There are many misconceptions about a Montessori education. It is sometimes said to be an environment where children are allowed to do as they please, or it is said to be too rigid in that the child has to work all the time and therefore has no time for socialising and playing. The truth is a Montessori education is neither of these. In a true Montessori school you will see children who are independent, where they are encouraged not only to do things by and for themselves but also to think for themselves. Unfortunately Montessori is not a registered name and as a result Montessori schools can be, and have been, set up regardless of training or philosophy.
All children have a special kind of mind that Maria Montessori called an absorbent mind. They have a desire to explore their environment using their senses, and are driven to become independent. Maria Montessori identified certain sensitive periods that each child goes through that help him/her develop to his/her full potential. The classrooms in the Knysna Montessori School are set up to nurture these sensitive periods and to help the child become independent. This is achieved through the prepared environment (the classroom) and observations on each child by the teacher(s). All the activities are displayed in the classroom on individual trays or baskets. Maria Montessori developed these activities to engage the child’s hands and mind and to facilitate the child’s need for movement. To the adult it may seem like simple playing or boring repetition, but to the child it is learning. Many direct and indirect objectives are achieved as the hands and intellect work together.
Children within a three year age range are grouped together, from preschool through to high school. As a result the younger children learn from the older children and the older children benefit too as they in turn learn to help the younger children, thereby reinforcing what they have learnt. The older children gain leadership skills and assume many responsibilities for the well-being of their group. This vertical grouping of ages in one classroom provides an environment in which the child develops socially, intellectually and emotionally.
A Montessori education offers the child a unique and special experience. Activities in the classroom are divided into five main areas (practical life, sensorial, language, mathematics and cultural – this includes geography, history, botany, zoology, and arts and crafts). In each area the child has the opportunity to work with, and explore each activity shown to him or her by a teacher. Children can work independently on an activity or they can work in a group or with a special friend. Groups form spontaneously – providing the child with the opportunity to socialise and play as well as learn. The morning session offers a three hour ‘work’ cycle – in other words there is no fixed timetable. The child works at his or her own pace. The child is given the freedom to explore each activity, provided that he or she has been shown how to work with the activity. The child can work with the activity for as long (or as little) as he or she likes. There is only one of each activity, thereby encouraging turn taking and grace and courtesy skills – essential skills for the adult the child will become.
The teacher (directress) keeps individual learning plans for each child, and through this the teacher can keep track of what the child has worked on and what the next “challenge” can be for the child. The teacher’s role in the classroom is one of observation and guidance. The teacher will not interfere with the child’s work so long as he/she is working productively. When difficulties arise the teacher will step in and assist, as much or as little as necessary. This is why you may have heard that teachers in Montessori schools are usually referred to as directresses rather than as teachers. Each child is observed and encouraged to work with the activities and then to challenge him/herself. This is not done by force but is usually done by the child willingly, and at the child’s pace. Through careful observation each child’s individual needs are assessed, and the child is shown new activities only when he/she is developmentally ready – in other words new knowledge is built on what the child already knows. In this way the child works through the activities provided in the classroom through his/her own exploration. Each child develops an innate love of learning, which is fostered in each of the phases – in other words throughout the school years.
The Montessori classrooms support the child’s individual strengths and interests. While not every Montessori school looks the same, in an authentic Montessori school the following goals are always present:
- To protect, nurture, and unveil the potential of the child.
- To create a solid foundation for life-long learning.
- To prepare the child for life’s many rich experiences.
Article written and researched by Lisette Niemand of Knysna Montssori School (Pre-school Phase Head – B.A. Degree; MCI International Diploma (UK) and MCI (UK) Teacher Trainer). Article based on research; references for this article are available on request.