“Confronted with truth, the man of science has no preconceptions; he is ready to renounce all those cherished ideas of his own that may diverge therefrom. Thus, gradually, he purifies himself from error, and keeps his mind always fresh, always clear, naked as the Truth with which he desires to blend in a sublime union. (Montessori, The Advanced Montessori Method 1.IV)
“…but might it also be true?” (Paul Graham, “What You Can’t Say”)
Happy Friday, everyone.
Figuring out what’s true can be quite hard in this field. We deal in human beings—children, teenagers, their parents, ourselves, and the fractal web of relationships that forms between each and each. If there’s something more complex in the universe than human beings, we haven’t found it yet. And if there’s something more complex about human beings than the process by which they become, I don’t know of it.
Amongst the myriad tools at our disposal for discerning the truth about a child’s needs and how to serve them—our knowledge of Montessori theory, our own life experiences, practices such as observation and Child Study, our core values as an organization—there is one that is simple, straightforward, and uncommon.
You can just ask, with total honesty and curiosity: “Is it true?”
The power of this question is to recapture a basic orientation towards the truth, something that can often get lost in the mix of biases, recent experiences, social considerations, sunk costs, ego stakes, and so on. “Is it true” sweeps those things aside and directs one’s gaze to the facts at hand. Because of this, it’s often the first step to real understanding.
The power of “is it true?” takes many forms. The most startling examples are historical, where geniuses use it to cut through something the entire world takes for granted. At one point the notion that “children should be seen and not heard” was a universal adage. It was a commonplace, a cliché even. When a misconception of that magnitude is taken for granted, there’s no way to progress until you change it from a cliché to a real question: “Children should be seen and not heard… Is that true?”
Innovators like Maria Montessori had to pose this to themselves before they could grasp the way forward—and just by really honestly and thoughtfully asking the question, the light of their minds pointed them in a different direction than the one the world was following. You can actually see Montessori discussing the issue of the massive effort it takes to get over strong cultural preconceptions—she calls them “prejudices”—in the first of her 1946 London Lectures.
Even in a context where we have a high degree of confidence in the theories we are using, the way we have a great deal of confidence in our Montessori pedagogy, it’s still very worth posing this question to ourselves. You can give yourself the mental set to watch only for things that reinforce what you want to believe. For example, as part of Montessori training (including Prepared Montessorian training), guides do observations designed to highlight specific things that support the Montessori approach. This is an invaluable and necessary exercise in learning Montessori (or any new approach).
But if we really want our identifications to represent truth, we must routinely re-check and re-validate our framework. In practice, this means being open to the idea that our observations might not always comport with our preconceptions—and that in such a case, it’s our responsibility to think the clash through to resolution. “Is it true?” is a way to quickly establish the necessary cognitive set to do so. (This sort of questioning is in fact something we emphasize in our Prepared Montessorian trainings, in a way that is, as far as I know, unique amongst Montessori trainings. It also shows up in processes like Child Study that are specifically designed to identify the truth of a child’s circumstances and needs—and remove blockers to identifying that truth.)
A different, more everyday example: being confronted by a frustrated parent. The parent is upset because her child isn’t as far along in their reading as she expected. Or perhaps because her child is being “bullied”. Or because she doesn’t feel that we’re implementing Montessori well enough, or perhaps the opposite: that Montessori doesn’t work for her child.
Times like these, it’s easy to feel anxious. You’re being criticized, and it’s natural to want to defend yourself. “Your child is doing fine with reading!” “Your child is just having some normal social conflicts, not being bullied.” “Our classroom is doing great!” These things might all be true. But they might not. And because they are driven by defensiveness, they don’t represent a process of seeking the truth. They come from a place of fear. If we’re afraid of the conclusion, or even just afraid of having the conversation with this person, we risk falling into a combative frame of mind. Combative frames of mind are not also truth-conducive ones.
Instead of rushing to defend ourselves, instead of rushing to a contrary conclusion, what if we instead just asked the question, in a sincere, passionately curious way: “Is it true?” What if we’re never afraid or hesitant to ask that question, let the chips fall as they may?
To do this is to change the frame. It focuses our own minds—and the minds of the other parties in the conversation—to the facts at hand. Instead of, “Your child is doing fine with reading!”, the response becomes, “Well what are the signs that your child is behind with reading? How might we know or figure out when a child is behind in this way? What are you seeing? Does it comport with what I am seeing?” The same thing goes for the other concerns. “Well, how might we figure out if it’s bullying or just a normal conflict? What are you seeing or hearing? Can we compare notes?” “What do you see in the classroom that indicates that it needs improvement?” “What needs of your child do you see not being met?”
To seek truth in such situations is to be on a quest to grasp what is really going on. By adopting this attitude, one conveys to those around her the power of honest thought: we’ll reach it together and will deal with the facts as they stand.
It’s common and easy to accidentally be trying to move forward without regards to the truth. The power of “is it true?” is to correct that accident. Whenever we’re feeling anxious, or where something we or someone else is saying might not be politically correct or might be “not Montessori” or “not the Guidepost approach”, or we find yourself habitually falling back on old experiences and habits, we can simply ask “is it true?” and thereby reorient our own thought processes. Instead of issuing a hasty denial, or quickly judging something by a familiar standard, or making a quick decision by reference to an existing plan, or appealing to a policy—we just habitualize the question of whether or not it’s true. Even when the answer is just a quick “yes”, we’ll see it more clearly and act with greater conviction. We’ll find our minds both put at ease and sharpened.
Humans are consummate knowers. Aristotle noted that, while we can of course go wrong, in general people are quite good at getting at the truth when that is their honest intent. We just sometimes need a gentle reminder to keep ourselves on that track. We need to check to make sure we’re not being complacent—that one eye is always on the world, constantly searching for the unusual, the unexpected, the surprising, the heretofore unnoticed or unknown.
“Is it true?” is a reminder to do just that.
Enjoy your weekends,
Executive Director, Montessorium