I had an interesting conversation with a prospective parent recently who teaches at a local college. She shared that she and her colleagues are constantly discussing “how underprepared kids are for college in terms of ‘soft skills.’” By soft skills she meant skills other than the purely academic — the personal qualities, habits and attitudes that make someone a successful college student and, by extension, a good boss or employee later in life. She had just come from an observation in toddlers and primary and was surprised to have seen that in Montessori, “starting in toddlers students develop the self-motivation, independence, and follow-through that many college students lack!” In other words, beginning at these very young ages, Montessori children are already developing the soft skills that will benefit them so greatly later in life.
It was a pretty astute observation for a prospective parent seeing Montessori for the first time, and it got me thinking. When I talk to parents, I often describe a Montessori learning material, like the binomial cube, detective adjective game, or golden beads, that leads to the acquisition of academic or “hard skills.” Obviously, hard skills are important, but soft skills are equally so.
One of the most important is self-motivation. In my experience children are born self-motivated. Any parent reflecting upon their own child’s acquisition of the skill of walking is bound to agree. At no point did you need to motivate your child to learn how to walk, did you? Instead, he did it all on his own, through arduous repetition and gradual improvement. And what did he do after he taught himself this difficult skill? He added the next movement challenges — running, climbing stairs and carrying objects – entirely on his own initiative! So perhaps our job is often just to get out of his way, to remove obstacles from his path, and give him the time he needs to do his work. In other words, our job is not to motivate him but rather to be sure that we don’t inadvertently blunt his own internal motivation.
One way we can avoid that is by not doing things for her that she can learn to do them for herself. We can also allow her the time she needs by slowing ourselves down to match her pace, rather than forcing her to conform to ours. Of equal importance is allowing her to choose her own activities. When are you more likely to be self-motivated – when doing something someone else has chosen for you? Or, when doing an activity you have chosen for yourself?
Doesn’t this perfectly describe the atmosphere of a Montessori classroom? From their earliest days in Montessori, children are shown how to do a thousand and one activities for themselves, and then given time and choice. They are shown how to care for their own needs, as well as to care for their friends and their environment. We train ourselves as Montessori adults to get out of the way, let them do for themselves, and never to give more help than they need.
And what will you acquire if you are choosing things to do without undue help and without external motivation? Independence, the second of the soft skills to which our college professor referred. And if you have chosen it for yourself, you will have the self-motivation to follow-through and persevere through whatever challenges or difficulties may arise.
Obviously, the hard skills are important, but they don’t do you much good without the personal qualities, skills and attitudes that allow you to use the hard skills effectively. That’s why in Montessori we are working with children to develop the whole range of skills, hard and soft, that he or she will need as they take their place as an adult in society many years from now.
Peter Davidson was the founding Head at the Montessori School of Beaverton, an AMI school in Portland and currently serves as consultant for Montessori in Redlands, an AMI school in Southern California.