Observations of a Montessori First-Timer

The following is a guest post from my partner, known to the twitterverse as @scazon.

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A couple of weeks ago, I observed in several Montessori classrooms for the first time. I had read quite a bit of Montessori philosophy, and I had been exposed to it by my partner during her ongoing quest to become a Montessori teacher, but I had never actually seen a classroom in action with real live students before. If I had been only tentatively committed to Montessori education in principle, seeing these students put these educational theories into practice cemented my support for the Montessori method. Here is why.

First, a little bit of background about me for context. Through high school and beyond, I attended relatively wealthy (and in the case of high school, extremely wealthy) white private schools, full of the sort of kids whose parents give them BMWs for their sixteenth birthdays (or even before). My classes were, by and large, traditional from a fairly early age: lectures, note-taking, homework, class projects. Until relatively recently, I had no idea that education could be any different, and what little I knew of “alternative” schools had given me the impression that these were places for hippies who didn’t teach their kids to read or write. I had never considered such things as respect, or choice, or regard for the student as a whole person, except maybe as ideals that I, as a right-thinking liberal person, was supposed to pay some kind of lip service to. Consequently I fell into a low-level state of casual dismissal.

So going into my first Montessori classrooms, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was acquainted with a lot of Montessori philosophy in theory, and I had heard names of objects tossed around like “pink tower” and “bead chain”, but other than that, I had pretty much nothing to go on besides my own experience growing up in traditional schools. Over several days I observed multiple classrooms in several schools—primary (3-6), Lower El (6-9), and Upper El (9-12)—so as to get the fullest experience possible. Some of the qualities exhibited by the students were similar across all the ages and all the classrooms, and it was the fact that these qualities were so evidently derived from the Montessori method that was most impressive to me.

First among these was the students’ patience. In both the primary and elementary classrooms, the pace of the activity was slow but steady, a far cry from the fast-paced, constantly changing environments I remembered from my childhood. The first thing I saw, in a primary classroom, was a boy of about four drawing a picture. (I say drawing; it was closer to making huge, heavy circles on around the paper with a black Magic Marker, but it’s the intention that counts.) The patience with which he worked was unfamiliar to me: it didn’t rise to the level of single-mindedness or total obliviousness to the outside world, but he was clearly in a fulfilling yet unhurried mental space. The teacher clearly picked up on his focus from across the room, and the interaction that ensued between the two of them was one of the most striking things I witnessed.

The boy had been working diligently on this for about fifteen minutes before the teacher came over. “What do you have there?” she asked. “It’s a picture of our classroom,” said the boy. “Oh, that’s interesting,” replied the teacher. “May I have a turn?” The boy handed her the marker, and she wrote his name and the date on the side of the paper. Then she handed the marker back to the boy and said, “Thank you,” and the boy kept on drawing as she moved off elsewhere in the classroom.

Two things struck me about this interaction. The first was the lack of overt praise from the teacher, which it would have been my instinct to proffer. The teacher did not say, “Oh, what a nice drawing” or “Keep up the good work” or anything like that. Instead, she simply asked what it was, and thus refrained from taking the child’s experience (and obvious pride in his own accomplishment) and turning it into her own. The other (related) thing that impressed me was the teacher’s good sense not to disrupt the flow of the child’s work: she only came over when he had come to a natural break in his cycle of concentration rather than breaking him out of “the zone”. Instead of just interrupting him to write his name and the date on the paper, she asked for a turn, which signaled a desire to interact with the child on his terms—but crucially, not in a transparent or hokey manner. Even from a very young age I could always tell when adults in my life (or books, or television shows, or…) were trying to “relate to me” or “get me” or “interact with me on my level”, and these attempts were usually extremely transparent, and I was never fooled. This teacher got around that problem by waiting for a natural break in the child’s cycle of concentration rather than creating one of her own, and by not presenting herself to the student as the Adult Whose Approval You Must Seek, but rather as someone who just wanted a short turn to work on the drawing with him. This interaction struck a powerful note within me, and set the tenor for the rest of my observations.

Here’s another example of the patience I saw from a Montessori student, coupled with the self-corrective nature of many of the classroom exercises. One girl, about six or seven, was trying to complete a task that involved matching up about two dozen pairs of adjectives and nouns from two small decks of cards, and then writing down the pair combinations. She had the cards arranged in two long columns, adjectives before nouns, and was shuffling the nouns around to fit the “correct” adjectives. (The linguist in me instantly raised the objection that any adjective could form a grammatical pair with any noun in the cards, but some pairs were clearly meant to go together, like “green snake” or, less obviously to a child of the 2000s, “color television”.) The girl had formed the first adjective-noun pair, at the top of her columns, out of the adjective “Montessori” and the noun “tower”. Presumably, she intended this to refer to the iconic pink tower, and in the context of a Montessori student, was not at all an unreasonable adjective-noun pairing. However, I could see that the exercise clearly meant for the noun “school” to be paired with the adjective “Montessori”, and “tower” with “pink”. Since the first pair was not correct, much of the rest of the exercise was put out, but the girl did not let this deter her enthusiasm for the task. She tried all sorts of combinations and dutifully wrote each one down in her notebook in the impeccable cursive handwriting of an elementary schooler, but always some combination just didn’t quite sound right, so more cards got shuffled and more pairs recorded. Despite this all, the girl did not get frustrated, and she did not try to short-circuit the exercise by looking at an answer key. She kept plugging, patiently, and I could see the thrill of satisfaction run through her when she fixed up one pair that she knew worked. I could not stay long enough to see her bring the exercise to conclusion, but I left with no doubt that her perseverance, concentration, and patience would enable her to complete the task.

In an Upper El classroom, I saw a cluster of five girls trying to cook a wok full of noodles; they got as far as filling the wok with water, putting the noodles in, and wondering why the water wasn’t heating up (they had neglected to turn the electricity on to the wok). Nobody assumed a default attitude of control or bossiness, nobody was “in charge”: they just assigned themselves various tasks and did them. When it was discovered that the power was not on to the wok, the girl whose job it had been to flip the switch was not reprimanded or mocked by her peers, but the error was quietly and respectfully pointed out and remedied. Nobody was trying to dominate anybody else, and nobody’s feelings got hurt.

I had already seen an example of good, respectful teaching in the primary classroom; I saw something similar from a teacher in a Lower El classroom. The teacher was meant to be conducting some kind of reading evaluation with particular students; I surmised that these students were among those who had previously been deemed in need of a little extra attention. The evaluation consisted of these students being called up in small groups to the teacher’s semi-circular desk in the middle of the room and reading out loud from a certain book. If this had been my elementary school, and everyone had been hitherto working individually or in small groups, the teacher would have spoken loudly over all the students to call her charges up to the desk by name: something like “Alex, Joe, and Sarah, I need to see you at my desk please.” The effect this kind of thing has on everyone else in the classroom is to disrupt all the students’ concentration, and hence their work flow. In addition, the named students would immediately have been stigmatized: “Ooh, what did you do? You’re in trouble!” or “It’s that reading thing? Haha, you can’t read!” Personally, I always dreaded being called by name, seemingly out of nowhere, by the teacher, leaving the rest of the class interrupted and wondering at what I had done to merit such individual consideration.

This Lower El teacher handled this kind of situation far better, and demonstrated respect for both the students she was evaluating and the others in the class. Rather than break the concentration and work flow of everyone in the room by talking loudly over them, she went around to the individual students she wished to see, and said something like, “When you get to a convenient stopping point, could you come do some reading with me?” She didn’t disrupt the rest of the class, and by framing her request this way, she minimized the stigma that could be attached to a student who was not as far ahead in reading as some of his or her classmates. (The fact that Montessori classrooms consist of children whose ages—and hence individual developments—fall within a range of several years helps with this too.) And even though it was clear she wanted to see the students in question as soon as possible, by letting them determine exactly when they wanted to come see her, she transferred the perception of power to the children, which turned this into their activity with her, not her evaluation of them.

What I saw in the Montessori classrooms demonstrated to me that learning could be a process in which the students are participants rather than receptacles. The students had choice in their education: not the trivial “choice” of, say, which president to make a poster about, but genuine choice about what to do and when to do it, which cultivated the kind of concentration and patience I saw on display. The power these children were given over themselves stemmed from the schools treating their students with respect, and as whole people. Instead of something that was done to them, school became something that these students were doing for themselves.

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8 thoughts on “Observations of a Montessori First-Timer

  1. Fascinating, especially as a product of the same elementary, middle, and high schools as are you. Not knowing much about Montessori though I wonder if this couldn’t, at least partially, be the product of better teacher education? It’s been 17 years (gasp!) since our 2nd grade days…education has certainly moved forward, as a field, and I imagine that teacher education has moved forward as well.

    One example that comes to mind is teaching reading…twenty years ago people were still considering whole language versus phonics – now, anyone who is teaching whole language should be considered (by anyone who knew anything about it) as batshit crazy.

    Another thing that is only relatively new to the field of education, which I gather from your post that Montessori gets, is the important role of emotion in learning.

    All just to say that lots can change about a field in twenty years.

    • superplexa says:

      Hi Jason, welcome to my blog. You’re the famous science blogger friend, aren’t you?

      Just FYI, Montessori teacher training is an entirely separate system from training for regular school teachers, and it hasn’t changed significantly in 50 or 60 years (and longer in the case of training for preschool teachers). There are improvements and trends in Montessori education, but the philosophy and the major parts of the curriculum, including reading (which actually comes after writing for most children), are exactly the same. When I was a Montessori student 20 years ago (actually, 25, eek!) I learned to read, and to write, and to add fractions, etc. the same way these kids are learning now.

      • Ha! Famous, huh? I’ll take it.

        I believe that Montessori has been more or less consistent all these years. But what @scazon does above is compare the current Montessori model to a model of day school education from ~20 years ago. All I’m saying is, I am sure things have changed over there.

    • You think so? You think the basic methods and philosophies have changed since you and I were grade school students? I really doubt it. Sure, there have been some incremental improvements in a few areas, but (a) I’m not sure these have been substantial, even in the space of two decades, and (b) I don’t think any thing that’s changed would really amount to anything more than, well, window dressing. The underlying curriculum, philosophy, intentions of the teachers and school administrators—these have all remained relatively constant. I don’t buy it.

      • I know they have. At least in our particular instance. That school is a fundamentally different place. The administration team is *entirely* overturned since our time. Some 80-90% of the faculty as well. I’ve done research there (plus, you know, inside information) and can tell you without hesitation that things are different. It is actually the “window dressing,” I think, that has remained constant. Whether or not different = better in this case, I can’t say. I think some things are improved, and I regret that some things have been removed.

  2. becca says:

    Just stumbled in from Jason’s link, and I have to say I love your blog. I was unschooled (ala John Holt) for a good chunk of my education, but I’m thinking about Montessori school for my own child after getting inspired here (he’s only 8months, so I’ve got a while to learn more!)

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