Montessori and Permaculture: Birds of a Feather?

I have a long standing interest in Montessori, of course (which goes back to around age 2 1/2 when my folks put me in a Montessori Children’s House, so I hardly chose this interest), but I also have a passing interest in sustainable living and especially in permaculture.  Permaculture is essentially a method of gardening (or landscaping or agriculture) based around designing ecologically sustainable landscapes by working with the environment’s natural tendencies, rather than against them, but one could argue that it is more of a philosophy of life than just a system for landscape design. It was invented in 1959 by an Australian named Bill Mollison, and, like Montessori, has gained quite a following but is far from mainstream.

As I was reading about permaculture this past summer, I kept thinking that this approach to gardening sounded very much like Montessori’s approach to schooling. One could almost argue that Montessori is permaculture principles applied to education (or that permaculture is Montessori principles applied to gardening, depending on your biases).

Below are the 14 principles of permaculture enumerated in Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden (which is an introduction to permaculture geared towards urban and small-scale gardeners), along with my comments (in italics) on their relation to Montessori. Some of the principles are quite specific to ecological design, and drawing any connection to Montessori is quite a stretch (and in a few cases, I didn’t even try), but in other cases, the connection seems pretty clear.  This is mostly an exercise in seeing if the connection is really there at all, so we’ll see what I come up with.

  1. Observe. Use protracted and thoughtful observation rather than prolonged and thoughtless action. Observation of the child is the heart and soul of Montessori education. Need I say more?
  2. Connect. Use relative location, that is, place the elements of your design in ways that create useful relationships and time-saving connections among all parts. The connection here isn’t so obvious to me, although I do think the emphasis on the logical organization of the prepared environment (=classroom, more or less) reflects a similar approach. Of course, building strong person to person connections is also crucial, but I’m not sure this really falls under Hemenway’s notion of “connection.”
  3. Catch and store energy and materials. Identify, collect, and hold useful flows. In the world of permaculture design, this is meant quite literally: find ways to make use of the energy gradients on your land. In the Montessori world, the principle isn’t quite so literal, but the goal is try to encourage and work with the natural abilities and interests of each child rather than against them, and to use these tendencies to help each child grow. Alright, alright, I’m not totally convinced by this analogy, but it’s going to sit here until I find a better one.
  4. Each element performs multiple functions. Here, I think largely of the materials one finds in a Montessori classroom. Most of them (though not every one) are designed to serve multiple functions, even those that have only one overt function.
  5. Each function is supported by multiple elements. And on the flip side, nearly every important skill is supported through multiple materials and lessons (and that’s only counting the “official” stuff, not the things that children dream up themselves).
  6. Make the least change for the greatest effect.
  7. Use small-scale, intensive systems.
  8. Optimize edge. The edge–the intersection of two environments–is the most diverse place in a system and is where energy and materials accumulate or are translated.
  9. Collaborate with succession. Living systems usually advance from immaturity to maturity, and if we accept this trend and align our designs with it instead of fighting it, we save work and energy. This might be my favorite connection. Montessori is built from the ground up to work WITH the natural stages of human development, rather than against it. Young children experience the world more through their senses than their intellects, so instead of concluding that they can’t yet be taught because they can’t listen to lectures, help them use their senses to maximize their knowledge of the world. Slightly older children (elementary school) develop amazing powers of imagination, so engage their imaginations to maximize their knowledge of the world. And that just barely scratches the surface.
  10. Use biological and renewable resources. Great idea, though I’m not sure yet how this fits in.The last four principles are what Hemenway calls “Principles based on attitudes,” and seem more relevant as attitudes that Montessori guides try to help children develop than as principles governing the design of Montessori education.
  11. Turn problems into solutions.
  12. Get a yield. Design for both immediate and long-term returns from your efforts.
  13. The biggest limits to abundance is creativity.
  14. Mistakes are tools for learning.

I’m fascinated to see what people think, as I’m not yet sure whether I’m convinced by my own thought or not. My knowledge of both Montessori and permaculture is minimal compared to many people’s (including some of my readers), so please correct any misunderstandings I might have.


2 thoughts on “Montessori and Permaculture: Birds of a Feather?

  1. Those are all great concepts! My favorite one is “the biggest limit to abundance is creativity”. I need to put that one in bold letters over my desk when I sit down to write. 🙂

    Your analogies are spot-on and very insightful!

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