Why choose a Montessori education?
Dr. Maria Montessori, after years of patient observation of the child’s nature, believed that no human being is educated by another person. He must do it himself or it will never be done. A truly educated individual continues learning long after the hours and years he spends in the classroom, because he is motivated from within by a natural curiosity and love of knowledge. Dr. Montessori felt, therefore, that the goal of early childhood education should not be to fill the child with facts from a pre-selected course of studies, but rather TO CULTIVATE HIS OWN NATURAL DESIRE TO LEARN. In a Montessori classroom this objective is approached in two ways. First, by allowing each child to experience the excitement of learning by his own choice rather than by being forced, and second, by helping him to perfect all his natural tools for learning, so that his ability will be at a maximum in future learning situations. The Montessori materials have this dual long-range purpose in addition to their immediate purpose of giving specific information to the child.
How do the children learn?
The use of the materials is based on the young child’s unique aptitude for learning which Dr. Montessori identified as the “absorbent mind”. In her writings, she frequently compared the young mind to a sponge. It literally absorbs information from the environment. The process is particularly evident in the way in which a young child learns his native language, without formal instruction and without the conscious, tedious effort which an adult must make to master a foreign tongue. Acquiring information in this way is a natural and delightful activity for the young child who employs all his senses to investigate his interesting surroundings. The child retains this ability to learn by absorbing information until he is almost seven years old, Dr. Montessori reasoned that his experience could be enriched by a classroom where he could handle material which would demonstrate basic educational information to him. Experience has proved her theory that a young child can learn to read, write, and calculate in the same natural way that he learns to walk and talk. Her research has revealed that the small child is a lover of work, intellectual work, spontaneously chosen and carried out with profound joy. In a Montessori classroom the equipment invites him to do this at his own periods of interest and readiness. Each child works at his own pace, and since the child works from his own free choice, without competition and coercion, he benefits fully from the environment.
Dr. Montessori always emphasised that the hand is the chief teacher of the child. Her method is based on the child’s imperious need to learn by doing. In order to learn there must be concentration and the best way a child can concentrate is by fixing his attention on some task he is performing with his hands (the adult habit of doodling is a remnant of this practice). All the equipment in a Montessori classroom allows the child to reinforce his casual impressions by inviting him to use his hands for learning.
Dr. Maria Montessori observed that children are interested and will learn on their own initiative if the environment allows for this. The Montessori classroom gives the child the opportunity to develop skills, interests and social relations which he may not have in the home environment. The criteria are as follows:-
- The materials must be child size and easily accessible to the child.
- The activities must be interesting (to the children), isolated and specific. They must be varied and gradually increasing in difficulty.
- The “Directress” must observe and assess the child’s needs and interests and present materials accordingly.
- Certain rules are given to maintain classroom order and for respecting the rights of others:-
disruptive and disorderly behaviour is not allowed;·others are not to be disturbed while they are working; and·on completion of an activity, the child is required to put the material away.
Why early learning?
Parents may wonder why Montessori introduces grammar, geography and maths to children between the ages of three and six. The reason is that at this age children can joyfully absorb many difficult concepts if they meet them in concrete form. The common stumbling blocks of the middle primary grades, can be exciting if they are presented to children at an earlier age when they enjoy manipulating material. In a Montessori classroom a unit or fraction is not simply a number on a paper – it is something which a child can hold in their hands. A verb is not just a word on a paper – it is something which they can act out. In similar fashion they can pour water around an island or form a square with five rows of five beads each. The materials that make these concepts tangible for them will serve as touch stones in their memory for many years, to clarify the abstract terms when they meet them again and again in future learning situations.
What is the role of the teacher?
In a Montessori classroom there is no front of the room and no teacher’s desk as a focal point of attention, because the stimulation of learning comes from the total environment. Dr. Montessori always referred to the teacher as a “directress”, and her role differs considerably from that of a traditional teacher. She is, first of all, a very keen observer of the individual interests and needs of each child, and her daily work proceeds from her observations rather than from a prepared curriculum. She demonstrates the correct use of materials as they are individually chosen by the children. She carefully watches the progress of each child and keeps a record of his work with the materials. She is trained to recognise periods of readiness. Sometimes she must divert a child who chooses material which is beyond his ability, at other times she must encourage a child who is hesitant. Whenever a child makes a mistake, she refrains, if possible, from intervening and allows him to discover his own error through further manipulation of the self-correcting material. This procedure follows Dr. Montessori’s principle that a child learns through experience.
How do the children conduct themselves?
There is always a busy hum of activity in a Montessori classroom because the use of the materials involves many motions – walking, carrying, pouring, speaking and particularly the constant using of the hands. All activity, however, is guided by a respect for the material themselves. Dr. Montessori never equated goodness with silence and immobility. Self-discipline, she felt, should be acquired gradually through absorption in meaningful work. When a child becomes vitally interested in a particular activity, his behaviour almost always matures. If a child misbehaves in a Montessori classroom, the directress usually helps him to select work which will more fully absorb his attention.
Why mixed age groups?
If classroom equipment is to be challenging enough to provoke a learning response, it must be matched to the standard which an individual child has already developed in his past experience. This experience is so varied that the most satisfying choice can be made only by the child himself. The Montessori classroom offers children the opportunity to choose from a wide range of graded materials. The children can grow as their interests lead from one level of complexity to another. Having children of ages three to six in the one class permits the younger children a graded series of models for imitation, and the older ones an opportunity to reinforce their own knowledge by helping the younger ones.
How do the children relate to each other?
Because the children work individually with the materials, there is no competition in the Montessori classroom. Each child relates only to their own previous work, and their progress is not compared to the achievements of other children. Dr. Montessori believed that competition in education should be introduced only after the child has gained confidence in the use of the basic skills. “Never let a child risk failure,” she wrote, “until he has a reasonable chance of success.”
How are different abilities accommodated?
The use of individual materials permits a varied pace that accommodates many levels of ability in the classroom. A younger or slower child may work for many weeks on the same piece of equipment without retarding the other members of the class. Advanced children in the same room can move from one piece of equipment to another very quickly, thus avoiding the boredom of waiting for other members of the class to catch up. The children with a high level of ability are constantly challenged by the wide variety of materials and their many uses. It is a well established fact that pre-school children mature at very different rates and their periods of readiness for academic subjects vary a great deal. Because interest is stimulated and the materials are at hand whenever a child is ready, some youngsters in a Montessori class begin to read and calculate at an unusually early age. However, very early learning is not the norm, nor was it ever Dr. Montessori’s objective. Her ideal was only that the learning experience should occur naturally and joyfully at the proper moment for each individual child. “It is true, we cannot make a genius”, Dr. Montessori once wrote, “We can only give each individual the chance to fulfil his potential possibilities to become an independent secure and balanced human being.” Recent psychological studies based on controlled research have confirmed these theories of Dr. Montessori. After analysing thousands of such studies, Dr. Benjamin S. Bloom of the University of Chicago wrote in “Stability and Change in Human Characteristics”:- “from conception to age four the individual develops fifty percent of his mature intelligence; from ages four to eight he develops another thirty percent”. This would suggest a very rapid growth of intelligence in the early years and the possible great influence of the early environment on this development. Like Dr. Montessori, Dr. Bloom believes “that the environment will have maximum impact on a specific trait during that early period of most rapid growth”. As an extreme example, a starvation diet would not affect the height of an 18 year old, but severely retard the growth of a one year old baby. Since eighty percent of the child’s mental development takes place before he is eight years old, the importance of favourable conditions during these years can hardly be over-emphasised.
What are Sensitive Periods?
Another observation of Dr. Montessori’s which has been reinforced by modern research, is the importance of sensitive periods for early learning. These are periods of intense fascination for learning a particular characteristic or skill, such as going up and down steps, putting things in order, counting or reading. It is easier for the child to learn a particular skill during the corresponding sensitive period than at any other time in his life. The Montessori classroom takes advantage of this fact by allowing the child freedom to select individual activities which correspond to his own periods of interest.