Karen Bennetts: The Characteristics of the Third Plane

The Characteristics of the Third Plane
Karen Bennetts: Published by MSCA COLLABORATIONS – MSCA July 2021 (Page 21)

Maria Montessori’s view of human development encompasses four stages or ‘planes of development’: 0-6, 6-12, 12-18 and 18-24 years.  The third plane is the time of adolescence, a period of rapid growth and change. 

The third plane has much in common with the first plane.  We hope each newborn child has been nurtured in a healthy prenatal environment that has everything needed for the young child to develop.  Similarly, we hope that children of 12 years have been provided with everything they need to begin building a fully formed adult.  If all goes well, the adolescent will leave the third plane at 18 years, ready to enter society and make a strong adult contribution.

Who is this adolescent?  What are the characteristics associated with the third plane of development?  Montessori saw the adolescent as a social newborn, experiencing physical, social and emotional awkwardness and vulnerability.  Adolescence is a delicate period, worthy of our respect and presenting itself to us as our adult responsibility.  At the same time, there are practical aspects:

‘Adaptability’ – this is the most essential quality; for the progress of the world is continually opening new careers, and at the same time closing or revolutionising the traditional types of employment.

Montessori (1994, 61)

The adolescent asks ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where do I fit in?’ and even ‘How may I serve others?’ These give us clues about what opportunities might be required in a prepared environment that serves adolescent needs.  Work is a vital human instinct.  Adolescents crave physical work that gives the right level of challenge to their growing strength.  They also value exploration of the social and economic world; exploration of the balance between freedom and responsibility at adult level; and exploration of the self.  Creative work in language and the arts becomes significant in the third plane.  Adolescents need opportunities for self-expression, moral development and service.  Variety of opportunities is essential. 

The adolescent also has a need to be protected.  The transition to adulthood is sprinkled with ‘doubts and hesitations, violent emotions, discouragement and an unexpected decrease of intellectual capacity’ (Montessori, 1994, 63).  Concentration can be difficult and there is a need to fortify the adolescent’s self-confidence.  Adolescents are adult-like, but also child-like – we can support the valorisation of their personalities, an internal strengthening, so they feel capable of succeeding in life by their own efforts. 

When we see adolescents passing successfully through the third plane, we see the development of spiritual equilibrium through their collaborative interactions with others, through their compassion.  No community is without conflict or tension, but adolescents can walk the balance of individual development with group ethics and responsibility, if they have our support.  For teachers who work with adolescents, it can be a joy to observe their purposeful debates and philosophising; their risk-taking; their loyalty to their tribe; the unfolding of their noble adult characteristics.  The third plane can bring a sense of disconnection; a period of self-focus; an occasional lack of judgement.  These come from third plane neural development.  But the adolescent is getting ready to understand the role the adult self will play in society…and needs mentors.  Who will have faith in the adolescent?  Who in these strange times, will help the adolescent build optimism about the future? 

Ref: Montessori, M. (1994). From Childhood to Adolescence. Oxford: Clio Press. First published in 1948.