Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Montessori Philosophy - The Basics

Parents often ask why (from my perspective) Montessori is better than the alternatives; what this style of education gives that others don't, and how it works the way it does.
I think the most definitive statement about Montessori is that it truly is education for life. This is one of the commonly made assertions within the Montessori community, and I believe that is because its truth is evident to anyone who has observed a Montessori child.
There are a lot of advocates out there for starting school older and older, and I personally agree that that is appropriate – when you think about what they mean by school. Traditional schools tend to focus a lot on worksheets and group activities that require children to sit still and listen quietly. They even have to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. When you combine this with the fact that culturally, we expect young children to have very small attention spans, early childhood education as traditionally practiced here in the United States is ludicrous.
Montessori education, on the other hand, is built on the knowledge that young children need to manipulate things with their hands and involve their bodies in the learning process. Rather than teaching to a state-regulated curriculum, Montessori teachers show the children how to use materials that impart knowledge through discovery, and the children have a sense of control over what they learn, when they learn, and how they learn. It is much more active and personal.
The other key to Montessori is the indirect preparations. When a child does a practical life activity such as table scrubbing, the obvious skills he learns are outnumbered by the less obvious ones. Yes, he is learning how to clean a table, and most people can also see how he is learning to follow a logical sequence of action. But did you know that he is also preparing his hand and mind to read? Did you realize that he is learning how to contribute to his little society in a meaningful way? Did you imagine that his confidence is growing by leaps and bounds?
Neither does he.
Nevertheless all these things are happening. He sees that the table needs to be scrubbed; at three or four it's just really fun, and it appeals to his sense of order. At five or six he might consider the effects of a bumpy table on writing, and clean the table because he wants to spare his classmates or himself from that hazard. He is confident because he has practiced, and because an adult doesn't stand over his shoulder the whole time and critique his work – we don't need to, because we have shown him how to critique his own work.
Please don't be misled. The child is often working independently, but that is not to say that he is left to his own devices all day long. He is carefully observed, so that when the time comes for his next lesson his teacher knows what he picked up on and what she needs to emphasize. He is never allowed to abuse the materials, cause danger to himself or others, or distract his fellow classmates.
Remember when I mentioned that he is being prepared to read and write? We're going to come back to that for a minute.
Montessori teachers give the table scrubbing lesson, like all lessons, in such a way as to make use of every possible opportunity. We don't scrub the table in a haphazard manner; we scrub it from left to right, in rows from top to bottom. Sound familiar? We also use tiny circular motions within that pattern, which are great for getting off dried glue but are also strikingly like cursive writing. Oh, and did I mention the development of the pencil grip and the muscular coordination gained from pouring water out of a pitcher, squeezing a sponge, and using a brush? What about the physical awareness necessary for using small careful strokes near the edge of table and larger, faster ones in the center?
This comes from an example of one work. It's not even a material especially designed for the curriculum, like the pink tower or the number rods. What's different is that the child's teacher has analyzed her movements, studied them and practiced them until they were perfect, and presented them to the child with very clear goals outlined in her motions. What makes a Montessori teacher necessary is her ability to connect the child with the material. After that she watches to see what the child does and tailors her next lesson to the child based on that information.
Montessori herself claimed that this was not her method, but the method of the child. She observed, and in observing she learned that children have an innate love of learning. If we force them to “learn” things they don't care about yet, they will learn to hate school. But if we show them meaningful and interesting work, they can develop themselves as human beings and lifelong learners. I think that's what we all want for them, don't you?

Welcome to Montessori Moments, a blog written for Dynamite Montessori School in Cave Creek, Arizona. If you'd like to check out our school, please visit Dynamite's website.

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