A Discourse Of The (Educational) Method


So, I owe Sam a response, after being sidetracked into other things. His latest post gets at our disagreement in an interesting way. I think it is as subtle as it is crucial. I think I’m a bit to blame for being fast and loose with the terminology.

All right, first, yeah, Sam takes me to task for strawmanning him by taking him to imply that Montessori can be a bit of a cult. Fair enough. I took that opportunity as a jump-off point for making the point I wanted to make, which is that Catholicism is supposed to be comprehensive. It is not supposed to be merely a doctrine, it is supposed also to be a set of practices that shape every aspect of your life–practices which can never become ends in themselves, and must never be disconnected from the order of grace or the fundamental Catholic affirmation of human freedom, but practices nonetheless. It is in this sense–one of many–that Montessori is deeply Catholic: it is neither merely a philosophy of the child nor merely a curriculum, it is both, integrated. Just like the liturgy is both a transcendent encounter with the divine and a thing-to-be-done with strict rules and practical bits-and-bobs, and it is equally shortsighted to think the “smells and bells” (or whatever) are totally incidental to the thing as to think they are the core of the thing. It is because of this comprehensiveness that I said that Montessori, like Catholicism, can feel a bit cult-like; obviously “cult-like” is a very freighted word and oooobviously not everything that is “cult-like” is good (quite the understatement in my mind, let me reassure you), but I do not think we should be totally afraid of the signified; just like not everything that is “scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles” will be good, but Christianity done right will indeed be “scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” I hope that, at least, will be clear and non-controversial.

Ok, let’s move on.

What does “it. just. works.” mean? 

Sam raises an obvious criticism of my battening on and on about how Montessori “just. works.”, which is that that is meaningless unless you have a good working definition of what “it works” means. I repeatedly gestured towards the fact that I am not at all ignoring this point and that it is indeed key, and that what “just works” means must not be by the standards of the world (e.g. test scores), but by the standards of Catholic Tradition, i.e. the integral fulfillment of the human person. But maybe I should have been more specific.

Again, I repeatedly gestured towards this, but “it works” must be holistic. So Montessori teaches kids autonomy, self-reliance, initiative, ordered liberty, the pleasure and fulfillment of work, social life (against the dreadful “socialization” (i.e. an anti-socialization) of the typical school), and so on. Perhaps most importantly, Montessori teaches kids to enjoy learning. This is largely what I mean by “it works.”

With that being said, let me do speak up for academic standards, for it is true that there is very strong evidence that, all else equal, Montessori kids do a lot better on a host of academic measures, especially literacy and math. And a few things must be said here. First of all, while I’m sure Sam will agree with me that the world is pathologically myopic about such criteria, I hope he will agree with me that literacy and math are also not valueless in and of themselves. A holistic vision of “it works”, which is what I and Catholic Tradition and I think Sam support, does take such things into account, neither overweighting nor underweighting them.

But there’s more to it, and this is, I think, were we get close to the nub. Because you would think that, all else equal, a curriculum which leads to earlier and better literacy for children is a curriculum that gets something about children that other curricula don’t. It is, in other words, a sign. It is a fact that is not to be merely considered in and of itself, but in relation to what it bespeaks about the whole.

Another point about defining “it just works”, which is that sometimes “it works” means “works at the thing it set out to do“. Take not “Montessori” generally, but, say, “Montessori activities designed to teach reading and writing.” Axiomatically, what it means to “work” for “activities designed to teach reading and writing” is self-evident: do they teach reading and writing? That is a very, very easy question to answer. But the answer is not just valuable in itself, it is valuable about what it bespeaks about the whole.

Again, we must be holistic. To take an opposite extreme, authoritarian test-and-drill methods in places like East Asia produce children who do outstandingly well on scholastic tests. They also produce kids who are unhappy, unmotivated, risk-averse, and, by the way, have a tendency to kill themselves. Not good. To take a more personal example, my birth father was a violent man who was obsessed with the idea that he had begotten the new Mozart. At age 3, I was featured in piano recitals. I composed my first sonata at 5 or 6, and at age 12 (I think) I was conducting my first orchestra. Brutalizing children “just works”! And then with adolescence I rebelled and gave up music overnight and altogether–to my great long-term unsatisfaction, but teenagers are wont to prefer hurting themselves rather than give their parents some satisfaction (there’s your definition of sin). To this day, sitting at a piano makes me somewhat queasy, even though abstractly I would love to be able to play again, and write music. So, um, no, that didn’t really work.

Another point about “it just works”: the truth has a sneaky way of imposing itself on us, utterly non-violently, just matter-of-factly. Think of Jesus, after washing the apostles’ feet, saying “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am,” with absolutely no pretension but absolutely no false modesty. Walking in a (true) Montessori classroom is a religious experience. Here are forty small children, and perfect quiet reigns. Everyone moves efficiently, everyone is busy with work–real work, not pretend-work–and enjoying it. There is complete discipline, but a discipline that comes from self-discipline, not imposition from above. Anybody who’s experienced large groups of children ought to be stunned. You don’t need to look at peer-reviewed studies or read The Absorbent Mind five times to realize that there is something going on here, and it just works. Sam and I agree on nothing more than the belief that education is liturgy and liturgy is education, and think of all those people who became converts after experiencing the liturgy, the real liturgy, for the first time. What they saw was something that works, in so many senses of the term. Works in them. But works, in the sense of, in a mysterious way, aligning itself with the truth and beauty of the world; works in the sense that it whispers, softly but with all the immediacy of irrevocable Truth, you were meant for this. It is the “it just works” of realizing you’ve just met the woman of your dreams. The entire Universe conspired in millions of different ways, to put you in communion with this moment, with this thing, to make you a part of the great unbroken chain of divinization of the world that is the Church.

Here’s another thing about Sam’s thing that annoys me. He says that “the only way to treat the end in a serious way is to not pretend that we know what it is.” Come on. I’m pretty sure Catholic Tradition paints a pretty reliable picture of what virtue and holiness is. Of course, for some definition of “know” Sam is right. Let me take an analogy: the “North Pole” is actually this ill-defined point. The magnetic North moves around, and the geographic North is sort-of arbitrarily defined. Indeed, the very concept of “North” is sort-of definitionally arbitrary. Okay. That’s true. Now, let’s say you are at a port, and you want to take a ship that’s headed for the North Pole. This is in the era of sailboats, not GPS. There is some art to heading North–reading the compass, reading the stars. You’re never perfectly headed North, you just course-correct and try to maintain a Northward course. Ok. Now, you know there are two ships that take off from this port. Both of the ships try to head for the North Pole. Ship Montessori tries to head North and pretty reliably does it. Ship Everyone Else tries to head North and always ends up at the South Pole. Which ship do you take? How much do philosophical questions about the true definition of “North” matter in your decision? Actually, there’s a lot of things we know about where the North Pole is and how we get there, which is precisely my point. Everything? No. But we do know a fair amount. And what is not “serious” is to pretend otherwise.

So with those markers laid down for the all-important caveats of a need for a holistic, theologically-informed definition of “it just works,” I do want to speak up for the beleaguered Stubborn Fact. The facts about Montessori are these: it accords beautifully with what the latest science tells us about children; it produces, all else equal, more academically gifted and psychologically healthy children. These facts are not just valuable in themselves, they are valuable as signs, a sign that says “follow me”. “It just works” is an icon of divine Truth in action, of the Truth of the God who is always active in His Good Creation.

A Plea for Empiricism

Not to be a broken record or anything, but for the umpteenth time, this is an absolutely key point of the Catholic understanding of the world, that the natural world is there for us and for us to apply our God-given reason to it, and in so doing learn the Lord’s designs and laws. Because of all the things that Sam and I have pointed out “it. just. works.” is not the end-all be-all, but it is nonetheless, in the most orthodox Catholic understanding, a very convincing sign of God’s will for us.

We are called to produce fruit and we are going to be judged by the quality of the fruit we produce, not our good intentions. This is today’s reading, in fact! Again, maybe I’m a broken record on this, but this is absolutely key, and I will keep banging my head against the wall.

This might be where Sam’s and my understanding differ most; Sam writes of “the present obsession over things that work”. For the world, he has a point, but for the Church, what I see is an absolutely alarming insouciance about results. Sam writes that “things that work (…) in reality, don’t work at all or at least not most of the time.” Indeed! That is precisely my point! Our current system doesn’t work. And nobody cares!!!

To take an example that might heighten the contradictions (ahem) between Sam and me: take the US bishops’ stance in favor of raising the minimum wage, which is highly problematic. Whenever I bring up this issue on Twitter or other fora, Catholics try to engage me in theological debate. No! The issue of whether the minimum wage is good for workers or not is an empirical one, not a theological one. Everything is theological, of course, and theology is fundamentally important, and when it comes to social doctrine I am trying to do my part. But there is this utterly depressing, fundamentally anti-Catholic sense, everywhere in the Church or almost, of, “Here’s the encyclical, ERGO, here’s what the law should be” and never looking at any actual facts. The question of whether workers are made better or worse off by raising the minimum wage is an empirical one. We can argue about what “better off” means and that is philosophy, but facts definitely, absolutely must be a central part of the discussion. The question remains: what works? What works at what? This is where theology and philosophy comes in. But the bishops and I largely agree about the goal with regard to social justice, just as Sam and I largely agree about the goals of education, the question is the means, and this is a largely empirical debate. “No Facts Please, We’re Theologians/Philosophers.” Give me a break! I really really insist on this because it is so important. And again, there is such a basic error from the standpoint of Catholic Tradition. (I am not accusing Sam of this error, just making the point as forcefully and clearly as I can.) In many ways, the Church is still in a pre-Galileo age.

The Discourse of the Method

Much of my disagreement with Sam centers on what the word “method” and what I mean by that. Is it a “curriculum”? Is it “instruction”?

Here’s how I would define it for our purposes: a method is the integration of a theology (and a philosophy) and of practices that make the theology bear fruit.

The example of the liturgy will clarify, I hope. The liturgy is a method. The liturgy includes answers to such question as: what is the liturgy? What is it for? What is it supposed to accomplish? And it includes answers to questions relative to how the liturgy accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish. (And sometimes the answer to the “how” question can be “figure it out” or “do what you want”.) A liturgy is a set of instructions; it is not just a set of instructions, but without the set of instructions, it is no longer a liturgy. The question “How does one perform the liturgy?” has very specific answers, answers that are not just a theological discourse about the liturgy. The Eucharistic liturgy is, in the most literal sense, a method for transubstantiation; it requires a certain type of person (a validly ordained priest with the approval of the ordinary, etc.), with certain objects (bread, wine, water), to say certain specific words and perform certain specific actions, in a certain specific context, and when all those things are put together, transubstantiation occurs; when they are not, it does not. To say that the liturgy is merely specific concrete instructions is a betrayal, but so is imagining that the liturgy can exist without them; definitionally it cannot. The liturgy is nothing if not a theology: you cannot speak of a liturgy without speaking things about the very nature of God–the Incarnate Word–and the nature of men and and the created world how they relate, i.e. pretty much the sum of Christianity. The two are integrated, because the practices reveal the theology, and the theology begets the practices. Lex orandi, lex credendi.

And the necessity of methods flows straight from the heart of Catholic theology, because we are the religion of the all-Incarnate Word, the God who longs to dwell among us, the God who made a Good Creation and is renewing it and building his Kingdom bit by bit through his children until the day of the Heavenly Jerusalem, which will not be a different world, but this world, fully divinized. And so just like the Word became flesh, timeless truths become incarnate in practical ways of doing things; and because the Church is the Body of Christ, a holy and priestly nation, it produces (and amends and changes and evolves) methods for doing the Kingdom-work that we are tasked with; because God’s Good Creation is alive with His law and we were gifted with a rational nature in the image of God, when we find things that work we can take them as important signposts; because of the Fall and because we must live by the Spirit but rarely do, some methods can and do bear bad fruit. So it is no mere coincidence at all that the “source and summit” of the Catholic life is, well, a method.

And so when I say the problem with the Church and education is that it does not have a method, I am dead serious. Apart from Montessori, who after all was a Catholic and a great thinker and doer and perhaps a saint and a doctor, the Church does not have a good theology of the child, or only in the most embryonic form, nor does it have good practices. It is not about “curriculum” vs “instruction” vs “parents are the primary educators of their children” (something I wholeheartedly agree with of course). Montessori happens to be Catholic and happens to hit it out of the park in terms of its theology/philosophy and its practices, the former judged by conformity to the best Catholic theological anthropology, the latter judged by fruits. It is a bird in the hand, and it is a really really good bird; and I view that as a very important sign.

But nevermind Montessori; Montessori is one method, but Sam poses the question of method more generally. Under my understanding of “method”, Sam is either shadowboxing or saying very problematic things.

On the shadowboxing side, when Sam writes, “In teacher preparation, student-teachers are taught methods more than they are taught about things that are not instrumental”, I say, sure. I’m in favor of burning to the ground every non-AMI-accredited school of education and salting the Earth so that shouldn’t be surprising. To continue with the analogy with the liturgy, what Sam is saying is that, say, if priestly education was just about how to perform the Mass, that would be a disaster, even though performing the Mass is the most important thing a priest does. We are obviously agreed there.

On the more problematic side, and maybe I am misunderstanding, when Sam writes “There are no methods that need to be invented.” and “when we look at the ways we do things and the ways things are, we discover a radical absence of methods in advance of the thing that must be done. Any method that is worthwhile will include a number of reasons and ways to subvert the method when it becomes a burden.” I get uncomfortable.

On the “there are no methods that need to be invented” I hope I’ve made it clear that this is just drastically wrong. Sam talks about magisterial sufficiency. Let me be blunt: I’ve never read an official Church document on education that wasn’t just a list of platitudes. Parents should love their children and set a good example for them. Gee, thanks. Platitudes are worse than error. Platitudes are what you get when you don’t have a method. Platitudes are to method as what happens on a Sunday morning in a megachurch is to what happens on a Sunday morning in St Peter’s.

Let me take an example, one that takes into account Sam’s and my preoccupation that we do not confuse education with schooling, or instruction, or curriculum. In my anti-spanking post, I don’t just write about spanking; I write about the need and capacity to elicit good behavior from children by intrinsic motivation, rather than extrinsic motivation. (This is textbook Montessori, obvi.) This is pure Catholicism: it’s related to the importance of the virtues, and growth in virtue by the education of the self, and the importance of conscience and educating one’s conscience in the Spirit to be naturally ordered towards the good, so that we freely and voluntarily choose the good. At the core, it is related to the nature of man, and God, and grace, and how those things interact. But it’s not just nice ideas. I hint at them, but there are many things you can use to foster intrinsic motivation in your children: conscious example-setting; reparation (i.e. instead of “Don’t drop this or else”, “If you drop something, you must pick it up and put it back”); putting order in their environment so they are less stressed and more able to control their disordered urges; false choices (instead of “Time to leave the park!”, “Do you want to leave the park now or in 10 minutes?”); and more. You have a theology, and you have practices. You have, in short, a method. And it is a good method, i.e. it is correct theologically and morally and also it works. This is also stuff that the Church is completely silent on!!!

What does it mean to be a Catholic parent? What does it mean, in practice, in the day-to-day life, to be a Catholic parent? Other than platitudes, the Church has nothing to say about this tremendously important topic. There are people doing yeoman’s work in the trenches, like Sam and our fellow Patheosi Dr Popcak. There are some methods out there that are Catholic (e.g. Montessori), but there. is. no. Catholic method. And it is simply an utter failure of the Church, if we take this priestly nation stuff seriously, to simply leave parents stranded in the wilderness with a list of mellifluous verities and a pat on the back.

When Sam writes, “when we look at the ways we do things and the ways things are, we discover a radical absence of methods in advance of the thing that must be done. Any method that is worthwhile will include a number of reasons and ways to subvert the method when it becomes a burden,” he is either making the micro-point which I’ve always conceded which is that method without Spirit is death and method can and must be allowed to evolve intelligently, or he is calling for an unbearable purgatory of perpetual wheel-reinventing. Some things work, others don’t. Taking note when things work is important. When you do that a lot, and when you are smart and Inspired about it, what happens is that you end up with a method. A method is also the wisdom of the centuries. Sometimes it goes astray, but the Church is mostly rich of the wisdom of her centuries. Unless I’m misreading, there’s a truly bizarre post-modern relativism here: it’s always Day One, we are always starting from a tabula rasa, nothing is truly knowable, no truth is absolute, so the best we can do is sort-of muddle through with good intentions and cross our fingers and hope for the best.

A Fundamental Question: What Is Knowable?

Sam is invaluable for attacking many clichés that are all-too commonly held about education. I’m going to present perhaps the most widespread cliché, one I think Sam subscribes to, but one which is terribly erroneous.

If you want to make a room full of parents and educators nod devoutly, just say this: “Education is an art, it’s not a science.”

For basically all of humanity’s history, when it comes to education, we’ve been basically muddling through, and nothing has worked. And so it’s created this deeply, deeply-held sense that, fundamentally, nothing about education can be known with the same certainty that we know about, say, the laws of physics. Education is the realm of magick; some people have the charism, some don’t. This ties into my post reappropriating Peter Thiel, because one of his criticisms of contemporary society is a belief that the future is fundamentally unknowable and indeterminate. If the future is unknowable and indeterminate, you will not build cathedrals because you will not know whether they can stand or not.

It’s the same thing with education. Fundamentally, it’s not knowable. It can’t be a science. It can’t be like engineering, there is no definite technique, it’s all about art and intuition. At most it’s apophatic; at most we might be able to know what not to do, but certainly not, at least not with certainty and precision and beyond platitudes, what to do.

It is because of this sense that education is fundamentally unknowable that we are in this discussion. Montessori–i.e. scientific education–is just one method among many, it has its plusses and minuses, and we can have nice navel-gazing discussions about them, but it’s not fundamentally different from other methods, because scientific education is impossible.

I am here to tell you, as a vox clamantis in deserto if needs be, that this is not true.

Education is not an art. It is a science. It has been demonstrated. Galileo is right and Aristotle is wrong. Experiments beat rerum cognoscere causas. We do not have to perpetually reinvent the wheel. We do not have to be stuck in the purgatory of platitude. The truth is here, it’s real, I’ve seen it. The method still needs to grow, still needs to evolve, still needs to improve. But it is there.

I have been to the mountaintop. I have seen the Promised Land. I may not live long enough to get you there. But it is there, oozing with milk and honey. God is good, God is faithful to His Covenant, and He will do wonders for us, if we are only willing to work with Him.


By abbamouse (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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  • Michael Hayden

    What happens when education (the science) teaches an art?

  • LJ

    I hope you’ll forgive the rather raggedy comment, since my thoughts are only partly-formed on this…
    Basically, if I saw a system (human or not) which consistently didn’t behave as I thought it ought to, then my first approach would be to suspect that I was leaving out something important in my mental model. The reason simply can’t be “they don’t care about their kids’ education and success.” Most parents consider their kids to be their #1 priority and will take an enormous burden on to make sure they succeed. Even the general public takes a huge interest (backed with a large amount of funding) in the education system. Yet Montessori is at best a “niche” product.
    So what’s the “missing variable”? If I had to guess, I’d say scaling problems– it works with a school of 60 kids but not with a school of 600, let alone a school system with 60,000. For one thing, Montessori requires teachers to be top-flight– highly self-motivated themselves, with excellent work ethic and superb emotional control. In Maria Montessori’s day, there was an ample supply of these people available, since there was essentially no other place a talented woman could get a job… but now, these women are off doing something else (and at a much higher pay and social status). Famously, our education schools recruit mainly from the bottom third of the undergraduates, and equally famously, our school systems have had significant problems with accurately identifying and removing poor-quality teachers. The Montessori method won’t solve either of those issues. Likewise, Montessori schools seem to have much better physical plant and much more money for teaching aids, etc. than either the Catholic or public schools. I love the idea of giving kids an “ordered environment”, but it gets a lot harder when you’re shoe-horning twice the number of kids into a 1950’s era building.
    Google tells me that there are a dozen Montessori schools in my area, and the largest has 80 students. My diocese has 58 schools with just under 18,000 students; the public schools in my county have over 160,000 students. Scale matters, and cost matters (particularly for Catholic schools, since the families must pay tax for the public schools, then fully pay for the Catholic school system as tuition). As an example: the top-end Mercedes might be incredibly fuel-efficient and safe in a crash– but “everybody should buy a top-end Mercedes” isn’t a viable option.
    Additionally, I think that you’re missing the most important educational development in a century– the rise of homeschooling, which is tremendously fruitful cooperation between Catholics and Evangelicals. (Catholics are more likely per capita to homeschool, but Evangelicals are larger in absolute numbers.) This is an almost entirely lay-led, ground-up phenomenon. I wonder if the future of Catholic education isn’t there, with the parents in the home, not in the structure and buildings run by the bishop. That the true Catholic education movement is actually the small businesses providing curricula, homeschool cooperatives helping each other, and a semi-formal arrangement for specialized classes/labs, extracurriculars, sports, etc. with the standard schools.

    • “Montessori requires teachers to be top-flight– highly self-motivated themselves, with excellent work ethic and superb emotional control.”

      The first Montessori school had the building’s janitor as a teacher, and Montessori has written repeatedly about how being a Montessori teacher requires no great skills. Indeed, she writes that smart/accomplished Montessori teachers tend to undermine the method, because they always want to help the kids or “be smart” in some way, when the most important thing for a Montessori teacher is to get out of the way.

      Montessori got started with extremely poor kids and few resources. Now it has become an attraction for a certain sociological subset, which has made it very expensive, but there’s no reason at all why it couldn’t scale. Indeed, quite the opposite. You don’t need anything fancy. The curriculum to be a Montessori teacher is 1-2 years (no reason can’t do it after high school), you only need the materials which are not expensive to build, and so on.

      Re: homeschooling, you’re right, it’s a great big trend. Homeschooling’s great. Plenty of Montessori activities you can do in homeschooling.

  • Gail Finke

    My children went to Montessori elementary schools. The method DOES “just work” when applied well. But it’s not always implemented well and “Montessori” can be a cultish word rather than a simple description of an educational method. It also doesn’t “just work” for every child — as one of my children proved repeatedly. But as a method it is based on observation and experimentation, and has been proven to work over more than a century all over the world. Unlike most educational reformers then and now Maria Montessori didn’t come up with an idea for a curriculum and try to get children to accept it, she watched what children did and had them work on materials at times when they naturally wanted to, and in ways that they naturally wanted to use.

    I would take that in a minute over the educational fads we keep being fed. It makes no sense, for instance, to say “every child must now work on a group project for x hours every week because that is collaborative and promotes critical thinking.” Working with other people does not automatically cause them to collaborate — as anyone who has been in a group knows — it just as often means that one person does all the work while the rest goof off. And telling kids to use five sources when they write a paper does not make them think critically about any of them.

    All Catholic schools, and PARENTS, need to decide what, exactly, they want children to learn and how they will best learn it. Education has become a fad-driven enterprise run by people trained in fad-driven schools who want to be considered experts even as the latest fad fails. One important thing home schooling has demonstrated is that it’s possible (though not guaranteed!) that ordinary people without any educational training at all can teach their children just as well as schools do, and often better. At the very least that ought to show people that it isn’t a mystery requiring years of esoteric training.

  • oregon nurse

    “Education is not an art. It is a science.”

    No, it’s both, in the same way that medicine is both. Anytime you are talking human beings and outcomes you cannot have true scientific certainty of method. There are always going to be kids who don’t fit well into a particular learning model (but have no choice in the model) and the best teachers (as opposed to technicians) are the ones who can still reach/teach those kinds of kids.

    I don’t know enough about Montessori to comment on it’s effectiveness, especially beyond early childhood. I’ll allow that you may be right that it’s the best method for the largest number of kids. Provided that the goal one is trying to achieve for the largest number of kids is agreed upon before conducting your assessment of effectiveness. The goal of education, especially at varying stages, is a fundamental question in itself that I think has to be answered first before considering methods.