The Role of Mindfulness in Peace Education

The Role of Mindfulness in Peace Education
Matthew Sullivan

“If we are to have true peace on Earth… our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

On September 21, faculty and students at Gladwyne Montessori gathered to dedicate and plant a Peace Pole outside our school in celebration of the International Day of Peace. (Kudos to Jennifer Maloney for her leadership and inspiration in this effort!) Peace Day 2018 marked the 37th anniversary of the unanimous United Nations resolution to designate “a globally shared date for all humanity to commit to Peace above all differences and to contribute to building a Culture of Peace” (www.internationaldayofpeace.org). Millions of people around the world participated in a truly global show of solidarity for peace.  

2018 also marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Certainly the right to live in peace must be counted in any list of basic human rights. In 2015, UN member states adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Notably, Goal 16 specifically calls for “promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development” (http://www.un.org/en/events/peaceday/). Hence, people from across all continents, cultures, languages, and religions share a common desire, while the elected leaders of the majority of nations recognize the need for world peace.  

“Peace is what every human being is craving for, and it can be brought about by humanity through the child.”

- Maria Montessori

“If we want to reach real peace in this world, we should start educating children.”

- Mahatma Gandhi

Having both been nominated multiple times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Maria Montessori and Mahatma Gandhi were unapologetically outspoken advocates for peace. The latter’s ideas and legacy of nonviolence influenced many important pacifists, leaders, and political movements around the world, including American civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Lawson, South African anti-apartheid activists Steven Biko and Nelson Mandela, Pashtun independence activist and pacifist Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and Burmese author and politician Aung San Suu Kyi.  Gandhi, who himself embodied a lifestyle founded on inner peace, emphasized in his Nai Talim (literally, ‘new education’) the importance of promoting self-awareness and learning handicrafts and other practical skills. “The principal idea is to impart the whole education of the body, mind and soul through the handicraft that is taught to the children” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nai_Talim). Thus, not only did Gandhi literally practice what he preached, he moreover understood how integrating and cultivating self-awareness in the education of children could serve as a cornerstone for building a more just and peaceful society.

Having dedicated her professional life to studying child development and developing an educational method based on respect for each child and fostering his unique path of self-discovery and actualization, Maria Montessori discovered how children’s innate love of doing meaningful, hands-on, experiential work with real materials in authentic contexts naturally evokes in them joy, calmness, confidence, independence, and a desire to learn. All are characteristics of what she called a normalized child. Are these not also qualities indicative of increased self-awareness? Indeed, a comparison of the mental and physical benefits for a child concentrating on her work with those for an adult (or a child) engaged in the practice of yoga or focused meditation is entirely valid. “It is hoped that when this sentiment of love for all subjects can be aroused in children, people in general will become more human, and brutal wars will come to an end” (quote by Maria Montessori from tanya ryskind edukajca pogoju.pdf, 2014).

So how exactly does Montessori education support the development of mindfulness in the child? Fundamentally, children know that their school is an intentionally ordered, beautiful, joyful place where they are loved, respected, cared for, and have their fundamental needs met, where learning is valued, and where they can work to reach their full potential. She also has the freedom to move about and choose her own work according to what interests her, contributing to the healthy development of self-identity. Independent thought and activity, imagination, and creativity are encouraged and valued.

The child also learns to be accountable for his choices because he always has to return materials back to the shelf, roll up work rugs, push chairs in, and/or clean materials after use so the next person can use them. Similarly, he learns to respect other children’s work and workspace (e.g., do not interrupt others who are working, walk around work rugs/mats, use a quiet voice and quiet feet so as not to disturb others, etc.). Basic lessons in grace and courtesy, ground rules, and the mantra of “respect yourself, respect others, and respect the environment (classroom and natural)” encompass the child’s daily school experiences in their entirety and are constantly modeled, practiced, and reinforced. This raises awareness of the needs of others in the community–of which he is part–and instills an ethic of collaboration and cooperation to promote and maintain the social harmony therein.  

Dr. Montessori insisted that the Adult in a Montessori classroom act as a “scientist and a saint”. Hence, the Adult is a conscious role model in her graceful movements, respectful use of language, and attention to detail in working with the materials. Since observation is such an important component of teaching and learning in a Montessori classroom, the Adults model mindful observation and work habits. They also teach children how to observe respectfully and unobtrusively as another child works.  

The Adult also teaches the skills for peaceful conflict resolution, fosters the children’s recognition and awareness of their own and others’ emotions and feelings, and lovingly nurtures ideals of compassion, caring, understanding, sympathy, and empathy for others. Some classrooms have a dedicated Peace Table or special areas containing important items whose purposes involve creating self- and social awareness and/or maintaining peace and harmony (e.g., Peace Rose, Zen garden, kindness jar, yoga mat, finger maze, Quiet Chair for rest and reflection, special bell or chime for announcements by adults and students, etc.)

Within the Practical Life curriculum, myriad activities abound supporting gross and fine motor development and refinement, encouraging careful, mindful activity. Classroom jobs and regular opportunities to practice grace and courtesy in the classroom promote community awareness and cohesion (e.g., serving others food, holding a door, helping those in need, etc.).  

The Sensorial exercises and works develop and refine all five senses while creating a foundation for noticing, ordering, categorizing, and recognizing similarities and subtle differences between objects. Walking on the Line promotes body movement awareness, balance, and recognition of who is in front and behind each child. The Silence Game encourages auditory awareness, proprioception, and self-reflection. Within many curricular areas, including Mathematics, the didactic materials have a built-in control of error that helps students check and monitor their progress and provide them immediate feedback about their own learning.

In the Cultural curriculum, the child learns about the universe, the Earth, and how she fits in to all of these contexts (e.g., Cosmic Education, the Great Lessons, etc.). Different cultures, countries, languages, and traditions, as well as the natural world and all living things are also studied–and valued. The Science curriculum teaches authentic empirical skills such as observation (e.g., studying vein patterns on a leaf as a child gently wipes dust off, noticing how classroom pets behave during Care of Animals lessons, observing an invertebrate ‘visitor’ to the classroom before helping it return outside, etc.), experimentation (e.g., Sink or Float, Magnetic/Non-magnetic, etc.), classification (e.g., Five Classes of Vertebrates), and for older students, making and testing hypotheses, creating experiments, using deductive reasoning, and drawing conclusions. All these habits of mind create a sense of wonder and appreciation for the diversity and interconnectedness of all life on this planet.

“We should walk together on this path of life for all things are part of the universe and are connected to each other to form one whole unity.”

- Maria Montessori

As evidenced above, the importance of mindfulness is not a new idea–at least not in the Eastern hemisphere. Yet nowadays it has become increasingly popular in the West, too. (Ironically, there is also a growing body of scientific evidence about how the human brain works that may refute the myth of the ‘virtues’ of the modern Western penchant for ‘multi-tasking’.) Of perhaps greater significance, the growing public awareness thereof opens up inspiring possibilities for Montessori education in reinforcing the link between mindfulness and a growing global desire for peace. It goes without saying that Maria Montessori was an advocate for peace. Her vision for the child and humanity not only led her to speak at numerous peace conferences throughout pre- and post-World War II Europe, but also to formally publish her ideas in books such as To Educate the Human Potential (1947) and Education and Peace (1949). Moreover, however, the mere fact that the well-documented genius of the ‘Montessori Method’, with its holistic focus on self-actualization by the child, has been successfully implemented around the world, having both stood the test of time for more than a century and been confirmed by modern scientific research into human brain development, perhaps uniquely positions it as the ideal choice for a system of education to foster the global awareness necessary for real world peace.  

“Peace begins with a smile.”  

- Mother Teresa

  • conflict resolution
  • mindfulness
  • peace