Sympathetic Intelligence and the call to action of a Montessori School

January 1, 2022 at 4:17 PM
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Sympathetic Intelligence and the call to action of a Montessori School

By Stephanie Ortiz and Jim Stellar

Ten years ago, Stephanie and I wrote a blog about her starting a non-profit as an undergraduate at Queens College, CUNY, and then about four years ago after I moved to the University at Albany we came together again and wrote another one about her mission in Mexico after the large 2017 earthquake. Recently, we connected again and this time I learned she had done the Camino de Santiago walk (700 miles, 40 days) from southern France to Galicia in Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de Composta, the reputed burial site of James the apostle.  But what propelled this blog was the development of a conversation about her current work in New York City at a Montessori school. This blog is focused on what there is about this type of education for children that relates to some writing I and others have been doing on  sympathetic Intelligence in education as part of an emerging Center for Sympathetic Intelligence.

So, Stephanie, my first question for you is to put into your own words, what you see as the connection between the Montessori approach and the inspiration you had back in the day to start a non-profit, to go to help people in Mexico, and to walk the Camino? 

The underlying connection between the Montessori approach and my inspiration around the other things you mention are my hands. This inspiration is per Dr. Maria Montessori’s belief that our hands are our tool of intelligence. I am also inspired by the collective experience of being a part of something much bigger, than myself.

To elaborate, it is through our hands that we learn, discover, build and construct the world around us. In a Montessori school children have the unique experience, unlike other teaching approaches, to learn difficult abstract concepts in a concrete way through touching and manipulating material by the use of their hands. For instance, through the work of the hands, the 4-year-old children in my school are able to comprehend math concepts such as place value when executing four-digit addition and even multiplication. As Dr. Montessori said, “What the hand does the mind remembers.” Ultimately this quite shows it is through our hand that we bring meaning into our work which helps our brain absorb it.

That is why I believe I was always drawn to the work that I do, especially in humanitarian projects where through my hands I am a part of something that is making a difference. When I went to Mexico, it was the act of being present and hand-delivering goods on foot, where I felt I was contributing the most. Similarly, when I walked El Camino in search for clarity on a life decision, it was the act of physically doing something that made me feel a part of something much bigger. Ultimately, I think it was a collective experience as much as it was an individual journey. All the while I was on a quest of inner self discoveries, uncovering new physical terrains, and bonding experiences in helping other along the way.

As it was also in Mexico and in a Montessori classroom, as well as my long-time desire to start a nonprofit that has now blossomed into the idea of starting my own Montessori school and possibly even one in impoverished communities overseas.

Thanks this is a lot and again an inspiring example. Let’s turn our attention a bit more theoretical and look at what you see as the connection between the Montessori approach to education and the idea of sympathetic intelligence as it appears in the blog mentioned above. Note that for the reader that we a definition of sympathetic intelligence in a footnote[1] to keep the flow of reading this blog.

Although there is much debate in our education system to the appropriate approach to educate children, Dr. Montessori believed that if we wanted to alleviate the problems that face our world, we must first turn our attention to the child’s sensitive periods of development. Not surprisingly, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times as she was clearly ahead of her times. Coincidentally it wouldn’t shock me if she grasped the concept of sympathetic intelligence as you wrote about it and applied it in the classroom.

At this point, it is probably important to note that a Montessori education is a holistic approach to learning that embodies the development of the whole child; physical, social, emotional and cognitive. Through this approach children reach a peak of normalization in which they exercise self-discipline, not because it’s expected by the adult, but because it brings them peace and joy. This is the reason that someone can walk into a Montessori classroom and see 20 children all working harmoniously on various different lessons, while taking great care of their beautifully prepared environment. There is great care taken for the student’s surroundings, but also for those in the classroom. Often times you wouldn’t even notice the teacher as she or he graciously floats around the classroom providing guidance and encouragement to students along the way. Meanwhile, you may also witness an older student working with the younger student working together towards a common goal in the class. It’s a completely different method to education, with no star chart, no stickers, no thinking chair; yet children absolutely blossom without restrains.

The Montessori approach truly creates a loving and peaceful atmosphere in which everyone works in unison to maintain that harmony. From a future thinking perspective, it makes it fun to ponder what education would look like if all classrooms like this translated into the future of our world.  For further reading on this topic, I suggest this link.

This is a great beginning to what I hope are more blogs. I see much overlap between the Montessori educational approach in children and the concept of sympathetic intelligence that I am working with others to apply to adults in higher education.  As you well know, I have focused recently on cognitive-emotional (cortical-limbic) integration as a key to why internships and hands-on learning can so powerfully complement an academic course of study in college. Through your personal experience that you just shared, I see a powerful connection to college students. Back in the day when I worked at Northeastern University, a cooperative education school, I often referred to the periods of full-time-paid internships that were interspersed with the periods of full-time study as being hands-on learning.  Now I see that hands-on learning in a powerful context. 


[1] From the Center’s website as cited above, here is a brief definition of sympathetic intelligence. “Sympathetic Intelligence is that innate sixth sense which each of us has and which binds us all together as a species. It is that point of inflection, which is at the center of every human transaction, the measure of which is seen in the degree of care exhibited by our behavior and the result of which can be a better society for all.”

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