Montessori’s commitment to education as a vehicle for peace is a core principle of the pedagogy. A survivor of two world wars, the second of which led to her banishment from Italy and internment in India, it’s no small wonder that she incorporated and coined the phrase “Education for Peace”. As early as 1932, she addressed the Second International Montessori Congress in Nice, France with Peace and Education as her topic. Throughout the 1930’s and 40’s she was a strong advocate of lasting peace through education of children, efforts that led to her nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize six times. To this day, Montessori education is synonymous with Peace Education.
Montessori schools support the development of harmony and conflict resolution in ways that change as the child develops. Perhaps Montessori schools are best positioned for the undertaking because they are available to children as young as eighteen months. In Montessori’s view, the foundational pieces for emotional, social, and academic growth were laid before the age of six. Once established, the task of Elementary and Secondary education was to build on this base.
As a component of the Practical Life curriculum, direct instruction in Grace and Courtesy is given regarding social interaction in Toddler House and Primary 3-6) classrooms. Greeting a person, thanking someone, excusing oneself, introducing a friend, offering help, and complimenting a person (“Today we are going to practice how to express admiration for each other.”), are just some of the small group lessons given in Primary classrooms.
The child learns to “use their words” as a way of effectively communicating.
Montessori classrooms are often referred to as “prepared environments”. A cursory understanding of the phrase would include the materials and shelves; a further understanding might incorporate the teachers and students in the definition. Within this structure students engage in activities with materials, alone and in groups, following a curricular scope and sequence guided by trained adults. The daily schedule consists of long uninterrupted work cycles of up to three hours.
This structure of time and environment contributes to peace education in several important ways which are easily observed. First, note that “floor work” is always placed on a mat. The mat forms the border of the work area and defines a personal space. These rugs are stored centrally and is usually the first task in setting up where you will be working or receiving a lesson. Children walking from one end of the classroom to the other, tray of material in hand, navigate amongst these islands with careful precision in order not to step on a person’s mat, not to step on a person’s work. It is a constant reminder to the individual student that there are other people in the community, engaged in work, and deserving of respect. This is a strong lesson in the value of the social contract. “I walk carefully around your mat so as not to disturb your delicately positioned puzzle map.” “Tomorrow, you use the same care not to bump into my test-tube division problem and scatter a hundred small beads!”
Perusing the shelves in a Montessori classroom, we may also notice that there are a limited amount of materials available for use. Eight first-year lower elementary students may all use a stamp game during the morning work period, yet there are only three on the shelf. This is purposeful, as it leads to the necessity for negotiation, debate, sometimes argument, and ultimately compromise. “You can use this now. When you’re done, please let me know.” These are small interactions, yes, but they are drops that ultimately fill a reservoir. Children learn the language and the lessons of peace.
Peace Education in Montessori environments is supported by the guidance of adults in social interactions, and the organization of the physical environ-ment. Today, we will discuss how the curriculum itself functions as a third tool for peace. A clear example is present in the study of history. Dr. Montessori’s view of humankind is hopeful, positive, and forward-looking; a Robinson Crusoe figure wresting material from the earth to meet his or her needs, evolving greater and greater technologies. Advances in transportation, communication, and shelter were all seen as examples of this movement of humans towards a greater existence, both physically and spiritually. She was not naive. Dr. Montessori fully understood that these developments could also be employed as “a bitter source of suffering.” But rather than seeing war and poverty, the totality of human suffering, as a sign of hopelessness, she posited that these negative events were stumbling blocks along a steady incline. For each step backwards, there were two strides ahead. Montessori offered the analogy of the history of railroads. In her view, the development of the rail system represented a shining example of humans using their ingenuity and that of their predecessors to improve travel and trade in a spirit of cooperation among peoples and nations. If we were to present lessons about this history, would we only present the accidents? Of course not! Broadly, she saw the study of human history as one that should emphasize the
overarching story. The story of our triumphs, the cooperation between nations, the advancement of technology that brings us together. According to Dr. Montessori, wars are the train accidents. They are the minor players in the sweep of time, an unfortunate footnote to an overarching story of striving towards a better and more just human society.
The driving force behind this evolution will be the children of the world. “It is the child who makes the man, and no man exists who was not made by the child he once was.” Montessori classrooms, from Toddler through adolescence, mirrors human development. The younger child is first concerned with meeting his or her physical needs. Gradually, in an environment that supports peace through its activity, the guidance of adults, and the presentation of the human story, the older child also attains this “Supra-mind”. Peaceful children grow into peaceful adults. Peaceful adults inherit the world, and the full potential of our species will someday be attained.