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.)


4 thoughts on “Knobby

  1. Seems like Montessori has some distinct strengths for younger kids and Charlotte Mason for older. According to Piaget, young children do need experiences to fit into their physical senses and motor experience for learning to occur. But once they get more into the 5-6 age, they can learn more readily from literature. I find it odd how many philosophies insist on complete adherence to their way. But maybe if I came up with an educational model I would think that too.

    I love the auto-didactic approach. Much better to have life be the one that gives the bad news than Mom πŸ™‚

    I also have a pet peeve about people thinking books are better or more virtuous just because they are old. Grrr.

    I like many of Sonlight’s book choices. I used to read them to Bethany as bedtime stories when she was in school. Yeah, so many options, so little perfection πŸ™‚ Good luck!

    • Mmm, Piaget… the guy who based all of his stuff on watching his own kids! How’s that for double-blind peer-reviewed studies… giggle. Most of what he said (according to the textbooks in which I read about it) makes sense to me. What’s odd for me is that it makes total sense to me that a philosophy would insist on complete adherence… it boggles my mind to see how some people can blend and integrate and pick and choose in a way that doesn’t seem thoughtless, flighty, arrogant, etc.

      I’m glad to hear you liked a lot of Sonlight’s chosen books. As packaged curricula go, so far it’s the front-runner.

      I love your “so many options, so little perfection” line! It’s exactly right.

      As for Montessori and older ones, I would like to learn more about how it’s done. Maybe I should / could ask about observing some of the older classes occasionally, and I know there’s going to be some resources in the school library.

  2. Sooooo many ideas in here to think about! I love some Montesorri as well as Waldorf ideas. I don’t believe CM books are only picked due to being old, but also for the value of the way they are written and the old language. Learning to understand it early opens up a whole new world! As I’ve shared, my Allen (14) reads and understands Shakespeare better than I do and has for many years now.

    I love the Book of Virtue! Sometimes little mantras do help my littles in time of struggle, I have found. A quick renewing of the mind. But then so have hymns! I rarely find what I want to with homeschool history/art being diverse. I have found neat sites of folk tales from all over the world that are interesting, and we are making an effort to find art from other countries to inspire further study in history and geography.

    • It’s true that some of those little mantras are a matter of cultural literacy, and can be drawn on in needy moments… I especially like the ones in hymns and Scripture, though! And some of Aesop, although it’s been hard to find an edition of Aesop I completely like. And I agree with you about diversity in art and folk tales and such. I was really heartened in college when I did a study of Dinka folk tales, to find a lot of the same emphases — that character trumps appearance, for example.

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