WHAT IS DIFFERENT ABOUT MONTESSORI
by MELODY MOSBY
When entering a Montessori classroom, one can’t help but become aware of the awakened state of enthusiasm the learner exhibits, the unique classroom environment filled with life, flowering plants, terrariums and aquariums, and rays of natural light streaming through windows open to let fresh air inside. The furnishings are attractive and a size adapted to the needs of the age of the child. The arrangement allows for ease of movement in the classroom. And ease of movement is a key factor in the Montessori classroom where students actively participate in choice of work. Brightly colored concrete manipulatives offer active learning, and are displayed on shelves of natural wood color, or painted white to bring the learners attention to them. To observe students independently choosing work from the shelves and carrying it with care to a table or floor mat where the work is gladly performed individually, with a friend or in groups, is not an uncommon sight in a Montessori classroom. The level of rigor, focus and concentration, observed in the work of the child here, far surpasses that of a traditional classroom. Everything about this environment, conveys a message to the learner that I am here for you and I want to make it possible for you to reach your greatest potential. So, what is it that Maria Montessori discovered about learning that allowed for the development of this unique approach?
Dr. Maria Montessori was a medical doctor, in fact, the first woman in Italy ever to take the degree of Doctor of Medicine. Montessori‘s early work focused on the special needs of children. In 1906, she was called to Rome where a reform in housing for impoverished people, created a problem of what to do with the children while the parents were away at work. When Montessori was first shown to the children, she observed a room, sparsely furnished, with nothing provided for the children to do. The caretaker commented on the children’s impossible behavior by pointing out a group of them underneath the table playing with their food. What Montessori realized is that there was real purpose in this activity. The children were cleverly molding balls out of their bread to create something to do with their hands. Even in a room where there was nothing provided for these children except the bare minimum in the way of furnishings and a little sustenance on the table, the children were driven to create something to do.
On that day in Rome with those sixty undernourished, dejected young children, Montessori recognized something very significant. That even in the most depraved conditions, children will find something to do because they are driven from within to act upon the environment. From that observation of those deprived conditions, Montessori prepared an environment that raised these harsh and stark circumstances to a level of beauty and order. She brought life into the room by placing plants in the windows and giving the children the job of watering and taking care of them. Furnishings a size more suited to the needs of these children were brought in, and manipulative materials of practical and sensorial life were developed for the children to use. From Montessori’s understanding of the physiology and neurology of the child and her observations of their needs, the work of the hand played a powerful role in the absorption of knowledge for for the young child.
As Montessori writes in Education and Peace, a collection of speeches she presented at international conferences and peace councils:
The child cannot develop if he does not have objects around him permitting him to act.
Until the present, it was believed that the most effective learning took place when knowledge was passed on directly to the child by his teachers. But it is really the environment that is the best teacher. The child needs objects to act, they are like nourishment for his spirit.(66)
Preparing an appropriate environment and using concrete manipulatives are two essentials emphasized in a Montessori environment, but there are other guiding factors that facilitate the child’s acquisition of knowledge. Montessori also realized that there are stages of growth or planes of development that the child moves through to maturity. Montessori recognized four of these developmental planes, with certain needs and characteristics that are unique to the child at each plane of development, and that these needs and characteristics manifest differently in each of the four planes of development the child moves through in their passage to adulthood. Further, Montessori realized that it is these characteristics that drive the child from within to make a positive construction. And that the prepared environment and materials are uniquely designed to match the needs and characteristics of the child at each of the four planes of the child’s development.
This is a very different philosophy and thinking from what had previously been assumed and from what even today is considered. To think of the child as a guide for what she needs instead of leaving how the needs of the child are met up to the single adult’s discretion is an innovative thought. It is no wonder there can be so much frustration that comes with parenting and with educating. If we go about this whole idea of raising the child and leave out a key most important factor, the role the child plays in her own construction, an essential ingredient for success is missing. Dr. Montessori believed that the child had a teacher within and that teacher was a guide for the adult.
Traditionally, what has happened in preparing an educational environment is the most cost effective, efficient method for designing and constructing a building. It is usually rectangular because most building materials are flat and straight and is the best design for creating cubicles and aisles to shuffle large groups of people in an orderly fashion. Today, windows are installed so they do not open in order for a controlled atmosphere of temperate air to recycle through the environment In fact, windows are quite often left out of the design of a classroom because what is going on outside is thought to be a distraction to what is going on inside.
The issue I raise with this thinking, is what is going on inside that would distract the learner’s attention to the outside. How is it and what is it that can be presented in the classroom to engage the interest of the learner beyond distraction?
This is not so impossible a question to answer. In fact, there is a very simple formula. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, said it very concisely in his article on Flow and Education after visiting Montessori schools:
It’s the environment, the different materials, the different relationships between children which will enable the particular child to find the right level of challenge, given what’s available around. So the teacher doesn’t have to beam an average message to the class, which is what happens in normal schools, where the teacher has to talk to the average. In the Montessori school, there was enough around in the environment to engage a wide range of children, and the teacher’s job was simply to connect the kid with the right level of opportunity for learning.(Vol. 22, No. 2, p. 24)
Formerly, in education, we assumed that knowledge needed to be divided into sections and given by the teacher in small segments at certain ages. This kind of thinking compares the child’s mind to an empty vessel that needs to be filled. Further, this way of thinking also requires the child in order to benefit, to be able to sit still. Also, if children are expected to sit still, it was thought that they could not sit still for too long. So, curriculum was divided into segments so that the child would only have to sit still for a certain period before going on to the next subject. Even into the 21st century this mode of learning carries on. It is no wonder that our drop-out rate is so high, and the boredom and tedium level exist to such a degree that we lose the enthusiasm of some of our brightest and most creative talent. We have lost sight of the child and planned our schools around building inspectors, bus schedules, curriculum divisions, and standardized test results.
So, what is it that is going on in a Montessori classroom that is different from the former, more traditional approaches to learning that was described above? Montessori is more than an approach to learning. It is a way of perceiving the growth and development of the child that puts us in touch with how it is the child truly learns and develops their potential. It is an aid to life. Montessori tells us in The Secret of Childhood, that inside the child are extraordinary energies that when ignited by the environment can aid in the child’s ability to reach their greatest potential. Our role as educators is to assist this process by providing environments that put the child in touch with the right kind of work.
Montessori learning environments are carefully prepared to offer choices of work that is interesting to the child at a specific stage of growth. When an individual child is engaged in work that is interesting, then motivation for learning is heightened. Every child has the opportunity for reaching their own greatest level of challenge in the Montessori prepared environment and to experience joy in the learning process. How?
Because what is going on in the Montessori environment is interesting to the learner, matches the needs and characteristics of the age, is a motivation for work, and puts the learner personally involved in the learning process. Current research has shown that all these factors contribute to superior student achievement and satisfaction.
What are the unique features of a Montessori Learning environment:
1. A prepared environment that meets the needs and characteristics belonging to the plane of development in operation. It should offer ease of movement and a design that allows for responsible learning in an attractive, stimulating setting that is beautiful and orderly.
2. The need for the teacher to understand and facilitate those needs and characteristics at each plane of development.
3. Manipulative materials that allow for the child to participate actively in the learning. These materials and lessons should appeal to the psychological characteristics of the age and offer an expansive range of knowledge to the individual learner.
For the child of the 2nd plane, 6-12 years of age, Montessori emphasizes the need for an expanded experience she called cosmic education. This approach exposes the child to a whole and interdisciplinary body of knowledge.
To meet the needs of the adolescent, real and relevant experiences are required. At this stage of development, students need more practical applications of the learning that has gone on previously. That is why we offer opportunity for internships and business enter prizes at this level of Montessori education.
4. An uninterrupted work period that allows the child to carry an interest area or a work in particular to it greatest level of exploration.
5. An individualized customized experience, that allows each student the opportunity to reach their greatest potential. This includes, the teacher observing each student so as to identify and remove any obstacle that might impede the learner from reaching their highest level of learning.
6. Multi-age groupings that teach individual differences where the older child becomes a teacher and the younger child has a role model.
7. Rich in two-fold activities. The hand and mind working together, essential for brain development.
8. Concept of community becomes more universal as children learn about other cultures and people, gaining tolerance of other’s differences.
So, what we have here is:
- a prepared environment for optimal learning,
- a teacher trained to facilitate optimal learning,
- materials and lessons that provide opportunity for optimal learning,
- opportunity for uninterrupted work
- an individualized paced and structured experience
And most importantly, a place of learning where children love to come to school, are motivated to work, and have the opportunity to reach their greatest potential as they grow into happy, healthy, well-adjusted human beings.
Melody Mosby is program director at Athens Montessori Middle School in Athens, Georgia. She holds the AMI advanced diploma from the Washington Montessori Institute, the Secondary Montessori Certificate from Montessori Educational Programs International (MEPI),and maintains a Teaching Certificate in her state of Georgia.
Melody is a Montessori parent, practitioner, consultant, and director for the MACTE accredited Adolescent Teacher Preparation course held at the Montessori Teacher Institute in Athens, Ga. Her work in education spans 35 years, with 26 of them in Montessori education.
Csikszentmihalyi,M. (1997). Flow and Education. The NAMTA Journal,22, 3-35.
Montessori, Maria. Education and Peace. (1949). Trans. Helen R. Lane. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, (1972)
Montessori, Maria. The Secrets of Childhood.(1936). Trans. Barbara B. Carter. London:Sangam Books, (1983).