The Role of the Contrarian in the Lower Elementary Classroom

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The contrarian is best defined as a person who opposes or rejects popular opinion, someone who challenges or goes against the usual. For parents, it is the child who questions or challenges everything: from the rules of the household to the clothing the parent deems appropriate for weather or special occasion. It is the child who disagrees with much of what is presented to him; he must find out for himself a thing to be true rather than being told and simply believing.

At first glance, a child who proves to be contrary can be a real challenge; he or she shakes up group dynamics and can slow down decision-making processes or even rattle and frustrate other children. However, in the Montessori classroom, particularly within the age group of the Lower Elementary classroom where the social piece is so important, a contrarian can be the source of growth for all. With gentle and thoughtful directing from the adults in the classroom, handling the situations that come up with a contrarian in the group can actually be a benefit to the others. 

Below, Anna Schwind, one of the Lower Elementary Directresses at Villa di Maria, shares the importance of the contrarian in such a setting. In her words:

It is so very important to have a contrarian in the classroom. Elementary children can be like lemmings. If you know the concept of the threshold model of collective behavior, then you will understand that the threshold for elementary children is ridiculously low. This is why they can all so easily agree to pull in the same direction. They joyfully and enthusiastically band together for a cause, and much of my job is making sure those causes are for a greater good rather than to devastating effect; they don’t have all their long-term thinking in place yet. It is in their nature to want to do a thing, together, where everyone participates, and it doesn’t much matter to them what the thing is.

This quality of elementary children — the drive to work together — is a fantastic and powerful quality, and one of the things I enjoy about spending time with them, but it has a dark side. It easily leads to the tyranny of the majority. It easily goes to a place of ostracizing whomever doesn’t go along.

In every elementary class I have ever led, I have needed a contrarian: someone who won’t just go along because that’s what is being done by the group. Without a person of that character, the class culture quickly becomes a place of enforced unanimity. In addition to developing as social creatures and collaborative actors, elementary children are also still developing themselves as individuals, and they need opportunities to stand out, to stand apart and to be distinct from the herd, even if most of the time they are happy to go along.

Some children, who aren’t by nature contrarian, will not develop the ability to mark themselves out or to oppose when it’s important to them without the example of a peer who does so consistently. When someone says “no” to the general chorus of “yes,” it also provides ample opportunities for respecting the minority, encouraging diversity, and practicing empathy. These are critical opportunities.

All of the children have a part to play and a story to make of themselves in each class. But some roles are hard to fill and take a rarer set of qualities. Sometimes, in some classes, they remain unfilled because no one is up to it, and the classroom experience as a whole is less rich and a little less complete. The contrarians, as I think of them, are scarce. Their special gifts have often been thought of and treated by the culture at large as burdens instead of opportunities — even when they are yet children! — so I prize those ones especially.

Thank you for [your contrarians].

And thank you, Anna, for never failing at the magical ability to see the good in every child. Your perspective and words are truly inspiring!