“Spray and walk away”

By Stuart Mason — Chemistry Teacher, High School

The journalist and Montessori parent Jenna Wawrzyniec summarises the four Montessori Planes of Development by use of the catchphrases, “Help me do it myself”, Help me learn it myself”, Don’t tell me what to do” and, “What should I do?”.

Given the parallels between the Third Plane (12-18) of the social newborns and the First Plane (0-6) of the literal newborns, one could wonder whether the Third Plane catch-phrase, “Don’t tell me what to do” contradicts the earlier two. Written more fully for the adolescent, “Don’t tell me what to do” reads as “Help me practice being an adult by trying things for myself. I need you but I need space to be me. Accept me, respect my dignity and worth, and do just enough to help me become independent of you. Know when to stand back and stop telling.”

“Independence, in the case of the adolescents, has to be acquired on a different plane, for theirs is the economic independence in the field of society. The principle of “Help me to do it alone!” should also be applied here.” Maria Montessori (2008). From Childhood to Adolescence, p.67

“The adolescent must never be treated as a child, for that is a stage of life that he has surpassed. It is better to treat an adolescent as if he had greater value than he actually shows than if he had less and let him feel that his merits and self-respect are disregarded.”

Maria Montessori (2008). From Childhood to Adolescence, p.72

As a teacher of adolescents, one of my favourite catchphrases is, “Spray and walk away”. For a young person struggling to open the container doors, generally, all they need from an adult is, “I’ve found it works to flip up the catches then pull hard on both handles at once”. The adult then finds somewhere else to be, leaving the adolescent to work out the rest. The situation may instead call for, “Spray then stick around”: the adult could remain present, in the background.

Minimal intervention is key. Once my students are working independently on their self-chosen learning then for those who ask for help, the answer with the fewest words is usually the most useful. Too many words from me will fill up the few slots left in working memory and distract the student from their purpose. I find particular delight in the student who walks all the way across the classroom to me looking puzzled, only to arrive and say, “Uh, don’t worry, I’ve worked it out”.

Jenna Wawrzyniec’s catchphrases link the needs and tendencies of children in each stage of development to the stages of independence achieved by implementing Montessori principles in each of the Planes.

“The child’s development follows a path of successive stages of independence, and our knowledge of this must guide us in our behaviour towards him. We must help the child act, will, and think for himself.” Maria Montessori (2010). The Absorbent Mind, p.257