What Are You Thinking Right Now?


One particular feature of a Montessori classroom is the lack of a lock on the washroom door. This may be a requirement nowadays for all pre-schools to prevent the risk little people from locking themselves into loos, but for Montessori there was another reason. 

In the early 1900s, Dr. Maria Montessori (the first Italian female doctor) opened her first school in a deprived area of an Italian city. This Montessori school not only to provided an education to the children of the area, but ultimately was set up with the aim of producing intelligent, free thinking, caring and compassionate members of society. So how, I hear you ask, does no locks on a loo achieve this?

Simple, each toilet door had a sign (usually made by the children) hung with ribbon on the door; on one side it read ‘engaged’ and on the other ‘free’. So each time a child approached the washroom, they engaged their brain to read the sign with the added benefit of learning to consider others. It’s such a simple exercise in thinking, but can you image trying that in any workplace you know? At the beginning, at least, people would just barge in on others, creating more embarrassing situations than the annual Christmas party! It could be suggested therfore that perhaps we’re so used to being herded with safety/information signs and equipment that as a society we generally spend most of our time disengaged from our external environment?

Road engineers in this country must have a hard life with all the potholes and limited resources. In the cities, we’re used to seeing narrow cycle lanes, yellow boxes, pedestrian crossings and warning signs akimbo, which we have become so used to now; that one would presume that to remove all this essential information would probably risk lives, but not so in the Dutch town of Drachten.

 Drachten received international attention for a traffic experiment known as shared space, a concept pioneered by an engineer called Hans Monderman. Almost all traffic lights and signs  were removed in the town’s centre in an effort to improve traffic safety, based on the theory that drivers pay more attention to their surroundings when they cannot rely on strict traffic rules. Previously the town’s centre had an average of 8 accidents per year. In the first two years after the system was introduced, yearly accidents were reduced to 1.

So here’s a Rawls thought experiment for you; think about your day, think about how many times you actively interacted with your external environment, and then try to recall instances where you ‘switched off’.

How much safer would our roads be if we had actively thinking drivers behind the wheel? How much better would our liberal democracy be if we had conscious voters and politicians?  And I often wonder how much better my spelling would be if I corrected it myself  instead of letting the spell check do it automatically. Seriously though, I think it is important that we  evaluate new and future technologies on the basis of whether they promote or inhibit free thought. What do you think?



A lost educationalist: P.H Pearse. An Introduction





Pictured above is St.Enda’s in Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin. It is a beautiful house and museum, with gardens, a café and playing pitches surrounding it. Growing up, we referred to it as Pearse Brother’s Park, as that is where Pearse and William among many other enligtened individuals set up a boys school in 1908. I remember peeking in the windows as a child, looking at the old furniture, fascinated. Click here for more info on visiting St.Enda’s.

There are plenty of good books, academic papers and websites devoted to P. H. Pearse and I would recommend you search them out for more detailed background information. My primary interest is the work of Pearse as an educationalist, specifically the influence of Montessori on his work.

Around the same time Pearse was setting up St. Enda’s, Dr. Maria Montessori was developing her method of education in Italy; Montessori was the first female doctor in Italy, so was already a pioneer of her time. She developed her methods in schools she opened in the Italian slums called ‘Casa dei Bambini’, the first of which opened on 6th January, 1907.

Not dissimilar to the overcrowded tenament buildings of Dublin at the time, children were often left to fend for themselves while parents worked long hours for little pay. Such was the success of the Montessori schools at the time, that educationalists and dignitaries alike would travel to see these revolutionary child centred schools.

I had a strange feeling that made me announce emphatically at the opening that here was a ‘grandiose’ undertaking of which the whole world would one day speak” Dr. Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood.

Evidence that Pearse was aware of Montessori’s method of education can be found in his pamphlet (early version of a blog) on education entitled ‘The Murder Machine‘;

The Montessori system, so admirable in many ways, would seem at first sight to attach insufficient importance to the function of the teacher in the schoolroom. But this is not really so. True it would make spontaneous efforts of the children the main motive power, as against the dominating will of the teacher which is the main motive power in the ordinary schoolroom. But the teacher must be there always to inspire, to foster. If you would realise how true this is, how important the personality of the teacher, even in a Montessori school, try to imagine a Montessori school conducted by the average teacher of your acquaintance, or try to imagine a Montessori school conducted by yourself!” P.H Pearse, ‘Masters & Disciples’, The Murder Machine.

When comparing Pearse and Montessori’s schools an obvious difference that emerges  is that Montessori focused on disadvantaged children to develop her methodolgy, as opposed to Pearse, whose pupils came from affluent, Nationalist families. Both, though, realised the importance of education is the creation of well rounded, free-thinking members of society.

Sadly there are a lot of what ifs with regard to Pearse and his enlightened views on education due to his premature death by British firing squad in 1916, for his role in the Easter Rising. I hope though, to explore further the relationship between Pearse and Montessori in relation to education, and the impact of Pearse’s loss to the Irish education system. Interestingly enough, recently released documents from the 1950s show that the Catholic Church, which was the dominant educator in the state at the time, rejected Montessori as a form of education due to it’s dangerous tendency to produce free thinkers, a view which Pearse, I’m sure would have not shared.

I will be researhcing this interesting area further and welcome suggestions in the form of link’s etc to further connections, in particular, between Dr. Maria Montessori and P.H. Pearse.