Pedagogy of Love: Ritual as a Window into Montessori Practice

By Cossentino, Jacqueline | Montessori Life, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Pedagogy of Love: Ritual as a Window into Montessori Practice


Cossentino, Jacqueline, Montessori Life


The View from an Outside Window

The first time I met a practitioner was the day I enrolled my then-3-year-old in the local Montessori school. Fresh out of graduate school (in Education) and poised to begin my career as an academic at a major research university, I was utterly unprepared for what awaited me on the other side of the classroom door. Though I thought of myself as an educational insider, immediately it became clear that I was an outsider in this world. The sites and sounds both attracted and perplexed me. Why all the attention to rolling and unrolling mats in just the right manner? What was the significance of changing from outside to inside shoes? Why was I asked to sit quietly and not interact with the children? And what was all this talk of "work"? That was 3 years ago. In the intervening years, my son has moved from the Children's House to our elementary program, I have become the head of school, and my questions have evolved into a full-blown research agenda.

The trigger, of course, was taking that first look inside the classroom. But the decision to make Montessori the subject of my research occurred while listening to an audio recording of the Summary of AMS's 40th Annual Seminar Colloquium. The subject of the meeting was research: how to do it, why it is needed, what it should feature. Throughout the discussion arose the issue of unity-the need to work together to articulate a common terminology, to remember the ideals and outcomes that link Montessorians the world over. When one of the participants, a Montessorian from Brazil, offered her observation that "the pedagogy of love" was that link, all of my attraction and perplexity converged into a single cluster of research questions: What is a pedagogy of love? What does it look like? How is it constructed, practiced, and fulfilled?

To answer those questions, I turned to a concept that had already figured prominently in my analysis of teachers and teaching in traditional classrooms (Cossentino, forthcoming). That concept is ritual. From the precise way a child learns to roll and unroll a mat or the intricate choreography of a lesson in handwashing to the larger ceremonies of the Great Lessons or the Birthday Celebration, ritualized activity is among the most distinctive features of Montessori education. In marking time, shaping space, and communicating values central to the culture, these rituals help define the contours of Montessori practice and, in so doing, they illuminate the complexity as well as the unity of the method. They enable us to "see" the pedagogy of love.

What follows is a close look at a single instance of teaching practice in a Montessori elementary classroom. It begins by describing and analyzing a complex series of interactions between Kristin, a novice teacher; Alex, a first-year student; and the materials that Kristin and Alex use to mediate a lesson in addition. Drawing from recent research on the problem of expertise (Lampert, 2001), it elaborates a model of practice that highlights the unique quality of relationships between student, teacher, and environment evident in practitioners of the Montessori method, moving on to examine the encounter as an example of ritualized practice. Focusing on patterns of formalized action and the symbolism embedded in those actions demonstrates how Kristin ritualizes her practice as a means of "acting out" a pedagogy of love.

A Lesson in Addition

"Alex wasn't really getting the concept of addition," Kristin tells me. "He needs to get a concrete sense of what two numbers put together mean, that they make a different number." This is how the lesson begins, with diagnosis of student understanding. Not what needs to be covered, not even what mistakes Alex has made. Rather, Kristin's focus is on the conceptual target of addition.

Actually, this portion of Kristin's planning began weeks ago as she noticed difficulties Alex was having with the 5-bead chain. …

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