Charlotte Mason, Montessori, and Children With Disabilities

Yesterday we talked about common assumptions of a common time and how we should keep this in mind when reading Charlotte Mason. That is, people who are contemporaries share certain assumptions they don’t even know they share. This often only comes out in a later generation when those assumptions are no longer shared. When we lose those assumptions it’s easier to spot them in our predecessors, but this should keep us humble and ever mindful of our own unrecognized assumptions. Today we’ll get more specific about Montessori and Charlotte Mason, and also working with children with disabilities.

In this previous post on Charlotte Mason and ideas, Maria Montessori came up in the comments. I’m revising that comment here (which means that it’s about four times as long), and sharing something else from one of the comments that I think is too insightful, too helpful to too many of us to leave buried there where readers might miss it. That important comment is from Tammy Glaser, who homeschools children with autism. If you want to get straight to the crux of things that would work for you at home, scroll down to the bottom of this post.

It is true that Montessori and Charlotte Mason have many things in common, just as Mason and Froebel do. There are many similarities and Montessori seems to me to have always been a wise woman with no small amount of love for her charges and we could learn much from her. But it is also true that Miss Mason disagreed with Montessori very specifically on some key points.

Incidentally, in the quotes that follow Maria uses a word for disabled children that has fallen into grave disrepute today. Please understand that it was merely a medical term at the time and it fell into disrepute through its abuse, to the point that it now has completely lost its original meaning and is merely an insult. In the same way the the once useful word ‘retarded’ has lost its nonpejorative associations and is now used as an insult by people who ought to know better.

Maria Montessori writes that early in her work she hoped that “some day, the special education which had developed these idiot children in such a marvellous fashion, could be applied to the development of normal children,” and that was the aim of her work. About her work with the Childrens’ Houses, she says, “Methods which made growth possible to the mental personality of the idiot ought, therefore, to aid the development of young children, and should be so adapted as to constitute a hygienic education of the entire personality of a normal human being.”

Charlotte Mason says that ideas developed for disabled children (as Maria Montessori’s were) are not suited for healthy children- that it’s like treating all children as though they are mentally crippled: “I am jealous for the children; every modern educational movement tends to belittle them intellectually; and none more so than a late ingenious attempt to feed normal children with the pap-meat which may (?) be good for the mentally sick…”

I think she’s also talking about Montessori (and possibly others) here:

“We come dangerously near to what Plato condemns as “that lie of the soul,” that corruption of the highest truth, of which Protagoras is guilty in the saying that, “Knowledge is sensation.” What else are we saying when we run after educational methods which are purely sensory? Knowledge is not sensation, nor is it to be derived through sensation; we feed upon the thoughts of other minds; and thought applied to thought generates thought and we become more thoughtful.”

I am pretty sure she is talking about Montessori, as in The Montessori Method, by Maria Montessori we can note Montessori’s emphasis on ‘sense training’ and reaching the mind through outside sensations:

“I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you,” recalled the fundamental phrase which sums up Séguin’s whole method,–”to lead the child, as it were, by the hand, from the education of the muscular system, to that of the nervous system, and of the senses.”
“IN a pedagogical method which is experimental the education of the senses must undoubtedly assume the greatest importance.”

Pedagogy…is…designed … to… educate the senses. … the education of the senses is entirely possible.

the education of the senses has, as its aim, the refinement of the differential perception of stimuli by means of repeated exercises.

Speaking of her graduated blocks and the pegs she uses, Montessori says, “Our didactic material renders auto-education possible, permits a methodical education of the senses.”

She says she teaches writing “through a series of problems to be solved. These problems are presented as sense exercises.”

the education of the senses must be of the greatest pedagogical interest.

In chapter IV, Maria Montessori says explains her view of why it is wrong to start education from ideas instead of from motor activities to develop the senses.

The education of the senses should be begun methodically in infancy, and should continue during the entire period of instruction which is to prepare the individual for life in society.

Æsthetic and moral education are closely related to this sensory education. Multiply the sensations, and develop the capacity of appreciating fine differences in stimuli and we refine the sensibility and multiply man’s pleasures.

The directress must intervene to lead the child from sensations to ideas–from the concrete to the abstract, and to the association of ideas. For this, she should use a method tending to isolate the inner attention of the child and to fix it upon the perceptions–as in the first lessons his objective attention was fixed, through isolation, upon single stimuli.

Here is an interesting article on education (for those interested in philosophical underpinnings) which points out Montessori’s agreement with the philosopher Herbart:

Montessori embraced the [Herbartian] concept of orderly steps and developed materials carefully designed to facilitate each step. She based this program mainly on her observation of children, and their interests and abilities shown at each moment of growth. For Montessori, this was scientific pedagogy. Her observations, however, were filtered through Herbartian lenses that assumed an orderly progression of intellectual development.

Recall that Miss Mason very specifically distanced herself from Herbartian philosophy, in her tenth principle of education. Those principles she considered foundational to her approach. Again, for those interested in reading them, you can find them in the front of each book, but I especially recommend reading them in the sixth volume, as that was her latest work. The first few chapters of volume 6 also flesh out those principles.

Perhaps the greatest area of disagreement Miss Mason had with Montessori was in the realm of imagination and literature.
In this PR Article, Miss Mason specifically responds to an article by Dr. Montessori for the purpose of refuting Montessori’s ideas in this area. The entire article is worth reading, and I will repost a portion of it later, but for her and now I will just say that Miss Mason dismissed Montessori’s term’ cultivating the imagination’ and said it was rather a feeding of spiritual hunger. That sentence, I think, sums up the difference between Mason and most other educators of her time. Others wanted to ‘develop’ faculties and separate portions of the mind that were either not there to begin with or so latent that it required a teacher to bring them out and build them up. Miss Mason believed the faculties would take care of themselves if only we would feed the child’s natural, inborn hunger for meaningful knowledge, for ideas. And if the faculties did need this development, she thought, they would develop well enough if fed real mind food- ideas, just as all the parts of the body would develop holistically if fed real nourishing food.

Miss Mason also wrote a pamphlet, which I have not seen but have been told, expresses her disagreement with certain of Montessori’s methods.
another PR article the president of the PNEU says, “I have never been able to
develop any enthusiasm for the Montessori system since I learnt from Madame
Montessori’s book that stories play no part in her scheme of education.”

So while there are indeed similarities, Miss Mason expressed serious reservations about significant points of Dr. Montessori’s work.

And now that the philosophizing is out of the way, Here is Tammy Glaser’s much more useful comment:

On the whole sensory thing, here is what I have observed in my daughter with autism. For her, doing sensory activities was about getting her calm and focused. Sometimes, she felt so much stress she could not learn because she was about ready to meltdown. When the brain is in flight or fight mode, it is unable to transfer information from short term to long term memory (Carroll Smith pointed that out at the 2006 ChildLightUSA Conference).

So, sensory activities calmed her down! Then, we could get to the business of learning. They helped her brain focus and get ready to learn when she was having a rough day, but they were not the main vehicle of learning.

I do think that distinction fits within a Charlotte Mason philosophy.

I agree with her. Tammy, as I said, homeschools a child with autism, and she keeps a blog about that experience here. If you have a child with disabilities, you should bookmark her blog and return to it often for wisdom, inspiration, encouragement, and thought provoking ideas.

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