When the child is seen to be responsible and skillful with the chopper, he is introduced to activities that include the blunt-tipped, serrated knife. It is more challenging because it has only one handle and that handle is close to the blade. One hand can be kept safe by holding that handle securely away from the blade, but the other hand must be kept safe by placing its palm on the non-cutting edge of the knife and holding all fingers and the thumb curved upwards. To distinguish the non-cutting edge of the knife from the serrated edge, the cutting edge, is not left to observation for a child so young. The non-cutting edge is marked with a thin stripe of red plastic tape. In the activity set, the knife is placed always in the same place and in the same position on the tray. While in use it is always set down in exactly the same place in the same position. The guide does so with utmost attention and intention, conveying with her facial expression her exquisite care and respect for the knife and her recognition of its danger.
“We learn from failure, not from success,” wrote Bram Stoker in Dracula. Mistakes are essential to our growth and development, and yet in our society, they are taboo. At some point in our lives, most of us have passed the buck instead of taking responsibility for our errors; in our culture, messing up isn’t something you readily acknowledge. Since we have such a negative view of failure, we try to protect our young children from making mistakes, and this is the biggest blunder of them all.
The comings and goings of the children were remarkable. They seemed so assured and confident and decisive. No one was telling them where to go or what to do. It was hard to believe that I was observing a room of children ages three through six. If a child chose to do his “work” on the floor, he would first get a rolled up mat the size of a doormat from a bin of several, bring it to his chosen location on the floor, and meticulously unroll it. Then he would go get the work (or the “material” as the various pieces of work from which to choose are called) he had chosen and bring it back to the mat on the floor. Whenever he decided he was done, he’d put the work back where it came from and then re-roll the mat, placing it back in its bin. When something spilled, or it was noticed that a spot on the floor was dirty, a random child would choose to get the broom and dustpan out, or maybe hand towel, and simply clean it up without waiting to be told. I almost had to pinch myself.
On a recent morning I had two sets of prospective parents scheduled to observe in the same primary class (mixed-age of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds), a half hour apart. One of the more satisfying parts of my job is to meet with prospective parents after their first observation in a Montessori school. I usually start the conversation by asking, “What did you see in the classroom? Did anything surprise you? What were your impressions?”
Freedom and Discipline are two words that are not usually used together, at least in regard to children. It seems counter-intuitive—how can you give kids freedom and still have discipline, or be disciplined and have freedom? It is generally understood that children can only “behave” when strict discipline is imposed on them, meaning their freedom taken away– this is the thinking of traditional schooling. But Maria Montessori discovered that the two, freedom and discipline, indeed go hand in hand.
Here, as always, the child’s liberty consists in being free to choose from a basis of real knowledge, and not out of mere curiosity. He is free to take up which of the “radial lines of research” appeals to him, but not to choose “anything he likes” in vacuo. It must be based on a real center of interest, and therefore motivated by what Montessori calls “intellectual love.”