Malcolm is a well known and respected member of our Montessori community. But unlike many of us he is at the end of his Montessori journey. His youngest daughter Leah has recently graduated from our local Montessori school and will next year commence her first year at Canberra Girls' Grammar School. I thought I would ask Malcolm a few questions and find what is at the heart of his dedication to Montessori education.
Can you tell us about how you were first introduced to Montessori and what your thoughts were at the time?
As a youngish father, I was 35 when the Canberra Montessori Society was set up by Margaret Fleming, I had no thoughts on education. I was too wrapped up in my own life - work, hobbies, marriage, house, etc. Even the birth of my eldest, Jeremy, came as a bit of a surprise - I had no plans to be a father! It was my wife Liz who saw through my preoccupation and decided it was time, and it was she who introduced me to Montessori. Liz joined the fledgling CMS, was secretary for a while, and set me to work building pink towers and playgrounds. I still haven't really read very much of Maria Montessori's writings so my interest in the Montessori Method comes more from observation and participation than from theory.
Your son Jeremy was in the foundation class in 1981 as a three-year old and is now studying Medicine . What impact do you think his Montessori education had on him?
There are so many influences on a child that it is hard to pin this down, especially as Jeremy only did three years with Montessori as our School only had two cycle 1 classes then. Everyone had to move on to another school when they turned six. However, he has an amazing ability to focus and to concentrate on the job in hand which I could say his early Montessori schooling must have influenced. He has always enjoyed learning and always wanted to be good at what he does, two other attributes I'm sure influenced by his early involvement with Montessori. He, himself, remembers his Montessori period fondly, especially some of the geography work (he learned what an isthmus is) and numeracy work. He still sees Montessori equipment in his mind when he is doing mental arithmetic. Readers may be interested to know that his first love is flying and he was flying 747s for Qantas by the time he was 25. He loves the intellectual and manual challenge that mastering big and small aeroplanes presents - dexterity of the mind and hands is required, and bringing the aircraft safely back to land and neatly parked is not unlike a Montessori child mastering an equipment-based challenge and returning it safely to its designated place on the shelf.
Have you implemented Montessori principles in your home?
One of the first elements that appealed to me in establishing our "children's house" classroom in Canberra was how everything is designed with the children in mind - the prepared environment, put together so that children can operate within it so easily. I guess it is intuitive when you think about it, but so many people do very little to make their home child-friendly. It is not hard to do the basics, making sure things are within reach, door handles down low where needed, chairs and tables the right size, or at least steps and stools to bring a child to the right level, mirrors they can see themselves in. So, yes, I have always tried to do that, as well as doing as much as possible to encourage my children to do things for themselves. Leah has been making her own lunch to take to school since she was 10.
You have an obvious passion for MG motor cars. How have you shared that passion with your children?
Ah yes, my children have learned to "roll with the punches" when it comes to my MGs. There are three distinct phases of rolling. At first they know no different and are happy to travel in what is clearly (to everyone else on the road who stare at us) an unusual car. But when they get to about 11, they become sensitive to the stares and go through the "can you just drop me here where no-one can see me" period. This can coincide with the third phase which is "when is the next motorkhana, Dad, I need to practice my gear changes?" I have one MG in particular that has been used to teach each child to drive when they get to 12. At this age, they are permitted to drive the car in MG Car Club events and I like to think that by learning how the car works, and how to drive it proficiently, they are better prepared for when they get their licence and drive on the road with the rest of us. This MG is now owned by Leah who can drive it reasonably well and proudly proclaims the fact to her friends. She still prefers to be dropped off around the corner though! As a final parting gift to the parents and students of our School community who have observed my own fleet of MGs coming and going over the years, I arranged for a display of 25 MGs to be put on at our annual Spring Fair this year. The cars ranged from a 1925 replica of the first MG, through to a pair of 2005 model cars, the last produced in England, with a good selection of models in between, some rarely seen on the roads in Australia.
You are known for 'keeping the faith'. What does this mean and at what times has it been difficult to keep the faith?
There are many pressures on parents when it comes to deciding on education options for their children - financial, religious, doctrine, etc, so it is not surprising that the attrition rate from a small School such as ours is quite high. Currently we go from a cohort of about 50 children in the first year of our cycle 1 classrooms to a graduating group of about 10 as students leave along their Montessori journey to attend other schools. Also, as a small community, the personal element can become quite influential too, especially if a parent sees their child having interpersonal issues with other students or with classroom staff. There are not many options within the School to help with these issues. And the parent community can also have either a positive or negative effect. My current partner Gaye, Leah's mother, and I have had our share of these during Leah's time at the School, but personally I felt it was important for Leah to have stability during her primary schooling (unlike myself who attended seven primary schools as my father moved from city to city with his work), and I also wanted to see how a complete Montessori primary education prepared Leah for high school. Gaye was happy to support me in this choice.
With Leah transitioning to Girls' Grammar do you feel there are any particular challenges or advantages transitioning from a Montessori school?
Canberra Girls Grammar School is a typical (I'm sure they would argue about this choice of word) well-resourced Australian private school. It has been carefully managed over nearly 100 years and so has a beautifully organised set of buildings offering everything in education that any parent (and child) could wish for. Everything from hands-on science labs, art studios, drama theatres and fashion rooms to well-resourced libraries and classrooms to challenge the intellect, picking up a gymnasium, swimming pool and manicured sports grounds along the way. A Montessori graduate with their love of learning, their honed research skills and their deep understanding of literacy and numeracy will find just what they are looking for somewhere inside the school's gates. The biggest challenge will be transitioning to a more structured framework where she will be expected to do some work that she might prefer not to be doing, but I don't see this as a major issue. She will still have plenty of time to dig deep into other things. She may also have to work a bit harder to catch up to other girls from more traditional schools who already know their maths by rote but who don't really understand why it is so (unlike a Montessori child who can picture her maths in her head and instinctively understands why it is so!).
What advice do you have for parents considering a Montessori education for their children or for those who are unsure if Montessori is for them?
I love the way that at nearly 12 years old, Leah still skips into School. For me, this is the most important element in her education so far, the love of learning. How many other children do you know who still skip to school at this age? Still have the light in their eyes as Trevor Eissler says. They are more like the children in his delightful Youtube clips that explain so clearly the benefits of Montessori approach. I feel so for the child trudging to and from school weighed down by a back pack full of homework! But more than that, I'm convinced that the deep understanding of how things work that Montessori's equipment-based learning gives children is a distinct advantage in the longer term. Just think of Jeremy in the cockpit of his 747 second-guessing his on-board computer's navigation calculations with his own mental arithmetic picturing his early Montessori equipment. Add to that the "big work cycle" for concentration, the "respect for the child" philosophy for self-esteem, and the emphasis on "research" and "independence" to encourage a child to get to the bottom of things on their own or in small groups, and you have the basis for a set of skills to carry any child through any high school or university into any profession or occupation they may choose to follow. For life.
Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you Malcolm! Also a big thank you to the talented Ayu Srimoyo for the wonderful photographs.