Sunday, November 9, 2014

"Nothing goes into the mind that does not first go through the hands."

I was told this quote when I was taking my AMI training at the Montessori Training Center of Minnesota almost 20 years ago. I was told it was a modified version of the Aristotle quote,“There is nothing in the intellect that was not first developed in the senses." I have repeated it more times than I can count to assistants, parents, heads of schools and non-Montessorians as a means of explaining a component of the method referred to as sensorial education.

Watching a child do a work with a blindfold on has always served as visual evidence of the hand-mind connection. Too, this notion of the mind gaining access to knowledge through the hand reinforced my educated belief in the value of muscular memory.

I often speak of having a greater understanding of both the direct and indirect purposes of the Montessori materials via my own touching of said materials and the muscular memory that is stored within me due to that touching over a period of fifteen plus years. My cultivated hand-mind relationship has provided me the opportunity to speculate on the harmonic interplay between all of the materials in the classroom. It is those speculations which serve my own leaps towards abstraction in the form of extensions.

Recently, I have been turning the phrase, "Nothing goes into the mind that does not first go through the hands," over and over again in my mind, asking myself if I truly understand what it means for something to "go through the hands." It seems a concrete, and even obvious, statement. Simply explained, the hands are the instruments of the mind. You touch something and immediately information regarding its texture, temperature, color and, possibly, weight is gathered and recorded. That is easy enough to comprehend. Yet, I have been asking myself whether or not I really get the more abstract qualities of grasping something.

I have been captivated by the gesturing my older students make with their hands when they are formulating an opinion or leaping towards a greater understanding of a complex concept. It appears as if they are wrestling out an idea they have in their minds and that they are using their hands to give shape or form to that otherwise invisible and newly born notion.

When I am authoring a blog post or an article and I have to describe in detail elements of lessons I have given, I hold one of my hands up in the air so as to mold it in various ways so that I may re-imagine the geometric forms my students create or the cursive letters they form. As my fingers shift and light spills through the gaps between them, my thoughts synthesize and are then manifested onto the page or screen via my hands and the tools needed, i.e., pencil, keyboard, etc.

I am now recalling one of the fundamental laws in physics which states for every motion there is an equal and opposite motion. Therefore,  the statement, "Nothing goes into the mind that does not go first through the hands," should be couple with the following, "Nothing goes into the hands that does not first go through the mind." This duality may also be viewed as an infinite loop; an infinite dialog of input and output / output and input.

Here, again, I pose the question, "What is implied by the statement to go through the hands?" Does form have to have a physicality to it or can it simply be the shape of an idea expressed through the hands? And once that shape is formed, is it then measured and valued by the very hands that first gave it form? The sequence would then be: mental idea, wrestling of idea into an invisible form via the hands, qualities of that form assessed by the hands and recorded in the mind, mind expresses form via hands into a physical, i.e., concrete object - an infinite looping of sequential actions.

Why is this important for a lead guide to acknowledge within the Montessori classroom? Every child should be provided the opportunity and the freedom to give expression to their gathered and reflected upon ideas. Every child should be provided enough non-lesson time to engage in an inner dialogue with themselves. This inner dialog maintains the input / output loop as it processes new information, synthesizes it with old and provides opportunity for the two to merge into an abstract revelation. This is the developing and advancing of the child as a unique individual who's singular insights serve to both define himself/herself and to support the collective community of the entire classroom. Those children who actualizes this are the active citizens of their current arena, the classroom, and of the future: entrepreneurs, politicians, humanitarians and more.

Next time you sit down to write observations in your classroom, dedicate time to noting the origami of hand movements your older students make. Then, after several moments of observing, approach a couple of them with large sheets of white paper and ask them to illustrate all that they are thinking. Make sure the paper is large enough to give expression to their ideas and that, too, they have sharp pencils available to them.  After you have provided them with these tools and a place to work, go and work with a few younger children and serve their needs.

Twenty minutes later, or so, casually find a seat near those students sketching out their ideas and, with calm, centered energy, ask them to tell you all about what they are working on, to add more details to their work, to think one more thought along with all the other thoughts they have had and prompt this thought-seeking with open-ended questions such as, "What opens in the morning and closes in the evening?" "What's the shape of that thing?"

Finally, lean back in your chair, lift up your own hands and let them dance through the air for just a moment and then place them back on your lap. Now get ready to watch and to listen to the great genius of young children's minds and view them wrestle out into the open air their ideas regarding physics, geometry, math, art and all that defines humanity. Lastly, do not weep at the wonder of it all. Rejoice in the gift of your role as a guide.

Later, at home, when sitting amongst friends and family, re-tell the story of Helen Keller and her great accomplishments, of Einstein's frequent walks with Madame Curie and their vivid conversations, of children gesturing profound thoughts through their small cupped hands, each etched with map lines before their own birth. And as you tell all these stories, let your hands take flight and see before you the shape of all that occupies your own thoughts.