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Montessori, Peace, and Libertarianism

My latest publication is Montessori, Peace, and Libertarianism, published today on LewRockwell.com. In it I discuss Montessori’s educational method and her philosophy of peace, and quote extensively from a great article by John Bremer, “Education as Peace.”

Update: see also my LRC post Battle Hymn of the Libertarian-Montessori Father.

Some things I had to cut:

Reading and Writing. One of my favorite things about Montessori is its approach to learning reading and writing. Following a blend of these ideas (see Montessori Read and Write) and Glenn Doman’s How To Teach Your Baby to Read, I, as a first-time parent, taught my own child to read at a very young age (I recall him reading his first word, “red,” off of a flash card at our kitchen table when he was perhaps 14 months old). He was soon reading fluently, amazing adults, and is now, at 7, reading books at 7th grade level (he is on book 7 of the Harry Potter books). I’ve instilled a love of reading in him which is extremely important foundationally (his spelling is excellent too, like his dad’s). I don’t think he was able to do this because he’s some genius; I think this is possible with most kids. (You can also teach them to swim very early, which I also did. This is important as a survival skill in places where lots of people have pools!)

As noted, I used a blend of the Montessori approach and the Doman approach. There are several aspects to the Montessori approach:

  • Do not teach kids the names of letters. This is a key insight. Just teach them how the letter sounds, and what it looks like. So if you point to the letters of the alphabet, you would say, “aah, buh, little-kuh (to distinguish c, “little-kuh,” from k, “big-kuh”), duh, eh, eff, guh,” and so on. I never taught my son the names of letters. He just picked them up gradually later on.
  • Writing is sometimes taught before reading. The idea is that “young children will often be able to write (encoding language by spelling phonetic words out one sound at a time) weeks or months before they will be able to read comfortably (decoding printed words).” And if you manage write a word, then you can read it – you know what you wrote. So strangely, by learning to write you can help teach yourself to read.
  • Cursive is taught before printing. Cursive, as I understand it, is not even taught anymore in some schools, which is a shame. In Montessori, it’s taught first, since children are able to make the flowing motions of cursive more easily than print letters.

Now, I did not actually follow all these rules. My son read early, before he was dexterous enough to write. But again, I appreciate the thought put into the approach, the focus on the child. In my case, following the first point above – do not teach the kid letter names – I taught him the letter sounds very early, probably before he was 12 months. We almost never used a stroller; I used the Baby Bjorn baby carrier (one of my favorite products of all time) for almost his entire infancy. We would go on walks outside, to the mall, walk the dogs, the whole time me pointing out objects in the world and asking my baby boy to sound out the first letter. For example I would point to a big rock and say “that’s a ‘rock’. Say the first part.” He would say, “ruh, ruh, rock.” Later we moved to the last part (the “kuh”) and the middle part (the “ahh” for o). This is, I believe, from Doman’s approach. My son knew that the symbol “R” sounded like “ruh” because I never confused him by telling him “this R is an ‘arr’ and it sounds like ‘ruh.’” How confusing that would be! The name of letters is a distracting step that slows down young learners (that is the Montessori insight).

I used to draw letters in chalk on our sidewalk and driveway, and so he quickly learned that the “A” symbol represents the “aah” sound, “R” means “ruh,” and so on. I also drew every shape I could think of – at an early age he knew not only triangle and circle, but spiral, rhombus, trapezoid, and so on. The point is that if a baby knows what sounds the letters make, and you practice with him in identifying the parts of words to objects like “rock,” “dog,” “cat,” and so on (use only phonetic words at first to minimize confusion—e.g. don’t use the word “ought” etc.), then if you show him the symbols R-E-D on a flashcard he can say RUH EHH DUH and then put it together so it sounds like “red.”

Another Montessori rule I broke is the idea that when kids are learning, and they misspell or mispronounce a word, don’t correct them, because it can break the flow and discourage them. But when I write I like to stop and get each word right one at a time. It bugs me to wait and fix it later with a spell checker. Or if I come across a new word I need to figure out what it means and its pronunciation before proceeding. And my son is a bit like me, so when he is reading or spelling and makes a mistake I usually interrupt and correct him immediately; he pauses, redoes it the right way, and goes on. And he likes it. But I am sure to do it in a way that is encouraging, and helpful, not condescending or criticizing. So I appreciate the Montessori caution about excessive correction, though in this case I disregarded it, though mindful of the potential drawbacks. Again: the Montessori approach is focused on the child and how he learns and develops.

For parents of babies I highly recommend you get the two books noted above, make a set of homemade flash cards (following Doman’s suggestions), and go to town. Your kid will be reading very early.

(Incidentally, the Suzuki method of learning music – typically violin or piano – is similar in some ways to the Montessori approach to language – children learn to play by learning what keys make what sounds, without at first bothering to learn the names of notes; my son is now in his 4th year of Suzuki piano and is just now learning the names of the notes or how to read music, though he is already playing with two hands. Unsurprisingly, Montessorians often recommend the Suzuki method.)

Initial Impressions. My first significant impression of what Montessori is about was during my wife’s and my initial tour and parent interview at Post Oak. The Admission Director, Kay Burkhalter, upon hearing of our homemade babyfood plans and other parenting ideas, said “you guys are natural Montessori parents!” We soon saw that she was right. We loved the school immediately: the setting was tranquil and simple, the classes well organized. The children we observed seemed respectful, confident, and absorbed.

I remember that as we sat in Kay’s office, an older student, perhaps 5th or 6th grade, wandered by in the hall, carrying a tray of food on his shoulder with one hand like a waiter. He ducked into the office we were in, even though there were two adult guests there, and though he was polite, he showed no trepidation about approaching Kay and us strange adults, and said, “Excuse me – I made sushi for my ‘work’ this afternoon; would you like to try some?” (“Work” is the somewhat idiosyncratic Montessori word for projects the children are engaged in.)

My wife and I were bowled over by this. This kid was obviously not cowed by adults. He was proud of his work. He had no compunction about offering it to a key administrator and two adult strangers. He was not brash or disrespectful, but he was not too shy to approach us; he obviously did not think of himself as having some junior “place” compared to the adults; he had been led to view himself as a full human and individual having a right to exist and interact with others, not as some second-class citizen.

We were also impressed by the beautiful and elegant organization of the classrooms, the intricate materials, often constructed of wood or metal, and the serene calmness and sense of purpose displayed even by younger kids, absorbed in their “work.”

The other top-notch elementary schools in inner-loop Houston seemed to be difficult to get into, political, and/or too religious (probably all three). Refreshingly, Post Oak was secular, though not hostile to religion at all – as Post Oak’s website indicates, it is not a religious school, but “Montessori education does include a significant emphasis on personal conduct along with care and responsibility for others, which dovetails well with many religious faiths.”

It was also not “political” in the sense that it was more merit-based in the application process than other elite private schools tend to be: they gave preference to children whose parents showed a sincere commitment to the Montessori approach, rather than people with “pull” or “names” or big donations. (It’s also not political in another sense – my kid doesn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, like even many private and parochial students still unfortunately do.)

And so, by demonstrating sufficient sincere interest in the Montessori approach, our child was accepted. The last six years there have been wonderful.

Update: In addition to the classic works on positive discipline mentioned in the original article (updated versions listed below), I have in the intervening years come across some others:

{ 14 comments… add one }
  • D. Frank Robinson April 29, 2011, 9:28 pm

    This post is personally touching for me. My son was born in 1974. I tried to apply the same methods to educate my son, Branden. His mother and I were amazed, but I had no particular expectations. I choose Montessori because I knew early learning experiences were simply spontaneous scavenging of the environment. I discovered Montessori though Nathaniel Branden and the ‘Circle’ of Ayn Rand in the 1960s.
    It turned out that my son is ‘gifted’, but I never assumed that. I don’t recall when Branden began to read, but I recall him reading an article from Time magazine to friend of mine when he was three. Just before he was 4 he got on a computer I had just bought and started typing in programs from books. Many years later he was elected leader of the Debian Linux Project. I must attribute some of his success to the early learning opportunities Montessori provides and encourages.
    Thank you, Stephan, for bringing Montessori forward today. Thank you. Thank you.

  • D. Frank Robinson April 29, 2011, 9:32 pm

    Correction: I choked up a bit writing this. The sentence ‘I choose Montessori because I knew early learning experiences were simply spontaneous scavenging of the environment.’ should read ‘I choose Montessori because I knew MY early learning experiences were simply spontaneous scavenging of the environment.’

  • Country Thinker May 6, 2011, 3:12 pm

    Thank you for the links. My son is 4 and he has about 16 months before he starts school (that alone gets me choked up.)

    I’ve been winging it so far on teaching him, and though it’s going well I’m always open to ideas.

    I’ve definitely broken the “writing first” rule, because he gets frustrated and gives up quickly, and it’s very hard to “make” a 4-year old write. He knows the sounds though, and we go through each word sound by sound. We stop at signs along the road, and we figure them out together. I swear I’m going to wear out the button for my hazards – and this is one of those “I-know-I’m-going-to-reflect-on-this-nostalgically-some-day” processes, so I make sure not to let petty adult worries push me to skimp on these moments.

    As a proud papa, I have to say that he really kicks butt with math. I think he got the math mind of his grandfather, a retired Chemical Engineering professor.

    • Stephan Kinsella May 6, 2011, 3:16 pm

      Thanks! I, my wife, and my wife’s dad and brother are all hyper math types (engineers etc.) so to be honest that is one thing I never worried about. I wanted to get him reading first; and he is now a superstar at it. He is just “fine” at math, but that doesn’t concern us because we are sure that he has the capacity and it will flower in its own time.

  • Country Thinker May 6, 2011, 8:55 pm

    As more of a language guy (recovering attorney), perhaps I fret about his math skills more than I should. But ultimately, I can provide the opportunity, encouragement, and a bit of discipline, but to some extent a 4-year old has a large hand in his own destiny. Thus, a son who knows more about sharks than any other human I know (long story) but has a Spanish vocabulary of fewer than 20 words, in spite of this bilingual father’s efforts to the contrary…

    • Stephan Kinsella May 7, 2011, 12:44 pm

      I know what you mean re sharks; mine is like that about dinosaurs. For math I think the Shillermath.com set is a good Montessori-based homeschool math program.

  • Marsha Familaro Enright January 30, 2014, 1:30 pm

    Nice job describing the beauties of Montessori. Keep spreading the word!

  • Conza January 8, 2015, 10:39 pm

    FYI — Audio of the talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMq8PDS24N0

  • Marsha Familaro Enright January 10, 2015, 7:55 am

    Hi Stephan,
    Nice intro to the Montessori approach. And of course, I’m so happy you’re a big advocate! I especially appreciated your commentary on the respect and nurturing of the individual evinced in the methods and the delightful outcomes because of it – self-confidence and autonomy being key.

    I wanted to mention another way that Suzuki is very similar to Montessori: the presentation of tasks which teach a delimited aspect of an area of knowledge or skill at one time, so that the child can work on that and master it before going on to the next aspect.

    For example, the first lesson in Suzuki piano focuses on learning how to hit the keys the right way with the “Mississippi hot dog” “tune.”

    When the child is ready, he can go on to the next lesson, which builds another skill onto the first.

    This is like the Montessori materials, which teach small aspects of concepts at a time (think of the bead materials which teach the concepts of unit, tens, hundreds, and thousands visually, allowing the child to do addition and subtraction with real objects instantiating the concepts).

    One of the beauties of this approach is it makes the tasks just hard enough to be engaging, but not too hard to be overwhelming, allowing the child to get into a Flow state which is super-enjoyable. And THAT makes the child want to come back and do more; hence become “self-disciplined.” See an example of the bead materials at this page:


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