Mario Valle Web

Scientist and father:
my journey from ignorance to Montessori enthusiasm

I sent my son to a Montessori school on an act of faith because my knowledge of the method was a solid zero. What was the “quid” that make me decide? Then my son’s stories revealed a reality I was not expecting and as a scientist I decided to investigate. The result? Now I’m a Montessori enthusiast helping parents to discover why it works so beautifully and to understand the solid scientific foundations it has.

Questa presentazione è disponibile anche in Italiano [Bandiera Italiana]

Here you can find the survey results.


Welcome! And thanks for being here to walk with me the journey that took me from total ignorance to enthusiasm for Montessori.

We know it, and the poets remind us, that the journey is more important than the destination. This was really my case, because I started traveling almost without realizing it, totally ignoring my destination. But, as the poet Antonio Machado sang: “Walker, there’s no road, it’s making road as it’s walked.”

Even today I do not want, and cannot say I'm arrived, but I'm excited about what I have discovered in the Montessori’s world so far. An enthusiasm that is not frivolous or superficial, but I hope it is the enthusiasm of the scientist who made a great discovery and wants everyone could appreciate it.

I hope the story I will tell today could encourage my fellow parents to play an increasingly active role in the Montessori world, helping it spreads and helping it stays on the right track.

I would also like this chat to be an exchange, not a monologue. That's why I'll ask you questions and collect the answers and then share them with everyone. Your questions are even more important. For them we will have a lot of time at the end, so write them down so you do not forget them.

It is time to introduce myself.

I work for the Swiss National Supercomputing Center (also known as CSCS) in Lugano among supercomputers and scientists.

My job? To make visible the numbers that supercomputers produce day and night transforming them into images, thus helping scientists to “see the unseen” hidden in the results of their simulations. This is needed because for scientists, as for all of us, understanding often comes from seeing. For this reason many times I've heard them say: “I see!” to mean “I understand!”. This happens for all phenomena they study by simulating them on the supercomputers, …

… phenomena ranging from the immensely large, such as the formation of a galaxy, to the immensely small, as the Alzheimer's precursor protein, as it assembles into fibrils that will kill neurons.

At that time I did not realize, but the bases of my journey into the Montessori world have been set here.

I started my voyage in 2005 when, after enrolling our son Nicolò at the neighborhood kindergarten, after a couple of weeks, he began to cry and no longer wanted to go to school. Worse still, we saw his enthusiasm extinguish, day after day.

At first, we thought they were just whimsical. We thought: “He will change, he will get used to the new environment..." and so on. Instead, after a few months, we found that his teacher was absolutely incapable of staying with children, that she had literally destroyed my son's self-esteem and, worse, did not respect his child's needs.

After a humiliation that overflowed the pot, we took him out of the school, convinced that any other choice would have been better than continuing this way. Immediately we started looking for another school. At this point we were not interested to the pedagogical method at all. We just wanted a school where our son was respected as a person.

We visited various schools, but none satisfied us. We did not even consider the traditional public school because my wife, who works as a teacher, saw that, as good as the teacher could be, it is the "system" that forces her to judge the child. And we just did not want that.

One day my wife said: “I've heard about a Montessori school ten kilometers from home. I remember from my studies that respect for the child is at the forefront.” OK, let's see.

We were literally speechless for what we found: the order, the smiling children, the silence ... We were captured by the atmosphere, not by the school’s name, not by words, not by explanations. Immediately we decided to enroll Nicolò there.

It was not a “rational” decision. It was more of an act of faith, because all I knew about Montessori was …

… her effigy on the old Italian banknote of a thousand lire. To make clear my ignorance, later I even realized that I confused her with Mother Cabrini whose religious order had a school near where I lived.

My wife knew a little more, but for her it was even worse, because, as a teacher of traditional school, somehow “betrayed” her professional choice. Her colleagues said: “But how? Do you work here and bring your son to a private school?”; then in a low voice asked, “Has your son problems?” Well, for many Montessori is only a school for children with special educational needs.

But nothing changed our minds. Nicolò started at the Children's House and, without knowing it, my Montessorian journey had begun.

We saw Nicolò happier and happier and we saw that he was respected. Indeed, we were delighted with how the teachers were able to give him the time he needed to understand that this school was different from the previous one (at the beginning he even asked the teachers: “Where is the punishment corner?”).

My Montessori journey could have ended here. And for many parents it was just like that. It was enough that there was no problem with the school and that the child did not complain and they were satisfied.

It is time for the first survey. You do not need to write a novel. Write just a few keywords. As soon as I can, I will synthesize your responses on my website.

Two easy questions: 1) Why did you choose a Montessori school? 2) What did you know about Montessori at that time?

Seeing what Nicolò did at school and hearing his stories, I realized that his school experience was so different from mine that I needed to know more. It is not, in fact, “normal” to hear from a kindergarten child: “Today I played with math”. What prompted me to start studying all this? Maybe has been my scientific mindset? Maybe thinking how to apply what I saw in my work? But then, what should I do to understand what was happening?

One parent, with similar curiosities, decided to read all Montessori's books from the first to the last. I tried, but at that moment I felt lost. I absolutely had to see! Spoiler alert! I have read them, but after understanding what I was going to read.

Fortunately, the school organized meetings for parents to show Montessori materials and to explain how they were used by children. Honestly, then, I was not very impressed, because they were so distant from the technology surrounding me at work, but in spite of this, they still made me curious.

Many of these meetings were held by Grazia Honegger Fresco, the pedagogical referral of the Nicolo’s school. When I heard her speak and saw how the materials mattered for her, I felt something different in her: not the technique or theoretical knowledge, something more.

And so I found out that she is one of Maria Montessori's last living direct students. Here's what was special! But it was not only this. She has made her own life the ideas behind the materials and behind how things are done.

Here is a picture of Grazia when she was twenty while attending the Montessori International Congress in 1949. In addition to her, years later I had the honor to meet other historic montessorians. Wonderful people who have been taught by a direct student of Maria Montessori: Luana Gigliarelli and others from Perugia, who studied with Miss Paolini, Donatella Pecori, student of Flaminia Guidi, Costanza Buttafava, student of Giuliana Sorge. They have shown me, without words but with their lives, what it means to have absorbed the Montessori spirit and ideas. I'm convinced that even now there are young people like them.

But let's go back to my journey.

It's been a year and, seeing my son happy, it was natural to enroll him in the Montessori primary school.

At the beginning of school’s year I was maybe a little less ignorant, but basically I was just a “normal” parent. But in me something was working behind the scenes. Today it seems obvious to me, but I think it was the manifestation that even for adults we have to respect the time they need to understand.

During the first Open Day of the school, I suddenly realized that my work and the Montessori materials had the same goal! The common goal of making abstractions visible to bring theory into the brain through the senses.

An example, perhaps trivial, can help us understand what struck me. A table of numbers like this is fine for a computer, but it is of no help to a person who wants to understand how the points with those coordinates are laid out on the plane. But as soon as I turn those numbers into a picture, immediately their layout appears clearly.

What is the difference between this way of using the sense of sight and what the child does using a Montessori material such as these multiplication table or the decanomium? None! Here and there abstract properties become accessible to the senses.

So, in late 2008, I published in the Quaderno Montessori these reflections and, strongly encouraged by Grazia Honegger Fresco, I began to talk about them in various Montessori events.

Meanwhile, my wife started working on her graduation thesis …

… making observation at the Nursey and at the Children’s House of the Montessori School in Varese. Her thesis title was: “The unexpected mathematician. The mathematical intuitions in children aged 12 month to 5 years”. Reasoning with her on what she was observing, I came to the second discovery. Forgive me if it seems obvious to you now.

Maria Montessori was a scientist! A true experimental scientist whose ideas have a profound scientific foundation on how our brain and our perceptive system work. As a colleague — forgive my arrogance — I can understand them and I can contribute.

Along with this, I was excited by another thought. Grazia Honegger Fresco said that the teacher of the first Children's House, Candida Nuccitelli, was not a trained teacher and therefore was able to report to Maria Montessori what the children did without interpretation. In a similar way also I, not being a pedagogist, could offer a diverse view of the Montessori world. This has definitely sparked my enthusiasm.

A message that I want to give to my fellow parents is that each of us can relate to Maria Montessori through one facet of her multiform personality: she was a doctor, a feminist, a mother, a citizen of the world and had interests that went from spirituality to technology, just to name a few. I found the connection in science, but it is not the only possibility.

I learned something about Maria Montessori not just through study or reflection. There is nothing better than explaining something to others to understand it better. My fellow parents had no theoretical doubts or questions about the Montessori ideas. Their questions were very concrete and they were almost always the same. The most common question was: …

… “What happens after the Montessori school?” Nothing, I discovered years later with my son. Then other questions that you have heard too: …

… “The Montessori method and the materials use are so rigid…”, “In the Montessori school children do what they want?”, “Do not think there are opportunities for imagination games”, “Is the Montessori school producing children that are «different»?” And other similar questions. So with Grazia, we decided to collect and publish them …

… on my site and in the Quaderno Montessori.

Fortunately, from the school’s parents come not just questions and doubts, but also nice synthesis …

… like this: “Montessori is an attitude, not a type of school.” Clear and right on target!

After talking about parents' doubts and questions, it is time for the second survey.

I want to ask you: 1) What doubts did you notice in other Montessori’s parents? 2) What are the most frequently asked questions you have ever heard from other parents?

Officially my journey ended in 2012 when my son finished the primary school and there was no way to continue a Montessorian experience.

To mark the change, we also moved from Italy to Switzerland where Nicolò attended the public middle school.

Now that he is in high school, we continue to see in him the influence of Montessori. For example, the math teacher told us: “When I explain something, I realize that Nicolò sees the math.”

No, my journey is not over. I still have so much to share and study. Every invitation to speak is a new challenge for me, especially because I do not want to pretend to be what I’m not: I am not a certified teacher or a Montessori trainer. But I know I can offer a different view as a scientist and as a parent. You could argue that without real life experiences will be difficult, but talking with you and with many parents and teachers gives me some sort of indirect experience. Moreover I still have so much to …

… discover in the relationship between the Montessorian ideas and the human mind. As a field expert told me: “Montessori works because that’s how the human brain works.” And it is true. I would be thrilled to talk now about mirror neurons, how the child learns to read and write, concentration and “flow”, but unfortunately time flies. Even in mixing different disciplines, …

… like the technology I’m immersed in and the Montessori ideas, I'm discovering that I can make a contribution. A contribution that has now materialized in a forthcoming book about Montessori and the new technologies and in various articles on Montessorian publications.

Looking to my journey, can I conclude as in fairy tales: “And they lived happily ever after”? Yes and no. Yes for all this, for the enthusiasm and gratitude that I see around me, but unfortunately there is also the no.

My Montessorian experience was not all sunshine and rainbows, as it may seem from what I have told you so far.

I unfortunately met teachers who have Montessori only on the diploma, who betray her spirit and betray children. My son's Montessorian experience could have been a thousand times better if we only recognized earlier that his teacher was of this type. I've seen people who fill their mouth with Montessori and want to be on a stage, any stage, to be the focus of attention but for which children are the last of their worries. Well, I'm on a stage ... you judge. I've found people for whom Montessori is just a way to make money. I have seen how Montessori too often is fashionable among parents without them accepting it as a "Copernican Revolution" of their relationship with children, and not just as a set of materials to take home.

So, should I be discouraged?

No! I have been here so far also because I have seen that as parents we can do a lot.

For example, with my wife and with other parents, we were able to discharge the teacher who has done so much damage to my son’s entire class. Other parents, such as the four founding mothers of the Montessori Brescia Association, have held important conventions and struggled to open Montessori sections in the public school and have succeeded.

As parents, I think we have the right to ask questions and to expect answers. Not pretending to know everything or to be able to ignore those who have a serious Montessori training. By doing so we even have the power to help Montessori stay on the right track.

I would like to conclude my talk remembering to all of us that it is true that the journey, that is, the discovery, the curiosity and the reflection, is more important than destination, that is, to know everything. Because in every field of knowledge and especially in Montessori, no one can assert to have the perfect and complete knowledge.

Finally, from parent to parent, let's remember that there is no enthusiasm if it is not contagious and affects other families like ours.

Thank you for your loving attention and cooperation!

 

Useful references

Mario Valle, “Supercalcolatori e superbambini”, il Quaderno Montessori, 2008, n. 100, pp. 9–15mariovalle.name/montessori/supercalcolatori-e-superbambini.pdf
Antonella Galgano, “Il matematico inaspettato. Le intuizioni matematiche nei bambini dai 12 mesi ai 5 anni”, Tesi di laurea, Università di Siena, 2009arlian.media.unisi.it/DOCUMENTI/Numerazione-Galgano.pdf
The Montessori FAQmariovalle.name/montessori/faq-en.html
Mario Valle, “La pedagogia montessoriana e le nuove tecnologie”, Il leone verde (Will be published September 2017)mariovalle.name/montessori/libro-nuove-tecnologie
Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (CSCS)www.cscs.ch
Return to the Montessori resources (English)Go back

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