This year I will have three new assistants in my classroom. On Wednesday morning I am going to "train" them about our procedures and the Montessori teaching philosophy. I decided to write a post about what I want them to know. Hopefully this will serve a two-fold purpose. First, it will help me solidify my thoughts before Wednesday morning. Second, it may address some of the questions that you, the reader, may have about Montessori education.
I am often asked by people who learn I am a Montessori teacher, "What is Montessori?" There are so many answers to this question. Montessori could be described as a person, a philosophy, a method, a standard set of teaching materials and, perhaps, a way of life.
It would be wrong to discuss Montessori education without recognizing the brilliant mind behind this philosophy. Maria Montessori was a genius beyond measure. She was a keen observer of children and revolutionized the process of education through her writings and teachings. Unfortunately, the public educational system (at least here in the US) has yet to "catch up" to her progressive, yet spot-on, ideas about what best facilitates the learning process for children.
I am going to attempt to explain, in my own words, the key elements of a Montessori education. Then I will describe how this translates into what you would see in a Montessori classroom.
To me, the most critical "piece" of Maria Montessori's educational philosophy is her unwavering belief in what she called the "formative powers" of children. Her observations and years of experience with children convinced her that within every child there exists the desire to learn, to become better and more able, and to, essentially, create the man he will ultimately become. A less flowery way of saying that is......every child wants to explore and learn about their world and to master the skills needed to be independently successful in that world. Furthermore, she believed that children can learn successfully with very minimal direction from adults. She observed that children who are given the freedom to choose their own learning tasks instinctively choose the right tasks at the right time. Trusting the child to know what they're ready for and when can be hard for parents, and even for trained Montessori teachers. Our Western culture has led us to believe that if certain skills are not achieved at certain times during development then there must be a problem. We tend to anxiously fret and stew when our children do not do things when we think they should. This well-intentioned worry may even cause us to push our children into doing skills that they aren't ready for or interested in. As many have learned, this usually backfires. In a Montessori classroom, the adults hang back. They do not "push" children. Instead, they guide children to new work. They invite children to try new activities and respectfully accept it if the child refuses. Chances are that a child who refuses to try an activity will be willing to try it at a later time and/or after watching other students do the work.
Another important aspect of having trust in the child is allowing them to work undisturbed. Therefore, the adults in the Montessori classroom do everything they can to preserve the learning environment for all children. When a child is focused and engaged in an activity of their choosing, the adult does not interrupt them. This can be in direct conflict with the adult's gut instinct. For example, when you see that Johnny has chosen to work on a farm animal puzzle, it may be tempting to walk over to him and start a conversation such as, "Oh, Johnny. I see you've picked the farm puzzle. What animal is this? Can you find the cow? What sound does a cow make?" While there is nothing inherently wrong about any of those questions, asking them while the child is engaged is not necessarily respectful of that child's learning. What we forget as adults is that a large majority of a child's learning occurs inside their own head so to speak. At the exact moment that we decide to "interrupt and interrogate" that child may be making an important connection in their mind between the material they are using and their own experiences outside the classroom. Or they may have been sitting there quietly thinking about the task, perhaps it has been a little challenging for them and they've just managed to figure out (on their own!) what to do next and then along comes a disruption in the form of Mrs. Chat E. Teacher. So, in addition to being careful not to disrupt a working child THEMSELVES, the adults must also attempt to prevent other children from disrupting a working child. A ground rule in most Montessori classrooms is that children may only watch another child work if a.) the working child has given permission and b.) the watching child remains silent and does not touch the working child's work. And before anyone accuses Montessorians of being too rigid on this one, think of it this way. Imagine yourself working on something that you are very engaged in. Then imagine someone else barging into your workspace, starting to talk to you about a completely unrelated topic, and placing their hands all over what you are working on. Doesn't that sound annoying? Of course! Well, it's annoying to children as well and they deserve to be in a learning environment that has structures in place to prevent it.
Another key element of a Montessori education is the "prepared environment". The "prepared environment" refers to the way the Montessori classroom is physically prepared by the teacher to allow for a large number of children of a varying range of ages to engage in completely separate activities at the same time without chaos resulting. A GREAT DEAL of time and forethought goes into the prepared environment. Each material placed on the classroom shelves has a specific intended purpose and is arranged so that a child may independently use and learn from it (usually following a presentation by the teacher). At any given time in a Montessori classroom there may be as many different activities taking place as there are children. However, a well-run Montessori classroom would still have an overall feeling of calmness and purpose. It may (at least in my classroom at times!) not necessarily be completely quiet..........but if you were to sit and observe, you would see the majority of the children engaged in an activity of their own choosing without any adult assistance. It is this aspect of the Montessori classroom that I think stands in the starkest contrast to what you would see in a traditional classroom setting (at least in a traditional elementary classroom setting). Because young children vary so much in their interests, skills, and confidence in themselves as learners, it only makes sense to design a learning environment that can easily accommodate those differences. And Montessori education does just that. Conversely, a learning environment in which the majority of instruction is delivered to the whole group inevitably results in "lost" learning. The "group lesson" will most likely be just the right information at just the right time for roughly a third of the class, while another third will be not interested or not ready, and the final third will have already mastered the material being taught.
I have been a professional educator in both types of settings. I believe quite strongly in the dedication of my former public school colleagues. They did and continue to do an amazing job of teaching the children in their care despite all the challenges and obstacles that are inherent in the public educational system. And I believe that when I taught in the public schools, I too made a difference in the lives of the children I taught. However, my heart always longed to be back in a Montessori educational setting because that is where I felt that I could best meet the needs of all the children in my care.
A final critical element of Montessori education is the mixed-age classroom. Typically, Montessori classrooms are divided into mixed age categories as follows: 3-6 year olds; 6-9 year olds; 9-12 year olds. This is another aspect of Montessori education that is very different from traditional education, although some public schools do have mixed grade classrooms. I LOVE having mixed ages in the classroom. There are just so many positive outcomes. First of all, it is wonderful to have a group of returning students each fall who already know the routines. They are great teachers for the younger children. Secondly, having a range of ages means that the younger children can see what's "coming up" for them in the classroom as they observe the older children doing "harder" work. That can be very motivating to the little ones. Also, because of the prepared environment, academically advanced young children do not have to wait until they are older to try more challenging work. Conversely, older students who need more practice on certain skills can do so without feeling they are "behind" their classmates. The same benefits occur with regard to social skills as socially mature younger children may find an older classmate to play with and less mature older students can find a younger peer with whom to play. It's easy to see how the combination of mixed ages and a prepared environment paired with a strong trust in each child's ability to learn make Montessori classrooms a perfect place for children to grow and learn.