Applying Liberatory Consciousness to Action Research (Montessori Life Spring 2024)

Applying Liberatory Consciousness to Action Research (Montessori Life Spring 2024)

The vision of the teacher should be at once precise like that of the scientist, and spiritual like that of the saint. The preparation for science and the preparation for sanctity should form a new soul, for the attitude of the teacher should be at once positive, scientific, and spiritual. Positive and scientific, because she has an exact task to perform, and it is necessary that she should put herself into immediate relation with the truth by means of rigorous observation...Spiritual, because it is to man that his powers of observation are to be applied, and because the characteristics of the creature who is to be his particular subject of observation are spiritual. (Montessori, 1995, p. 107)

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“The teacher must be the servant of nature. The highest thing she can do is to serve. The best she can do is to be a perfect servant, to show respect and care, and be humble. Her plan must be to nurture life, which is a force, a force full of wisdom and power." - Maria Montessori (2012)

Action research is an essential practice that aligns deeply with what Montessori means when she tasks Montessori educators with being scientists, saints, and servants. These three roles anchor our understanding and efforts as we seek to incorporate action research into our Montessori pedagogy.

To Be a Scientist

Action research challenges us to research while also taking action. This is often the reality of a Montessori teacher. Many of us find ourselves in what seems like a daily cycle of planning, making observations, acting on those observations by making changes, and all the while teaching lessons, documenting results, and reflecting on our efforts. With our prepared environments as laboratories, our role as scientists in this way seems ongoing, as this is done each day, only to do it all again the next day!

To Be a Saint

To be well-suited and effective in our role as scientists, Montessori asks us to commit to a systematic study of self, which essentially speaks to the need to strengthen our role as saints. Radical truth-telling and deep reflection support us in the activation of this role. This too is ongoing, and filled with daily epiphanies and emotional setbacks. Working through the setbacks while celebrating the small victories that we experience bolsters our confidence.

To Be a Servant

Being scientists and saints is noble work indeed. However, when we consider the deeper aspects of these roles that we have committed to as Montessorians, we realize we must also be servants, both in our teaching and with our peers and school leaders. All our work must be situated within the sociopolitical context in which we all live, teach, and grow. Our teaching is always political: Everything that we do in our classrooms and schools is influenced by the resources accessible to us, the privileges that dictate who benefits from those resources, and the broader implications for how power is distributed, which determines who gets to decide what roles we play.

What does this mean for us daily as Montessorians engaged in action research? To be truly in service of humanity, we must always approach this work as critically conscious researchers with an understanding that our work is not only to improve our classrooms but also to examine systems of power and privilege, with the end goal of creating more collaboration and equity between and within diverse communities.

Liberatory Consciousness

As we aim to be scientists, saints, and servants, I want to offer a way to incorporate critical reflection into action research by using Barbara J. Love’s elements of liberatory consciousness as a guide (Love, 2000). Love posits that all members of society contribute toward keeping a “dis-equal” system in place, and we are all socialized to play either dominant or subordinate roles to uphold societal oppression. It is only through working through four successive steps—awareness, analysis, action, and accountability/allyship—that we can challenge our learned patterns of thinking and behavior and move toward real social justice.

Below, I incorporate critical reflection by using Love’s elements of liberatory thinking as a guide for some case studies.

The first element in developing a liberatory consciousness, awareness, asks that whenever we acknowledge or think that something isn’t quite right, we begin to ask ourselves deeper questions. In Abby’s study, she reported she was seeing “distracting movement” and a lack of focus in her Early Childhood public school students.

In this situation, I’d begin to gain awareness by answering the following questions:

  • What specific behavior am I observing and responding to?
  • Why do I see this as a problem?
  • How might my biases influence how I determine problems?
  • Where are my blind spots?
  • How might positional power be at play here?

The second element in developing a liberatory consciousness is analysis. To engage in a deep analysis, we must commit to understanding the sociopolitical context in which we all live. In Markell’s study, she reported wanting her students to be able to support each other more positively, with the end goal of creating a more peaceful and empathetic community where students understood their own self-worth.

In this situation, I’d bring in analysis by asking the following:

  • How does the observed behavior reflect the school culture?
  • Where do I observe put-downs or an emphasis on competition in broader society?
  • How/where does the child’s plane of development come into play?
  • How am I defining ways to be “good” for my students?
  • Where are my blind spots?
  • How might positional power be at play here?

The third and fourth elements of liberatory consciousness are action and accountability/allyship. Action should always be informed by a deep analysis as well as an understanding of the lived experience of the members of any oppressed groups. The accountability element requires us to consider the importance of sharing our diverse perspectives in reaching solutions, whether they be patterns of privileged thinking or internalized inferiority. This level of collaboration allows us to operate from each other’s strengths while acknowledging our own limitations. In the Middle School case studies, teachers reported being dismayed by their students’ lack of self-agency in mathematics.

To prepare for action in this scenario, I’d begin by asking the following:

  • Where are my blind spots?
  • What causes someone to have a lack of self-agency?
  • What causes a lack of self-agency in mathematics in our broader society, and what does the research say?
  • How can I center the lived experiences of my students as relates to mathematics and self-agency?

To prepare for accountability/allyship in this scenario, I’d begin by asking the following:

  • What are my patterns of thought or behavior as it relates to mathematics teaching and learning?
  • Are my patterns of thought or behavior as it relates to mathematics teaching and learning informed by internalized inferiority, or privilege and dominance?
  • How can I use my understanding of the above questions to move my students forward in their learning?

Integrating tools for liberatory thinking supports us as we reflect and commit ourselves to Montessori philosophy rooted in equity and justice. Approaching action research with critical reflection allows us to reflect on how improvement in motivation is often found when students are collaborative. Individualism shouldn’t be the only way to promote/increase work output. With all of the scenarios discussed, intentionally incorporating culturally responsive teaching practices essentially accelerates learning/cognition and increases the connection between people, culture, and respect for self/others/environment across all curricular areas (Hammond, 2021). In fact, connecting social justice and culture helps to address other critical societal issues such as stereotype threat in science and math (Maloney et al., 2013; Regner et al., 2014). This model of liberatory consciousness is one of many equity tools that strengthen our action research for social justice; it’s a reminder that self-agency and social action go hand in hand.


Hammond, Z. (2021, March 18). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Teaching Channel. responsive-teaching-brain/

Love, B. J.(2000). Developing a liberatory consciousness. In Readings for diversity and social justice. Routledge.

Maloney, E., Schaeffer, M., & Beilock, S. (2013). Mathematics anxiety and stereotype threat: Shared mechanisms, negative consequences and promising interventions. Research in Mathematics Education, 15(2), 115–128.

Montessori, M. (1995). The advanced Montessori method, volume 1. ABC-CLIO, p. 107.

Montessori, M. (2012). The 1946 London lectures. Montessori-Pierson, p. 52.

Regner, I. et al. (2014). Our future scientists: A review of stereotype threat in girls from early elementary school to middle school. International Review of Social Psychology, 2014(3–4).

About the Author

maati wafford

Maati Wafford (she/her) is the director of equity and engagement for the American Montessori Society. For nearly two decades she has created brave spaces for Montessori educators to expand, build, and create more justice in the world. AMS credentialed (Early Childhood, Elementary I – II, Administrator). Contact her at

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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.

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