Advance Copy: Maria McKenna

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Maria McKenna


Just Published:

The Bloomsbury Handbook of Montessori Education

Edited by Angela Murray from the University of Kansas, Eva-Maria Tebano Ahlquist from Stockholm University, Maria McKenna from the University of Notre Dame, and Mira Debs from Yale University.


Hails from:

I actually would say at this point that I'm from South Bend, Indiana. This is the longest I've lived anywhere my whole life, so South Bend is home. 


Notre Dame Initiative:

Director, Transformational Leaders Program and AnBryce Initiative.

My faculty appointment is in the Institute for Educational Initiatives in the Education, Schooling, and Society program and Africana Studies. My teaching, research, and practice focus on marginalization and empowerment within American education at all levels.



B.A. from Notre Dame, an M.S. Ed. degree form Northwestern University, and a Ph.D. from Saint Louis University. 


Favorite place on the Notre Dame campus:

I appreciate the outdoor aspects of this campus, so I would say that one of my favorite places is the pergola that has Christ the Teacher as the statue underneath it. I often teach classes out there. I love that statue and what it represents.


What drew you to Notre Dame (for work)?

What drew our family to Notre Dame was the idea that you could be at a place where you were encouraged to think about the moral and ethical underpinnings of what you were studying and what you teach and research. There's a community element to this place—and I use “place" deliberately—as opposed to space.


You have intentionality with a lot of what you say, and I appreciate that. Help me understand "place" versus "space"?

So there's a very famous human geographer named Yi Fu Tuan. I really love his work. One of the ways he describes place versus space is as somewhere that has meaning. Meaning making involves a relationality and a temporal quality to that is different than just naming somewhere on the map.


Before I even cracked open the handbook, I couldn't help but notice the cover art is beautiful and intriguing. How, and probably very interesting, why, did you all decide to use Hilma af Klint's artwork?

The conversation about the cover was particularly important to the editors of this book. We are all female. We are all educators in some capacity, and we wanted to make sure that the art on the cover was both global in nature, inviting and welcoming, and honored the spirit and the philosophy of Maria Montessori. Hilma af Klint was a contemporary of Montessori, an overlooked but brilliant abstract artist of her time. Her work is deeply appreciative of the natural world and focuses on spiritual imagery. She's Swedish, as is one of our editors, but also a unique and powerful feminist of her time. We must have looked through 10,000 images and had multiple meetings about the cover. It was so important to us to capture the breadth, depth, and complexity of Montessori education on the cover and amplify the value of Montessori’s work for the larger world of education even through the cover imagery.


So that we're all beginning this conversation with the same understanding, how would you define "Montessori education"?

Montessori education is informed by the philosophy and pedagogy of Maria Montessori. It is rooted in the development of children's intrinsic motivation through carefully prepared educational environments and the belief that the aim of education is nothing short of a deep love of the natural world and global peace.


What makes this book unique for the audience?

Besides being the first of its kind in the field of Montessori education, it's an instructive book for thinking about a variety of facets of education writ large. Understanding Montessori while considering culture, psychology, technology, historical, social, and geographic context is a benefit to the discipline of education as a whole.


Why this book?

The first thing that is really important to me is to acknowledge how intensely collaborative this effort was, and that this book wasn't born of a single idea, but of a really amazing group of researchers and practitioners from across the world. 

Angela Murray, the lead editor on this book, convened a group called the Montessori Research Working Group about five years ago. The group has worked to amplify high quality, objective research around Montessori education in an effort to think about how Montessori can influence educational philosophy and practices here in the United States and around the globe. Around the same time, Dr. Murray was invited by Bloomsbury Publishing to send a prospectus for a handbook. 

Until recently there has not been a great deal of peer review research published about Montessori education, and Montessori's writings have not been easily accessible to the general public. There wasn't a lot written that could introduce somebody to Montessori in a way that was accessible and comprehensive for both those studying Montessori education intensely. We saw a need and looked at how we might think about creating that book with that entire research group. 

To begin the project, we looked at who were the experts in the field and researchers around the globe doing important, interesting work that we could amplify. Our editorial team was led by the leads of the two peer-reviewed publication journals in the field in Montessori, Murray and Dr. Eva-Maria Tebano-Ahlquist. We also looked to Dr. Mira Debs, a contemporary of mine at Yale University’s Educational Studies program to work with us. Her book Diverse Families, Desirable Schools: Public Montessori in an Era of School Choice is an important book around the history of Montessori education, including public Montessori education in the United States over the past 100 years.


You mentioned this information has not been as accessible. Why?

Some people describe Montessori as a method of education. This has limited Montessori’s impact. Maria Montessori was actually a medical doctor, anthropologist, and philosopher, and a scientist and humanist. She was, quite frankly, ahead of her time as an interdisciplinary thinker and thus didn’t, and still doesn’t, fit neatly into disciplinary spaces. She was also a Catholic and ardent feminist which made her an outlier in many intellectual and influential spaces around the globe.

Her work was also influenced by the time in which she was working. She published some of her most prolific writing around Montessori education in the early 1900s, worked through World War I, into and through World War II—including a really tumultuous time within fascist Italy and Spain that influenced her reach to some degree.

Moreover, Montessori was also fiercely protective of her work and proprietary about the ways in which she understood her philosophy and her methodological underpinnings. And so, because of that proprietary nature, it didn't spread as quickly or as far as it probably could have if she was willing to let go of that control. 

Many contemporary conversations around Montessori still focus on fidelity.  Training to become a Montessori educator is highly structured and controlled. However, partnerships with institutions of higher education are growing rapidly as are attempts to recognize the credential of Montessori educators as legitimate educator certification in many countries.


Why this book now?

Montessori education is growing, and despite challenges has withstood the test of time. Policies around school choice, particularly in the United States, are expanding rapidly; Montessori is starting to play a bigger role in those spaces. There's been a historical assumption that Montessori has been for the “well-to-do” around the world, when, in fact, Montessori was keenly interested in working with the poor, the marginalized, the left out, the non-neurotypical. 

Maria Montessori’s understanding of education was modeled on the intrinsic motivation of each child, our need for cooperative learning, and that children have deep agency and capacity for concentration and focus. Montessori is on record over and over again, making clear that we're doing something more than just providing an opportunity for children to become literate or to become competent at skills. We're developing young people to enter into a world that is fraught with war, economic challenges, with geographic, religious, and political derision, but also enormous potential and beauty too. She was a visionary of social change, believing in the power of education to interrupt and disrupt politics and policies of social exclusion, environmental degradation and economic selfishness. We need more of that kind of education in the world right now.


This may turn the idea of a handbook on its head. It sounds like it has something of true value for everyone.

One of the things that the handbook does is amplify Maria Montessori as an educational philosopher and as a pedagog. Anyone who's interested in children and children's well-being could find something in it meaningful for them to then translate into their everyday life. 

The editorial team and the amazing breadth of authors we were able to gather make this a true global collaboration. Authors span the globe and vary in their expertise, proximity, and longevity in education. There are practitioners, researchers, and not-for-profit administrators in this book. But the common thread for everyone is that they had expertise on Montessori and Montessori education that the world needs to hear.

The project also affirmed the value of interdisciplinary work – the value of crossing ideological and disciplinary backgrounds to understand something deeply. In this way, I think the handbook lives into Montessori’s vision of education. Reading about the way a person understands Maria Montessori's work on peace education and in the same text reading about the way Montessori principles and philosophy can be embodied in modern-day assessment of children in schools and schooling is valuable. Or reading about the ways in which people are working hard in various places in southeast Asia, for example, to bring Montessori to more communities, including rural communities, is pretty life-giving. It makes you want to get up and do the work. It makes you want to help everybody discover a philosopher who has withstood the test of time, and whose pedagogy really values children and children's potential deeply.

Maria Montessori was Catholic and explored faith from a variety of traditions and influences over her life.  Her faith and theology informed what she understood about the human condition and the human potential for goodness. That is, for me, one of the most important pieces of our work. Some people call her spiritual. Some people move away from thinking of her as a figure with a religious disposition and that's okay, too, because I think it still allows her work to be spread. But there is a deep understanding and belief in the beauty of the human potential that comes through in all of her work.


What is your hope for this book?

My hope is the book spurs additional research and interest in Montessori as a woman, as a philosopher, a humanist, and educator, and in some ways a renegade. And that more people do more research on Montessori education…that they think about both the idea of applied research, but also ideas that intellectually and theoretically that we haven't explored yet about her work. She deserves to be elevated into the canon of educational philosophers that we look to for our wisdom and potential.

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