Deep Dive on “Work”

Deep Dive on “Work”

Hershey Montessori School, March 16-18, 2018

Summary by Laurie Ewert-Krocker


  • Scribe: Ana Montanye

  • Laurie Ewert-Krocker

  • Tina Booth

  • Juan Manuel Cordova

  • Emily Dowell

  • Erin Foley

  • Lennart Hoglund

  • Susan Holmes

  • Chris Marks

  • Jacqui Miller

  • Colin Palombi

The central themes of our discussion centered on the following topics:

  • What “work” means as a developmental principle (as a Montessori principle);

  • What the developmental work of the adolescent is;

  • How the developmental work of the adolescent manifests itself in work of the hand, work of the intellect, and work in the community (What can we observe?);

  • How “work” is purposeful—made so by the needs of the “society” or social group of the adolescent community;

  • How “work” is the thread which binds the social organization together and makes the experience of interdependency possible;

  • What the role of the “farm” or “work on the land” is for the adolescent; how to envision the activity of purposeful work in the context of “a school of experience in the elements of social life.”

Work as a Developmental Principle

Humans as a species work to adapt to and change their environment in order to meet their needs, survive, and thrive. Children born into this world construct themselves, build their humanness, develop toward adulthood by working—acquiring skills, developing capacities, interacting with their environment, including the people in it. Humans build themselves through working, through activity. Work is a natural instinct, and adults need to trust that the child who is working is developing a self. Work can look different in different cultural and historical contexts, environments can be different and can change over time, requiring adaptation, but the fundamental activities of constructing a human being—and of being human—meet the same universal needs and follow the same tendencies. The drive to work is in all humans and leads us to interact with and change our environment to live and thrive. The work of development is internal but has external signs and manifestations. Our human tendencies shape the nature of work, and the sensitive periods guide the work of development. We work with our hands, our intellect, and our psyche; the work we do and the nature of what we experience shapes our being.

Work is observable. Whether it is an adult transforming the environment or a child engaging purposefully in the environment, aspects of work can be observed as “spontaneous maximum effort toward self-perfection.” The self-construction, however, is something we cannot necessarily see. The work changes from developmental plane to developmental plane, and the environment must change to support the current developmental needs of the child or adolescent—to make possible the kind of work that is needed for that stage of development. The work of the adult in general is to contribute to the interdependency of human activity and to pursue spiritual preparation and growth. The work of the adult in relation to the child is to prepare an environment for maximum developmental activity supporting self-construction.

The Work of the Adolescent

The work of the adolescent is to become an adult and join society, to “take their role in society.” Supranature is not perfect; human society is imperfect, and environments change and evolve, so human beings need to adapt to and interact with changes and imperfections in the environment to survive and thrive. The task of adults is to work in interdependent ways to improve human society and supranature. The work of the adolescent is to continue self-construction and develop human potential but also to begin to transform themselves into adults and practice adult-like activities in their immediate environment and community. Their work is to become an independent adult who can meet their own needs and who productively contributes to the interdependency of human social organization. They must experience the value of their own role and contribution as well as the value of roles and contributions of others, so we create a structured social organization, a microcosm of society, for them to experience and practice in.

How the Work of the Adolescent is Manifest

Since work is an interaction with and adaptation of the environment, the prepared environment for adolescents needs to provide aspects of nature and supranature to manipulate and a society to work within and contribute to. Engagement in the social fabric often drives the work. (“Sometimes they don’t even know that they are working.”) Adolescents manipulate the land and the human infrastructure on the land. They experience what humans have universally experienced throughout time in establishing, organizing, and enriching societies and civilizations. Adolescents work with “maximum effort” when they have a clear sense of purpose in the work and how it meets their own needs or the needs of the community. The adults sometimes have to frame the work, articulate its purpose, and get it started before engagement occurs. Adolescents need context for the work and connection to social organization and nature/supranature. Without the farm/land, this doesn’t happen naturally. The farm/land is always inclusive while the classroom can sometimes be exclusive. When we look at Montessori’s Plan of Study and Work (as we have extracted it into a chart), although the components of the environment are listed under “Practical Considerations,” and the Educational Syllabus lists the areas of study to be integrated into the activity in the environment, the chart doesn’t clearly indicate the totality of activity that is possible in a social organization that reflects the workings of and origins of civilization. It is perhaps the reference to “a school of experience in the elements of social life” (From Childhood to Adolescence, Clio, 64) that best articulates the nature of the activities that are the work of the adolescent manifest in the environment. If we consider the range of activities that are universal in cultures and societies, they include:

·       Social organization: the interdependent activities of the community/society

·       Division of labor and roles

·       Living together (levels of responsibility of care for self, others, and the environment)

·       Economic production and exchange

·       Providing food (growing, harvesting, preserving, preparing, serving)

·       Constructing and maintaining housing and other structures

·       Using natural resources

·       Cultural sharing (story-telling, ritual, exchange with wider community)

·       Governance (rules, structures, codes, conflict resolution)

·       Intellectual engagement/study (sharing ideas, teaching, debate)

·       Engagement in the arts (self-expression, exchange of ideas, historical context and record)

These components cannot be separate from each other; they must be overlapped and interconnected to be a complete system to offer a clear picture and genuine experience of a healthy, successfully functioning human system.

What the Adolescents Had to Say (Adolescents who shared insight into “work”)

Work has something to do with knowing that what you are doing will benefit others or affect the future—to have an impact and make a meaningful contribution. Gaining skill and being able to do the work independently is also important. Doing the work well is necessary for good outcomes. Having choice in your work results in self-reflection about what the value of the work is for you or for the community, or what you need to know to do it well. Being able to work together allows for “common success through the work of various individuals,” which is both meaningful and unifying. Work on the farm remains valuable for all six years. As you get older, being able to teach others or pass on knowledge is important as is having a direct impact on the living things you are working with and doing the work an adult might do. Recognition of your work by others in the community is not as important as knowing your own impact.  Adolescents have a “genuine desire to do something good, something important” and to be trusted. What are the obstacles? Failure, (but then you learn), interruption of work cycles, peer perception and critique, feeling helpless and alone, and inconsistency in adults: adults need to be there in the moment they are needed.