This is a common phrase used within Montessori schools and can be applied to many different situations. Often when asked to describe Montessori, many people will describe it based on the polarities of these words:
“Students get to choose what they want to do and when they want to do it.”
Lots of exploration, not enough instruction or structure
“There are many rules and procedures, and the students are only allowed to do the work as they’ve been shown.”
Lots of structure and instruction but little exploration
Looking at Montessori in these two extremes often creates images or ideas about Montessori that are not grounded in the theory or practice and belies the balance that the teachers always seek. We look at our environments and seek ways to define the limits in order to offer the most freedom to the
For example, in the classroom, the use of workplans or schedules can help guide a student to look at how to organize his/her time in order to accomplish sufficient work or to complete a project. Depending on the child, the guidance given by the teacher is in relation to the child’s ability to work
independently. Some students will develop the ability to plan their day and work through all subject areas and stretch their own learning. Some students need more direction and this is accomplished verbally, with workplans and at times with communication between home and school. The goal is to provide the right balance of limits and freedom for each child in regard to staying on task and choosing challenging work.
Our curriculum provides another limit from which students can
explore, again maintaining a balance. There are definite lessons that we present, a scope and sequence that we follow as well as assignments or follow-up work that students must do. This lays the groundwork for teachers and students, ensuring that students are following a sequence of lessons (using materials) that has been tested over time and that students are staying on track to meet or exceed state
Another Montessori phrase, often misused, is “Follow the Child.” “The Montessori curriculum”, as one Montessori Living Legacy, Michael Dorer, stated, “follows child development.” The lessons and sequence we follow is geared to the latest brain research and child development, meaning key concepts
are organized to follow developmentally appropriate interest levels and to provide organization of concepts in a sequenced fashion. If the teachers were to follow each child’s interest or whims throughout the year, there would be a maze of lessons through which no delineated line or curriculum stream would be able to go. However, to follow a curriculum lock-step also does not allow the children to be creators of their own learning, so our staff work very hard to follow the curriculum, using it as a compass or guide, and as student interest
explodes in certain areas, to follow that tangent, keeping it tied to the curriculum concept.
Further tangential learning occurs when special events occur. We have started off the year studying North American biomes, political geography and biology; however, through the opportunity to study Antarctica thanks to Dr. Ken Sims, we are also looking into the biomes, biology, geography and history of Antarctica. This can tie in nicely with the rest of the curriculum and still provide excitement. At other times, special events may not tie into the curriculum and we have to make the thoughtful choice of whether the time spent on the tangential topic is relevant to what we are doing in class and the overall learning that needs to take place in class; otherwise we can jump from topic to topic, losing the thread provided by our Montessori curriculum.
Another way to look at this phrase, “Freedom within Limits”is
through the lens of classroom management. We want to provide student with the opportunity to learn to think and do things for themselves. Often this can lead to freedom within the classroom; however, the limiting factor is whether than
can do these things responsibly. If a child is not ready to solve a conflict independently and in a responsible way, the adults must step in to provide the scaffolding to help a child move from dependence on the adult toward independence. This takes time and is part of a process of gradually moving from
limited independence to more freedom. When a child shows he is not capable of some of the freedoms, those freedoms get limited, and the adults guide the child until he/she is able to do it on their own responsibly.
Lastly, my favorite concrete example of this results from a teacher wanting to allow students to listen to music and dance for a period of time. When the music started, things were
fine; however, as the students started to push the boundaries of what was acceptable, some started to run and move about the entire room. My suggestion was to set a concrete limit using rope – as long as the students stayed within the boundaries of the rope and did not harm others, they could dance. When a child left the boundaries of the rope, they were asked to stop and watch the other students. When the child was able to resume dancing within the limits, he/she could do so.
Is there a balance of freedom and limits in your home? Do the
freedoms permitted to your child come with a sense of responsibility?
As we move forward in establishing a strong relationship between teachers and parents, ideas regarding a strong home-school connection always surface. Some of the typical ways that is done work well in a Montessori school, and some don’t. As we consider some of these ideas, we do reflect on how these efforts fit within the framework of a Montessori education.
We would like to invite all parents for a night of Montessori curriculum on Thursday, Oct 25th.While this night will provide just a brief overview of language and math, the method of teaching may make sense just a bit more and why worksheets, homework and direct instruction are not components readily utilized in a Montessori school.
To prepare for this night and future events, observations, and parent communication with the teachers, I’d like to touch on the Montessori method of education as it relates to the teacher, the environment and the student. This is quite different from what one experiences in a traditional school setting.
In a traditional educational setting, the teacher utilizes the textbooks provided to cover material tied to state standards or assessments. The goal is to impart knowledge to the student. Additionally, most teachers are able to cover certain portions of instruction as designated by grade level. Assessments are administered through chapter tests from the textbook and teacher created tests and quizzes to determine student retention of information. Occasionally, and yet increasingly each year, tests include written response anessay questions; however, the primary assessment method is multiple choice and fill-in the blank.
While this method has some advantages, especially in providing test scores, grades and what is considered hard data; the Montessori method provides a more holistic approach to learning that is supported by current academic research and brain research.
So, how does it work? We start with the Montessori curriculum as the basis for what happens in the classroom. Through training, our staff is learning the sequence of lessons and the manner with which to present curriculum to students. The Montessori curriculum is contained in several albums (3-ring binders) and was founded in Montessori’s lectures, notes and training programs over 50 years ago. Despite revisions to update the curriculum/albums by university training programs, the core of the curriculum remains the same. Using this as the base, teachers are able to incorporate technological advances, new information and creative ideas into the classroom. This also ensures that from year to year and school to school, students are exposed to a tested curriculum scope and sequence without the changes often seen in traditional settings when programs (reading, math,
science, etc.) change.
The more adept Montessori teachers are with the foundational curriculum, the more they are able to adapt and provide creative lessons. As we begin this year focused on this foundational piece, we are looking to our greater community and specifically to the graduate students through the Teton Science School, to enhance our curriculum with their creative ideas and knowledge.
Over the years, I have seen teachers, including myself, adapt these foundational Montessori lessons to ill effects. My belief, founded on these experiences, is that what has been created for us, honed over decades and proven through the success of Montessori alumni should remain intact as much as possible. Rather than straying from this curriculum, teachers may enhance and enrich it with their own creativity and knowledge.
The next layer inherent in the Montessori process is the materials. While these are the visible emblems of the Montessori classroom, their value is present when the teachers understand the curriculum and work within the multi-age classroom community that develops. The majority of the materials in the Kindergarten class were designed by Maria Montessori herself in her schools. She drew from her own scientific research as a physician and the research of her contemporaries, specifically Freud and Sequin. You may notice that many of the sensorial works are designed with mathematical concepts of one through 10 in mind. The movable alphabet that provides the basis for reading lessons was also developed by Maria herself. As we move into the
elementary classroom the materials were either designed by Maria herself, her son, Mario Montessori, or based on their lectures and previous models. Many of these are now mass produced through Montessori companies with the intent to
carry out the intended purposes of developing self-correction, exploration and hands-on, kinesthetic learning.
As the materials and curriculum are taught in training, teachers develop an awareness of how the materials provide a concrete method for the student to obtain important skills and move toward abstract understanding. One of our goals for
Thursday night, 10/25, is to show how the language and math materials can do this. The magic that happens in our classrooms stems from the child’s interaction with the specifically designed materials following a sequence that moves toward abstraction. Often students will inform inquiring
adults that they are teaching themselves. In many ways this is exactly what is occurring. The strength of Montessori lies in the teachers understanding of how to implement the curriculum and materials in such a way that each child is provided with what we call a match: match of ability and interest to the skill/material. While this process resembles discovery learning and constructivist learning – where the child constructs his/her own meaning through discovery. What
Montessori offers within this approach is a structured curriculum and materials developed within a scientific context that scaffolds learning year-to-year and from class-to-class. For example, as the students work in Kindergarten with the geometric solids or botany cabinet, they will be exposed to these same materials on a different level of understanding in lower elementary and again a different level in upper elementary; likewise the math materials provide a visual awareness of this progression. Each year a child is in our program, this understanding of concepts develops at deeper and deeper levels.
The third layer within the framework is the classroom community. A great deal of research has been done revealing the importance of collaborative learning and peer teaching. Montessori promoted this idea through the creation of multi-age classrooms, typically three years span. She based this on her theory regarding planes of development (0-6 years; 6-12
years, 12-18 years; 18–24+ years). Again, remember her contemporaries at the time were also establishing these theories of development: Freud, Erikson and Sequin. The goal in our classrooms is to create a community of learners that
work spontaneously to assist and learn from each other. By fostering a non-competitive environment (largely due to the lack of grades, quizzes, tests and student awards), the teacher guides the students to develop a microcosm of learning with their peers. Instead of imposed collaboration or peer-teaching, our goal is to empower the students to ask each other for help, to step in kindly with a correction or teachable moment, and to choose to work together on a project. As children learn to ask each other there are times when they may say, “My teacher doesn’t help me.” This actually might be true, as we guide them to persist at a problem we know they can solve or suggest they ask a few
classmates for help before the teacher. As students become comfortable with this, they feel empowered in their own learning and are able to assist others as well.
When I observe in the classrooms this year I am delighted to see teachers giving short, specific lessons to students based on the Montessori curriculum and based on student needs. As teachers are working one-on-one or in small groups for these short lessons, the rest of the students are intent on their own work and operate as a community of learners who are empowered to work independently. This is what I have come to expect after 6 weeks into the school year at more established Montessori schools. To be able to see this in our emerging school is testament to the hard work of our staff and the support we’ve received from parents, as well as evidence that the children enjoy being here.
As we continue in the school year, we ask that you come to our parent education nights and observe in all the classrooms.
The Montessori approach is very different from what most parents have experienced elsewhere, and there are many misperceptions concerning what is Montessori and how it works. Through these weekly memos I hope to define and
provide clarification for what we do, how we do it and why. While these only provide a brief overview, conversations with your child’s teacher along with observations can provide details concerning your own child’s development within this method of education.