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?