Step into a Montessori environment today—such as one of the Children’s House rooms at Bluffview Montessori School—and you will witness a scene very much like the one Dr. Maria Montessori described when writing about her first “Casa dei Bambini,” or Children’s House, a century ago.
The fact that the typical Montessori environment today so closely resembles the ones originally crafted by Dr. Maria Montessori is a testament to the soundness of her vision. That vision was not based on fads or political whims, but was rooted in a deep compassion for the children in her care, and developed over many years through careful, scientific observation of how they learned. If you begin to understand the logic behind her vision, you will have a better appreciation for what happens in your child’s classroom.
The Montessori approach to education was developed by Dr. Maria Montessori more than 100 years ago, and is today practiced in more than 5,000 schools across the United States. Through her early work with impoverished and mentally disabled students, she came to a crucial insight: Children naturally want to learn, and when they are provided with an environment that has been carefully prepared to support this desire, they engage in learning willingly and happily.
The American Montessori Society (AMS) recognizes five core components as critical to high-fidelity implementation of the Montessori method. Bluffview implements all five of them:
- Trained Montessori teachers
- Multi-age classrooms
- Didactic Montessori materials
- Child directed work
- Uninterrupted work periods
Walk into a Montessori classroom, and its differences from a typical school classroom are immediately noticeable. For one thing, you won’t find a desk for each student (although you will find a number of tables and other working areas). That is because the children are generally allowed to move freely during the extended work periods, choosing their own work within the framework provided by their teacher. And they have lots to choose from; the walls are lined with low shelves, all filled with neatly arranged, custom-made learning materials.
But perhaps the most striking feature of the Montessori experience is seeing twenty or more young students, all productively occupied with their chosen tasks. Some work individually, others in groups. The room may not be perfectly quiet, but by and large the students seem calm and intent on their work.
Where are the teachers in this picture? (Bluffview classrooms usually have two teachers: a Montessori-certified lead teacher and an assistant teacher.) During the extended work period, you will often find them demonstrating a work to a student or a small group of students, or perhaps assisting a student who asks for guidance. Although teachers do lead group activities (such as class meetings) on a daily basis, the emphasis is on individualized learning.
In Montessori education, the physical environment is key (although not as important as respect for the child’s natural desire to learn and grow). Let’s look at three features of the Montessori environment: atmosphere, materials, and mixed-age learning.
Atmosphere. The classroom is a calm, pleasant space in which the child is free to develop himself using a multitude of interesting materials tailored to stimulate his curiosity and intellect. A connection with nature and freedom of movement are essential elements of the classrooms. Montessori ardently opposed stationary desks and chairs. “The task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility and evil with activity,” she said. Rather, she believed that mental development must be connected with movement; consequently, in Montessori schools, children can freely move and select their work.
Materials. The materials, called “works,” are hands-on and very interesting to children. The materials have the quality of making mistakes self-evident to the child (i.e. auto-correction) so that the child can use his or her own problem-solving abilities to find the solution. This frees the child to learn through manipulating the materials, rather than relying on constant instruction and correction from the teacher. This independence also allows the child to know for himself “the thrill of discovery of the unknown.” Materials are designed to meet the child’s developmental needs. “Correct use of Montessori materials guides children’s minds from the concrete to the abstract, whence children’s creative imaginations can take over,” according to Montessori education pioneer P. Polk Lillard.
Group Work & Grade Levels. Many materials and projects are conducive to group work. Furthermore, three grade levels share the same classroom outfitted for their shared developmental level. Consequently, peer learning and collaboration can occur even between grade levels for children with shared interests, and older children have the opportunity to model skilled social behavior and leadership.
A good way to begin to understand Montessori education is to examine the role of the teacher in creating an environment for student exploration and learning.
Dr. Maria Montessori once described the teacher’s role in this way: “The educator must be as one inspired by a deep worship of life. And through this reverence, respect, while he observes the development of each individual child’s life.”
The art of teaching in Montessori lies not in clever lesson planning, but rather in really knowing and observing each child and understanding what he or she needs to grow. A good Montessori teacher knows when to guide the child, and when to follow his or her natural interests.
The Montessori teacher has three main tasks: observation, instruction, and skillful self-restraint.
Observation. Montessori teachers tailor their approach depending on the needs of the child. They do this by becoming expert observers of each child. To inform the help they provide, teachers are trained to notice things such as:
- which materials seem to attract the child
- how long the child remains interested in a particular work
- what level of mastery the child has achieved with that work
- whether the child was developmentally ready to receive a particular instruction
- what skill areas the child needs to practice
- “From the child itself [the teacher] will learn how to perfect himself as an educator,” Montessori said.
Giving instruction. The purpose of instruction is to spark a child’s interest in a way that makes the child want to find their own answers to subsequent questions. Instruction is given through Great Lessons (also sometimes called Key Lessons)—stories that offer a big-picture framework that serve as a starting point for more detailed investigation. Instruction is also given by showing the child how to use a specific material and then leaving him or her to do the real learning through hands-on interaction with it. Instructions are clear, brief, and as simple as possible. They are also carefully timed so as not to impose an adult agenda onto the natural unfolding of the child’s development. “The protection of the children’s right not to be interrupted when productively occupied is key to the children’s development of concentration and interest in their work,” Montessori said.
Skillful self-restraint. “To stimulate life leaving it then free to develop, to unfold—herein lies the first task of the educator,” Montessori said. “In such a delicate task, a great art must suggest the moment and limit of the intervention.” One of the most difficult skills a Montessori teacher must master is self-restraint. Knowing when to offer helpful guidance, rather than over-correcting or overly directing a child’s work, requires faith in the “exploring spirit” of the child and a good measure of humility. Montessori had deep respect for the “triumphant inner force” which “sends the world forward,” and nurtured it in her schools.
Montessori advocated grouping children in mixed-age settings according to their shared developmental stage. Being able to see the larger arc of their learning—that addition lays the groundwork for multiplication, for example, or that manipulating letters lays the groundwork for reading—provides children with greater meaning and motivation for their learning.
Also, mixed-age classrooms make collaboration more effective, as older, more experienced students can help younger students learn something new. In the process, the older child gains teaching and nurturing skills, while the younger child gains a peer mentor—and deeper insight into the problem he or she is exploring.
At Bluffview Montessori School, these groupings take the following form:
- Children’s House, for children ages 33 months through six years (preschool and kindergarten children share the same environment, although kindergarteners follow their own curriculum).
- Lower elementary (E1), for children ages 6-9 (grades 1-3).
- Upper elementary (E2), for children ages 9-12 (grades 4-6).
- Erdkinder, for ages 12-14 (grades 7-8).