Maria Montessori and the Right Brain
“The inner powers of the child have never been realized, neither from the intellectual nor from the moral point of view.” 1 Maria Montessori
This quote suggests that Dr. Montessori believed that there was much more to discover about the human potential. Glenn Doman didn’t just stumble upon the right brain powers by accident. They have always been there, and I believe that Maria Montessori, an early outstanding early childhood educator, made indirect reference to their existence even before modern references.
Montessori and the Absorbent Mind
Perhaps Maria Montessori was one of the first to hint that there was something about children’s minds that was truly unique. She coined a term for this mind “the absorbent mind”. This was a mind that could absorb, seemingly effortlessly, from the environment so much more information than could an adult mind. She wrote often about the prejudices against her discoveries about the absorbent mind of children.
There exists in the small child an unconscious mental state which is of a creative nature. We have called it the ‘Absorbent Mind’. This absorbent mind does not construct with a voluntary effort, but according to the lead of inner sensitivities which we call ‘ sensitive periods’ as the sensitivity lasts only for a definite period, i.e. until the acquisition to be made according to natural development has been achieved” …If we (adults) learn anything through attention, volition and intelligence, how then can the child undertake his great construction as he is not yet endowed with intelligence, will-power or attention? It is evident that in him there acts a mind totally different from ours and that, therefore, a psychic functioning different from that of the conscious mind can exist in the unconscious. 2
So, she established the notion of how infants and young children learn – by unconsciously absorbing from the environment information. At times she writes about the conscious absorbent mind, the subconscious absorbent mind and at other times the unconscious absorbent mind (all were absorbent!). It is unclear to me what distinctions Montessori is using when she uses the terms the conscious, the unconscious and the subconscious minds. Montessori seems to use all three terms in her discussions of the absorbent mind (which underwent translation from Italian to English) and it is often difficult to tell which she is speaking of without clear definitions, which I have not find in her writings. So I do not wish to put words into her head.
For her, the absorbent mind seemed to be the all-inclusive term referring to all aspects of what to her seemed to be a miraculous and different way young children were able to learn. She knew the absorbent mind was a gift that a child was born with, but she didn’t seem to be clear on the why or the how. Certainly, her followers did not pick up on the more mysterious aspects of her message preferring to play it safe with the idea that the absorbent mind referred to “sensitive periods” – which followed nature’s orderly unfolding evident to the physical eye of the adult and thus scientific study.
This statement sums up the Montessori Method as it is practiced today in the U.S. “Life is divided into well-defined periods. Each period develops properties the construction of which is guided by laws of nature.” 3 The materials in the classroom assist the child in progressing through these well-defined periods. All is known; there is no mystery yet to uncover.
I think Montessori herself, was much more open-minded and pointing to something even deeper. I’ll give you examples of several unclear references which hint at these deeper mysterious learning forces. Without really realizing it, I believe she was the forerunner of right brain education by her discoveries of the abilities of some children that she observed and commented upon.
Here, she marvels at a child working on fractions.
Once a child acquired the capacity to carry out quite complicated operations with fractions without writing them down. He thus showed his ability to retain in his mind the image of the numbers and the successive operations. While the child carried out these operations mentally, a teacher did so on paper, not being able to do them otherwise. At the end of his calculation the child announced his result…the result was not correct. The child, without being perturbed in the least, thought for a while and then said: “Yes, I see where I made a mistake,” and gave the correct result a little while later. 4
Montessori comments: “The mind of the child, evidently, possessed a peculiar faculty for retaining all these successive phases.” 5 To me this seems to be a clear description of the right brain rapid math calculation ability as described by Dr. Shichida. (Dr. Shichida was a Japanese educator who built on Glen Doman’s work on accelerated learning).
Another example: “There is, therefore, an inner energy which of its nature tends to manifest itself, but remains buried under universal prejudices.” 6
The thought that there could be a form of memory in younger children different from that of older children could not be conceived….Evidently the word, in all its detail, was sculptured in his (child’s) memory. The word, the sounds that compose it and their correct succession remained complete in his mind—nothing could efface them. That memory was of a different nature from that of older children. It created a kind of vision in the mind and the child reproduced this clear and fixed vision with certainty.7
This selection describes the absorbent mind of an infant learning its native language (a process which scientists still cannot fully explain). Note the words vision in the mind.
Does this sound like similarities with right brain characteristics? Her words….”memory different”…”memory sculptured”…”a kind of vision in the mind”. Could this be photographic memory she was referring to?
The inner powers of the child have never been realized, neither from the intellectual nor from the moral point of view.…Our social mentality has not yet grasped the idea that we can receive help from the child, that the child can give us a light and a lesson, a new vision and a solution for inextricable problems. Even psychologists do not see in him an open door through which they may enter the subconscious. Even they still try to discover and decipher it through the ills of the adult only.8
Now we see she has used the word subconscious.
Terms similar to right brain education include: ”…unrealized inner power”…”solutions for inextricable problems”…”open door to the subconscious”.
And again Montessori writes: “Is it then possible that there exists a memory different from that of our conscious and developed minds?”9
Again we hear in her words, similarities with right brain education – “a memory different from that of our conscious minds.” This sounds like Shichida’s right brain encyclopedic memorization function.
Whether in this next quote she was referring specifically to the absorbent mind or to all the amazing qualities of children, we find a hopeful, beautiful statement to conclude this section on Maria Montessori.
When prejudice will be vanquished by knowledge, then there will appear in the world a “superior child” with his marvelous powers which today remain hidden. Then there will appear the child who is destined to form humanity capable of understanding and controlling our present civilization.10
As I read Montessori’s writings, I have had the feeling that something has been left out of her methodology. Not from her writings, but from the full incorporation of her suggestions about the absorbent mind into her developed curriculum. As I have suggested, she hints at other ways of knowing and learning but leaves the hints dangling in the air. Based on these quotes from her writings, I am convinced that she uncovered right brain abilities of preschool age children even though she was not able to offer a scientific explanation for them. I invite the Montessori community of learners to explore these hints and arrows that Maria Montessori seems to have left for future generations.
1. Montessori, M. (1969) The formation of man. Translated by Joosten, A.M., India, Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, p. 42
2. Ibid., p. 84
3. Ibid., p. 91
4. Ibid., p. 56
6. Ibid., p. 33
7. Ibid., p. 36
8. Ibid., p. 42-3
9. Ibid., p. 36
10. Ibid. p. 99
Dr. Celeste Miller