Freedom and Discipline

I realize I start out most of my posts with, “One of the most misunderstood things about Montessori is….”  That is because, in my experience, most things about Montessori are quite misunderstood!

The great misunderstanding I want to talk about today, and hopefully for the next few posts, relates to the Montessori idea of “freedom” or “free choice” of the children in the classroom (or really, ideally, in life).  This was perhaps the MAIN thing that drew me to Montessori, that caused me to say, “Yes, THIS is what I want to be a part of, this is the worldview and lifestyle I want to promote.”  It coincides so strongly with what I believe about what it means to be human, and to me it seemed to be the missing link in the education of children in poverty.

There is wide acknowledgement of a “pedagogy of poverty” at work in most of our urban schools in the United States, and this has been defined in the following way: “…a tightly controlled routine in which teachers dispense, and then test students on, factual information; assign seatwork; and punish noncompliance …education—for those ‘failing’ urban kids, anyway—is about learning the rules and following directions. Not critical thinking. Not creativity. It’s about how to correctly eliminate three out of four bubbles.” (See the article, The Pedagogy of Poverty, for more information.)

This type of classroom is almost always enforced by strict punishments (sometimes even public humiliation and shame) for children who disobey the adult, and by arbitrary prizes and rewards for children who do what they’re told and follow the status quo.  In this type of classroom, one of the teacher’s main duties is to “discipline” the children.

The Montessori method proposes an entirely different framework, one in which freedom forms the foundation for discipline.  In the Montessori approach, freedom and discipline are two sides of the same coin.  The children are allowed freedom, and this is precisely what gives them the opportunity to form self-discipline on their own.

But what do we mean by “freedom,” and what do we mean by “discipline”?

I’m not going to answer that question in this post (but I will in my next one).  What I want to do is take you on the same little experiment my trainer took me on this morning (I’m in training over the summer at Greenville Montessori Institute).  Today my trainer challenged us to think about what images are conjured up for each of us when we hear those two words.  She said that everyone has an idea – an abstraction – about “freedom” and “discipline,” and that for most of us these are not just concepts.  They are ideas that were formed deep in our childhood, based on our experiences, and therefore carry with them a lot of emotional weight.

It was an interesting challenge, because I realized she was right – my emotional reaction to these words didn’t necessarily align with the definition I would have given of them.  For me, “freedom” brought up an idea of breaking loose of bonds, kind of a liberation from external dictates and people looking over my shoulder, whereas “discipline” made me afraid and brought with it associations of punishment and shame.  Having been raised in a very strict household, my emotional reactions to these words were in many ways polar opposite to the way I would objectively define them.

For many of my classmates they had opposite reactions – the idea of “freedom” made them feel nervous, exposed in a way, lacking necessary structures and guidance, whereas “discipline” gave them a sense of security and safety because they would know what to expect.

So you can see, the ideas we have formed of “freedom” and “discipline” from our childhood form the lens through which we conduct conversations about education or parental responsibilities or the role of the adult in relation to the child.

My trainer posted various pictures to demonstrate the different ideas people have of freedom:

And she did the same with discipline:

Obviously, there are lots of different ways we can conceive of these words.  And these different conceptions form the basis for a lot of the misconceptions about Montessori:

Is a Montessori classroom chaotic?

The children just get to do whatever they want?

How do they ever learn anything?

How do you keep them from becoming spoiled little brats?

Montessori is too strict… kids can’t work for 3 hours straight!

I can’t believe you don’t have toys in your classroom!  The kids must feel tortured and bored!

You don’t let them play imaginary?  What’s wrong with you?

It’s hard to have conversations about allowing children to have “free choice” because our ideas of freedom, of discipline, of the nature of children, of the role of the adult, of the goals of education, are all so strongly formed inside of us whether we realize it or not.  And, as I realized was true for myself today, often what we say we believe about these things doesn’t always line up with the emotional responses and impressions we carry toward them.

So I want to challenge anybody who reads this to try to answer those same questions.  How does the word “freedom” make you feel?  What images does it conjure for you?  Then, how would you define it?  And on the flip side, how does the word “discipline” make you feel?  What images does it conjure?  Then, how would you define it?

In my next post I’ll do my best to explain the way Maria Montessori understood and defined these words, and why she came to believe that freedom was in fact essential for any true discipline.


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