I have been aware of Maria Montessori and her educational “movement” (as its often referred to) as part of the spectrum of educational alternatives available mostly to more well-to-do families who can afford the tuition to send their kids to a private Montessori school. There are over 3000 such schools in the United States today and more than 20,000 around the world. I have read about her early work researching child development, opening her first school in her native Italy and how she became a star of the progressive education world in Europe and the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century.
I am both intrigued and troubled by the fact that her ideas about creating a developmentally appropriate environment for children seem to have had so little impact on our public education system in what are conventionally the preschool and elementary school years. In digging a little deeper into the history, it seems her innovative ideas suffered a similar fate as the ideas of other “holistic” educators like John Dewey, succumbing to the “business efficiency” movement in education in the second and third decades of the 20th century.
Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. Overcoming barriers to women, she managed to gain a degree in the natural sciences from the University of Rome and, despite opposition from students and faculty, fight her way into medical school at the University, finally graduating in 1896 as a doctor of medicine. Her early career involved working with mentally disabled young people and researching ways to help them overcome their developmental challenges. As part of that research she read everything that had been published in the previous 200 years regarding education theory, and applied this wisdom to improving her efforts on behalf of this specially challenged group.
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Quite the long title, I know! But that is essentially who I am these days when I put on my “day job” hat as a “Business Process Consultant” for a major health insurance company. The work world that I plunge myself into is totally transformed from just a generation ago by the ubiquitous electronic media which (to use media philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s analogy), is the “water we swim in”.
In his extensive 1969 interview in Playboy Magazine, McLuhan said…
The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems… are immersing us in a world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another. But the instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences.
McLuhan called this transformation “retribalization”.
In my mom and dad’s generation the norm of professional “knowledge work” in the U.S. was to have a hierarchy of “bosses” who actively directed your activities within “siloed” groups and departments. Your coworker peers were typically white males of northern European ancestry, with women supporting professional work as secretaries. Most collaboration with those coworkers was done face to face and most written communication was done (by secretaries) using a typewriter to produce written memos & other documents that flowed from person to person in a time frame of days or even weeks. Diagrams, charts and other visual documents were painstakingly built by graphic specialists well in advance of presentations.
But the work world I plunge myself into these days is nothing like that.
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