1513 Hall Johnson Road
Colleyville, TX 76034
The Montessori Method - December 2011
Whenever we hear something about “working to full potential” it usually has a negative slant, like “He’s not working to his full potential.” No doubt we all assume we know what it means, working to full potential. Do you hear a strong academic component in the question? Is it tinged with accomplishment? Is there a competitive edge in the phrase? How about a work-horse, nose-to-the-grindstone image? Is it safe to say that “working to full potential” means working hard, and working hard consistently?
For the moment, let us assume something to the contrary. Let us assume that potential doesn’t have a hard and fast meaning, but instead is relative to the person in question. Who gets to determine what someone’s potential is? For that matter, who gets to determine whether someone is working to full potential?
Not so many days ago I spoke with the mother of one of our students. She related a conversation with the guide where she shared her feeling that her child was not applying himself, not working to his full potential. To her surprise, the guide noted that some children have an academic bent and some have a social bent. The child’s social skills were assessed as strong, with both adults and children, with a calm “team” approach to work. “If he were more academic, he wouldn’t be ___.” It was a bold statement on the part of the guide, revealing an appreciation that far more is at stake than merely academics.
Read the well-crafted words of the BGMS mission statement: Our mission is to guide, nurture and support the development of the full human potential. First, there is no mention of teaching. Our role is to guide, nurture and support the self-construction of each child. This is the essence of the Montessori Method. Second, the objective is the manifesting of each child’s distinctiveness—his or her potential. The word “full” surely was included to emphasize the breadth of this potential.
Our mission statement is expanded in the following words: The Barbara Gordon Montessori School provides a carefully prepared learning environment in accordance with AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) principles and guidelines. We prepare each student to be an independent, productive member of society by promoting responsibility, self-expression and confidence, respect for others and a life-long love of learning.
At issue in this discussion is being true to oneself rather than meeting a standard imposed from the outside. There are plenty of standards and guidelines—for education and for society at large—and the standards are not at risk. When it comes to potential, however, everyone—specifically, each child—is singular, distinctive, unique. Potential is on the order of personality—unparalleled. One can be measured only in terms of oneself. I would argue that external standards are irrelevant. The discussion must be child-focused rather than society-focused.
What, then, might be the measure of potential? You will recall that in Montessori education we speak of focus and concentration on purposeful work, reality-based occupation, and imagination in preference to fantasy. When a child shows intense interest in a material, a cycle of work is born. Out of this connection with meaningful work comes a transformation of the personality. The child begins to work at optimal potential. Dr. Montessori wrote at great length about this process.
David Kahn and others speak of working “in the zone,” much as runners do, where ordinary reality yields to the powers of intense focus. At the University of Chicago is a noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [he says pronounce it chick-sent-me-high-ee]. For decades he has studied alongside Montessorians, notably David Kahn, on the topic of fruitful concentration. He uses the term flow, and produces simple graphs to demonstrate the emergence of flow. He cites two key variables, which become the two axes.
Along the horizontal axis, picture skills—low skill at the left, high skill at the right. Along the left or vertical edge of the graph, picture challenges—low at the bottom, high at the top. For any individual—picture your child—skill is plotted against challenge. Low skill set and low challenge, not much is happening. Low skill set and high challenge, anxiety is the sure result. High skills and low challenge, boredom ensues.
Through the middle of it all—a diagonal from lower left to the upper right—there is a zone of flow. Csikszentmihalyi calls it the flow channel. When skills match the challenge—or challenge matches skills—the individual is productively engaged. The result is intense satisfaction which urges the person onward. Obstacles and interference fade into the background. Time disappears. The individual is totally concentrated in the task. Flow obviously is the goal for each of us.1
Csikszentmihalyi speaks of extraordinarily rich moments: “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far … for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”2
Such moments are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. “But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery—or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life—that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.”3
Think of those magical times when you lost yourself in the work: the task pulled you onward, you completely lost track of time, and you were pleasurably immersed in the project. When you “came to,” you were startled to realize how much time had elapsed. You may have noticed how many things had not caught your attention. You felt strangely energized, deeply satisfied. This is flow. This is the experience of working to your potential—by standards which are internal, not external. In modern lingo you were in the zone.
Blessedly, children slip easily into the zone. Unlike us, they are not so well socialized, acculturated, and burdened with attitudes and expectations. When a task interests them, when they are galvanized by the challenge, they slip easily into the flow channel. If protected from external demands and interruptions, they stay on-center in a timeless pursuit of pure concentration. Dr. Montessori cited numerous instances from her observations. Most memorable was a four-year-old girl who performed a cylinder block exercise, fitting ten different-sized knobbed cylinders into their respective holes, 47 times, unceasingly in the midst of tumult.
As though he were speaking to Montessori’s observation of many decades earlier, Csikszentmihalyi says, “The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else.”4
Thus we have a whole new approach to working to full potential. It is hardly new, however. Csikszentmihalyi has been writing on it for more than 30 years. And Dr. Montessori’s descriptions of the process go back a century. David Kahn relates that when he told Dr. Csikszentmihalyi about Montessori’s descriptions of the process, Csikszentmihalyi quipped, “My goodness, this is fascinating. Dr. Montessori regarded normalization or flow as the norm of the species!”5
Indeed, Dr. Montessori understood this optimal functioning as a birthright, attainable by every child. She began with children three to six years of age, then extended her understanding downward toward birth and upward toward adulthood. Csikszentmihalyi wrote of the adult experience, enabling individuals to learn how to function in the zone of flow. The two models meet fruitfully, and Csikszentmihalyi’s research team now works closely with Montessorians. The result is fresh new language, which is welcome to modern ears, for conveying the means of the child’s self-construction.
 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990. New York: Harper Perennial. P. 74.
2 Ibid, p. 3.
3 Ibid, p. 4.
4 Ibid, p. 6.
5 Kahn, David. Montessori and Optimal Experience Research: Toward Building a Comprehensive Education Reform. The NAMTA Journal, Vol. 28, No. 3, Summer 2003. P. 3.
Dr. Larry Quade
AMI Teacher Trainer, BGMS Pedagogy Advisor