Part 2: The Conference – Participant Perspective
The Montessori Centenary Conference– held on Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th – consisted of a rich and varied program, which reflected the diversity of the attending audience. More than fourteen different presentations were given, on topics ranging from the history of Montessori in Australia to the implementation of the Montessori method with Alzheimer’s patients in aged care facilities and the role of the teacher in acting as “sage” not “meddler”!. These informative presentations were peppered with several periods of ceremony and celebration. It would be impossible for me to recount every moment or recall every detail but there were several ‘standout’ experiences for me personally that I can’t stop myself from sharing!
First and foremost I have to acclaim the special “Children’s Welcome” ceremony…and yes I’ll admit upfront that I probably felt extra proud of it because my mum – Barbara Langford – was instrumental in its development! Barb was the driving force behind the concept and execution of the beautiful ‘Hundred Square’ installation that became the backdrop of the entire conference. The children of Canberra Montessori School proudly held aloft the rows of 10 shiny golden orbs at a time and hung these to create a giant ‘100 Square’ to represent the 100 years of Montessori education in Australia. It was a breathtaking sight to behold this beautiful golden structure taking shape; it was the first of many occasions on which members of the audience were moved to tears! It was the perfect symbolic start to the ‘Centenary’ celebrations and each subsequent speaker stood proudly in front of this striking emblem.
The Conference Openings also consisted of the now customary welcomes and acknowledgements of the traditional owners of the Australian country; we were welcomed to the land of the Ngunnawal people by Elder Aunty Agnes Shea. We were also welcomed to the event by the Hon. Peter Garret AM MP – the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth. Peter Garrett passionately articulated his thoughts about the synchronicity between the Montessori movement and the education goals of his own party…but I must admit that before long he was using the platform to promote policy rather than celebrate Montessori! I admire his skills; he moved seamlessly from congratulations to campaigning but I still saw a few raised eyebrows (and a yawn or two!) from participants who hadn’t really signed up to swallow political rhetoric (even if we were in Old Parliament House!).
Next up on my ‘highlights’ reel was the appearance of Andrei Roberfroid. Andrei is the President of the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) but also boasts an impressive resume of advocacy, most notably through his extensive work with UNICEF. Andrei is one of those unique individuals who is at once humble and calm yet immensely engaging. There is a quiet dignity about him, a gentle power, which never demands respect and yet somehow invokes it nonetheless. Andrei could have said almost anything in his presentation and I still would have been honoured to sit in the room with him, as accomplished as he is in the world of advocating for the rights of the children of the world. As it happens what he said was also of great interest as he set about putting the Australian Montessori Movement into a global context, connecting our community with our neighbours to the north of the equator. Similar tones bookended the conference, as we concluded on the Sunday with Lynne Lawrence, the Executive Director of AMI, outlining the work of Montessori programs in some of the most vulnerable communities of the world. Lynne, who shares Andrei’s natural aura of gentle authority, shared videos of young African children in their Montessori classrooms. She reminded us of “Our Great Work”; the promotion of a message of hope and peace achieved through education. We are not simply “teachers”, we are advocates, and our mission is not about teaching reading and writing but about the development of a better world.
Moving on to two of my perennial favourites; Steve Hughes and Laura Flores-Shaw. Both Steve and Laura hail from the United States…and so they both possess that inimitable brand of American confidence and charisma. Where Andrei and Lynne speak with a quiet power and endless earnestness, Steve and Laura orate with vigorous directness and self-assured humour. Steve reminded us of the strong correlation between the principles of Montessori and the development of the “executive functions” of the brain. He reiterated the value of Sensorial and physical education for little humans who are neurologically wired to rely upon the hands more so than any other part of the anatomy. He flashed up a sight that was familiar to some of us but a little eyebrow-lifting to those who hadn’t seen it before; the “sensory-motor homunculus”. This striking creature is a model of a human if our bodies corresponded to the amount of space each area occupies on the brain-map. A lot of Steve’s words and slides are available through the videos and downloads on his website www.goodatdoingthings so I won’t attempt to paraphrase and instead suggest you go straight to the source!
The Sensory Motor Homunculus
Laura focused on unpicking the true “core” of Montessori but perhaps the most valuable insight she offered was not the result of her years working as a psychologist, or her work as head of a Montessori school, but purely her perspective as a parent. She related an anecdote about her son, who attended Oak Knoll Kinderhaus Montessori, where she acts as Head of School. Laura started by telling us how frequently she reassures other parents of 4 and 5 year olds that “it all comes together” in the final year of the Cycle 1 Program, how often she must insist that they patiently wait for the natural explosion of learning rather than trying to push or force the ‘academic’ subjects. Laura told us that she believed her words with every fibre of her being…until her own son reached his final year of what we would call “Pre-school” (or “Early Learning”). At that time she recalled that all he seemed to do was wash tables…whenever she popped into his classroom he would be scrubbing away, never touching the rich Literacy materials available on the other side of the room. Laura candidly shared her increasing anxiety and revealed her lowest moments; trying to encourage his teachers to force him into a more academic direction, and even using her son’s bed-time ritual to try to coax him into committing to trying numbers and letters the following day. She confessed that at one point, just as he started his first year of formal schooling without any signs of “early reading” or his own “explosion into writing”, she essentially told her husband it might be time to accept that evidence suggested they had a cleaner in the making, not an intellectual for a son. Eventually Laura was told by her son’s teacher (and her employee, which makes it a very brave move…) to “back off” and trust him. Lo and behold, a few months went by and – as if by magic – her son suddenly had that long-awaited explosion. His writing went from scrawled scribbles to impressively detailed and delicate accounts. She showed “before” and “after” photos to prove it; one from around October, when she was just about giving up on her son’s academic abilities, and one from early in the new year when his ‘moment’ arrived and he was finally ready to truly express himself through the written word. Finally she concluded with a photo of her son as he is today; wearing a pair of trendy hipster-style glasses to help him better consume the endless volumes that he reads with a gluttonous enthusiasm! He is deeply immersed in the world of words – both those that he writes and those he reads – but he took his own journey into that world. Laura’s honest account reminded us all that there is no “right” way for a child or a parent. Her son couldn’t be rushed, but nor could she contain her motherly instincts. It was a poignant reminder – that we must patiently await the unfolding of each child, but that we must also respect the vulnerability and emotional journey of each parent.
Both Americans are frequent visitors to our shores and Laura will be here for the next month or two presenting a series of parent workshops (which I recommend so highly it hurts!). Find out more at https://montessoricentenary.org.au/events/centenary-events
Andrei and Lynne inspired the soul, Steve and Laura tickled the frontal lobe, but Anne Kelly went straight for the heart. Anne is an Aged Care Nurse from Tasmania (Update: Anne is now Managing Director of the Montessori Australia Foundation's Division: Montessori Aged Support Services) who implements the Montessori principles and methods in her work with people living with Dementia. I was eagerly awaiting this presentation, as was my mum Barbara, as my Nanna (Barb’s mum) is several years into her descent into the distressing world of Alzheimer’s. Both Barbara and I have found ourselves falling into our Montessori ‘teaching’ habits when engaging with Nanna; scaffolding her to find lost words and skills so that we can “help her to do it herself” rather than diving right in and doing it all for her. It was therefore fascinating, both personally and professionally, to listen to the words of a nurse who is so dedicated to putting these principles into action with her patients each and every day. Anne spoke with genuine passion, affection and respect for the individuals in her care. She showed us videos of elderly learners who were given the chance to maintain – and in some cases regain – fundamental skills that allowed them to retain their dignity, independence and place in the world. Anne and her colleagues tirelessly and methodically promote the motor and cognitive development of individuals who most others have simply given up on. She demonstrated the power of Montessori to transform lives. Ghandi once told us that “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”. Anne is working with some of the most vulnerable individuals you can imagine; those who each day lose a little more of their grasp on their memories, their senses, their bodies, and she is working tirelessly to treat them with the very best that she can possibly offer. It turns out that she believes the best she can offer them is Montessori! Visit Montessori Aged Support Services at www.massa.org.au for more information!
On the topic of utilising the Montessori approach to support our most vulnerable, the Sunday session focused largely on the work of the Montessori Children’s Foundation (MCF). The MCF supports the development of Montessori programs within rural, remote and Indigenous communities. We heard about the immensely successful work in the Torres Strait Islands, where the “Strait Start” programs are providing support and opportunities to children and families. Ned David spoke of the transformative effect that these experiences have on the Torres Strait communities. He also informed us that these programs would provide an unparalleled opportunity to begin quantifying some of the positive results of Montessori education. Long-term tracking and research will document the impact that the Montessori Strait Start experience has on families in these areas, and from this we will be able to extrapolate vital information about the broader restorative value of Montessori education.
Similarly moving stories of transformation and restoration came form Catherine Reed and Cherie Singleton as they spoke about the difference that Montessori environments have had on Aboriginal communities. Cherie has both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and has become the first Indigenous woman to achieve her Montessori Diploma (0-3). She coordinates a Montessori Centre in a remote Aboriginal community in Cape York and her genuine passion and emotion emanated from every word as she described the impact that this method has had on her life and on the lives of the children in this community, She spoke candidly of setbacks, caused by uncooperative business and government entities, but reiterated that the support of the MCF makes it possible to make it through these challenges to focus on the true task of providing the optimal environment for the development of the child. Catherine spoke with a similarly honest tone, recalling with great humour and humility the number of roles she had to undertake during her time in the most remote community in Australia; in addition to “teacher” she became nurse, psychologist, bus driver, plumber, builder and even grave-digger. Catherine painted a picture of an experience both harrowing and uplifting in equal measure. She was held up at knife-point, but also worked hand-in-hand with members of the community to build furniture for the classroom. She became embedded in every aspect of the lives of the families in the community and committed herself – heart, mind, body and soul – to establishing infrastructure for a school environment that could function successfully in the long-term to give the children of that community the best possible chance to mitigate the many disadvantages they face. I strongly and passionately implore anyone reading this (and congratulations for getting this far into my seemingly endless ramblings!) to please, please visit the Montessori Children’s Foundation website to make a donation so that you can support the continued work of Catherine, Cherie, Ned and the many other tirelessly passionate individuals who are working to transform the lives of our most vulnerable children.
So after all of those congratulations do I have any criticisms? Well, I think overall the conference was incredibly well-done with an absolutely dynamic atmosphere but, yes, there were some aspects that I think had a little bit of room for improvement.
Firstly the venue of Old Parliament House, albeit beautiful and an appropriately Aussie landmark within the ‘historical’ context of celebrating a centenary of Montessori in Australia, left something to be desired from a practical point of view. It is not really designed to be a “conference” venue so much as the location of lectures! So the seating of the 250 participants stretched far and wide on flat flooring – there was no tiered seating to make viewing easier, no arm-tables to take notes upon, and a whole lot of people at either end were looking at a very awkward angle when observing the speakers and/or screens. It might be a great location to listen to a half hour speech but after two seven-hour days it didn’t feel quite so comfortable! The broad spread of the seating also meant that the “rooms” couldn’t be separated. The layout of Old Parliament House allows for a main room to be cut off to allow a closed anteroom on either side; where the exhibitors, silent auction and other stalls were set up. If the doors had been closed there would have been one active room in the middle, with the presentations going, and then an annex on either side where people could have escaped to browse the exhibits, take a break, or engage with colleagues. Instead the doors remained open and so the creation of one huge, long room meant that participants and exhibitors had no extra time to interact and there was no subtle space for participants to take a quick breather.
Another concern of mine is actually a compliment in disguise; the presenters were so engaging that I wanted more from all of them! We were given these little tastes of such extraordinary minds…and then it was time to SWITCH PLACES like we were watching the Mad Hatter’s tea party of conferences! This meant that almost every presenter either rushed through (or to) the ending, or ran overtime and therefore ate into the precious limited time of the next scheduled speaker.
From my personal perspective, I really found that diversity of presentations was just too much of a double-edged sword. On the one hand it was great to cover such a broad spectrum, and there was definitely something for everyone, but on the other hand it meant each presentation had to be fairly short and we all had to mentally “switch gears” extremely quickly and frequently. It seems ironic to me that at a Montessori conference, where many of the presenters were lamenting the pitfalls of the routines of “traditional” education, we were subjected to an extremely non-Montessori learning style. We were hurried along from one “subject” to another, like children in a mainstream school being ushered from English to Maths to Science and so on every 45 minutes. Perhaps it is just my own learning style (maybe I’m just not quick enough!) but I would have preferred less speakers and therefore more time for each in order to allow for deeper investigation, consideration and reflection. As it was I had to switch my focus so frequently that I feel like I did not have the chance to “crystallise” the information from each presentation before I had to jump into the next one.
On a similar note, with so much information thrown at us verbally and visually I was really surprised and a little disappointed that we walked away without any tangible records! Again it seems ironic that Montessori practitioners, who know that children can’t learn just by passively sitting and listening, would assume that adults will experience optimal learning just from a “look and listen” style. We walked away without any notes or resources. Our official ‘Conference Bags’ were filled with advertising flyers from sponsors but there wasn’t a single piece of paper relating to any of the presentations! No USB with power-point slides, no DVD of the filmed presentations, no reference lists or summary notes! Nothing to allow us to independently return to the information to revisit or revise, or to check on specific facts and stats! In fact – we weren’t even given note paper! I think this is the first conference I’ve ever been to where notepads weren’t flowing freely. Some people had iPads, others had brought along their own notebooks, but nowhere could I see an available source of paper and pens to encourage participants to take thoughtful notes. Some tried creative solutions to record their learning – many people held aloft their iPads, iPhones and cameras to try to photograph individual slides shown by presenters in the hopes of making a permanent record of websites, articles, links or quotes. On most occasions, however, there wasn’t enough time to capture the photo before the slide had moved on so the presenter could rush through to make way for the next person!
***Please note: Conference Participants have since received an email indicating that presentation notes will be made available. If this proceeds it would certainly move towards answering my concern and would allow us a chance to review and revisit the information, even if a fair bit of time has elapsed since the original presentations.
My lucky last concern; one of the most meaningful and enjoyable aspects of these annual Montessori conferences is the chance to “network” and catch up with colleagues. This obviously can’t happen during the presentations (we all have far too much “Grace and Courtesy” for that!) so we rely on the breaks as a chance to catch up. Traditionally there are three breaks a day – morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea. This time around we relied only on morning tea and lunch, with no afternoon break. These breaks were also cut short on a couple of occasions to compensate for a late running time (again a result of the vast quantity of presentations we had to get through!). The venue itself also meant that the morning teas and lunches were standing-room-only; there was no seating! So instead of plentiful and leisurely catch ups around the lunch table we were all rushing and scrambling to find a comfy spot to eat and it felt like there just wasn’t enough time to speak to all the colleagues we wanted to catch up with. This might not have been so bad except for the fact that all of the presentations were delivered “lecture” style. There wasn’t a single “break-out” session, group workshopping or pause for debate or discussions. We all sat on single chairs, facing the front, listening to clever people pouring information into our ears! We didn’t get to break up into work groups to chew on this information with our colleagues and peers. We just had to ingest and digest alone. Yet again irony rears its head; we know, as Montessorians, that interaction with, and input from, peers is instrumental in an effective learning process. Why is it that we can recognise how useful this is to our young learners and yet withhold it from the adult learners?
It should be said that I am probably more inclined to be picky than most; I have long known that my best and worst feature is my contrary nature. I have an irrepressible inclination to look at any given situation and see 10 ways it could have been done differently. I do this to myself as much as to others; I’m never satisfied, I’m never certain. In its best incarnation this inspires me to strive for continuous improvement and ongoing refinement…at its worst it drives me slightly crazy as my perfectionism puts me at odds with people who don’t like me playing devil’s advocate and leaves me feeling like no matter what I do it’s never quite good enough for the other me! So I say all this to assure you that my capacity to pinpoint problems does not indicate inadequacy on the part of anyone involved in what was an undeniably successful conference! It was wonderful; invigorating, inspiring and informative! Yet I offered these final, constructively critical, thoughts because I fundamentally believe that Montessori, that learning, that life itself is all about an ongoing process of evolving and growing. There is always space to better ourselves and we only ever fail if we reach a point where we believe we are ‘finished’ as this would leave us with nowhere else to go. The Centenary Conference was amazing, but there are still plenty of places to go to ensure that the Montessori Conferences of future years grow and evolve in a meaningful direction.