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Montessori Method - March 2012
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” When we take prospective parents on a school tour we frequently hear disbelief. “How does this happen?” an incredulous father asked. “Why aren’t four children fighting over the easel? How is it so quiet in here? How do you get them all to work—and on different things?” Depending on the lightness of the moment, I might say, “Oh, we’re just pretty good at what we do.” We get to the truth quickly, however—the Montessori Method works because it responds to each child’s developmental needs, honoring the child’s uniqueness and satisfying a hunger. As for “How does it happen?”—the answer is that the culture of the mixed-age class1 functions to guide and socialize each new child, showing how we live in community.
Nevertheless, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and this picture sometimes elicits a different response. I once knew of a parent who observed the child’s classroom and remarked that the class was chaos. I knew from frequent observation that this child, despite young age, worked with concentration and moved steadily from one piece of work to the next. I knew that the class was settled, calm and productive. So I went immediately to observe the class again, and found exactly what I hoped to find.
I wanted to argue the point. Instead of refuting someone else’s assessment, however, it is more helpful to examine what exactly goes on in a Montessori classroom, and how it may be appreciated. The fundamentals hold true for Montessori environments whether we speak of infant/toddler, primary, elementary or adolescent.
Two points merit our attention. First, a Montessori classroom has a distinctive appearance. Second, observation is about seeing with clear eyes.
The Montessori Classroom
A Montessori classroom has freedom of movement. At the center of Dr. Montessori’s observations is the fact that children learn through movement. They are driven by the life force, and they must move. The formation of the mind and the brain is a consequence of experience gained through movement—a fact which Dr. Montessori surmised, and which now is documented by neurological science. To ask a child not to move is perhaps the most unnatural request we could make.
In the process of self-construction, the child gradually gains control of movement. Babies become aware that the hand which is moving is theirs; its movement can be directed; and through practice precise movement can be achieved. Each motor habit follows a path of exploration and refinement—turning over, pulling up, crawling, standing, walking a beam, guiding a spoon to the mouth, climbing a ladder, wielding a pencil, turning a cartwheel, fingering a musical instrument, ad infinitum. Will is the motivator which brings body into compliance through conscious control. The adult role is to provide opportunity for controlled movement, and to nurture the will.
The Montessori classroom is a laboratory for controlled movement. How to walk in a busy space, how to carry materials, how to work with precision, how to clean up a spill, how to restore materials, how to respect the workspace of friends—all these skills are learned beginning on the first day. Random movement becomes purposeful. Indoor movements become subtle, refined. Outdoor movements become stable and strong. The well developed classroom becomes like a ballet. Or like that gentlest of martial arts, tai chi.
As children move about, they have myriad social interactions. Momentary run-ins or conflicts become discussions, which lead to mutual appreciation and interdependence. More and more, the interactions become friendly and helpful. A strong sense of community emerges. Children who are at work are protected, so their concentration is safeguarded. As they learn responsibility, children enjoy freedom to pursue their work choices uninterrupted. The unbroken three-hour work cycle confers this benefit.
In elementary the experience of social interaction and movement reaches a new level of refinement, because intense sociability—working with one’s friends—is a key psychological characteristic of the second plane (6 to 12 years). The elementary classroom becomes a natural laboratory for exploring the dynamics of social life. Focus groups form and dissolve; competing interests gain peaceful coexistence; and ripples of conflict yield to strategic resolution. The classroom environment is a microcosm of society, real in all regards.
Each day has a rhythm which is predictable yet spontaneous. Children enjoy morning greetings, then settle into the first work. The volume of interactions rises and falls. Children focus, then move about, and then refocus. Some work choices require almost continual movement. Trained adults are familiar with the process, and appreciate the importance of not interfering. They know that unsettled moments are probably “false fatigue,” and the longer, deeper work is just around the corner.
The guide has lesson plans and watches for the availability of children for their next lesson, individual or small group. Rather than “conducting” the classroom, the guide keeps a low profile, engaging children for a few minutes, then releasing them for exploration, and moving on to other children. Children work independently, making choices from the many lessons they have received, perfecting the work through repetition, and preparing themselves for the next stage. There is much movement, sometimes even at cross purposes, but the movement is organized; it is meaningful; it follows a pattern. The organization follows the intelligent purpose of the lessons and reflects the integration of the community.
In a Montessori classroom the children’s work is purposeful. There is an intelligent purpose to each lesson and each piece of work. There is a developmental reason for movement, sociability and freedoms. Practicality infuses even the most abstract work. Creativity expresses through the language work. What might appear to be random movement is highly organized behavior, at once individual and social.
The classroom is for children, not for adults. For each age, the room is designed to their scale, at their eye level, to answer their developmental program. In a curious sort of way, the trained adults operate as a part of the prepared environment, albeit a conscious part. The role of adults is to serve the children—more properly, to serve the developmental needs of the children. To be understood, the classroom must be seen through the eyes of the children.
Observation goes beyond looking. Beyond seeing, observation is seeing into. When we bring preconceptions and expectations, these become the lenses through which we look. They are obstacles to seeing. Memories of our childhood and school experiences also become obstacles to seeing. To observe accurately is no easy task.
In order to see children as who they really are—particularly in the Montessori environment—we are called to transcend the ordinary. We must suspend expectations and judgment. Above all, we must forgo agendas and purposes. What’s left is simply to see what is. We make these efforts for the child, in order to know truly who he or she is, and to experience how he or she lives in the prepared environment.
Both social science and physical science tell us that inevitably the observer influences the observed. So inexplicable is this rule, and so pervasive, that it has become a conundrum of science (quantum theory). In the classroom the effects are more obvious. Even the awareness that one is being watched may be enough to break concentration and end the work. We use peripheral viewing and indirect focus to avoid interrupting a child at work. Teachers become adept at averting the glance before a child meets the gaze, so as not to draw attention to themselves. Parents and other observers may do the same.
On many occasions, the presence of a parent will alter a child’s concentration and work cycle. This is unavoidable because of the inestimable bond between parent and child. Attempts to “prepare” the child will only accentuate the reality. The most workable strategy, in this case, is to observe other children. Their parents are not present, and they are able to pursue a normal day. As a group, they communicate much about the normal everyday experience of one’s own child.
In an earlier article we introduced the concept of flow for working “in the zone,” with intense concentration, high productivity and pleasurable experience. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined this concept for adults2, and he affirms its connection with Dr. Montessori’s concept of normalization for children. While normalization may sound common or average, in fact it refers to a state of optimal functioning. The normalized child is able to concentrate intensely, gate out stimuli, and work to inner satisfaction, emerging in an energized state. Flow and normalization are consequences of internal growth, and both result in joy.
A mature Montessori classroom (and that includes all the classrooms at BGMS) supports numerous children who are able to work at an optimal level—occasionally if not consistently. And it nurtures other children who are on the road to concentration. For children up to age six we call it normalization, but by any name and at any age flow is the goal. Concentration on purposeful work is the avenue to reach this exalted state. Montessori classrooms are designed to elicit this performance from children. Observation is an opportunity to peer into the mystery within an actual classroom.
1The culture of the class refers to the collective understanding of “how we do it here”—the unspoken, often unconscious assumptions and practices, together with the ground rules for behavior. The culture of a Montessori class persists because approximately two-thirds of a three-year mixed age class is returning students.
2 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990. New York: Harper Perennial.
Dr. Larry Quade
AMI Teacher Trainer, BGMS Pedagogy Advisor