Maria Montessori believed that beauty could be found in nature and that nature offers an infinite source of creative imagination. She encouraged teachers to develop children’s connections to the world through the use of their senses and to use nature to foster creativity. Although Montessori did not see the value in telling or reading fairly tales or in children’s abstract art, she did believe children should have opportunities to draw from life and nature if they were inspired to do so.
"The sensory education which prepares for the accurate perception of all the differential details in the qualities of things, is therefore the foundation of the observation of things… it helps us to collect from the external world the material for the imagination."
A few years ago, I visited Beijing as a representative of the American Montessori Society. I was impressed by the rapidly increasing number of Montessori schools that are educating young students in that metropolis, one of the largest and most complex on earth. It was fascinating for me to see students performing the same math, practical life and sensorial lessons experienced by American Montessori school students. On the other hand, I witnessed some of the language and culture activities in the classrooms that are unique to Chinese culture and arts. The intricate sewing and watercolor painting especially impressed me. What is it about Montessori that is inspiring this prevalence I witnessed?
Montessori schools are rapidly opening in China to help promote creativity in education. Dr. Yong Zhao, a forerunner in global education from the University of Oregon, expressed to the audience at the 2011 AMS Annual conference in Chicago that there are many things “right” with American education and that China and other “Asian nations are actually reforming their systems to be more like their American counterparts.” Dr. Zhao stated, “No other country comes close to the U.S. when it comes to exports of intellectual property/knowledge (patents, royalties, copyrights, license fees). Diversity of talents, creativity, entrepreneurship, and passion are what allow nations to thrive.” The New York State Association of Independent Schools is sponsoring a trip for educators in conjunction with Dr. Zhao in April of 2016.
Divergent thinking skills are considered to be at the heart of creativity and creative thinkers use both divergent and convergent thinking. Many of us have heard Sir Ken Robinson talk about the decline of divergent thinking in schools where students are taught to know one correct answer. “Divergent thinking isn’t a synonym, but is an essential capacity for creativity. It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways to interpret a question, to think laterally, to think not just in linear or convergent ways, to see multiple answers, not one” (Robinson, 2009). The Montessori method encourages divergent thinking.
Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has similar thoughts on creativity. “It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively. . . . a creative accomplishment is almost never the result of sudden insight, a light bulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work” (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 1). We know that many of the jobs that our students will be engaged in as adults have not yet been invented. As educators we must allow for and support creativity as we prepare our classroom environments.
If we examine the lives of some well-known creative individuals, perhaps we can better know how their learning environments influenced them. According to Marissa Mayer*, “You can’t understand Google unless you know that both Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] were Montessori kids. To do something that makes sense, not because some authority figure told you. In a Montessori school you go paint because you have something to express or you just want to do it that afternoon, not because the teacher said so. This is baked into how Larry and Sergey approach problems. They’re always asking, ‘Why should it be done like that?’ It is the way their brains were programmed early on” (Levy, p. 122).
The Google founders also provide this same Montessori-like environment for their employees. It is referred to as the 20% Work Plan. Just as it was crucial to Montessori that nothing a teacher does destroys a child’s creative innocence, Brin and Page felt that Google’s leaders should not annihilate an engineer’s impulse to change the world (Levy, p 124).
Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives. “Most of the things that are interesting and important and human are the results of creativity.” (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 1) When people are engaged in creative activities, many feel they are living their lives more fully than at other times.
How do the Montessori methods encourage creativity?
Montessori classrooms offer:
- Ground rules, and a framework that is built on values and honesty by
- Include well trained teachers who are role models and know when to step in or stand back
- Opportunities for students to work cooperatively in groups and/or individually
- A place where mistakes are opportunities for learning to talk place and possibility thinking is encouraged
- Schedules that allow for large blocks of uninterrupted work time for students to concentrate on their work and to make choices
- Observation and attention that allows us to prepare the environments with student’s interests in mind
- Respect for individuals, their choices and their work and fostering intrinsic motivation
- A balance between skill development and challenges
- A belief that all students can be successful
- Support and encouragement for students from all social, ethnic, economic and emotional backgrounds
The Montessori method offers many ways to encourage creativity in our classrooms. During uninterrupted work periods many students experience what Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “flow.” This is the state or feeling of well being when things are going very well, almost automatic, effortless and in a highly focused state of consciousness (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 110). Maria Montessori definitely understood the need for this same “flow” to happen in our prepared classrooms.
* Marissa Mayer is now the current president and CEO of Yahoo. Previously she was a long-time executive, and key spokes person for Google, the first female hired at Google, and one of the first 20 Google employees.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: HarperCollins
Levy, S. (2011). In the plex: how Google thinks, works, and shapes our lives. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Robinson, K. (2009). Divergent thinking. Talk presented at Royal Society of the Arts. You Tube online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U
Zhao, Y. (2011). Catching up or leading the way: American education in the age of globalization. Keynote address American Montessori Society Annual Conference, March 25, 2011.