The last two posts have discussed what to look for in terms of the prepared environment and materials when choosing a Montessori school. Both of those can be faked but it is quite hard to fake the method. This post is a discussion about the Montessori method, some of its differences from traditional schools or the schools you might have gone to as a child and what you should expect from a good Montessori program.
View of the Child: In a good Montessori school, the child is not seen as an empty container whom the teacher or the school can fill up with knowledge, or a bad or stubborn human who school can make better. Instead, he is seen a human filled with potential and capable or teaching/constructing himself and bringing out those potentials inside of him if given the right environment. The Montessori teacher’s role is to provide the environment, guide and support the child through observation. I always think that one of the problems children these days are facing in most public schools is this view that the teacher knows all and will provide them with knowledge. This limits their potential to what the teacher knows, which might not be very much.
Personalized Education: Every child is different and no two children are the same. Children go through rapid change in their early years and can even be different from day-to-day, week to week or month to month. They learn differently, construct themselves differently and respond to the world around them differently. As such, it makes best sense to provide a learning environment where each child can find his own path, learn his own way and at his own pace. This is what a good Montessori school aims to provide.
Developmentally Appropriate Subject Matter: Instead of trying to teach a one year old letters or how to write, he is provided with rich vocabulary and an opportunity to improve his strength, coordination and motor (gross and fine) skills. He gets to see an apple, smell an apple, taste one and learns the name. Eventually when he learns the “Ah” sound, by himself, he makes the connection that it is the beginning sound in apple. He builds a rich bank of vocabulary and experiences and when his hand are ready to write, his mind is also ready. He has the right posture and is able to concentrate. Even more important, he has a bank of vocabulary and experiences to pull from and write about. He does not need to be told what to write or forced to write, he wants to!
Concrete to Abstract: Each concept is provided or expressed in a concrete way with as much sensorial properties as possible. The child engages with it as much as he wants and for as long as he wants. In doing this, he absorbs them. Remember that the child from 0-6 is in the period of the absorbent mind. Notebooks are used to write facts and information that the child is supposed to memorize or refer to later. In a good Montessori environment, the child absorbs the information and writes them in his mind. He can access it whenever he wants. No notebook needed.
Real vs. Fantasy: In a good Montessori classroom, you will not find Disney characters, animals wearing clothes, flying super heroes or other items or fantasy. In the first plane of development, children are still building their reality and so we provide them with real images and real elements of life. This does not stifle their imagination as people may think but instead also it to develop correctly.
I was visiting family recently and they was a storm. The children about 5 and 7 were really bothered and crying about the lightning. They asked if the house was going to burn down and other questions like that. I was wondering why they had that reaction and it dawned on me. In cartoons, lightening always destroys something. Their mom also said it was thanks to things they had watched on television. I also know children who are able to recognize all the TV characters in books but do not know some farm animals or fruits and vegetables.
Multi-age Classroom: Another different idea that Montessori recommended and that you should find in a good Montessori school is that children are grouped in a 3 year span (3-6, 6-9, 9-12) and spend three years in the same class. It’s a little different for the first 3 years because the children are usually split into walking and non-walking but still they spend about 2 years (from walking till they are about 3 years old) in one class. This is one of my favorite features of the Montessori classroom. It allows the classroom to become a mini community or society. You have the elders and the juniors and each has his place and his role. They organically learn respect and care for each other. The older children get the opportunity to model and explain things to the younger ones, In doing this, they not only seal their own learning but gain a sense of responsibility. The younger have the perfect models and something to look forward to.
Another benefit of the mixed age classroom span is that each child really gets a chance to go at his pace. So if a child is advanced in one area, he does not have to wait till he gets to the next class to move forward, he can go at his pace and same with a child who is a little slower in one area.
Freedom within Limits: In a good Montessori classroom, there are a variety a developmentally appropriate materials but only one of each. The child is free to choose any work and to work on it for as long as he wants. He only has to make sure to return it when he is done and make sure it is ready for the next person. I find this such a wonderful thing to learn from infancy. How to wait or choose something else when what you want is not available and how to be conscious of those coming after you. They also learn to complete an activity from start to finish and not just abandon it and move to something else. The freedom to use the environment also comes with the responsibility for it. A basic set of rules in most classrooms is to be safe, kind and respectful. This applies to self, others and the environment. The children have real materials. Real glass, real knives, real furniture and they learn to handle it safely and treat it with respect. They learn to be kind and helpful to others.
Work Period: Children in Montessori schools work! They work at constructing their personalities, intelligence and knowledge. They work through play and through exploration. They work through practical life exercises and other activities. They need time to do this. They need time to concentrate and not be interrupted. A good Montessori school gives them this. They should have 3 hours (at least 2 hours for toddlers) of uninterrupted work time where they are free to learn as they please. This can be used for individual work, group exercises, lessons or even outdoor work but what is important is that the work is chosen by the child and he is free to work for as long as he pleases without interruption.
Discipline and Correction: Montessori is based on respect for the child as a human being. The child is not disciplined by the adult but instead helped to develop inner discipline. This is the discipline where the child does not do things only because he will be punished but because he knows it is the right thing to do. In a Montessori school, children are not flogged or abused. They are treated with respect and helped to develop intelligent obedience. The rules and limits are explained to them and the guide can firmly but respectfully reinforce them when needed. The freedom within limits, the prepared environment and work help the child to develop inner discipline. Trained guides also learn about the different levels of obedience and set up the environment in such a way that they are not asking of the child what he is incapable of doing or giving. Other factors like insufficient sleep, poor nutrition and over stimulation that can lead to misbehavior are also considered and prevented. The goal is to raise intelligent, respectful. Mistakes are also treated differently in a good Montessori environment. The child is not put down, yelled out or even blatantly corrected.
The environment is set up so that the child can realize his own mistakes and figure out how to correct them. If this does not happen then the guide might need to make a change to the environment or presentation and again this is done respectfully. In this way, the child learns initiative, problem identification and solving skills while still keeping his self-esteem and love for learning intact.
Praise and Rewards: “Good Job” is not a common phrase in a good Montessori environment. The expectation is that the child does what he is supposed to and does his best. Just like inner discipline, he does this because he knows it is what he is supposed to and not because there is a praise or sticker waiting. They celebrate their own victories and when they do need some validation and ask for it, the guide gives it without taking away from the child’s own celebration.
Competition: I always find it hilarious when someone tells me their 1 yr old or 2-year-old came first or second or whatever position in their class. One should compete only against themselves, constantly striving to be better than they were. Every child is different, learns differently and will become a different adult. In a good Montessori school, Children are not ranked against each other. They are given opportunities to support each other, identify and lean on each others strengths, work for the good of the group, learn and grow together. Instead of striving to be better than their friends, they strive to be better people period.
Community: Because it is an education for life, it is recognized that the child’s home environment and family are a big part of his education. So good Montessori programs usually provide opportunities to support the parents and family in their acquisition of knowledge to support the child at home.
If you really think about it, all of these factors are tied together and a good Montessori school is only possible when they are all present. They are what make Montessori an education to aid the development of life. An education of the whole child, his brain, his body, his mind and his spirit. He learns how to be a independent, capable, kind, driven person. In a good Montessori school, the foundation is laid for a Good Life!
The Montessori Method is so rich, deep and vast. It is really hard to succinctly describe and so I am sure I have missed some important factors. Please feel free to add to the subject in the comments. Also, since these ideas are different from what most people are used to, I expect some questions or disagreements. I would love to discuss them, so do leave a comment.
The next and final post in this series is about the Montessori Adult. These are the guides, assistants and other adults that the child encounters in school. Come back to see what they should look like.
Live a Good Life!