On Montessori’s Scientific Observation

Reading seminar, 21 September 2016
Washington Montessori Institute

Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, Chapter 2 (“History of the Methods”)

15-minute reflection on group discussion:

It is unfair to say that teachers in traditional schools do no observation, but there certainly is little room for scientific observation. There is no room and time for experimentation — be it formally setting up control vs. experimental groups and conducting treatments to the latter, or as simple as giving customised instruction to certain students and observing what progress have been made. Resources are limited and teachers have their requirements to meet. I have seen many teachers who have tried to help weaker students (in Hong Kong) or stronger students (in UK), but none have ever been able to cater for personality differences — these are too subtle to be noticed by general observation of untrained or insensitive people. However, generally in a class, it is the best and the worst that are sacrificed, simply because it is more efficient to cater to the average majority.

It is most ideal that a teacher be trained in scientific observation (Note 1), but as Dr Montessori herself had said on p.34 of The Discovery of the Child, observation is a psychological science, transformation is educational science. Hence, our group went on to talk about the implementation of the Montessori method in certain countries and its social impact.

Although Montessori had its roots a century ago in the poorest neighbourhoods such as San Lorenzo, Italy, the aristocrats seem to have most of the access. Prince George has given the method a lot of publicity, but state regulations continue to pose a lot of barriers, e.g. safety regulations, curriculum requirements, for Montessori schools to receive funding or any kind of subsidy. The poor has access to the socialists’ vision of free schooling, that, because is free, should take least resources. Factory-modelled education prevails; classrooms continue to be dull and cramped, because of cost. If experimentation cannot happen, there can be no room for better education.

I’ll end with a business analogy — any company would only spend money serving their richest customers. Customisation comes with a premium, and although all children are equally valuable in their spirit and to a Montessorian, their parents, who pay the bills, are not. For Montessori to reach further and lower into the grass roots, where Dr Montessori had her heart at (though not initially, she admitted her prejudice), there needs to be a lot of lobbying work. But how would that be possible when the rich and powerful exploits/reap profit from the weakness and dependencies of people?

P.S.: Also discussed in group discussion: how Montessori primary education is most needed in Hong Kong, but its impact unsustainable — factors including parenting culture, limited constructivist education, …

Note 1: What is scientific observation in Montessori education?

Think of a physics environment, that we are to study a relationship/phenomenon. The scientific study begins with setting up and designing the experiment (apparatus, instruments, procedure; don’t forget to pre-test these!), then gathering data (record and observation); afterwards data analysis is conducted for evidence or proof, coming to a conclusion of the phenomena, and lastly this conclusion be applied, utilised or reproduced. The first 2 steps will be performed at the laboratory.

Observation is to do with lab work. To observe means to neutrally take note of all that happens. Data is gathered as such, and so is reliability of the study. We observe that the sensitivity of apparatuses is constant, the controlled environment is maintained, the data is collected accurately (no careless mistakes), and also our own sanity (and neutrality, integrity…)!

Dr Montessori purports that the study of a person takes the following equation (Advanced Montessori Method Vol.1, p.87-89):

P = I + E

where P = psychical factor,
I = “individual, natural, spotaneous activity” of an individual life,
E = “external instrument” which provides experience for character-building

In the context of a Montessori classroom observation, I = unknown (no perfect knowledge of individual’s nature) and E = the prepared environment (constant for all I-s).

To appraise P, I is defined as an arbitrary constant, so P is proportional to E. Hence, the purpose of observation is not to gather data for the study of the individual child, but rather “finding external material means for natural development” (ibid., p.86).

As we know natural development is meeting the child’s needs, this means we are looking out for evident needs and how needs are being met or unmet in our prepared environment, classroom or home. It is essentially a demand-supply study.

We do not study I (the individual’s nature) as we cannot maintain an identical E for different children — they have homes to return to.

P (psychical factor) is recorded as the state of internal order (or level of discipline — not in the traditional inhibited sense though). Internal order can be understood as mind-body harmony, which is attained when the person’s physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual needs are adequately met. There is contentment and deep happiness, and this person, child or adult, appears collected and joyfully present.

As to how this internal order is achieved, tis the legacy of Dr Montessori — the transformation — through her unique curriculum and solid principles, rooted in educational science. Not the scope of my thoughts on observation today. 😉

知行合一!(knowledge and action in unison) This is our goal for life — the full realisation of the human spirit.

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