Three adolescent programmes, two training centres, one AMI.

On a quiet afternoon in September 2015, with castle turrets in the distance above and cobblestoned pavements below, a group of Montessorians gathered in the high-ceilinged lecture room of the Montessori Institute of Prague (MIP). The topic for discussion that afternoon, and for the next 24 months to follow, was the “New Humanity”, and the prepared environment for the third plane of development that would allow this new man to emerge.

With characteristic ambition and vigour, Montessori schools Andilek (MSA) and its partner organization MIP had won European Union funding for a group of 6 organisations – AMI, two training centres: the Maria Montessori Institute in London and the Montessori Institute of Prague, and three schools: Lära for livet in Sweden, Montessori_Initiative Wieden in Vienna, and The Montessori Place in East Sussex – to create from first principles a blueprint for the development of adolescent environments in Europe.

The group was challenged to design a ‘manual’ for building adolescent environments in Europe. The invitation was to consider all that has been learned from the experiences of the international Montessori community over the past 30 years, but to go back to first principles, and to return to Montessori’s writings.

We sought to identify, and attempted to answer, the important pedagogical questions to consider when starting an adolescent community. This was no easy task. In the end we felt it would be most useful to explore the key questions we have grappled with in this work with adolescents. 

The related challenge we faced was the tension between the high ideals of the text, and the “facts on the ground”. Montessorians find themselves in all sorts of situations and are called on to prepare environments for adolescents in all sorts of contexts. What is essential? What is the icing, and what is the cake?

Our contribution to the work is to engage in public conversation about the texts. Montessori’s writings are a material for our own development. We must not move to abstraction too quickly. If we are not returning to this textual material again and again, by ourselves and with others, discovering it anew each time, we lapse into a formula, and insight rarely comes from a formula – only from a material. We have found revisiting the texts as a group reveals fresh insights.

Guided by the texts, in Prague we discussed unstructured time and the work cycle; in Vienna the three period lesson and the control of error; in Sweden real work and maximum effort; and in East Sussex freedom and responsibility. Each conversation was rich and full, inspiring and challenging in equal measure. Our understanding deepened and broadened through these discussions, we began to put our thoughts down on paper as a collection of essays, presented here.

The collection begins with Jenny Hoglund’s emphatic case for the developmental nature of our work with adolescents. She presents an overview of the four planes of development, reviews the human tendencies and their operation in the third plane, and proposes a set of key principles to respect with adolescents. Her writing sets the stage for our work: education as an aid to life. Are we offering an environment that works with the nature of the adolescent? Do we truly believe that third plane education is something different from second plane education?

Sasa Lapter explores the key principles of Montessori pedagogy, setting out most helpfully, at once succinct and comprehensive, the framework of our work – a framework that spans the grandeur of the cosmic vision, to the specifics of analysis of difficulty, maximum effort and control of error.

Lizzie Kingston and Vikki Taylor offer two short and insightful pieces that illuminate our understanding of the prepared environment for the third plane. The first identifies maximum effort as the context within which development takes place; and the second identifies the control of error as essential to auto-education. Do we routinely witness maximum effort? Is auto-education a reality? Do the adolescents have uninterrupted time so they can go deep into their work?

Jenny Hoglund then describes the kinds of work she views as essential for the third plane: the daily contributions in community living, the acts of transforming the environment in response to felt needs, the engagement with wider society through production and exchange, and the freedom of study that allows individuals to follow individual interests. All these must be available for the adolescent to experience work as meaningful.

An article on freedom and responsibility follows – where I suggest that for a third plane environment to be developmental, it must offer real responsibilities in the social organisation, and true freedom in individual work. In order to embrace these ideas, it is essential that the third plane adolescent be seen as something entirely different from the second plane child, and needing a radically different environment: an environment offering real work and true study.

Radka Jandova has sifted through Montessori’s writings with great care, drawing out all references to place, so that we might have a clearer understanding of the significance of work on the land. Exploring why Montessori thought life “in the country” was essential for adolescents may help us better prepare suitable environments for these young adults, no matter where we are. Radka also discusses Montessori’s vision of a world where examinations are replaced by passages of independence that mark the evolution of the human being.

Sasa Lapter then discusses the elements of social organisation that form the primary developmental material for the adolescents – the farm, the residence, the shop, the guesthouse, and the museum of machinery. This is followed by an essay discussing the study and work plans and how these fit within the broader context of freedom and responsibility in the third plane.

In elaborating on the prepared environment in the third plane, Sasa Lapter writes about the role of the adult– to protect the adolescent, to help them understand their role in society, to support them in developing economic independence, and to provide opportunities for them to use the functional, intellectual and moral independences they have gained in the first two planes.

The collection concludes, appropriately, with Jenny Hoglund reminding us that the purpose of our work is greater and larger than any educational syllabus could possibly devise, that it is as great as the creation of a new humanity.

Every child, Montessori said, is a hope and a promise for humanity; and it is the prepared environment that makes the fulfillment of that promise a reality. If you are considering starting an adolescent environment, know that you are not alone. There are others on this journey with you. We hope this collection of essays proves useful to you. We encourage you to consider the questions it raises, to ask questions of your own, to share those questions, and your own answers with us, and to join us as fellow travelers on this journey of education as an aid to life.