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Neuropsychology and Montessori

Montessori education is a brain-based, developmental method that allows children to make creative choices in discovering people, places and knowledge of the world. It is hands-on learning, self-expression, and collaborative play in a beautifully crafted environment of respect, peace, and joy. It is also about brain development. A skilful Montessori teacher knows what stage a child is in their brain development and they are meeting it, and they are feeding it. The Montessori method is like education designed by a paediatric developmental neuropsychologist.

Montessori education is the original and, I think, the best brain-based model of education. The body is rather interestingly mapped along the surface of the brain. It is not mapped on the brain in any way that matches the size of the area. It is not a one-to-one mapping. If you were to build a human based on what the brain thinks a human looks like the most striking feature would be the unusually large hands.

Why do young children, who are still developing the ability to understand language, spend so much time sitting and listening to teachers at a conventional school? Wouldn't it be nice to design an educational model around hands-on activity, physical manipulation, and engagement in the world? Maria Montessori did just that.

There is a model of the way the brain is organised and how it works which I refer to as the nuggets and networks system. Areas of the brain do not function in isolation, they communicate with other areas through networks of active fibres. Brains need healthy nuggets and healthy networks in order to function.

Nuggets can be defined as small, circumscribed areas of the brain that perform a specialised function such as reading. Reading is a cognitive function that requires the coordinated use of more than one nugget. Reading does not happen in one spot in the brain; it's the coordination of multiple spots that cover things like letter and word recognition, phonological processing, and language comprehension. Somehow, Maria Montessori knew about these nuggets. The Montessori reading curriculum is astonishingly dead-on in helping developing brains condense the nuggets that perform these certain functions.

In the brain of a child with a learning disability, there is a nugget that is not formed. That nugget is necessary for a critical component of reading. If we can identify that a child has a nugget that is not firing correctly, or not at all, we can help that nugget form. One of the ways you do that is through a series of very circumscribed, specific, and repetitive tasks that are about training that little undeveloped nugget. You can actually do some significant remediation using that method.

Networks are the fibres underlying the surface of your brain, or your cortex. When you are confronted with a novel task, your brain needs help. Your brain then calls on all quarters to solve the problem. A healthy and well-developed network system helps bring all hands, or all neurones, on deck. There is a lot of general processing happening everywhere in a novel problem solving brain.

In a Montessori classroom, a child will learn how to grip an object using the Bailey's two-point pencil grasp through doing cylinder work; the little handles attached to the cylinders require that sort of handling. When the child then moves on to writing, they know how to hold a pencil as a result of all the time they spent handling the cylinders. This is an example of how the networks in your brain function. The novel task of holding a pencil is supported by previous activities.

There are some things we know of that can help brains develop healthy and strong nuggets and networks. Repetition helps build better brains. Repetition is a big part of the Montessori environment.

Take, for example, the pink tower. The child's motor system is developing so that he or she can hold the top pieces of the tower high and still enough to place them on top of each other. It feels good to develop this mastery. We can also build better brains by providing our children with settings in which they feel secure. A child can sit in a quiet, beautiful spot in the classroom and look at a book in peace. Or they can take care of plants. They have the freedom to check to see if the plants need watering and the knowledge of how to care for another living thing.

Hands-on work can also enhance learning. There is research that directly compares the effects of observational versus hands-on learning. You will not be surprised to hear that hands-on matters. In a Montessori classroom, children learn that tasks have a beginning part, a doing part, and a completion part. All of these practices of life activities are supporting the development of networks that will be utilised in practical daily tasks.

We know we can also build better brains through multi-sensory activities or through sensory specific activities. Maria Montessori observed that children are drawn to balancing on railings or tightrope walking on lines. She noticed that children are drawn to these sorts of things, so she understood there must be a sort of developmental need for them.

Maria Montessori wrote late in her career about characteristics that emerged everywhere in the world in children that come out of these Montessori environments. They had a love of order, of work, of silence, and of being alone. They had profound concentration abilities. They demonstrated appropriate obedience not obsequiousness. They showed independence and initiative, and they had spontaneous self-discipline. They were well-attached to reality, and they were joyful.

I think we are starting to realise, at national and international organisational levels that we need to analyse and harness the forces that control what happens in schools, and we need to work to change society for the benefit of children.