A Grassroots Response to Principles of Sustainability

A Grassroots Response to Principles of Sustainability

Inspired by Uchita de Zoysa’s article: “After Rio and Beyond 2015”


Wendy Agnew

Uchita de Zoysa’s hard-hitting article detailing the evisceration of principles of sustainable development at the Rio Summit galvanized me into examining my own practices. I am a teacher/teacher educator focusing on holistic and sustainable education in a Montessori context and Uchita’s words nudged me towards a decon/recon of Montessori Education in practice and theory.

To achieve global revisioning and radical reformation that preempts the ‘world we don’t want,’[1] structural change and fertile nurture must infuse and influence the roots of education.

Dispelling Some Myths

Montessori designed her educational revolution to encompass all levels of society and focused on the regenerative capacities of children to self-educate and adapt to changing patterns of necessity. Sadly, in some quarters, Montessori has been co-opted by an elitist agenda and privatized. Often the misinformed see Montessori as a head-start program that highlights the academics. Montessori refused to patent her name, because she viewed her philosophy as merely honouring the principles of complex adaptive systems – freedom with responsibility, interdependency, participatory democracy, profound respect for diversities in culture, nature, and nurture.[2]

“Sustainability Transition”[3]

In the transition from a Cenozoic to an Ecozoic[4] earth awareness, Montessori envisioned school as village, a place where children interact in community with nature, cultures, and each other to follow natural impulses of evolution. Those impulses, she believed, were the generative edge that would lead us to a new order. This view diverges from the industrial model of schooling we still see today. Prevalent practices – “the dominant mode of development that, degrad[es] planetary bio-geo-chemical process … and destroys the resource base for future generations” can be seen in microcosm in the structural violence of learning institutions that group children by litter, impose an order of blind obedience to the dictates of time, space, and knowledge, keeps nature at a distance and promotes competition over collaboration.

Uchita’s vision of “a networked system of decentralized, community-based, sustainable economies in a diversity of settings which stands on a foundation of ecological integrity, social accountability and an economically equitable distribution,” could describe the radical connectivity of a Montessori environment. Economy, etymology Oikonomia (Gk household management) is implicit in the organization of groups of multi-aged children caring for an indoor and outdoor environment in which resources are intrinsically intelligent and limited. Themes are interconnected so the arts inform the sciences in collaborative action. Decentralized curriculum is nested in the impulses of the children to respond to the world through multiple, creative dialogues involving a dynamic blend of freedom and respect.

Uchita describes “the manifesto of the people’s sustainability treaties” which “calls for action that helps move simultaneously toward a more localized socio-economic structure and toward a supra-national mindset that helps us transcend the parochial concerns of a corporate-capitalistic globalization to activate a global citizens movement.”

A sense of Equity (one of three principles pledged by the signatories of the manifesto) begins in finding respect at all levels of interaction child to child, child to adult, human to other-than-human, human to place. In an atmosphere such as this, there are no desks, no “teachers”, no buzzers, no coercion. The industrial model of school-as-factory serves to disconnect children from their creative impulses by constant interruptions, class changes, toxic hierarchies built on grades and testing. Montessori believed that a place of learning should foster freedom of speech, movement, and choice. In a society of learning, respect is implicit – a birthright of the life condition - Not something that needs to be forced but fostered. With one authority figure in control of thirty or more immobilized cohorts, participatory democracy is not bred in the bones of experience. In Montessori practice however, participation in the running of place and space is inherent in the flow of everyday work. Multiple age groups foster a mentoring ethic that develops relationship and responsibility.

Uchita sites a tensile dialectic of Localization and Global Citizenry to tickle the bloated belly of centralized control. This idea resonates in many Montessori communities be they classrooms or schools. Devoted to the idea that the growth principle is inherent in all organisms, Montessori trusted that enriched environmental and cognitive diversity feeds the – dare I say – soul? She felt that standardized testing undermines the child’s motivational integrity. These are fine sentiments you may say, and yet, in the words of seasoned teachers, viewing our international classes for the first time, “It’s a miracle … where are the adults?” It was a true Children’s House moment of freedom dancing in the arms of responsibility. Does lack of coercion equal communion that is the grandmother of invention born of necessity – A 100,000 years-old-dance many of us have lately forgotten. Montessori children are given the globe at an early age – they hold it in their hands, and it becomes a locus for ever-widening spirals of knowledge. And the spiral goes both ways.

We rarely hear the words soul and spirit in conjunction with education – understandable – as things you cannot touch and see are ripe for misinterpretations and power games, and yet I would hazard that a nourishing sense of self in world goes both inwards and outwards.

In our workshop yesterday we paused to visit holistic educator Jack Miller’s loving kindness meditation. It begins with the phrase, “May I be well, happy, and peaceful,” spiralling out from self, friends, family, and beloveds to end with, “May all beings everywhere be well, happy, and peaceful.” Quiet descended, and a deep sense of peace and tranquility calmed the air we breathed. With this simple act, the boundaries diving us seemed to dissolve. Hope flowed in. I wondered if life was living me.

Seeing the beingness of all things is both terrifying and uplifting. It demands that we give up some of our concepts and conveniences. It demands “a change of heart”, also a Montessori concept. But to ignore the thundering voiceless, the indistinct wailings of our beautiful planet, the child-born impulse to love the earth, means desolation.

[1] Uchita de Zoysa After Rio+20 and Beyond 2015: Advancing the Campaign for a Global Citizens Movement etc http://www.globaleducationmagazine.com/after-rio20-and-beyond-2015-advancing-the-campaign-for-a-global-citizens-movement/

[2] Maria Montessori, Spontaneity in Education,

[3] de Zoysa

[4] Thomas Berry