Freedom and Responsibility
“I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Freedom is a concept that is fundamental to the Montessori Method but what ‘freedom’ looks like, and how it is implemented in a Montessori classroom, is often misunderstood.
Let’s start with what freedom is not: it does not mean that a child can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants. Freedom is not the same thing as license.
Obviously, this applies to adults too. We are bound by decency, if nothing else, to at least give consideration for comfort and safety to others. Therefore, we can make the observation that ‘real freedom’ is the sort of thing that comes with a weight of responsibility. Unpacked a little further, we can say that responsibility requires the ability to make choices and the moral courage to follow those choices. Digging even deeper, we know that in order to make a choice ~ any choice, not just a moral choice ~ requires knowledge.
So let’s look again: the mind, which informs the will, must have knowledge. The will, in order to act, must have room to move, to execute action. A person, in making a choice, must have the courage of his convictions, and live by his choice and the consequences of it. Since no man is an island, an individual’s choice has effects on others. Knowledge of himself, knowledge of his society, realization of consequence ~ these are components of character that build a sense of responsibility in a person who is free to move and act.
So we can see at a glance that freedom and responsibility are two realities that are tightly interwoven with one another into a harmonious relation. Each relies on the other for full expression of itself. We could even go so far as to make the analogy that freedom is to discipline as life is to existence.
So what does that look like in a Montessori class? It is a direct aim to foster an outcome of do-ers and thinkers, people who have confidence in their informed choices. Then we can say that they are free. The are also responsible because they know and live by expectations, standards that are set by their society with an understanding of the role of the person within the world; a sort of vision of the whole ‘cosmos’, in addition to the very interesting part that a person, an individual, plays in it.
A Montessorian calls this vision Cosmic. It’s a realization on the part of the child that all of creation is intertwined, interrelated, important, and balanced for a survival and benefit of each participant. Further, we wish for the children to internalize this for themselves and to build a sort of moral strength and independence based on their own realizations and habits.
Here are some ways a Montessorian would implement this vision. First, we prepare a place for them in which to move and act according to the needs of their age; its going to be a little different between Infancy, Children’s House and Elementary because the needs are different (and their levels of understanding).
For Children’s House, we can see how awareness of others is a reality of community life in the class through Practical Life activities. Food preparation, cleaning, learning to care for oneself are all skills that require knowledge, choice, movement and have consequences ~ good consequences for the community.
Elementary also has Practical Life works, but the emphasis moves to the child in his society. So in addition to practical life, the children enjoy going out of the classroom, on field trips and other activities. “What is my place in the world? How does the rest of the world fit into my life?” These are the sorts of questions an Elementary child would ask and act upon. And it’s the teacher’s responsibility to guide this sort of searching. We want the children to develop into fully-functioning adults and reach confidence in their freedom.
So we can see at a glance that a Prepared Environment offers the possibilities for choices, for movements, for self-expression, for love of others.
A Closer Look at Discipline
A negative view of discipline might bring to the mind images of being made to do something you would really rather not do, something extremely distasteful. We have all heard the tales of old traditional sorts of school where the teacher beat children for not knowing their lessons or, perhaps, within our own experience, our mother making us clean our room, wash dishes, or take out the trash. Conflict is the word often thought of as synonymous with discipline.
In fact, discipline comes to us from the Latin word ‘disupulos’ meaning follower or student. The connotation is of a follower in search of knowledge, of purpose. In other words, not a blind stumbling around sort of follower, but a person in search of depth, purpose, and meaning. This is the concept of discipline we wish in our students!
Let’s take a look at nature. Nature works according to set laws and limits ~ and the creatures who live within (guided by instinct) their natural laws are free. Whales can swim all over the oceans and birds can fly through the heavens but if either one decided, let’s just suppose, to change places with each other they really couldn’t live. Fish could never, try as they might, walk out onto the lawn and have grass for lunch. Neither could we decided to breathe water for the rest of our lives and change places with the fish. This sort of natural law, or inner discipline, is fundamental to creation. We are part of this natural order in addition to our intellectual potential to seek out the meaning of our existence.
It is rightly credited to Dr. Montessori for discovering the remarkable fact that young children also have an internal discipline. So then, in the a ‘Montessori’ prepared in environment (and elsewhere with wise and caring adults) the young children are given a set of standards to live by, usually beginning with something as simple as sitting down at the table when eating taking or taking our shoes off at the door. These standards aren’t complicated or unreachable ~ they are just how we live and act. The parents, and the teachers, are firm in this. It’s necessary. For the older child, there are other standards they learn such as courtesy for a telephone call or writing a thank-you note. In other words, certain expectations of human society exist and must be followed.
Here is a silly example. Suppose we are helping a child (your child) get dressed in the morning and they inform you that they don’t want to wear clothes that day. Well, wearing clothes is very much expected in our society; you would be a negligent parent of you followed your child’s wish and took them to school without clothes. So, while they must wear the clothes, the child can still have a choice in what to wear ~ “Which would you like: the blue sweater or the green sweater?” The expectation is given and followed but the will of the child is given a choice between which sweaters to put on. This seems very small, but this is the way in which the will is built through choice. Maria Montessori calls this “freedom within limits.”
With this ‘back-drop’ of social and familial expectations together with the ability to move about, make choices, question, find their own errors, an internal sense of discipline on the part of the child becomes evident to us.
The Gate to Freedom and Responsibility
How can these two aspects meet as ‘two sides of a coin’? The answer lies in a Montessori prepared environment. With the goal in mind (a fully functioning adult) and the present needs of a child, we can hope to achieve a place where the child is free to develop while internalizing discipline. Children are within a larger group of children within their developmental stage, to include three or more years.
- The materials are made for the child to use, to manipulate. The child receives the knowledge of how to use them from his teacher and then his will is free to act on the knowledge given. He can choose any activity from his store of knowledge ~ and this is every increasing through the years.
- The ‘control of error’ is built into the material so the child can discover his mistakes and correct them under his own discovery
- The child is free to choose where to work. Usually, it’s a table or a little floor mat, but he can decide.
- The child is free to use the material for as long as he feels he needs to; even though there is only one piece of material for any set (for example, only one pouring) and others might be waiting, everyone respects his use of it (and by default, his choice).
- The child can set his own pace.
- The child(ren) are free to develop social interactions, to work with one another.
- They are free to communicate
- The child is free to ponder and reflect
- The child is free to circulate, both physically and intellectually between his friends and classmates.
- The child is free to decline work
- These principles of a Montessori classroom are verbalized in the face of realizing a need of the child to internalize discipline and experience freedom.
- A natural result of all this freedom is a profound sense of self-knowledge and responsibility. Remember that this freedom was built on clear social expectations, ever-increasing knowledge, and work with self-correcting materials all within an environment of social interaction.
Social interaction with mixed-ages is both a limit and freedom because a person is both held accountable for his choices within his group, and relied upon for service to his peers. This is the experience of responsibility that a young child can know and even love.
All of these aspects come together in the Montessori classroom. It is inevitable the child, with ever-increasing self-awareness together with a deep appreciation for the world, builds within himself a profound sense of responsibility. He can know his own limitations and acknowledge his skills and mastery; he can have self-confidence in himself and his choices.
The child, being nourished within the expectations of his own culture, is given the freedom, the support, the vision to grow both physically and psychically. To reach out, to ask questions, to experience himself as an important part of something much, much bigger than himself. With these tools for life, with confidence and mastery in himself, the child is equipped to grow into a fully functioning adult and active member of his society.
This is how freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin not just in a Montessori classroom, but throughout life.