What are the similarities between Montessori schooling and Islamic teachings?
Montessori is a system of education for young children that seeks to develop natural interests and activities rather than the use formal teaching methods.
In Montessori, grace and courtesy play a big part of the curriculum. Often in Montessori classrooms, from toddler-hood, children will sit at a table to eat (not in the playground as many schools do) with tablecloths or place-mats, cloth napkins, utensils and table manners are expected. There is dedication among Montessori teachers and parents alike to approach grace and courtesy as a subject matter by itself that needs time and effort and constant modelling. This is an important distinction in the Montessori school of thought versus traditional education where courtesy and grace are sometimes regarded as built-in practices that the child has acquired at home and are not necessarily issues that the school must prepare for or focus on separately as they would for a math or geography class for example.
The purpose of dedicating time and effort towards courtesy in Montessori thought is not to have an obedient or perfectly behaved child. The purpose is to empower children with skills and words and to give them the gift of being able to appropriately handle social situations. Allowing them to be respectful of themselves, family and friends and to all of those around them.
In Ali ibn Hussain’s Treaties on Rights (the great-grandson of the holy Prophet) he describes the rights of the child and addresses parents by saying:
“ …You are responsible for what has been entrusted to you, such as educating him in good conduct (husn al-adab), pointing him in the direction of his Lord, and helping him to obey Him.”
The emphasis on “good conduct” is not to be taken lightly. I must confess that I have personally been guilty of this. I have read this treaty several times and in my mind, I simplified the term “أدب” to the idea that if my child says ‘thank you” and your “ welcome” then the job is done. I underestimated the importance and the role grace and courtesy play in the development of the child’s understanding of himself and the world and furthermore, I underestimated its importance in his recommendation.
Not only is “ courtesy” mentioned as the first trait that we must instil in our children but it is also mentioned before our responsibility to teach our children about Allah. This needs a deeper discussion which I will discuss in upcoming posts. But the idea here is that there is a recurring theme on how Montessori education echoes the Islamic parenting principles. I could not help but wonder how our understanding of concepts and principles changes when we see how someone other than ourselves has applied it or defined it. When I saw for myself and read how this concept is applied in Montessori schools I began to see the true value in prioritizing courtesy- “adab” and it inspired me to approach it more of as a principle that needs research, preparation and a lot of patience instead of something that happens on its own.
What the hand does, the mind remembers
Montessori constantly stressed the importance of children using their hands as a tool for acquiring knowledge. For example, when teaching children to learn the alphabets, children touch letters that are made of sandpaper so that the muscles in the fingers remember the movement of the finger and hence letter recognition and writing become easier for the child because their minds will do what their hands have practised and not the other way around. This small detail might be easily overlooked or might seem unimportant in the process of comparing Islamic parenting strategies to the Montessori method. But to be honest it is in these details that I find the most fascinating of findings.
The Prophet Muhammad said once: “Sand is the spring of children.” The metaphoric translation of this is that “Let your children play with sand.” Research today tells us that playing with sand enhances children’s fine motor skills and that children learn the most through play. If you have ever gone to the beach with children then I am sure you have seen how mesmerized and entertained children are while playing with sand and we now know that what they are acquiring from this process is much more than random play. In addition to what was mentioned earlier, playing with sand promotes eye-hand coordination skills and fosters creative and imaginative play. Today there is a whole industry of sand products like “kinetic sand” promoted to parents and children so that children can enjoy playing with sand at home.
The key now is to link all of these observations together. If we look at the Prophet’s saying without the research about the importance of sand and without looking at Montessori’s approach then the saying might seem very simple with little implications. But put it in the context of play therapy, teaching strategies, imaginative play and you see a profound statement. It acts as a guide for parents on how children learn, Put it in the context of Montessori and you will see that it does not differ at all in stressing that children learn best through their own experience and if you think about it, it can easily be translated to “What the hand does, the mind remembers.”
One final observation on this topic is the Prophet’s use of the word ” ربيع – spring” in describing what sand is to children. Spring is when everything is blossoming and I do believe that this is what the Prophet wanted to emphasize, how our children’s senses, mind and emotions blossom by simply playing with sand. And the fascinating part to me is the fact the Prophet’s quote is three very concise words!
This comparative strategy has allowed me to appreciate gems of Islamic teachings, however, these teaching become much more practical, understandable and impactful when they are put in the right context and backed up by modern research findings. Whether you are a parent, an educator or a caregiver, I hope you see my research strategy as a tool that you can apply to any discipline in life. It is a tool that has changed my mindset and has allowed me to look at parenting using a wider lens, the lens of Islam, Montessori and modern research altogether, and I hope you are inspired to do the same in whatever it is you are searching for.