Culture of Work, Culture of Knowledge
VP of Pedagogy
This then is the task of man—to think and to work.
A calm, serene child, attached to reality, begins to achieve his elevation through work. ... Henceforth [his actions] will become the instruments of an intelligent hunger to know and to penetrate the reality of the outer world. And this wandering curiosity is transformed into an effort to master knowledge.
Work and knowledge are both “lanterns” at Higher Ground Education. That is, they are core concepts that fundamentally shape our approach to education. Both of them represent an institutional understanding of what Montessori education is, at its core and cutting across programs.
To put the point more concretely: every single program, school, and classroom at Higher Ground aim for a culture where work and knowledge are deeply valued, and where those values are actively developed in students. A love of effort, a drive for purpose, a habitual curiosity, a questing for the truth—these are essential outcomes of Higher Ground programs, outcomes achieved by creating cultures of learning in which they are instanced.
This essay elaborates what it means and looks like to have cultures of work and knowledge, with reference as to how it relates to Montessori theory. There is a special emphasis here on programs for older children, especially adolescents.
Culture of Work
The effort put into work, study, and learning is the result of interest and nothing can be achieved without effort.
The role of education is to interest the child profoundly in an external activity to which he will give all his potential.
The calm, serene child, attached to reality, begins to achieve his elevation through work.
Now the little child who manifests perseverance in his work as the first constructive act of his psychical life, and upon this act builds up internal order equilibrium, and the growth of personality, demonstrates, almost as in a splendid revelation, the true manner in which man renders himself valuable to the community. The little child who persists in his exercises, concentrated and absorbed, is obviously elaborating the constant man, the man of character, the man who will find in himself all human values, crowning that unique fundamental manifestation: persistence in work.
All work is noble, the only ignoble thing is to live without working.
There is a need to realize the value of work in all its forms, whether manual or intellectual, to be called ‘mate’, to have a sympathetic understanding of all forms of activity.
The essential reform is this: to put the adolescent on the road to achieving economic independence. ... This ‘independence’ has more educational than practical value; that is to say, it has a closer connection to the psychology of the adolescent than with an eventual actual utility. So, even if a boy were so rich that his economic security seemed above all the vicissitudes of life he would still derive great personal benefit from being initiated in economic independence. For this would result in a ‘valorization’ of his personality, in making him feel capable of succeeding in life by his own efforts and on his own merits, and at the same time would put him in direct contact with the supreme reality of social life.
Montessori conceived of even infants as sometimes engaged in work. She used the term deliberately in order to differentiate it from other activities the child engages in, to highlight its special developmental significance, and to relate it to similarities in the function and significance of work for adults.
- Effortful, requiring of an individual her voluntary expenditure of energy and commitment of sustained concentration
- Purposeful, being directed at some goal
- Manifested in action, that is, involving coordinated physical motion of different sorts
- Externally directed, that is, connected to reality, to the stuffs of the external world
This cluster of characteristics defines work. Work is to be contrasted in children with play, which, though very much manifested in action, is typically less effortful, purposeful, and externally directed. It can also be contrasted with many social activities, aesthetic experiences, and other modes of relaxation. (Certain activities, such as hobbies, form edge cases that deliberately imitate the structure of work and might or might not be considered work in this sense, depending on the context. The same is true of sports and games, which share most features of work but are typically and deliberately removed from reality, in part and in varying degrees, and, again, might still be considered work in some contexts.)
It is the distinctive features of work that cause it to drive development. Work serves a centralizing function, integrating different faculties deployed towards a common goal, and gradually and increasingly putting the individual in conscious control of her actions and goals. Work also grounds self-esteem, in the most fundamental realm of one’s whole relationship with reality, giving the growing person the ability and confidence to grapple with and shape her world. And work builds the will, by motivating effort and accruing a body of experience testifying that effort is worthwhile and satisfying.
Agency and self-authorship, confidence and effort, and the power to shape the world together represent an enormous portion of the human experience and of moral development.
Montessori’s view is that the capacity for work in adults—not just creative or great or charitable work, but work as such—of purposeful, productive activity voluntarily seen through to completion—of steadiness and persistence—is a primary source of dignity and virtuous character development. An artist of great skill but of low productivity, she writes,
lacking the will to work, would not be considered a good match [husband]. Everyone knows that he is not only incapable of economic production, but that he is a suspicious and dangerous character, that he might become a bad husband, a bad father, a bad citizen. On the other hand, the humblest artisan who ‘works’ undoubtedly contains within himself all the elements which make for happiness and security in life.
Montessori saw continuity with the developing human. For both the child and the grown adult, work serves as the foundation of character—in the case of the child, of her developing character. Fostering a child’s latent work capacity is, for Montessori, a primary focus of all caregivers and educators through all stages of development. (It’s worth specifically noting her view that the confidence that comes from directly working with reality is fundamental to eliminating insecurity and grounding positive social behavior, which will otherwise be driven by anxiety about approval or the lack thereof.)
For younger children, this primarily consists of inspiring the child to spontaneously engage in concentrated work and then protecting her while she is doing so. As children get into elementary and then adolescence, work takes on additional characteristics. It is not just a period of flow-like exertion of effort (though it can be that), but also includes:
- Increasingly sophisticated organization of one’s work, into tasks and sub-tasks that need to be tracked, arranged, and scheduled
- Collaboration with others on work, which now includes the work itself and also work of collaboration (division of labor, management, communication, and so on)
- An increased diversity of work that includes both significant cognitive components, such as study and practice at abstract skills, and also increasingly sophisticated work products
Organizational skills, collaboration, and increasingly impressive output all need to be learned and vertically integrated with the fundamental capacity to work. Ideally students, as they get older, learn not only how to organize their work but learn the satisfaction of crossing off tasks. They not only collaborate with others, but learn the unique joy of leveraging a common goal to relate to others, to come together as a team. And, with adolescents in particular, there will start to be a transition between schoolwork and “adult” work, that is “work that is ‘judged’ as a product of life”, just like the work of any other person (FTCA A 62).
There are many particular things an educator can and should do to achieve these outcomes—helping one student get organized, finding ways to inspire another to greater efforts, and so on. But, at a high level, the mechanism that achieves the development of these goals is a certain overall culture of work in the classroom and the school.
It’s general expectations and general approbation regarding work in all of the above senses: the discipline of day-to-day work, the continuous setting of goals, the valorization of effort, the continuous quest of each to create and leverage self-motivated exertion, the celebration of great work.
A culture of work—a lived manifestation of those expectations and norms regarding work—is an immense achievement and typically needs to be very thoughtfully scaffolded by the guides. Once it’s achieved, it still needs support and scaffolding, but is a largely self-motivating, self-sustaining thing. In the same way that there are organizations and offices that share a general work ethic that persists through any particular team member, so it is with a school and the students.
What does it look like to be achieving this in whole or in part?
- Students are working a lot. Students don’t waste less structured time; they see it as an opportunity to engage in work (including schoolwork). There is a general concern, one shared by students, for not wasting time.
- Students are organized and detail-oriented in their work. The thoroughness and detail-orientation of a good work ethic is being developed. Carelessness and imperfection in work is being eschewed.
- Ambitious work—e.g. a group film project, or an individual’s attempts to start a business, or a subset of students pushing to excel in math—is taken seriously, given dignity, valorized. That is, it is granted moral weight. This work isn’t treated (primarily) as “fun” or as outside the bounds of school, and it isn’t given short shrift for any reason. Work as such is what is valorized.
- In adolescence, student work starts to be integrated with the broader world of work. Students have and are excited by opportunities to find work, or to create audiences for their work, outside of school. They are becoming more interested in judging their work by those real-world standards.
- There is a virtuous cycle of growing confidence and growing capacity for work. Work has a joyous and grounding effect for students that is connected to the work and further motivates it.
- Students are improving their facility with conscious goal-setting. They are increasingly purposeful, and increasingly integrated in their purposes. Being conscious about the purpose of meetings, of friendships, of classes and so on is considered laudatory.
One of the most profound gifts we can impart upon a student is to help nurture her capacity for and love of work. Work is what we spend most of our lives doing, and it should be approached in a way that properly creates and grounds a good life. The work of nurturing work is a constant priority for educators throughout all stages of development.
Culture of Knowledge
When you say, ‘There goes a man of vague mentality. He is clever but indefinite,’ you are hinting at a mind with plenty of ideas, but lacking in the clarity which comes from order. Of another you may say, ‘He has a mind like a map. His judgments will be sound.’ In our work, therefore, we have given a name to this part of the mind, which is built up with exactitude, and we call it ‘the mathematical mind.’ I take the term from Pascal, the French philosopher, physicist and mathematician, who said that man’s mind was mathematical by nature, and that knowledge and progress came from accurate observation.
We have to help the child realize his conquests. We have to help him organize his intellect further and further into abstraction. A child of twelve years has moved into another field of exploration.
...[T]he known establishes itself in the child as a complex system of ideas, which system was actively constructed by the child himself...
A great deal of material must be prepared for the children. A great many charts must be made, and a great many tales and anecdotes must be gathered. All these different items of knowledge must be linked together in an orderly fashion. They must be presented so that they do not cause the child mental fatigue, but act as mental excitement, and become the motor which seeks more knowledge. This then is our task, to gather the highest discoveries that have been made in the sciences, to render them clear and fascinating, and to offer them to childhood.
...[N]othing shows the necessity of culture [viz. knowledge] more clearly than finding by experience how essential it is in order to live consciously and intelligently... To become conscious of the essential help given by it, to feel how indispensable it is to achieve perfection, success, and therefore the joy of the spirit; this is the greatest urge to study.
There is no adult who does not have the power of making an abstraction. Without the power of abstraction, he would be only an animal. It is this power which gives him the superiority that he enjoys.
Maria Montessori doesn’t often write directly and extensively about knowledge. This is in significant part because she’s motivated to contrast her view with what she thinks is a pathological focus in education on the “transmission” of knowledge.
The traditional focus on knowledge is pathological because it’s myopic, because it is detached from the context, interests, agency, and nature of the developing person. In a good case, the outcome is that a child will “understand and understand completely without achieving any results... Everything the child has understood remains ineffective and passes away. He is able to understand many things and store them up inside himself, forming a chaotic mess of understood things...” (Psychogeometry 1, p. 5) In a bad case the “understanding” is anything but, and rather “the forced response given by a simple mechanical faculty under torture” (ibid. p. 3).
The traditional focus on knowledge is not, however, fundamentally misguided as a major goal. As can be seen in the quotations above, Montessori’s view is that knowledge, built properly, is a massive, irreplaceable value, one that ought properly to concern educators of all ages. It is intimately connected to and uniquely characteristic of human action and human life.
Knowledge, at least in its healthy state, is a lived, abstract awareness of causes. Knowledge is:
- Lived, that is actively built by the knower and continuously applied in the life of the knower
- An awareness, that is a complete and integrated perspective
- Abstract, conceptual, rational understanding that integrates similarities and discriminates differences in experience
- Of causes, of the fundamental, explanatory natures of things, that often cannot be directly observed
A good life is characterized by a continuously deployed understanding of the world. One has insight into oneself, the natural world, the world of technology and invention, other human beings and human needs, tendencies, and relationships, the origin and dynamics of societies and civilizations, and more. One sees causes and explanations everywhere and is always looking for even deeper ones, and this perspective is a source of insight and guidance through life, making one at home and in command of one’s world.
(Montessori does not, as far as I know, give a concise, explicit characterization of this knowledge-built-properly, so the foregoing is my attempt to capture the spirit of how I understand her comments on various aspects of learning and development, and also the philosophical traditions from which she seems to be drawing.)
Montessori had a positive view of the traditional academic disciplines: math, language, literature, history, and science. She had particularly laudatory things to say about knowledge of history, which she viewed as a major integrator and motivator of knowledge proper. Understanding the causes of where human things came from, in her view, resulted in gratitude and inspiration in students.
Here is an extended aside in one of Montessori’s lectures that captures a major portion of the spirit of her approach to knowledge:
To the Indian teachers who studied the Montessori method and applied it in their schools, I recommended that they link the subjects they taught (in the fields of geography, chemistry, physics) to the history of the various discoveries and particularly the story of the lives of men who had contributed to this conquest of progress. As a result, in these schools a prodigious awakening of sensibility and interest came about on the part of the children who never tired of asking details about the lives of these marvelous beings. They were particularly interested in the difficulties these men had to overcome, the prejudices they had to fight, the privations they had to suffer in order to discover the secrets of the unknown world and of the mysterious forces of nature.\n\n“The children frequently asked to see portraits of these heroes and delighted in relentlessly pursuing the near-miraculous significance of their work once they had a clear idea of the times in which they had lived, the degree of ignorance of their contemporaries with regard to their research and studies, and the dearth of means at their disposal.\n\n“A near-religious respect grew within them for these men who lived in such distant times and places, who belonged to such a diversity of social classes; in this way, they managed to thoroughly grasp, almost concretely, the universal unity for good achieved by the work of men the world over.\n\n“They were exalted by the stories of these feats and we, deeply touched, participated in their enthusiasm.\n\n“If our educational task is to enhance the intellectual and affective faculties of the children, we must first enhance our own. And in this context we should never teach various scientific subjects—geography, history, etc. without relating the passionate endeavors of the men who, with their work, their dedication, their sacrifice, brought to light new truths, each in his own field. For if we do, our spirits will become arid, as will those of the little ones we are striving to educate for life.
What this quote captures, apart from the particular advice to leverage the historical origins of knowledge, is how Montessori conceived of knowledge being valued in education. An important part of what’s needed is that knowledge be an impassioned pursuit; a major risk is that the knowledge seems “arid”.
It’s important for knowledge to be valued because knowledge is the work of the individual. For Montessori knowledge is a kind of work, in the sense of work discussed above. It’s activity that must be voluntarily chosen and effortfully performed by an individual, that connects the individual with reality (via cognition, evidence, explanation, interpretation, etc.), and that involves a thought-action loop, such as experimenting or reading or discussing. (The only way that it isn’t work is that it doesn’t shape the external world; the work product in this case is the knowledge itself.)
What motivates effort is interest, excitement, valuing the object that requires work. The source of passion here is curiosity, the desire to understand—which can either stand on its own, or be connected up with other goals.
As with work, there are many particular things an educator needs to continuously do to help students know. But what is immensely helpful is to aim for a culture of knowledge in the school, a set of expectations and norms around the value of knowledge and the nature and worthiness of the work required to attain it.
What does it look like?
- An appreciation for knowing stuff. Both breadth and depth of knowledge are valued. It’s not just the process of curiosity and investigation that are valorized, but the actual product, of having achieved a knowledgeable perspective in some general way or some particular knowledge domain. It’s the “complex system of ideas” that lives and grows inside the student (SAE 6, p. 162).
- A concern with the truth, in everything from detailed facts to the workings of big theories. A student who cares about knowledge will bristle at mistakes and inconsistencies and will want to deeply understand the topic. Whether it’s cell biology or social justice, in a culture of knowledge there is a relentless inquisitiveness, a desire to be right that is applied up and down the knowledge chain. Montessori often speaks both of giving students a big picture perspective, and of inculcating an exactitude in students when it comes to abstract subjects.
- A concern for evidence and arguments, for the process by which knowledge is formed, maintained, and applied. There is a need to understand the reasons for believing things and an openness to arguments, even (especially) on controversial and sensitive topics.
- Continuous application of knowledge in the form not just of schoolwork but to issues outside of school. In a culture of knowledge, there is a valuing of exploring abstract extensions, creative analogies, and new connections.
Guides play a massive role in this, not only in how well they motivate and teach their subjects, but as models. For the same reason that Montessori recommended a pedagogy of connecting academic knowledge with knowledge of its discoverers, it’s important for a guide to demonstrate a real love of their subjects—the process of learning it and also the subject itself. It’s that love that shows the worthiness of getting it right.
Work, Knowledge, and Agency
As a closing note, both work and knowledge are critically important forms of agency. They are key human potentials that can only be exercised by individual humans, and that need to be exercised as part of a full life.
Agency is also a lantern of Higher Ground, and there is a real sense in which the entire Montessori approach to education is to create a culture of agency in the classroom. Fundamentally, it’s students who achieve their own growth and development. Fundamentally, our goal is students who have authorship over their learning and who use that to increase their autonomy into adulthood.
But agency, for Montessori, doesn’t mean an unstructured liberty, an absence of limits, or shunning of inhibition. What it precisely means is work—understood as individuals agentially shaping the world and growing their character—and knowledge—understood as individuals agentially cognizing and understanding the world, creating a powerful, abstract perspective that can guide their autonomous choices. Work and knowledge together, done in the manner above described, are the essential means by which values are formed and realized, by an individual, as components of a full, self-directed life.
It’s actualized agency that concerned Montessori and that ought to concern us as educators. In that sense, having cultures of work and knowledge in the above manner are twin keystones of unlocking the potential of each of our students.
Meet the Author
Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014. In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.