Traditionally the centrepiece of Montessori practice has been the materials. The child's interest is peaked by the materials, he makes a choice, and his attention is polarised in "concentration"; this is the manifestation of the child's inner being.
Paul argues that this kind of concentration is situation-specific and isolated. He suggests that we need to start with observation of children in relationships and in dynamic environments. This helps us to prepare a suitable environment for our experiment. We can then accept that children manifest different types of attention and different types of normalisation.
We all know that some children "never quite get there" when we are looking for "normalisation" as Maria Montessori described it. Paul suggests that these children may not be displaying traditional kinds of "normalised" behaviour - but that if we observed them through the lens of their social interactions and relationships that we would observe a different kind of attention and normalisation. He strengthens this argument by saying that "socialisation may precede the ability to engage in concentration". And that "shared attention" is a valuable learning tool that should not be cast aside as less worthy than the "polarised concentration" of Maria Montessori's observations. He is not discounting the manifestation of "concentration", but merely proposing that concentration is part of a larger group of learning behaviours (behaviours that we as Montessori educators need to explore, and consciously observe to inform our construction of the prepared environment)
Paul breaks down the teacher's experience of observation into three parts: Perceptual Observation, Rational Observation, and Contemplative Observation. These three parts overlap.
He speaks about the importance distinguishing the importance of Observations versus Record Keeping. He proposes a new kind of observation framework in which we record our Perceptual Observations (what we see, hear, contrast), our Rational Observations (what we analyse or infer from what we are seeing/hearing), and use the skill of Contemplative Observation to bring forth new ideas, and allow us to see the "spiritual truth" of the situation.
Paul claims that relationships have a direct impact on learning. And that different children have different types of attention.
He quotes Maria Montessori: "The different types of deviated children do not shake the faith of the teacher". This is to say that concentration is one feature of attention and that not all children give attention to something in "concentration" , and they may nevertheless be normalised.
He believes we need to prepare the environment to support the other "features of attention" as well. Learning is part of the social experience, and therefore social interaction is the precursor to concentration. Relationships facilitate the learning process. Our brains are designed to be social. Our social experiences influence the number of neurons and their connections. Our social interactions organise our brain functions, our hormones, our immune system and our emotions.
Our preparation of the environment must be in response to our observations of:
- the situation
- the setting
- the activities
- the social roles
- the behaviours that manifest in these situations
We then need to fill our environments with materials that cause "attention" and "repetition" to be displayed (bearing in mind that attention is not the same as concentration), and that we can judge the "rightness" of our preparations by looking for the "refreshment and deep satisfaction" displayed by the child who has engaged in work that was "right" for him at that moment.
He urges us to ask the following questions while we are observing:
- when does concentration occur?
- when does shared attention occur?
- how can we prepare the environment for shared attention?
- what materials can we develop that facilitate collaboration and shared attention?
All in all, an inspirational approach to observation in the true "scientific" method that Maria Montessori felt was so important for all who wished to educate children in the "Montessori Way". If you every have the opportunity to listen to Paul speak - I would highly recommend it. He was very entertaining, and managed to encapsulate a potentially complex subject (social anthropology) in a way that gave me real tools for improving my practice as a teacher.