In The Absorbent Mind, Maria Montessori describes an interaction between one of her students and a visitor to the school:
A lady of high rank once paid the school a visit and, being old-fashioned in her views, she said to a little boy, “So this is the school where you do as you like?”
“No, ma’am,” said the child. “It is not that we do as we like, but we like what we do.”
The child had grasped the subtle difference between doing a thing because it gives one pleasure, and enjoying a piece of work that one has decided to do.
The query of this “lady of high rank” is very common. It has always been and continues to be an objection to Montessori schools that they let children do whatever they like. My own parents held something like this view, and told me when I was in kindergarten that I was lucky that I didn’t go to a Montessori school, where chaos (i.e. children) reigned.
This objection is a good one, in my view—not because it’s true, but because it’s fruitful. Everyone serious about Montessori will have to ask questions about the freedom of the child, and one of the concerns is naturally going to be that children’s choices aren’t always the wisest.
The child’s answer, and Maria Montessori’s analysis of it, is illuminating.
“It’s not that we do as we like, but we like what we do.”
One might think, as my parents may have and as this lady of high rank seems to, that children are naturally simple pleasure-seekers. They like sweet things, they like shiny things, they like silliness and play. And it’s true that children do like those things, and there’s a real sense in which they are pleasures.
But for Montessori, they aren’t the main examples. The paradigmatic case of pleasure is not eating something sweet. Pleasure is first and foremost the positive experience of some good activity. It’s the joy of working on something purposefully, of figuring something out, of expending effort, of accomplishing something. It’s the happiness of doing, of exercising one’s own powers. It’s the delight of actively living.
These are real pleasures—but different sorts of pleasure than the sensory pleasure of consuming a Turkish delight.
The idea that pleasure is the natural concomitant of activity that is going well goes back to Aristotle. It’s a notion that I think most people would accept upon some reflection—everyone has had the experience of taking pleasure in some purposeful activity. It’s more radical, though, to make it central.
Making it central means that learning to do some activity well is pleasurable and motivating. It means that you deemphasize the importance of rewarding progress with sweets or stickers, and instead focus on helping a child do real things that are at the right level of challenge. It means that there’s often no special motivational impetus needed for growth, for learning, for exercising one’s faculties; what’s needed is the scaffolding to make sure that these things can truly be done well by the child.
It means that if you give children freedom in an environment where they can do good work, they will choose to do so and will enjoy it.
Growing up is good work. It is difficult, multifaceted work. It engages all of a child’s faculties, mental and physical. It is made up of thousands of particular activities. The pleasure of those activities going well, separately and jointly, is the happiness of childhood.
Article Source: https://higherground.substack.com/p/friday-note-it-is-not-that-we-do