Montessori is a comprehensive educational approach from birth to adulthood based on the observation of children’s needs in a variety of cultures all around the world.
Maria Montessori (Italy, 1870) was one of the most inspiring visionaries in the field of education. She is famously known for rethinking both the role of the teacher in the classroom, as well as the classroom itself. In a Montessori environment the children – and not the teacher – are the center of attention and they learn with age-specific educational materials, originally designed by Dr. Montessori herself.
The impact of Montessori’s innovations on the way children learn has been so profound that schools all over the world have been adopting it for the last 100 years. To uphold and safeguard the standards of schools following the method and the quality of the training of its guides worldwide, Dr. Montessori established Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) in 1929.
Montessori Prepared Environment
– There is a three year age span of children within the classroom. Older children model for and assist younger children, younger children observe, emulate, and turn to older ones, and the sense of community that develops helps build self esteem.
– There are self-correcting materials within the environment. The materials are designed so that the children learn through their own errors to make the correct decision versus having the guide point it out to them.
– Children are quiet by choice and out of respect for others within the environment. The Montessori classroom allows children to return to the “inner peace” that is a natural part of their personalities.
– There is an emphasis on concrete learning and progresses to abstract thinking. Children need to experience concepts in concrete “hands on” ways so that they make their own leaps to abstraction.
– The classroom is a child-centered environment. All the materials are easily within the child’s reach, placed on shelves at their levels. The tables and chairs are small enough for the children to sit comfortably while the pictures and decorations are placed at the children’s eye level.
– The children work for the joy of working and the sense of discovery. They are “sponges” and delight in learning new tasks. Their interests lie in the process of the work itself rather than in the end product.
– The environment provides a natural sense of discipline. The expectations of the community are developed through lessons in “grace and courtesy” which elevate the relationships and behaviors of the children. Boundaries and limits are clearly and firmly but gently and cheerfully laid out..
– The environment is “prepared” for the children. Everything in the room has a specific place on the shelf. Children are orderly by nature and having the room set this way allows them to grow in a very positive way.
– The guide plays a less obtrusive role in the classroom. The children are not taught by the guide, but rather inspired and stimulated by her presence and her presentations and, then, motivated by their own innate need for self-development.
– The items found on the shelves in the classroom are “materials” rather than “toys. ”The children “work with the materials” rather than “play with the toys.” Children gain the most benefit from the developmental environment, through independent activity and choice a sense of worth – the same sense of worth adults experience when they go to their jobs they love and do satisfying “work”.
The Montessori Teacher
The Montessori teacher’s role is to connect the children with the Montessori prepared environment. In general terms the teacher’s role includes:
– preparing the learning environment
– linking the children to appropriate and challenging activities
– leaving children free to engage in an activity until their interest is satisfied, only assisting where required.
– coordinating the dynamic balance between freedom and discipline
– recording children’s progress and achievement
Montessori teachers develop warm and supportive relationships with children, marked by respect for the children’s abilities and individual developmental needs. While children in the Montessori environment are not given unfettered freedom, they are free to choose their own work. The teacher respects children’s work choices, ensuring individual choice does not become secondary to group activities.
Montessori teachers are trained to observe children’s interests and activity carefully. The way Montessori teachers observe children’s activity can be compared to the ‘fluid rather than static’ approach to observation advocated by Fleer and Surman (2006: 145) for teachers working in early childhood settings. Knowing how to observe constructively and when, and how much, or how little, to intervene, is one of the most important talents the Montessori teacher acquires during a rigorous course of training. Close observation provides the evidence teachers use to make decisions about how to foster children’s interests and meet children’s learning needs. Observation is also used to monitor children’s progress.
On the basis of their observations Montessori teachers introduce developmentally appropriate challenges by showing children how to work with Montessori materials matched to their current needs and interests. For this reason, Montessori teachers must know the scope, sequence and use of the Montessori materials in sufficient detail to be able to select and present lessons effectively at point of need. The repertoire of Montessori activities and exercises across the curriculum for each stage of development is extensive. Montessori teachers draw on this repertoire as they strive to offer just the right lesson or activity to each child at just the right moment.
In the context of literacy education Snow, Burns and Griffin (1998 executive summary, cited in Freebody 2007: 59) point out that ‘the identical mix of instructional materials and strategies’ do not ‘work for each and every child’. Drawing on their research findings, they argue that ‘effective teachers are able to craft a special mix of instructional ingredients for every child they work with’ chosen from ‘a common menu of materials, strategies and environments’. This is the approach used by Montessori teachers in all content areas for children and young people at all stages of development.
Montessori teachers consult regularly with parents throughout each three-year stage. When necessary, Montessori teachers also work closely with other professionals, including, for example, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and specialist curriculum consultants.
Montessori teachers have Montessori qualifications for one, or more, developmental phases (birth to three, three to six, six to twelve) as well as teaching qualifications recognised by state educational authorities. Each Montessori teacher-training course comprises a full academic year, or equivalent, of a study of the Montessori method as well as Montessori professional experience through practicum.
The Montessori materials
The preparation of each Montessori environment includes the careful preparation of the Montessori developmental materials appropriate to that environment. The Montessori materials are sets of objects, each set designed to exacting specifications. In general the materials are designed to:
– capture interest
– invite interaction and manipulation
– encourage precise use
– extend concentration
– challenge the intellect act as an indirect preparation for future experiences.
Children are shown how to use the materials in concise, but very precise lessons, called presentations. Once children have had a presentation and know how to use a set of materials, they are then free to work with the activities and exercises aligned with those materials as often and for as long as they wish. Many of the materials have an inbuilt control of error, thus enabling children to learn independently with a minimum of adult help. As a result, from an early age, children in Montessori settings build confidence in their own abilities and learn to take responsibility for their own learning.
While many of the presentations used in Montessori environments show children how to use the materials, there are also Montessori presentations that show children how to build skills and knowledge without using materials, for example, lessons in movement, social relations or singing.
There are Montessori materials designed to engage children in all areas of human experience and educational learning, including language and literacy, mathematics, visual and performing arts, music, science, biology, geography and history. The materials embody abstract educational concepts, allowing children to discover these concepts through manipulation, exploration and problem-solving. The result is a deeper understanding and more effective recall of what has been learned. This process is described by Feez (2010: 168), in the context of Montessori early childhood education, in the following way:
Montessori pedagogy is built around sets of objects that ‘materialize’ educational knowledge in a concrete form children can manipulate with their hands. Children are shown how to use the objects and they are given very exact language to talk about the concepts the objects materialize. After the lesson children are free to work with the objects whenever they choose. Because the objects ‘remember’ the concepts in a form children can, literally, ‘grasp’, when children do choose to work with the objects, they are able to do so independently and for extended periods of time. As children grasp and manipulate the objects with their hands, they are learning how to grasp and manipulate the corresponding concepts in their minds.
The Montessori materials are on constant display on open shelves. The materials of each content area are displayed in the sequence they are presented to the children. For this reason, a fully equipped Montessori environment can be said to embody the scope and sequence of the Montessori curriculum for that stage. The children choose from the shelf, at any time, the materials they know how to use. When children are shown how to use the materials, they are also shown how to handle the materials carefully and how to return them to their place once they have finished. Many, though not all, of the materials are designed for individual use, and a common sight in a Montessori early childhood environment is a number of children working with great absorption on individual activities they have chosen themselves, their space and concentration respected by others in their group. As children grow older and make the transition to the primary school, increasingly they work cooperatively on learning activities, research projects, whole-class projects or community projects. Adolescents engage in occupations that reflect the life of the wider society.
Teaching and Learning Practices
Drawing on more than one hundred years of experience and experimentation, Montessori educators identify stages of physical, psychological, intellectual and social development, and prepare learning environments and curriculum content suitable for each stage. This knowledge, combined with the teacher’s observations and record-keeping, enable Montessori teachers to design lessons that meet the needs of individual children in the Montessori environment at any moment in time. In this way the Montessori curriculum is matched to the readiness and interest of individual children, rather than expecting children to adapt themselves to the curriculum. The teaching and learning practices that result are distinctive. Here are some key features of Montessori teaching and learning.
The children learn how to use the Montessori materials by watching the teacher demonstrate their use in an exact and precise way. When the children use the materials in the way that shows they understand how to proceed, they are able, through their own work, to discover the concepts inherent in the materials. In thisway the children construct their own knowledge and understanding.
In both the Infant Community and the Children’s House levels, most lessons are given to individuals. After the age of six children who are ready for the same lesson are grouped together and most lessons are presented to small groups. In a multi-age setting this means that younger children have many opportunities to observe lessons presented to older children and the follow-up work done by the older children after the lessons. By the time the younger children are ready for these lessons, they are already familiar with the materials and the activities.
In all Montessori environments, for all ages and stages, the activities demonstrated or offered by the adult are open-ended. Children are then free to repeat any activity until an inner satisfaction is achieved. Children younger than six usually repeat an activity over and over in the same manner until they reach the level of perfection that produces an inner satisfaction. Children over the age of six usually repeat with plenty of variation and by augmenting the activity. This may result in a ‘great work’ that gives children of this age a feeling of great accomplishment and satisfaction. Adolescents enjoy participating in socially-valuable projects
Assessment and Evaluation
The Montessori curriculum is organised in a developmental sequence from one phase of learning to the next. Individual students, however, are able to work successfully through elements of the curriculum in a sequence unique to themselves. For this reason, comparisons between students may not be meaningful. The validity of norm-referenced assessment and the ranking of students are further reduced in the Montessori context because, in a multi-age classroom, there are comparatively small numbers of children at the same age and stage. Assessment in Montessori classrooms, therefore, is based on each student’s mastery of skills and knowledge at any point in the sequence, rather than on norm-referenced assessment.
Children display their progress and achievement through a variety of modes, including spoken and written language, interaction with others, creative arts such as drama, visual arts, model-making and, importantly, through applying what they have learned in practical ways.