What is Montessori?
The Montessori Method of teaching is a much different approach to the education of children than traditional public education. It is named for the 19th century educator that created the method, Maria Montessori. You can watch a video and read a brief description of the Montessori Method at the American Montessori Society website.
It is helpful to contrast certain aspects of a Montessori classroom with traditional and home school classrooms to understand what Montessori really is and how we can apply it to our home schools, small schools, lesson planning, and simply helping our children grow and learn in way that is fun and helps them to understand.
*Note: There is no perfect classroom structure. Whether it is a traditional, Montessori, or home school, there will always be challenges and imperfections. What works one year may not work the next. As teachers in any environment we must be flexible and above all follow the needs of our children/students. I love the Montessori method of teaching, but I am also traditionally trained and have worked in public school classrooms. There are many good things happening in public schools and many amazing and dedicated teachers. I think ultimately, the teacher makes the difference no matter the method or curriculum. A great curriculum with a poor teacher will be a disaster. Alternately, a poor curriculum with a dedicated, caring teacher who is committed to making sure her students learn the concepts will gain success.
The Montessori classroom is usually very open with tables for table work and rugs for working on the floor. Maria Montessori observed that many of the children preferred to work on the floor and seemed comfortable there, so she made this accommodation for them. In the 6-9 class there is usually a cubby, file folder, or “mailbox” to keep papers and notebooks. They may also have individual desks, but it varies by school. There is often a large rug for whole group lessons and morning meeting. There may be several other large rugs around the room for floor work and small group lessons. There are shelves around the classroom that are usually organized by subject and sequenced in order of lessons given. The work (manipulative material) is often in beautiful baskets or on trays. There is great emphasis on organization and beauty. The work is meant to look inviting and interesting, as if a gift is being offered to the children. Some of the work is rotated as new lessons are given. The materials and work on the shelves are used in place of textbooks, though resource books are helpful for student research. Textbooks may be used in some classrooms especially in the 9-12 or middle school classrooms. The walls of the classroom are usually clean and plain with well placed art work and a possible pertinent informational chart or two. The room decor is meant to be simple, beautiful, organized, and calming.
Montessori classrooms are multi-age: 18 months-3 years (toddler), 3-6 years (preschool), 6-9 years (lower elementary), 9-12 years (upper elementary), middle school, and high school. Maria Montessori believed these age groupings were at the same developmental level and benefited from working together. Younger students learn by observing the older students. Older students show their mastery of knowledge by “teaching” younger ones and each other. Peer learning is an important part of the structure. Teachers have their students for 3 years, which leads to a deeper understanding of the children, their needs, and their individual rhythms of learning. Teachers often teach in teams (2 or 3 teachers per class) and the class sizes are smaller (15-20 students)
Most of the classroom is taken up with desks or tables, in which students keep their books and papers. They may switch desks once or twice during the school year, but otherwise this is their assigned area to work. There is usually a large rug for whole group lessons (mainly language/reading and calendar/weather). If the classroom does centers as part of the 90 minute reading block, the perimeter will have small tables and/or shelves with the activity for that center. The activity is changed daily or weekly and is part of the basal reading curriculum purchased by the school or district (New curriculum is purchased every few years). There may also be several computers for reading activities and reading assessment (usually done weekly as a test to the book each student has read based on reading level). Textbooks are the predominant method of giving students information and worksheets the predominant method of practice. There may be some manipulative materials (kept in tubs and pulled out for use during the lesson) and group projects may be assigned as practice. The walls are usually filled from top to bottom with informational charts, posters, student work, and interactive bulletin boards. The walls are utilized as part of the learning experience and little space is left blank.
Classrooms have one grade level and age. Teachers have the students for one year before passing them on to another teacher and taking on new students themselves. Teachers teach alone in their individual classrooms. Class sizes are larger in number of students (25-30).
Home school classrooms can be an entire room in the house dedicated for lessons and work, a work space set up in a corner of the house with shelves, boxes or folders brought out to the kitchen table when school starts, shelves set up in the living room or kitchen, or anything that works for the children and family. The classroom often extends beyond the home, however, in the form of a co-op with other home schooling families. It can also extend to the outdoors, community involvement, public libraries, and on the family road trip!
The Role of Teacher and Student:
The children are the ones moving around the classroom, talking, asking questions, and pursuing individual learning activities. Older children can often be found helping and “teaching” the younger ones. Students work uninterrupted for a 3 hour block (although students may be called for a lesson during the 3 hour work period). The teacher is found in the background guiding and facilitating students as they work and giving small group, or individual lessons.
The children are stationary at a desk, or moving to centers that are timed to switch every 15-20 minutes. Students may switch classrooms for a lesson by another teacher. The teacher is often center stage directing the whole group, or meeting with reading groups while students work silently in workbooks, or move through the center cycle.
Children in a home school may work in a stationary place or move around depending on how structured or relaxed the parent/teacher is about homeschooling. Most home schools use some type of self explanatory curriculum that can be worked through independently by students who can read and follow written directions (workbooks). There may even be a self-scoring component to the curriculum. Parent/teachers may need to read directions to non-reading children and/or explain concepts not understood by the child. Parents may need to assign work, track progress and check their children’s work. Some home schools have an eclectic approach to their curriculum and parent/teachers put in a little more work to prepare assignments and gather materials for their children. Children in a home school may finish their work by earlier in the day because the schedule is not interrupted by transitions present in a traditional school.
Teachers assign work for students based on their observations of the individual student’s capabilities and needs. These observations are made during lessons, during the 3 hour work period, and the observations of any recorded work students turn in to be checked.
At the Toddler and 3-6 levels children are allowed to make free choices of any material on the shelves. The teacher guides the children’s choices by placing the appropriate materials on the shelves. This is the reason the set up of the environment is so important in a Montessori classroom. The teacher will give lessons as children are ready for them. This means that two 5 year old children may not receive the same lesson at the same time. One may be ready for non-phonetic reading, while another is still mastering CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant: Cat) words. The teacher trusts the individual learning rhythm of each child. Child readiness and interest are considered when planning lessons and putting out materials for free choice. This structure is an example of following the child. There is very little recorded work by children at this level.
At the 6-9 level the use of an individual work plan is often employed to guide and track student work. There are many different ways of using work plans and vary by school. Some schools begin with a very teacher directed work plan, move to a collaboration between teacher and student, and result in a completely child directed plan. Some schools are predominantly teacher directed, but leave blanks in each subject for student choice. Again the shelves in the classroom are full of materials that are mindfully set out to facilitate the current learning taking place. There are also many different forms a work plan can take: By day of the week, by subject, or simply a menu of choices based on lessons received and practice needed. They can be issued weekly or monthly. Students in a 6-9 classroom are often responsible for recording work completed and turning it in to be checked by the teacher. Concepts may be practiced by a student many times and in different forms. Written work is checked by a teacher and returned to the student for correcting. No grade is given. The focus is on mastery of a concept rather than completion of an activity.
The 9-12 level is a continuation of skill and independence from 6-9 with greater responsibility on the student for filling in their own work plan.
Emphasis is placed on order, concentration, coordination, and independence.
In a traditional classroom all students receive the same lessons at the same time and at the same pace. The follow up work for a lesson is completed immediately and is usually in worksheet form, although a small group or class project may be done as well. It is then checked by a teacher and a grade is given. Once a concept is covered, the work is completed, and a grade given it is not returned to during the school year except maybe at the end of a period as part of a whole class review of concepts covered. Students who are working at a different level of instruction or pace are usually pulled out of class for remedial lessons, or advanced lessons by a support teacher.
Work is assigned based on whatever curriculum is being used. Some parents choose to use a completely comprehensive curriculum through a company that will take care of grading in addition to assignments. Others use a portion of a company curriculum and supplement with other methods (like Montessori!). Still others do “unschooling” where they simply follow the interests of their child and have no set curriculum.
Teachers in a Montessori classroom use a child’s own interests and innate desire to learn as a springboard for lessons and follow up work. The focus is on intrinsic reward: The satisfaction and pride that comes from completing a task in which you are engaged and invested. This is why student choice is so important when considering materials and follow up work/projects. Empty praise through words like, “Good job” are avoided in favor of specific encouragement and feedback. Teachers try to refrain from putting a stamp of approval or disapproval on a student’s performance and seek to support every child’s process toward their best product. Classroom behavior is usually focused on the community and relationships between students. The social development of students is just as important as the academic.
The traditional classroom uses stickers, charts to visually show student’s progress (often in comparison with other students), prizes, parties and other extrinsic rewards for work completed and good behavior. General praise is used (Good job! Nice Work! Awesome!) Student behavior is often monitored by the use of visuals displayed on a bulletin board or chart: Everyone starts on the color green or with a smiley face and with each progressive infraction is changed to yellow then red, or line face then frowny face.
The parent is usually the teacher of their own child so there is the added insight from birth on what makes your child tick. Still, it can be challenging to find what motivates your child. Parents/teachers use both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards and they are usually an extension of the home structure.
Method of Learning:
Hands-on manipulative materials are predominantly used in Montessori classrooms to learn concepts and complete assignments. Most of the materials were created by Maria Montessori as a response to student need as she observed their learning processes. Some worksheets are used when appropriate and non-Montessori manipulative materials can be found in the classroom also. In the upper elementary classroom, some textbooks are used in addition to materials. Smart Boards are beginning to make an appearance in some classrooms.
Textbooks and worksheets are predominantly used. Many classrooms do use manipulative materials when necessary for math and language work. Interactive Smart Boards (using specific learning software and with internet capabilities) are used in almost every classroom in an effort to move learning into the 21st century and be more interactive.
Home school methods of learning can be workbooks, videos, manipulative materials, outings etc. Method of learning is chosen to best fit the learning styles of the children and teaching style of the parent. Many families are now involved in homeschooling co-ops and associations that add to their resources and bring collaboration and community to the student’s learning.
Maria Montessori observed that the children learned the best when given an uninterrupted three hour period in which to work. In the 3-6 classroom this is a non-negotiable. Children move around the classroom choosing work from the shelves and cleaning up after themselves for a full three hours. The teacher gathers small groups for lessons as she sees they are available, or if they are having trouble connecting with a piece of work. In the 6-9 class the 3 hours is striven for, but it may be 2 1/2 because of increased lessons required and extras like music and foreign language study. Schedule is something carefully considered to maximize student work time.
In a traditional classroom teachers move students through blocks of time in the scheduled day. Usually the morning consists of language and reading. Many schools are required to do 90 minutes of reading instruction everyday through read aloud, phonics practice, reading practice; all whole group and explicitly instructed by the teacher. Also included are specific activities at 4 or 5 “centers”to support the weekly lessons which children move through at 20 minute timed intervals. One center may be small group meeting with the teacher. Math is another big block of group instruction followed, if there is time, by science and social studies. Students also move as a whole class to different rooms for daily P.E., music, Library, Lunch, etc. The difference here is students are moving from subject to subject as a whole group.
The home school work period is usually more intensely focused on academic work since there is a ratio of only a few children at most to 1 parent/teacher. There are usually fewer transitions which results in work being completed more quickly and the actual school day being shorter. That being said, there can be many other interruptions to the day because of being in the home environment. Structure is an important part of how the flow of the work day happens, but it can vary by the day.
Assessment and Grading:
Assessment is often informal; observation, collection of student work over a period of time, teacher made assessments of learned material, etc.). If a school is chartered or part of an association they may be required to use some sort of formal testing to track student growth. Usually no grades are given, but student’s will repeat concepts until mastery is reached.
State and National standardized tests are given every year. Many schools prepare for these tests for weeks or even months. Instructional time in classrooms are often lost to test preparation (practice testing, filling in bubbles correctly, tricky wording and vocabulary that might be found on the test, etc.) . Monetary funding for the school is linked to the scores that students receive on these tests. “Teaching to the test” (teaching only material that students will be tested on) is a real temptation. Informal testing may be used as well. Grades are given after completion of a unit (study of a particular concept) and a cumulative grade is given at the end of the school year.
Grading is often done through the curriculum company chosen by the parent. It is sometimes done by the parent. It could be as simple as a check off list of concepts covered. The state in which parent is homeschooling in may have certain criteria for grading and documentation of completed curriculum.
Maria Montessori believed that children should have very clear and firm boundaries in their environment and for their behavior. She also believed that they should have much freedom within those boundaries. Montessori is really about creating freedom within limits. It is about setting boundaries for children within which they have the freedom to make decisions, explore and discover as they are ready. This translates to our modern classrooms as we show our children the boundaries and limits (which they will test at times) of the physical space, use of materials, and choice during their individual work time (time not in a lesson).
It is not about letting children do whatever they want, whenever they want.
Following the Child
This is very simply explained as being in-tune with the needs of your child and giving them the support and direction that they need. It requires us to find a balance when working with our children so that we don’t step back when they need us and intervene when they don’t need us. It means we allow our children to be challenged, maybe even a little frustrated at times, because that is good for them; part of the learning process. To step in and help when it is not needed is to rob a child of an opportunity to learn. Even praise, if it breaks a child’s concentration, can be a hindrance.
Another aspect of following the child is using the individual interests of children and the natural, innate desire of all children to learn as a guide for their course of study. It is about fanning the flame of individual and innate desire, not squashing it through drills, dry textbook readings (although some textbooks are great), and arbitrary curriculum. Observation of a child is key here. It must be said that there are some things children will be required to do and learn that they are not enthusiastic about! This is life, though, and an important preparation in itself. The questions we must ask ourselves in that case are:
How can we inspire them?
What activity could align with their interests? (i.e. reading aligned with subject interest, math through art or puzzles)
What is the reason for the disinterest, lack of motivation, emotional upset, etc. We may find there is a learning disability, or simply a conceptual foundation missing that causes the problem.
Is it the time of day, or time of year, lack of sleep, or dietary need that creates a lack of focus?
Is the child lacking strategies for organization? Do they have trouble executing steps in a process, or following through to complete a task?
Is it an option to put off a task until a later time? Sometimes, you just don’t want to do something. We as adults experience this also. Sometimes we don’t have a choice and we just have to power through it. Other times, we can put off one thing on our to do list in favor of another that is more interesting and come back to it later. These are habits and life skills that are important to teach.
The prepared environment refers to the classroom set up (home or school). It is mindfully planned and prepared with the learners in mind. It should be an organized, beautiful, clean, and inspiring place. Everything the child needs should be available to him/her to flow through the learning process with as little intervention from the adult as possible. Maria Montessori believed children need to exercise as much independence as they are capable of as they pursue their learning. She found that once she laid the ground rules and taught them to use the self- correcting learning materials (Montessori Materials), the children worked without her intervention for hours! The children were engaged in work, cleaning the environment, and helping/teaching each other.
Preparing the Environment should include:
Procedures that become routines- How do you start the day, how do you access the assignments, what do you do when you complete an assignment, how do you get your work checked, what do you do when you need to go to the bathroom/get a drink, how do you access needed materials, etc.? Teach the procedure, reinforce the procedure by making sure it is done correctly, and eventually it becomes a routine. Consistency is key here.
Accessible Materials-Having, pencils, erasers, scissors, poster board, markers, white boards, resource books, etc. readily accessible will enable children to move seamlessly from one activity to the next without having to always approach the adult for help. This frees you up to help with academic issues, social issues, or academic planning.
Academic shelves- Having the appropriate materials beautifully organized on shelves will enable the children to quickly access the work they need to do. Everything on the shelf should be pertinent to the concepts being learned and practiced at that time. Work and materials should be rotated to keep student interest and to stay current with what they are learning. Your home school might use boxes or folders instead of shelves and that is o.k. The same idea applies; neat, inviting, and current.
Planes of Development
Based on her scientific research and observation of students in the classroom Maria Montessori believed that there were spans of development when children where experiencing common developmental growth.
Infancy- Birth through age six. There is a period of intense change from birth to age three followed by a slower pace from three until age six.
Childhood- Six through 12 years. Again 6-9 is a period of intense change followed by a slower pace from 9-12 years.
Adolescence- Twelve through 18 years. Intense change from 12-15 followed by a slower pace from 15-18.
The multi-age classrooms are based on this model. Three to six years are combined, 6-9 years, the middle school years, and the high school years.
A sensitive period is a period of time that a child is particularly receptive to certain concepts. For example, children have a sensitive period for language acquisition when they seem to absorb it as if their brains were sponges. Have you tried to learn a foreign language as an adult? Not so easy is it? Your sensitive period for language learning is over, you now have to really work at it! We might call these sensitive periods “windows of opportunity”.
Respect of the Child
Maria Montessori saw not only a child, but the future man or woman that he/she would become. She saw the potential in her children. She respected her children as young people and sought to help them grow into their greatest potential.