Montessori Moments

August 21, 2009

The Why of “Why”

Filed under: classroom,montessori education,parenting,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 10:44 am
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A half-dozen three to six-year old children are seated on the floor with the guide.  They have a conversation that goes something like this…

Guide: Do we walk in the classroom, or do we run?

Chorus of children: Waaaaaaalk!

Guide: I would like a volunteer to show us how we walk in the classroom.

(Children eagerly raise their hands).

Guide: Johnny, could you please walk to the pink tower, turn around, and come back to the group?

(Johnny stands up quietly, voluntarily puts his hands behind his back, and using very controlled heel-toe motions walks noiselessly to the pink tower and back while the other children and the guide watch silently).

Guide: Yes, that’s how we walk in the classroom.  Thank you for demonstrating, Johnny.

This can go on for 5-10 minutes, depending on the children’s interest and level of self-control.

Watching with hands behind his back (from

Watching with hands behind his back (from

What  I’ve described above is an exercise for reviewing the “limits”, without which a Montessori classroom would not be able to function.  These limits are a set of democratically-applied rules that help the classroom society function smoothly and allow the children to enjoy a level of freedom not found in traditional schools.  Limits are objective, logical, and come with natural consequences (not punishments).  They are truly the cornerstone of a functional classroom, and help the children develop self-discipline in a way that punishments and rewards never will.  Adults might be surprised to find out that the same limits apply to everyone, including the guide, aide, administrators, and any other adult that visits the classroom (as the children will quickly remind you, if you inadvertently break a rule).  

In order to keep the limits present in the children’s minds, I find it necessary to review them in small groups on a regular basis (apart from offering individual gentle reminders as needed throughout the day).  The review is normally a combination of Q & A and role-playing, with the latter serving many purposes: The children love demonstrating their ability to control their movements, the younger ones are quick to emulate the behaviors of the much-admired older children, and the visual impression of a child acting out a limit crystallizes the behavior in the minds of the others. 

One morning during summer school, as we sat in a group discussing the limits, it occurred to me that I had never heard a child ask “why” when we’d reviewed the rules (I’m not talking about the natural childhood curiosity of “Why is the sky blue?”.  This is a different type of “why”) .  Small children are very accepting and trusting, and will (for the most part) eagerly follow a guide’s requests if she knows how to approach the situation.  While this can work in a guide’s favor, it also left me wondering about the children’s true understanding of the underlying reasons for each rule, and furthermore, the implications of people who follow the rules blindly without asking “why” or only know they’ve broken a rule when they receive a punishment.  

Every parent and educator wants children to be “critical thinkers” when they grow up; we want our children to question the status quo, think outside the box, apply the scientific method, and be innovative.  But how can our children achieve this if we have created a system of education and parenting in which “because I said so” and “that’s just the way things are” are the underlying mottos?  There is no room for questions when a teacher’s priority is to get 30 students to sit quietly in rows and pass a standardized test.  Likewise, there is no room for questions when an over-worked parent’s priority is to get her “stubborn” child to go to bed.

As I sat with the group of children, I decided to try something new.  I asked one of them to show us how to carry a chair.  He took the seat with one hand and the backrest with the other, in typical Montessori fashion, walked around the classroom and brought the chair back to its table.  As he sat down, I looked at the children and asked, “Can somebody tell me why we carry a chair that way?”

Blank stares met my gaze.  I stood up, took a chair by the backrest with one hand, and picked it up.  The chair knocked against the table noisily.  The children’s eyes widened.  I then used two hands to hold the chair by the backrest, with the feet sticking out and my back arched dramatically, grabbed my back and groaned in simulated pain, and then walked by the pink tower.  The chair’s legs grazed the tower and knocked over two cubes.  The children gasped.  

I fixed the pink tower and adjusted my grip so I was carrying the chair correctly.  “Now, can somebody tell me why we carry the chair like this?”  Several arms shot up, and I got a volley of responses highlighting the different faux pas I had committed.  I put the chair down and joined the children.  “If you don’t know WHY we have a certain rule, it is important to ask,” I told them.  “It’s hard to follow rules if you don’t know why we have them.  But if you know why we have a rule, then it makes sense to you and you can follow it.”  The children looked hesitant.

“Let’s practice.”  I decided to start with something easy: “Here is a rule: In this classroom we walk.”  They all looked at me.  “Who’s going to ask why?”  A five-year old put up his hand.  I nodded and he said, “Why?”  

I replied, “Well, because if we run we can fall and get hurt, or we can trip over a material and damage it.”  A few children nodded and smiled.  “Here’s another rule,” I continued.  “In this classroom, when we watch our friends who are working, we put our hands behind our backs and stand quietly.”  I looked at the children.  A four-year old girl tentatively raised her hand and asked why.  “Well, who wants to tell us why,” I countered.  “Because if we talk and touch their material then they can’t do their work,” replied another child.  

As I continued with this exercise, the children soon lost their inhibitions and were asking “why” with enthusiasm and genuine curiosity.  The older children knew the purpose of most of the rules, because I had been careful to explain them throughout last year.  My goal, however, was not to simply help them understand the rules of the classroom; I wanted to make them aware of their right to ask why, and the empowerment and responsibility that this simple three-letter word brought with it.  As an added bonus, the children’s ability to ask “why” would help them discover the natural consequences of breaking a rule without having to experience the consequence first-hand (i.e. running in the classroom causes a person to fall and get hurt, and who wants to deal with that if they don’t have to??)

At the end of the lesson, I reminded them that if at any time in their lives there was a rule that they didn’t understand, they had the right to ask why.  “Imagine you are an adult and you know how to drive.  The rule is that you have to drive slowly.  Why?” I challenged.  “Because if you drive fast you will crash!” cried out a five-year old.  “Exactly!  But if I don’t know why I have to drive slowly, I will go fast, get in an accident, and hurt myself and others,” I concluded.  (Wow, think about it… If we helped children understand the true reasons for rules, we could have adults who drive slowly – not because they fear a ticket or points on their insurance – but because they are conscious of the true impact of their behaviors on others!!)

I also stressed that if the rule made sense to them once the reason for its existence was explained, then they had to follow the rule because “following the rules is important so we can all live together happily”.  This seemed to make perfect sense to them, and the group dispersed on a very positive note.

Throughout the day, I received several genuine “why’s”, which I gladly took the time to answer.  After they went home, I wondered if any of them would question their parents, and what response this would elicit.  I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

The very next day, a five-year old boy came in and told me his mom had told him that he shouldn’t ask why.  He seemed genuinely concerned and confused, and inwardly I was torn between helping this child conform with the pressures of home and preparing him for the world that awaited him.  I told him that we need to follow the rules that mommy and daddy have at home, because they love us and know what is best.  However, I also told him that if anyone else tells him a rule that he doesn’t understand, then he has the right to ask why.  He nodded and seemed to be mulling over my answer in his head.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but for better or for worse, the seed had been planted.


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