bored, nor do we find them in situations where the knowledge is beyond their reach.
What kinds of freedoms do the children have?
When considering the environment you want to cultivate to maximize freedom for each child, you will want to scan your prepared environment to ensure that the following freedoms are available to the children:
Freedom to choose work.
This means that they get to choose, or at least are collaborating with you in choosing, a majority of their work. If you have a work plan for your child and are writing on their work plan the work they have to do and they are checking it off, that is not freely chosen work. What IS freely chosen work is the child listing the lesson or lessons that you have planned for the day (which ideally you have written on the board for their reference), and them recording the work that they do and/or goals for the day that they plan to accomplish. These goals might include some work that is teacher-initiated, but it can’t be an entirely teacher-initiated plan.
Freedom to work alone or with others.
Elementary students in Montessori environments have numerous opportunities to work with others in collaboration because Maria Montessori observed that children of this age have a tendency to want to do so!
However, that doesn’t mean that some children won’t want to work alone, and in fact, may need to from time to time in order to concentrate. The freedom to work with others is a learned skill, and it cannot be learned without lots of practice which will also include lots of mistakes.
Allow them to work with others, and if it’s necessary to separate children who are not working well together, be sure to give them a “fresh start” the next day. If you permanently separate children from one another, then they don’t develop the skills necessary to work within a group.
Freedom to communicate.
In a Montessori elementary environment, you will hear a steady hum of activity. Children are discussing, negotiating, debating, and collaborating, and these things are happening continuously throughout the work cycle. It is an environment where children are permitted to talk with others (so long as the others are inviting conversation, of course), and the name of the game for this age group is to learn how to communicate effectively and in such a way that work is being accomplished simultaneously.
Freedom to move.
Elementary children in a Montessori environment don’t have to wait to ask to use the restroom or to have a snack or to wait for a later time to do these things. Instead, they are taught to listen to their own bodily needs for signals that these things need to happen. They can also get up from their work, walk across the room, sharpen a pencil, and return to their work without permission.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of freedoms! However, it’s a good start as you are thinking about how to expand freedom in your classroom.
Helping children to develop responsibility.
Punishment and reward are external motivators for decisions and behavior. If those aren’t there, then what motivates the child? The goal is to develop self-discipline, and this takes time. It emerges in an environment of freedom, and if they don’t have the freedom, then there aren’t opportunities to practice.
With the elementary child, we want to appeal to their reasoning mind. We need to explain the reasons why it is beneficial for them to be responsible in certain areas, and how these responsibilities lead to a well-functioning community. If there are certain rules and norms in place that were created without their input, they will want to know what those rules are for, and why they should adhere to them.
We could simply say “because I told you so,” or “those are the rules,” but saying these things don’t explain why the rules exist. Explaining why helps them develop a logical understanding of cause and effect that they can apply to other similar situations that come up in the future.
For example, we can say “We eat food at tables because that’s the rule,” or we can say “we eat food at tables because it keeps the crumbs contained to one spot, and easier for you to clean and the person who is in charge of sweeping the floor doesn’t have to sweep crumbs all throughout the classroom.
Inner discipline is internal, and so it isn’t always easy to see how it is developing or when a child will hit a certain milestone when they can handle freedom. Give them the freedom, let them practice and even fail, because growth doesn’t happen without failure.
Taking away a child’s freedom doesn’t make them more responsible. This isn’t to say that you don’t ever do so. If a child is misusing material or harming other children, their freedom of movement or choice might be restricted. However, the child doesn’t develop a sense of responsibility without practice, so while at the moment you might have to address an immediate situation, you never want to take something away without thinking about pathways for its reintroduction.
Responsibility does not suddenly turn on like a light switch. It’s more like a simmering pot of stew that slowly comes to a boil.
What kinds of responsibilities do the children have?
While freedom is on one side of the coin, responsibility is on the other. When responsibility isn’t exercised, then freedom may be curtailed. However, this curtailing of freedom cannot be indefinite, as the children need to be able to try again in order to develop a sense of responsibility that is not only evident when imposed by an external authority.
Children have the following responsibilities:
- Responsibility for the self. Students are responsible for managing their time, and managing the way that they interact with others in the environment. They are responsible for their belongings, for the words they use, and the choices they make. It is at this age when children learn cause and effect. If I do this, then this happens. If I do that, then that happens. This logical chain of events helps them predict what cause leads to what effect, and eventually, they will be able to have an inner sense of what pathways lead to what results.
- Responsibility for the environment. Children develop responsibility for their immediate environment at home and at school, and they also develop an abstract sense of responsibility for the environment at large. At home and at school, children are learning how to care for their environment by way of various elementary practical life activities such as plant and animal care, Classroom jobs are the norm as children work to keep their environment clean and pristine, and well-stocked and ready for active engagement within the environment. They are developing an understanding that the earth has limited resources and understanding wise use of these resources, which involves developing a deep reverence and care for the wider world around them.
- Responsibility within society. Elementary children are not only interacting within their small classroom community, they are also interacting with the wider community beyond home and classroom walls. Learning how to be a responsible community member happens on field trips and in going out experiences where they are exercising grace and courtesy skills when interacting with strangers. The freedom and responsibility they learn in the classroom eventually apply to situations out of the classroom when interacting with society at large.
One of the most important things to remember is that responsibility is a process, and it comes about by having time and opportunities to practice! In order to develop responsibility, your students will need the freedom to make mistakes. And these mistakes can be messy, frustrating, and annoying.
As a teacher, it can be tempting to restrict freedoms indefinitely after misuse, but without opportunities to practice, they will fail to grow into the responsible child you hope they will one day become. Maria Montessori has challenged us to “see the child who is not yet there,” and offering freedom within some well-defined guidelines will help the child develop the responsibility we know is a by-product of living and growing in a Montessori elementary environment.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.