Getting it Wrong from the Beginning: Discussion

Date: Fri, 29 Nov 2002 21:07:20 -0500
From: Jackie Cossentino <>
Subject: Montessori, cognitive tools, and Getting it Wrong
X-Spam-Level: Spam-Level SS
Professor Egan -
In the week since I finished reading Getting it Wrong from the Beginning, I have not been able to put it out of my mind. Aside from being the first critique of Progressivism I've encountered that does not seem to be built on political ground, I am drawn to your argument and observations because of their potential relevance to the practice of Montessori education. I am, at present, immersed in a large-scale study of Montessori teaching (and learning). And though you do not mention Montessori in the book, having had at a least a passing acquaintance with the movement (I am looking at your photo on a 1995 edition of Montessori Life), I thought I would venture a couple of questions/comments.
First, your observations about Spencer and Piaget (who of course studied in Swiss Montessori schools) raise the obvious question of whether Maria Montessori's "method" can be considered part of this late nineteenth century trend for reverence of "natural" learning and recapitulation. I believe this is the way it often framed by Montessorians searching for legitimacy in the mainstream. That is that Montessori is, somehow, the example par excellence of Progressive education that works. It's certainly the way I became aware of it. This is ironic because the Progressives in the US, especially Kilpatrick, despised her method because it lacked many of the characteristics you criticize.

Certainly she romanticized childhood at times (in a Progressive way). But, she also insisted on giving young children -- sometimes very young children -- much more than what they already know. The emphasis on literacy (through phonics and grammar) and geography (not social studies), her reverence for "non-discursive" modes of communication (The Great Lessons, the profusion of ritualized activity), and her insistence on using accurate names for the parts of leaves and the skeletons of fish sound a lot like what I think you are advocating. So, I'm wondering where you think Montessori(the woman) fits into this moment in intellectual history.

Second, because Montessori lives on beyond the woman, your book has made me re-think some encounters I have had with Montessorians in the past 18 months (I have been serving as the Head of a Montessori school as a means of gaining entry into Montessori culture). For instance, I once in a Newsletter column referred to Montessori environments as "hothouses" for children's development. One of the school's teachers took great issue with this term, claiming that Montessori is not in the business of "forcing" development. I have always maintained that I am correct -- a "prepared environment" is not a "natural" environment. But I now, thanks to your discussion, have a better understanding of what bugged this teacher about that term. And I think it's her own purchase of "natural learner" myth. If I've got you right, you're saying that certain elements of Progressivism have found their way into the zeitgeist of North American education -- they are inscribed in our language and culture in such as way that we take them as truth, even if they contradict what we may actually do in practice.

So, the rhetorical impact, Progressivism as "a Discourse" (to move into my mode of inquiry),of Progressive theory seeps into our collective interpretive systems -- it becomes its own cognitive tool. For someone like me, weaned on the idea that Dewey was a prophet and that Constructivism is a promised land, your ideas are provocative. But for someone trying to make sense of why Montessori has managed to remain under the radar of researchers for lo these nearly 100 years, your ideas are much more than that indeed. I'm not exactly how yet, but I believe they will be useful as my work on Montessori and theories of teaching practice evolves.

This is what I have been thinking of since finishing your book. If any of this is generative for you, or if these questions have been raised by other, I would be most interested in your response.

Many thanks,
Jackie Cossentino

Dear Jackie,
Thanks for your thoughtful e-mail. I'm sitting in an armchair at home at the moment, with two grandchildren playing around in the room. Both of them are at Montessori schools, at my suggestion. I think you raise some really interesting issues. It's clear that Montessori schools do some things very well--children actually learn something, and become socialized in ways that are supportive of their considerate interactions with others, etc. But, as you note, this "success" has not meant any significant impact on general discussions about education in north America. I think something similar might be said about Waldorf schools. And I do think the reason has to do with the overwhelming progressivist rhetoric that, literally, makes certain ideas unthinkable--or rather makes certain notions into such powerful presuppositions that they don't allow other ideas in. All that stuff about nature is, of course, a central problem. An endlessly pervasive idea.
I suppose my fuller response is in my book The Educated Mind. There is also a discussion section attached to that book, among which, as I recall, there are some Montessori and Waldorf inspired questions and comments.
Best wishes, (from a somewhat distracted)

I think the above letter deserves a more careful response, but perhaps some others might have comments related to Dr. Cossentino's letter?

Here is a set of brief responses to an email from a student:

1. Do you see any useful parts of progressivism?

KE: I begin the book by stating a general sympathy with progressivist ideals, and indicate that the movement has been responsible for major benefits to schooling, but its own ideals are so little realized because it has built in certain sets of beliefs that undercut its ability to achieve them. The book is an attempt to point these out, which could lead to a much improved form of progressivism.

2. On page 68. "Knowledge exists only as a function of living tissue." I would assume you are a believer in rote learning? Is your educational philosophy more toward essentialism?

KE: I'm not sure what it means to be "a believer" in rote learning. Usually rote learning is mindless and meaningless memorization, and of course I am as much against that as any progressivist. My argument was that progressivists generally took that simple objection to meaningless rote learning and applied it to all learning by heart. As I indicate in the book I favor learning much poetry and prose by heart--such knowledge is a great benefit to us. I've no idea what "essentialism" means. Hang over from an early 20th. century attempt to crudely classify ideas. My "philosophy" is best laid out in the book that is a companion to the "Wrong" book,The Educated Mind, University of Chicago Press.

3. The zone of proximal development regards what children can do with and without help. This is based upon what the child has learned as part of their culture. How is this really different than the ideas of The Spencer Gang and their views of relevant events and background as a child grows?

KE: In the Spencer etc. view, development precedes learning--they believe there is a spontaneous developmental process to which learning must conform if knowledge is to be meaningful to students; Vygotsky believed that learning drives development--that development occurs as a product of children internalizing from their social interactions the "tools" that then enlarge their understanding and higher psychological processes in general. It matters very much in education whether you believe some conception of development must precede learning, as Piaget, et al. did, or whether you believe that learning drives development.







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