Mario Valle Web

Montessori through the eyes of a scientist

The Maria Montessori’s ideas are not something from the nineteenth century, something old and dusty. If you visit a Montessori school you immediately see how this judgment is far from reality. So I did, finding in addition many unexpected correspondences with my professional world, a world full of scientists and supercomputers. Correspondences that made me realize how Maria Montessori’s ideas and insights are standing on a sound scientific base, even though she has never bothered to lay down a theory about them.

Without detracting from the work of those who professionally study pedagogy and education, I will substantiate my claims analyzing few examples taken from my daily work by relating them to what I’ve seen it in action in a Montessori school.


The speaker

Mario Valle helps researchers and scientists to extract the meaning hidden in the huge quantity of numbers produced by the supercomputers at the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (CSCS). To do so, Mario uses techniques and visualization tools that rely on our brain’s areas capable of recognizing configurations and regularities almost without conscious effort. In some sense these tools “materialize the abstraction” of the mathematical models.

But there are not only science and numbers in his days. Through his son, who attended a Montessori school, he has come to find out how these two apparently distant worlds, the one of the project Montessori and the supercomputing’s one, actually have many interesting points of contact that deserve to be studied and deepened.

The conference

This work has been presented at the: AMI Deutschland Tagung in Bad Endorf (D) on January 3, 2014.


Guten Tag!

Tut mir leid aber mein Deutsch ist schrecklich, so es ist besser zu spreche in English.


I’m Mario Valle and…

…this is more or less all that I knew about Maria Montessori till few years ago: her image on the old Italian “mille lire”.

Yes, because I’m not an educator or a school teacher, but I work at the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre in Lugano, Switzerland…

…where we have some of the most powerful supercomputers of the word, like this, named «Piz Daint» that is the sixth in the world and the first in Europe.

Here I work with researchers and scientists, not children. So, why I’m here?

Because first I’m a father and my son studied at the Montessori school in Varese, Italy (one year in the Children’s House and then five years of Primary school). I have to say that we selected this school by an act of faith, knowing virtually nothing about Montessori.

But through my son’s eyes, his happiness and what he presented to us…

…of his school’s works, I started looking at the Montessori’s ideas with a different eye. So I decided to read and study these ideas and discovered more and more…

…parallels between my work…

…and the proposals and ideas of Maria Montessori.

So, what I’m doing at work? Our supercomputers are producing numbers seven days a week, 24 hours a day. But the goal is not to produce numbers per se, is the comprehension that they generate for the scientists and the new ideas these numbers stimulate.

To help reach this goal I and my colleagues convert these numbers in graphical, visual representations that we hope help generate insight and understanding, no matter if the scientists are simulating the birth of a galaxy…

…or the behavior of a microscopic protein, like this one, the Alzheimer precursor protein that assembles itself into deadly fibers.

But where is the difference between this and what is done in a Montessori school? Between making abstract numbers visible and what everyone can see in the Montessori school?

Here the children do exactly the same as my visualizations. They see how long the one thousand is making an abstract concept of number concrete and visible…

… and they discover numbers through their weight.

So today I will present you 5 examples of things that are quite common and natural in my scientific world that I have found also in the Montessori’s ideas. Through this I want to show you that these ideas have a solid scientific foundation.

Sure you don’t need to be convinced, but sometimes I found we are timid and not appreciate fully what we teach or, conversely, we often speak only of visible things forgetting the ideas that lay behind.

I have no doubt she was a pure scientist, with ideas not arising from «wishful thinking» or adapting reality to a nice theory, but as a scientist she followed the scientific method strictly and acted as an experimental scientist…

…starting from observation and experiment.

Observing as every Montessori teacher does today.

So I laugh when someone says the Montessori Method is old and not scientific because in the Montessori’s books there are no tables, charts and statistical tests.

First they don’t know what the scientific method is. Second they forget that we are speaking of the first years of ‘900…

… and third, today there are scientists producing the “missing” charts and tests…

…validating what has been foreseen 100 years ago.

In Italy Donatella Pecori is studying normalization using high speed cameras, producing impressive charts that at the end say exactly what Doctor Montessori wrote in her books with the language of the first years of the 20° century.

Everything is as written: I just started the work she said…

…and is our commitment to continue her scientific work.

The first aspect I touch is likewise the most well-known: thinking with hands, and I add, with eyes.

When my colleague John created this visualization, he has never seen a real Francis turbine, but he had to imagine it and to move inside it to represent water turbulence in a way that helps scientists.

When I write code for our supercomputers I need to imagine something even more abstract: how data are laid down in memory and how the various components of the program interact.

How we do it? How we found ideas or devise hypotheses to be tested? We do it by moving hands to scribble schemes and strange formulas on a whiteboard.

Or moving hands to make visible, concrete, what we have in mind.

Beside this I’m no lucky like this chemist that can manipulate a molecule’s physical model by his hands.

All that I can do is to manipulate a representation of a molecule behind the glass of the screen…

…changing viewpoint and representation, nothing more. But to manipulate something in my head, to plan how to manipulate something on the computer…

…I should have manipulated first things with my hands. As children are doing with geographical joints at a children’s house.

Because psychological tests have shown that we, for example, rotate things in our head in the same manner as we rotate a real thing.

So a Montessori school prepares people able to work with supercomputers using materials existing well before computers!

But the most important aspect is that we think with our hands: another intuition of Maria.

Looking at this awful homunculus we see how big is the brain cortex area devoted to controlling and using hands. Maria Montessori knew this well before functional studies of the brain appeared.

I see this thinking with hands in action very often in my work. I see scientists manipulating mathematical things like this (it is the result of a computational method I invented) and then suddenly…

…they have their eureka moment. In this example the scientist devised a correspondence between his model and the computational results. This was a very exciting moment for me.

So looking at the child concentrated on working with some material, we can say he turned upside down the grandmother’s saying…

“Think before you act” and changes it into…

…thinking through acting.

By the way, this is common experience even outside school. Have you even seen a boy reading the instruction manual of a videogame? No, they learn to use it by using it.

So thinking with hands, manipulate the physical things to manipulate mental things, all was discovered 100 years ago by a scientist called Maria.

The second aspect is that all knowledge is interconnected.

At school we learn that knowledge is segregated in silos: math in one, French in another, music in a third…

…but it is not so in science. There are a lot of connections because science is a network of knowledge. And in my experience the best discoveries happen on the boundaries between fields.

This happened for example here, where a superglue has been discovered studying the feet of a Gecko. Zoology and Material Science.

And happened to Andrew Wiles that demonstrated the Fermat’s theorem after 400 years of unsuccessful attempts by mixing very far fields of mathematics: modular forms and elliptical curves.

But to attain these results you don’t need to know everything. Often young collaborators have better ideas than seasoned scientists, like Amelia Fraser-McKelvie that during her internship identified a part of the missing mass of the universe that puzzled astrophysicists.

What we need is to learn how to connect things, put bridges between ideas far apart. And what I found in the Montessori’s writings?

Exactly this!

And what to say about Cosmic Education? It teaches precisely this: everything is interconnected and interdependent.

But not only this: in a traditional school there is a fixed path, the same for all, between things that should be learned. This results in a silos culture.

How to avoid creating silos? Removing barriers to learning. First by removing barriers between ages. A three year old boy cannot exchange ideas with a scientist from another field, but can do this with a different age peer.

Exchanging ideas by presenting their work to older students.

Even explaining mathematics to adults. This is avoiding barriers!

Let me make a parenthesis here. Do you know the TED conference series? These are very interesting, 20 min presentations on a lot of arguments. There are subtitles in almost every conceivable language, so they are simple to follow.

Well, here I discovered this gem: a 13 year old girl explaining what the adults can learn from children.

So which is the net result of avoiding barriers and silos?

What I have found in the Montessori school is a network of interests around each argument with children that explore it till they are satisfied.

And this is exactly what the Web makes available: an immense web of connections, a sea that can be explored starting from any point.

So, please, don’t consider the Web the repository of all immoralities. Consider it, and teach this, as an interconnected web of knowledge.

Again another intuition from our scientist.

A third aspect: community.

The solitary scientist does not exist anymore. Today almost all discoveries are made by collaborations of even hundreds of scientists.

Even my paper published in the prestigious journal Nature was the result of the cooperation between nine persons of three different groups and four different nationalities.

But this is merely the tip of the iceberg of what the scientists call scientific community.

In a scientific community we exchange ideas not mainly in conferences where one speaks and all others try to capture the most important ideas.

The most important ideas are exchanged often in a non-formal way, around a poster or drinking beer together.

And what I see in the Montessori school? Kids collaborating on experiments or…

…learning together or…

…helping each other naturally. Not the forced “socializing” of some traditional school.

Hand in hand the famous comics is not far from reality

So I laugh reading that this Harvard professor discovered “peer learning” collaboration between students that enhance learning.

Professor! This is known and applied since almost 100 years ago!

Fourth aspect: awards and honors.

You will never see this scene in a Montessori school

Well, you would surely know better than me the reason. It is not useful, it is an interference and serve no real purpose. Our scientist Maria discovered something that a…

… MIT study confirmed.

They set up an experiment to determine what really motivate us. They promised a monetary reward of each task completed.

Which was the result? If the task was purely mechanical, then the schema worked: more money, better results. But as soon as the task involved cognitive efforts then more money resulted in less output.

A similar phenomenon happens in my world. We tend to use the so called FOSS software (Free Open Source Software) that often is better and more capable than the commercial one.

These software are written by people that work on them outside the office and they receive no money for this job. So what motivates them to produce such perfect pieces of engineering?

The movie continues…

…showing what are the true motivators: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

The free software developers have no bosses. They decide on their own to work on this piece of software because they consider themselves the best in their field and want the others to recognize them for their mastery. Not last the software they develop has a clear purpose and is often used by the developers themselves for their job.

And what I see in a Montessori school?

Well, autonomy is clear. The children chose what to do. Mastery? Yes, they repeat and repeat till they acquired mastery with the specific material.

And purpose. Every activity of practical life is not fake. They don’t pretend to make a cake, they bake an actual cake. Every activity has a purpose here!

No need of MIT experiments. Here they applied the scientific results found 100 years ago by an experimentalist.

The last point is also the most fascinating for me. It is also the point that even today has not completely studied in the Montessori ideas: concentration.

Concentration is the first thing you notice entering a Montessori school.

The kids show an intense concentration using materials and even in the practical life activities.

A few years ago Professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi studied this condition of deep concentration and called it Flow. He studied conditions to enter flow, results and benefits.

But, professor, please visit a Montessori school and see that your theory has been already devised 100 years ago…

…and condensed in four lines in the writings of Maria Montessori.

Well, this happened and one of the Csíkszentmihályi students started studying Flow in Montessori schools. Till today he produced few very interesting studies. In this one I found two interesting premises: one, he says he is outside the Montessori community, so his conclusions are not influenced by preconceived ideas. Second, he states that the Montessori ideas on concentration deserve a much deeper study because it is a hot theme today.

But, what are the conditions to establish Flow? First to enter it you need clear rules. And what you find in a Montessori school? Clear rules!

Second you need immediate and clear feedback on where you are in the chosen job. And this is exactly what the material provide you. For example here the string length is exactly what is needed for the task so the kid see at a glance where he is in his work.

But the most important condition to enter Flow is that the challenge, the difficulty of the task (the red dots) should be balanced or just a little above the person’s skills.

In this way the person enters Flow and stays in the flow channel because…

…if the task is too simple, it is boring (1). If it is too complex respect to the person’s skills, it generates anxiety (2). Instead the correct balance induces Flow (3).

And what happens in a Montessori school? The teacher proposes an activity, see it is too simple, so she proposes another one that is just slightly too complex, so she proposes others that makes the kid stay in the flow channel.

How the teacher arrives at this result? By carefully observing each child. Here the teacher is acting as a scientist, testing out hypotheses about what kind of assistance might be most helpful to this particular child or if this child is ready for new challenges. It is not easy. It takes training to become a scientist.

We can conclude here summarizing our journey with the words of a person that knows the mind of the children. She anticipated so much that the president of the Italian’s Opera Nazionale Montessori said, joking, that he is convinced Maria Montessori comes from another galaxy.

But there are still people that identify science with technology and complain that at Montessori school there is no technology, deducing that the ideas are not scientific.

They ignore that a tablet in the classroom does not make the school digital or modern.

These persons should explain why people from Silicon Valley high tech companies send their children to schools like this where there is no technology at all.

And these persons should explain why at my son’s school, where there is a computer, there are waiting queues not here, but…

…in front of this old typewriter.

I’m immersed in technology all the day long, but in my opinion what makes a school modern is not technology, but the scientific ideas behind.

But just to answer these unfounded criticisms I…

…asked to Grazia Honegger Fresco, one of the last living direct students of Maria Montessori, what in her opinion could have done Maria Montessori today looking at computers, the web, social networks and so on.

The answer was illuminating: «Maria Montessori was very curious, would surely have tried and studied what could be done with computers and social networks. Curious but concrete. She would use these materials in the same manner of all other materials: free choice, individualization, self-correction, and so on»

Again, the most important thing are the ideas, the principles behind what we see in any Montessori school.

This takes us to the real fundamental question: what we want our students or children become? Do we want button-pushers that uses the technology, but don’t know the technology?

Or people that know everything about fields that will go obsolete in one year?

No, what our scientist Maria Montessori has found is that it is better to have a well-made head able to withstand the changes around them. And so I want the scientists that work with me.

Thanks for your attention!