Dewey, it must be emphasized once again, did not abandon subject matter nor did he disvalue learning from textbooks. His ideas are merely the culmination of the modern trend away from abstract, rationalistic book learning in the child’s early years to learning from concrete, problem-solving experience. Dewey’s long-term plan for his school at the University of Chicago was stated quite explicitly. In a report to the President of the University of Chicago, he said that the goals of the school were to identify the child’s interests so as to select appropriate subject matter and methods, to organize subject matter for each year, to gradually separate “the subject matter into its more specialized phases,” i.e., to separate “history from science, biological science from physical science, etc.,” and “to provide demand and opportunity for the continuous introduction of symbols in reading, writing, and number, and the necessity for an increased use of books as auxiliaries.”
Indeed, Dewey was highly critical of his progressive colleagues for not developing a proper subject matter. When progressive teachers failed to provide guidance or goals to their students, Dewey responded pointedly: “Now such a method is really stupid. For it attempts the impossible, which is always stupid; and it misconceives the conditions of independent thinking. There are a multitude of ways of reacting to surrounding conditions, and without some guidance from experience these reactions are almost sure to be casual, sporadic and ultimately fatiguing, accompanied by nervous strain.” As carpenters guide their apprentices, says Dewey, so must teachers their elementary school pupils.
More specifically, Dewey’s fundamental criticism of educational reforms that were often made in his name focused on the educators’ failure to develop a progressively organized subject matter appropriate for age and maturity of the children being taught. Traditional educators, said Dewey, tended to emphasize the external conditions of learning, such as subject matter, at the expense of the internal needs for growth, but the progressives were committing the opposite error. “The organized subject-matter of the adult and the specialist cannot provide the starting point” of education, says Dewey, but it does provide the goal. And it is toward this goal that subject matter—in the form of occupations for younger children and books and other aids to investigation for older ones—must be organized and directed. “The problem of teaching,” to repeat a quotation from chapter 1, “is to keep the experience of the student moving in the direction of what the expert already knows.” . . .
For Montessori the goal of education is independence and independence is achieved through freedom and work—freedom for the organism to unfold on its own and work to advance the organism’s growth and development. The aim of traditional education in contrast, according to Montessori, is obedience and conformity to the will of adults; in such a system the children are treated like slaves and the result is psychological scars and dependence. Indeed, Montessori described children in the traditional classroom as “beautiful butterflies, mounted by means of pins, their outspread wings motionless.” Her response was to let the butterflies fly.
Fully endorsing the organic metaphor, Montessori argues that “education is not something which the teacher does”; to be more precise, it “is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.” Between birth and the age of six, says Montessori, children possess powerful learning capabilities that parents and teachers should take heed not to disturb or interrupt. Rather, parents and teachers should assist the development of children by providing them carefully prepared environments. This will enable them to acquire the ability to concentrate for long periods of time, which, as a result, will enable them to become calm and psychologically confident. They will learn the perseverance needed to succeed in the world as an adult. . . .
An important discovery of Montessori’s is that certain psychological problems disappear when children are allowed to pursue their own interests in a prepared environment that stimulates concentrated attention. This is her concept of “normalization.” Deviations or defects of character, as Montessori refers to these problems caused by interfering adults, such as rowdiness, possessiveness, and indolent passivity, vanish when the child becomes interested in a didactic material and begins to concentrate on it. After a short time, anxiety is replaced by inner calm and purposefulness. Outwardly, patience and a respect for others develops, because such a child learns to appreciate the absorption of others in these materials and is now willing to wait until a desired material is free. Confidence and self-esteem are the results of the normalizing process of concentrated attention.