In a Montessori preschool classroom, there’s several different sets of knobbed cylinders. In one set all the cylinders are identical except in height. In another, they vary by diameter. I think there’s a set that varies in both height and diameter, but is otherwise undifferentiated. Each set includes a frame that the cylinders fit into only one way. It’s self-correcting, or, to use the Montessori term, auto-didactic. If you put a cylinder where it doesn’t fit, well, it won’t fit — and it’ll be obvious. The cylinders only vary in one or two ways in order to avoid unnecessary distraction and to allow a greater focus of attention — vs. most educational toys in the store that have a thousand colors, make a thousand sounds, and try to teach a thousand things at a time.
Yes, such specialized material means that it costs a fair bit to properly set up a Montessori classroom — which also means it’s not easy to do Montessori properly at home. Then again, it wasn’t designed to be done at home.
Charlotte Mason criticized Montessori for her emphasis on such specialized equipment. She argued that normal children learn about height and diameter from ordinary things and don’t need fancy knobbed cylinders to help them do so — she also suggested that such materials were actually undervaluing children’s abilities.
What’s interesting about that is that Mason was really big on training focused attention. Her approach to literature involves this training — you read to the child one time, then ask them to tell back (narrate) what they heard.
Mason emphasizes ideas — ideas presented mostly through literature — at least for six-year-olds and older. For the younger ones, she didn’t suggest any kind of formal schooling — mainly plenty of time outdoors. Montessori for the younger ones involves a lot of sensory materials (like the cylinders). But I don’t believe Montessori expects older students to learn primarily through sensory material.
To me it seems rather obvious that sensory exploration and exploration of ideas are both excellent food for whole persons. And I think that Montessori is correct that sensory things and movement ARE connected to the brain and other kinds of learning, and that Mason is wrong to absolutely separate sensory things and movement from ideas and the mind. Montessori’s idea also seems to mesh better with the traditional Hebrew view of persons being whole and undivided.
I think Mason and Montessori both have an excellent appreciation of and respect for the personhood of children, and their need for self-direction. They were both so insistent on their own methods being followed exactly that I can imagine it being a challenge to integrate or blend their ideas — and yet I still want to do so. I haven’t found many resources yet that have done this integration.
It would be nice if a packaged curriculum was available that was already everything I want and care about. I rather doubt that I will find one, though. Sonlight looks interesting in some ways… it may be, though, that I could do the parts I like about it by using one of the online (and free) Charlotte Mason guides.
I don’t have anything against the idea of a Christian curriculum… but I am skeptical. I think I would rather add my own Bible study than follow someone else’s, and I am especially skeptical that any packaged curriculum could integrate Bible and other subjects in a way that I would agree with.
Some of the Charlotte Mason and Classical approaches seem to have a love of books that are old precisely because they are old. Or they think the older books automatically have better moral content. I’m not convinced — even though I also love a lot of old books. I hate _The Book of Virtue_, for one thing — so pedantic! I don’t think anyone becomes a better person because some pedantic poem told them to do so. It’s more through grappling personally (and vicariously) with real moral dilemmas. It’s one of the reasons I actually like Philip Pullman’s _His Dark Materials_ trilogy — his characters are all real and round — no black and white hats here, no clearly demarcated good and evil. I think there IS value in fairy stories and such that do have clearly good and clearly evil characters, because good and evil do exist and the difference matters… but I think there is also a LOT of value in stories that show people realistically, as we know them, as flawed and beautiful, wonderful and repulsive, fallen but still bearing a glorious image.
I remember really liking “The Story of Ping” as a child but I don’t know why — and on reading it again as an adult I haven’t yet found it compelling — for one thing, I don’t really want to use a story that includes spanking in it, even fairly innocuous spanking like Ping gets. Or I’ve seen “The Little House” on the award shelf at the library, but glancing through it I don’t find it compelling at all. I do love “Blueberries for Sal,” though — partly because Sal wears overalls and has short hair and otherwise isn’t frilly and pink, partly because of the brush with danger involved with the presence of bears, and partly because of the homesteading appeal of picking wild blueberries and canning them.
I don’t know how I feel about history yet. Some approaches do chronological history, like in a four-year cycle, that students go through again when they are older. Others organize it differently. I do like the idea of introducing other parts of the world and other cultures very early — understanding that everyone is in a context and that differences matter is important, especially (it seems) in our country where Christianity has gotten all sorts of cultural stuff attached to it that doesn’t really belong. (Bet that’s true — but different — in other places, too.)