A few weeks ago Mr. December and I attended a parents’ information breakfast at K’s school. The topic: “Your tuition and the economics of eduction”, or as we termed it, “why our school costs so damn much”. It gradually turned into a discussion of how to attract more students, which in turn became a discussion of what makes us different from the other Jewish day schools in the city. It dawned on me that even some of the parents with kids in our school really didn’t seem to understand that it’s not just another private school – it represents a significant shift away from the average educational model. If parents of montessori students don’t understand that, why would we expect anyone else to?
I came home on a mission – to figure out what the average person knows or assumes about montessori. I turned to Facebook and posted the question in my status. Four friends were kind enough to answer. I want to use their comments and questions as a jumping-off point for a bit of an explanation about Montessori – what it is, what it isn’t, and why I’ve chosen it.
Disclaimer – I am writing about montessori from my point of view. I am by no means an expert, although I have borrowed some books from the library and I do intend to read them :p Please take everything I say with a grain of salt. As Mr. December always says, “trust but verify”.
So, how does the actual teaching and learning take place in a Montessori classroom?
When you walk into a Montessori classroom, you’ll see something like this:
There are child-sized tables and chairs which seat various numbers of children, the classroom is broken up into several smaller areas by low shelving, and the shelving is home to numerous trays and boxes filled with objects and tools. These trays and boxes contain the basis of the curriculum, the Montessori materials.
(Quick sidenote: the materials are grouped into different areas that correspond to curriculum areas, but this is just to provide a sense of order and facilitate locating the materials. The kids are free to take the materials to any place in the classroom while they are using them.)
There are a few different curriculum areas, and the materials are grouped accordingly. The curriculum areas are:
- Sensorial – in which the children learn to differentiate shape, size, weight, length, pitch, tone, colour, etc.
- Math – in the youngest classroom this begins with number recognition, proceeds through the introduction of zero, and ends somewhere around the division of four-digit numbers (with no remainders).
- Language – letters, phonics, writing, grammar
- Sciences – a lot of zoology, biology, nomenclature, nature study
- Social Studies – map puzzles, types of water and land formations, international flags, etc.
- Practical life – skills such as pouring, spooning, washing (clothes, dishes, hands), cleaning, polishing, etc.
There is also a curriculum area called “grace and courtesy”, but I’m not going there right now.
Anyhow, each tray or box contains all of the materials needed to complete one activity from the Montessori curriculum. If it’s something that involves liquid, it will not only contain all of the requisite pitchers/bowls/cups but also a small sponge for cleaning up spills. When a child chooses a material, she also takes either a placemat or a floor mat. All of the work is contained in the area of the mat, which helps the kids to delineate their workspace. Everyone knows not to walk across a mat.
When it is time for a child to learn a new lesson, the teacher will invite the child to work with her. The teacher then demonstrates the proper use of the materials, step by step, from taking the work off the shelf all the way through the task to cleaning up and putting it away. Then the child tries the activity.
The teacher watches, but doesn’t correct – she doesn’t need to, because the materials are self-correcting (a very basic example – in one pouring activity, the child must fill a small jug to a black line, then pour from that jug into two glasses up to the red line on each. If the water isn’t at the line, or if some water has spilled, then the child knows that he has to try again). If the child asks for help, the teacher will model some strategies or demonstrate the task again, but otherwise she is a silent observer for the child’s first use of the material.
After the initial lesson, the child is free to choose the same material as often as he wants, as repetition cements the learning.
What are the other kids doing while the teacher is working with one child? Why, they’re working on their own tasks. The group-friendly tasks (division, for example, or some of the language and geography materials) might be presented to a few kids at once. Also, older children sometimes work together with the younger students to help them cement a recently presented skill.
So… yes, the children learn from experiencing a task, and from touching, seeing, lifting, carrying, hearing, and sometimes smelling the materials. But it’s not a “trial and error” kind of experiential learning. Rather, the youngest kids (ages 2.5 – 5) are using what Montessori termed their “absorbent mind” to learn a structured sequence of actions that gives them the skills and knowledge they need.