All around the world, children are going back to school, and I cannot help but think that if Dr. Maria Montessori (Italy, 1870–1952) were alive today, designers would be among her top teaching recruits for their skills in observation and empathy.
After years of alternating between user-experience projects in San Francisco and on-call teaching assignments at a Bay Area Montessori school, I'm inspired to share the revelation that they are parallel—yet oddly independent—universes unto each other. In both universes there is an enormous emphasis on design problem solving, disciplined observation and innate empathy, not to mention findings reports.
Underlying both environments is also a fundamental principle of human dignity, with a modest lack of assumption about an individual's truth; under observation, user testers navigate our prepared prototypes and reveal where our designs match or fail human intuition. Children navigate a Montessori 'prepared environment' and reveal their individual selves.
First-time observers of a Montessori prepared environment often witness its effects upon children with jaw-dropping disbelief. It's not unlike observing a person interact with a fully resolved design. The effect is deepened, however, as we often underestimate the children's learning ability, when in fact it is greater than that of most adults. Dr. Montessori referred often used the term 'absorbent mind' when discussing children's abiliy to learn.Montessori school rooms support this absorbent mind of children through a balanced practice of allowing providing direction, allowing freedom and individual choice, while maintaining respect for group consensus. The classrooms also support teachers by removing the onus of controlling children. As in the best instances of design, the classroom setup and observational teaching style are conscious decisions, organized down to tiniest of details, for conscious reasons supported by Dr. Montessori's life of education research.
Just as a designer sets out to create problem-solving products in human interaction, Dr. Montessori engaged in a life-long mission to understand and resolve the challenges in childhood learning. Drawing on years of observation and insight, her work was some of the first to acknowledge the inherent dignity of children. Instead of forcing children into an adult environment, she rather sought to defend children's miraculous abilities through refinement of a myriad of designs. These included beginning-to-end learning tools in language, math, science, geography and practical life. Through a process of observation, design, testing and rapid refinement, she eventually arrived at a comprehensive learning environment.
Furniture designers will also enjoy discovering Dr. Montessori's frequent railings against the ill-advised attempts of the educational establishment to control children's movement. She accused them of enslaving children into stationary, adult-sized desks that were often bolted to the floor (reference: Discovery of the Child).
The method of observation is established upon one fundamental base—the liberty of the pupils in their spontaneous manifestations.
She addressed this failing of the establishment by creating the first child-size desks that were also light enough for a child to move around the classroom. Children could work wherever they wanted (including on the floor) and with whomever they wanted—in fact, they were encouraged to move throughout the classroom as part of their daily routine. Eventually she came to believe deeply in a system of 3-hour work cycles, during which children were encouraged to concentrate as much as possible, but were ultimately free to collaborate with their classmates naturally.
The ultimate harmony of a prepared environment manifests itself in a quiet bustle as a matter of normal course. Children are allowed to choose their own 'work,' but then follow an ordered set of steps to complete it. For young students, examples of work can vary from making a bead necklace to an independent study that is later presented to the class. Works can take as long as a child need to complete it. Children can only choose work that they have previously had a lesson on from the teacher, or 'Director' in Dr. Montessori's terms. The Directors spend much of their time observing a child's natural patterns, as it is in the repeated interactions that each child's individual spirit is allowed to emerge and self-realize.
If Maria Montessori had made her revelations in educational philosophy in our time, I believe that our industry would consider her an icon among us, and yet she is rarely mentioned in our circles. More recently, President Obama issued a mandate in his State of the Union address for all of the Nation's 4-year-olds to receive access to early childhood education. We can be a part of that change.by reaching across to the (currently) separate universe of Montessori education, and cross-pollinating ideas in our typical fashion.