the montessori philosophy
Dr. Montessori had a particular genius for observing children as they really are, rather than as adults wish them to be. Her philosophy suggests, to both parents and teachers, advantageous conditions for the natural development of the whole child from birth through maturity. The classroom materials are simply an implementation of one aspect of her total philosophy. Motivating all Montessori’s educational efforts was her continuous desire to create a better and more peaceful world by nurturing the spirit of each child. This included time for silence and reflection, cultivating awe and wonder, respecting nature, caring for the earth, understanding and accepting others, and fostering virtues such as love, peacefulness, kindness and compassion.
The Absorbent mind
One of Montessori’s most important and fundamental discoveries was what she called “the absorbent mind”. During the first six years of life, children have a very different way of learning than adults. At this absorbent stage, children have sponge-like brains; they are able to soak up vast amounts of information from their environment. The young child’s brain is hardwired to learn at an incredible rate. Just think about all your child accomplishes in the first few years - non-verbal and verbal communication, small and large motor control, emotional and social skills and so much more.
During the absorbent stage, children are constructing their individuality and building themselves into the adults they will eventually become. The development that takes place during the child’s first six years is vitally important as children develop 85% of their core brain structure by the time they are five years old. The child builds on this core foundation throughout the rest of their life.
Following Montessori’s work, studies have shown that certain parts of the brain will not develop without stimulation during these early, formative years. As development is sequential, these early foundations are essential for incorporating concepts that are more complex.
The stages of development
Strike up a conversation with any Montessorian and sooner or later, the words “sensitive periods” and “stages of development” will likely come up. So what are these and why are they so important? Sensitive periods are development windows of opportunity during which children have an especially strong interest towards a specific concept or skill. During these sensitive periods, children absorb the corresponding concepts easily and naturally. Children go through the same sensitive periods at approximately the same age and knowing what to expect allows us, as parents, teachers and caregivers, to anticipate and provide the necessary environment to fulfil the child’s needs.
Montessori observed that all three-year-olds were interested in doing certain specific things. Similarly, four-year-olds gravitated towards specific things and by four and a half, most started writing. Their fascination with writing at such a young age, came through the development of the pincer muscles (through other activities that can be expected to occur over this age) which naturally pushed them to hold a pencil in their pincer and use the tool to create.
Maria Montessori was the first to identify and document the developmental sensitive periods of children. She outlined four “stages of development”:
Infancy: from 0 – 6 years
Childhood: from 6 – 12 years
Adolescence: from 12-18 years
Adulthood: from 18 – 24 years
Current brain research validates everything Montessori saw in these “stages of development”. Beyond working to maximize gains made during the sensitive periods, the Montessori approach also works to develop the executive functions of the brain, which include the ability to make decisions, choices, adapt and act creatively. In a traditional environment where you’re told what to do and when to do it, you’re not challenging the development of those executive functions.
The concept of a mixed-age classroom is a significant difference from the traditional schooling system. Parents often ask of the purpose behind the methodology and the benefits for their child in such an environment.
The benefits are many, however one of the most fundamental is the opportunity for children to be in a shared space with others in a similar stage of development as themselves (i.e. the “Infancy stage” of development in a primary class or “Childhood stage” in an elementary class). In a mixed-age setting, the older children are further along within the same stage of development and can therefore be a model for learning to aid the growth of the younger children who are gravitating towards similar activities and concepts. One child’s interest and development can inspire others, encouraging them to make the most of their sensitive periods.
The language skills of older peers in a mixed-age classroom also gives children the opportunity to practice speaking and listening. It allows the child to build their character and personality, experiencing social norms which exist outside their family environment. The mixed-age group creates a miniature society in which the children learn experientially while building cooperation, love and mutual respect. They develop the need to contribute to others, an awareness of other people’s rhythms, backgrounds, needs, expectations and abilities. They help each other to tidy, to care for those who fall, to work through challenging problems. Each child has a place in the society, they are important to the social fabric and not just another number in the classroom. The older children’s orderly use of the environment helps the younger children develop order and orientate themselves independently in the classroom. They learn the “rules of the classroom society” from one another, rather than being told or disciplined by an adult.
Montessori Materials & the Prepared Environment
In Montessori schools, beautifully prepared environments permit children to occupy themselves with constructive activities that teach them wide and varied skills. The children learn not only to make choices, but to be responsive to their “inner teacher” and develop confidence in the voice of their own conscience.
The prepared environment, quite simply, is based on children’s development. It is designed to offer previously arranged external activities that match the emerging developmental needs and interests of a wide variety of children. Not every child will do every activity, but every child can find an activity that resonates with them and will build the confidence to try new activities.
The role of the montessori teacher
From a traditional school mindset, this worldview can sound completely absurd. If a teacher is not talking, the students must not be learning, right? In a Montessori classroom, what the teacher does is aligned with the way in which a child’s brain develops. The Montessori directress doesn’t assign homework or tests, and therefore does not grade students either. They do not generally offer praise, as they don’t want the child to expect, anticipate or act solely on whether they will receive praise. Instead, they want the child to develop a sense of intrinsic motivation – to act and learn for themselves and to feed their natural curiosity, rather than to appease and please others.
So what does the Montessori teacher do? They observe, they show and they guide. The teacher is the bridge between the Montessori learning material and the child. The directress observes the child, and watches for the appropriate sensitive periods or confidence with a concept to introduce a new material to support their self-learning. They want to take advantage of every developmental spurt in the child and help them express what is within themselves.
The absorption of knowledge, learning of skills and self correction have been incorporated into the design of most of the materials. Acting as guides for students in the “prepared environment,” the directress strives to make their classroom feel like a nature walk. They want the children to make discoveries that lie within not only the Montessori materials, but the classroom environment as well. The class has no front or back, just nooks and crannies and vistas and meeting places. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure sense of movement and learning.
In the elementary class, the directress also leads the classroom through “Great Lessons”. They plan the lesson for the whole class and all the children are free to gather around. It is one of the few times the directress will engage a large portion of the class at once in a more traditional educational format. Each of these lessons is a story, sometimes an hour long, the first Great Lesson covering a variety of subjects - the history of the cosmos, which will include geography, math, language, history etc for the children to work on individual smaller lessons at a later time. The history of life on earth, the coming of humans, the story of how humans developed writing and how they developed mathematics are some of the Great Lessons.
The purpose is to provide context for some of the individual skills and discoveries the children have been making through the Montessori materials, as well as to plant kernels of curiosity in their minds for future learning.
The Montessori Method and Discipline
As it’s likely become quite clear by now, the Montessori classroom affords the children a lot of liberty. They have the choice of what to work on, when they want to and with whom. Freedom like that in a classroom of 20 – 30 children under the age of 6 sounds like a recipe ripe for chaos. However, if you’ve observed a Montessori classroom, it is anything but. It is a calm and focused environment, driven by the concentrated energy of children at work with materials that have gripped their curiosity.
Our goal in Montessori is not obedience but self-discipline. We don’t use time-out chairs, behavior charts, demerits, treasure chests or other rewards and punishments to control our students’ behavior. There are three simple limits in our school community.
A child cannot:
Harm the environment
The children practice self-discipline through the inherent set-up of the classroom environment. There are generally only one of each material in a classroom. This limitation of resources, in a sense, doesn’t result in a grab-and-go-free-for-all.
Instead of just snatching one of the learning materials from a shelf, each child first selects a rolled-up mat from a bin. They take the mat to a vacant part of the classroom floor and then carefully, deliberately unroll the mat onto the floor. Only then will the child go to the shelves to choose a particular material. Similarly, when the work is done, they put it back on the shelf and then carefully roll the mat up and return it to the bin. Unless invited, only one child at a time works on any one material. They learn to wait their turn or choose another activity that meets a similar need. This allows the child to build their will. The children learn it themselves and they respect it as the “right way” because it is an approach they are allowed to choose and see as right for themselves.
Grace and courtesy is taught implicitly. The directress never says “Today we’re going to learn grace and courtesy.” Rather, it’s implicit from the first time the children enter the classroom; they are each greeted individually by name and with a handshake when they arrive. The directress will speak in a low voice and correct communication quietly by saying it the right way. The children are spoken to with the same respect and vocabulary as would be afforded an adult. They are encouraged to ask for, to receive and provide help to their classmates. Tables are set by the children at lunchtime, setting their placemats, napkins, silverware, their food and some flowers and vases. They are not taught any specific lessons on this, they are living it and they don’t know any other way.
The opportunity to observe older students who have been in the community of the class for a year or two also serves as an essential model for appropriate behavior in enforcing an environment of self-discipline. The older students, without realizing it, pass along the knowledge of the class’s routines and traditions. Wanting to act like the older children is an incredibly powerful motivator for younger ones and some look forward to achieving that role from their first days in the classroom..
The three-hour ‘work cycle’
One of the characteristics of the young child is their ability to work for long periods of time in concentrated activity. For this concentration to occur, there needs to be a minimum of three hours of unbroken time invested. These three-hour work windows are built into classroom time under the Montessori Method.
During this three-hour window, a “work cycle” can naturally develop. The child begins the “work cycle” by choosing a relatively simple task for a short time as if to re-establish a feeling of competence and success. The next activity chosen is generally more difficult and lasts longer. This is often followed by a period of “false fatigue”. If they’re left to experience the restlessness of this fatigue, the child then settles into the most difficult work choice of the cycle. It’s during this period that concentration is deepest, and skill and knowledge acquisition is greatest. Children appear to be refreshed and relaxed at the end of the three-hour work cycle.
The three-year cycle as a learning community
Montessori programs are designed as three-year cycles, in line with the children’s stages of development. In the Primary program for example, the material and exercises in years one and two not only help the children achieve a direct, immediate goal (like dressing and cleaning after themselves, or learning the sounds of each letter of the alphabet), but also serve the indirect purpose of laying the foundation for future work and learning in year three. For example, the cylinder blocks are one of the early materials a child is introduced to and directly exposes the child to dimensions and indirectly prepares their hands with the pincer grip required for writing. The sensorial materials are a series of exercises with 10 pieces in each set, they are sensorially and indirectly preparing the child for math as the Montessori class uses the decimal system till 10.
The mixed-age grouping also derives its full benefit through experience of the full three-year cycle. Within the mixed-age Primary classroom with children ages two and a half to six, the older children naturally step forward to assist the newcomers. Under the guidance of the directress, older children are watched and imitated by the younger children, and so the continuity of the habits, activities and customs of the classroom community is passed along intact to the next generation of students in the three-year-cycle.
Unfortunately, many parents will begin their child in Montessori at age 3 and then after completing the first two years pull the child from the classroom and enroll them in the kindergarten of their future public school. These children are robbed of that precious third year – the opportunity to complete the full cycle of activity with the classroom materials and curriculum, and the chance to be the leaders that they themselves had looked up to those previous years. They laid the foundation for something that was never completed.
For children to fully realise the benefit of the Montessori philosophy, it is Mia’s policy to enroll children in three-year cycles, regardless of the age at which they join. Our Primary classroom is for children aged 2 1/2 - 6 years; the elementary for ages 6 - 12.
transition to traditional schools
By this point I’m sure you’re thinking, “While I’m sure children thrive in this environment, what happens when they go into the ‘real world’ of traditional schools.” Whether it’s for elementary school, high-school or college, most Montessori students will eventually switch to another type of school. It’s a common concern of parents that children who are used to the Montessori Method of learning will struggle to adapt to different schools and environments. In actuality, everyone’s life involves change. It is actually a good thing as long as you are equipped with the appropriate coping tools and skills. The Montessori Method is all about developing such coping tools of adaptation by building confidence, independence and problem-solving skills. Therefore, most Montessori students are actually more adaptable than their non-Montessori peers.
Generally, we’ve found parent’s concerns can be grouped into two main categories; academic and social.
Academically, some people believe that because the Montessori method involves a lot of free choice and little to no testing and homework, Montessori students fall behind academically. In fact, Montessori children do better on benchmark tests than students in traditional schools, as found in a recent study by professor Angeline Lillard.
Socially, children in Montessori classrooms have learned principles such as courtesy, respect, conflict-resolution, positive decision-making and more. These skills serve them as they adjust to new schools and new people.
That said, don’t just take our word for it, our alumni share their experiences transitioning from Montessori to the traditional school system and what it means to them to be Montessori Made.