Saturday, January 7, 2012

Dewey's Decimals and Maria Montessori

Organization is the Key – to everything and happens to be one of the top 10 New Year resolutions.  

What is it about organization?  Maybe it’s the security in knowing that when you go to look for something that you will actually find it.  Our modern world is full of fine examples and yet some personally fall short of hitting the organizational mark.  I don’t know.  I myself am relatively organized. 

Let me begin with today’s new word (and by new I mean I just made it up).  Archivery – the act of collection and organizing.

I love writing!  Creation in general gets me completely stoked.  But when you write, well you sometimes get to create words.  Yep, all that stuff in Webster’s had to come from somewhere.  Compare modern day editions of the dictionary to those printed 20 years ago.  You will find lots of new words.  How wicked exciting!!  More tools for the craft.

So I created the word “archivery” because I didn’t have it and wanted to express this idea in a single word- the act of collection and organizing.  I am a collector, by nature, it’s in my DNA (see my December31, 2011 post) and my collecting passion began at an early age.

I started out small.  Got my first fully accessorized Barbie when I was four, began collecting 12th scale miniatures at seven, then stamps, coins, lions, rocks, jewelry, art supplies, sheet  music and books.  Of course, as time went on I moved onto the harder stuff like furniture, cameras, power tools, ancient Egyptian everything, electronics and books.   Always books!

Honestly, I’m okay with this desire to amass curiosities.  It’s fun and gives my family a foundation of gift ideas when they shop.  I am never disappointed.

But collections come with a price.  They need to be organized and managed.  After all what good are they if you can’t find them or one of their specific pieces.  Especially disconcerting if the collection happens to be books scattered haphazardly throughout multiple locales.
Enter Melvil Dewey and Maria Montessori.  Two Masters of organization.  One of books, the other of minds.  What these extraordinary people brought to society revolutionized the library categorizing system and conventional ideas about education.
Melville Dewey patented the DeweyDecimal Categorization System (DDC) in 1876 during the rise of the modern library movement.  Before then, books were arbitrarily placed within libraries.  They were arranged by title, topic, author, an inconsistent numeric system or how they fit onto the shelf.  Some were arranged to be aesthetically pleasing without attention to their content.  This haphazard organizational method created a recipe for disastrous inefficiency.
And Melvil Dewey was obsessed with efficiency.  After extensive research and by studying different approaches to this book categorizing dilemma, Dewey devised his system.  During pensive reflection one Sunday morning (which translates into staring off into the distance while the sermon came from the pulpit) Dewey finally arrived at the plan that would revolutionize the library categorizing system.  You could say that his system was divinely inspired.

I for one am glad that Dewey developed this system and that it stuck.  It’s a beautiful example of organization in action.  Most people today fail to give the Dewey Decimal System a second thought.  Why?  Because it’s the norm; currently used in 95(ish)% of school and public libraries in 130+ countries.  Making it a standard and since it dates to the late 19th century those of us living today have no idea what library life was like before Dewey’s marvelous system.

I am extremely fond of libraries.  Got my first library card when I was 7, thought I was a real big shot.  I confidently entered my local library, made my selections, handed off my personal library card and walked out with books that I could keep for two whole weeks.  Empowerment through choice and responsibility at its finest.  It all worked harmoniously assuming I had someone to drive me seven miles to my library. 

And yes, it was my library.  Having a library card gave me ownership in a larger collection of books than I could find at home (so many books, so little time and shelf space).   I knew that I would have books throughout my life.  All children should know this.  This simple knowledge sets the stage for future exploration into the infinite.

It was during these early library visits that I first met the Dewey System.  This categorical decimal system with its simple yet limitless possibilities was like a terrific road map full of enchanting and exciting destinations in every stack.  It was cool.  Hundreds of thousands of books and at any given time I could go to an exact location to find a specific volume.  And I could do this from Alabama to Wyoming.  Now that is the epitome of organization and how I like to envision “archivery” in action.  Thank you, Melvil.

While Melvil had his affect during my elementary years, my organization skills came much earlier. 

Enter Maria Montessori - pioneer in education- through infancy and beyond.   Maria Montessori was born in 1870, six years before Dewey developed his system.   She was the first Italian woman to get a medical degree, doing so at 26.  She developed a philosophy that children were born with a unique and distinctive potential that would be realized over time.  This idea directly conflicted with the popular notion that children were a blank slate on which to be written.  Her ideology being paramount in developing free thinking, society contributing individuals, the latter being the cornerstone to creating mindless factory workers.

Dr. Montessori revolutionized education by suggesting not a rote system where students focused on the teacher’s knowledge but on a system where the child explored their learning environment and came to his or her own conclusions.  Montessori offered three simple ideas: that children are provided a natural and safe environment; that they are allowed to freely explore and exist within this environment; and that the environment is continually fluid allowing the “whole” child to grow and learn. 

WOW!!  Groundbreaking educational reform for the 1900’s.  Montessori opened her first school January 6, 1907 field testing her ideas in an Italian village where impoverished children had little or no hope of succeeding in their world.  Her results were “miraculous”.  Why, because she created and supported an environment of learning, of personal responsibility, of exploration and organization.  She did this under the notion that children are natural learners. 

“Supposing I said there was a planet without schools or teachers, study was unknown, and yet the inhabitants - doing nothing but living and walking about - came to know all things, to carry in their minds the whole of learning: would you not think I was romancing?  Well, just this, which seems so fanciful as to be nothing but the invention of a fertile imagination, is a reality. It is the child's way of learning. This is the path he follows. He learns everything without knowing he is learning it, and in doing so passes little from the unconscious to the conscious, treading always in the paths of joy and love.”     - Maria Montessori
What seems like a serendipitous classroom technique is actually highly organized.  From the size of furniture to the versatility of materials offered for study.  The Montessori classroom organization and theme is more than just a chance happening.  It is deliberately designed to foster the natural learning that is inherent in each of us.

How do I know this?  From personal experience.   I was a Montessori student.

That’s me on the left, 1963, yep, the curls are natural and thanks to my mom for her amazingly honed archivery skills.

I didn’t realize it then, but my brain was becoming wonderfully organized at this early age.  I started organizing my brain in preschool and have been honing it ever since.  Luckily, my preschool experience didn’t stop at the classroom threshold.  My parents were invested advocates to my learning and that of my siblings and the Montessori approach became a way of life.

Yes, I had a pink tower.   At mom’s urging my dad made one, precise and yes pink.  I had wooden puzzles, dad made those too.  Mom created tactile cards using brightly colored yarns, glue and index cards.  I had a set of sound cylinders made from empty cardboard tubes and contact paper.   I listened to French records and read French books. 

I experienced creation with focus on the process rather than on the product.  The product came later and quite naturally.  I grew organized in both thought and process.  To this day I can tell you the location of any item in my house or garage.  Right down to where the wire nuts are and yes, they are sorted by size/color. 

I admit that I do not follow the Dewey System in my home.  My books are organized aesthetically and my personal collection is less than libraric (ooh another new word- of or pertaining to libraries - especially at it pertains to volumes of volumes).  But I do rely on Dewey when I visit my library, like an old friend guiding you along literary journeys.

As for Maria Montessori, her influence remains.  I share that knowledge and sacred space for learning with my children, the biological ones and those whose lives I touch each and every day.  These precious little learners need a foundation and we own the responsibility of setting their whole learning stage. 

You can find Maria Montessori – Her life and work at your local library in Social Sciences number 370.92 and Irrepressible Reformer the biography of Melvil Dewey in General Works number 020.92.

Until next we meet, thanks for tripping on books.  

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