Montessori Does It Backwards!

Posted by Greg MacDonald on

When Dr. Montessori began her work with children, she took a novel approach:  Instead of imposing a preconceived educational system upon the children in her care, she observed them, and simply responded to the needs and drives that she detected.  Slowly, she built a new educational approach.

 A unique psychological theory evolved from this growing pedagogy in which Montessori educational practice and theory were interdependent.  This outcome is still at the center of Montessori work today and the Montessori approach is now gathering the mainstream recognition that it has deserved from the beginning.

 Back then, Montessori’s methodology was contrary to the work of the majority of educators of her day.  Writing of this in To Educate the Human Potential, she observed, “They seek a method of education to suit their theory, while we seek a psychological theory to suit our method.”  Her approach, it can be observed by this statement, was backwards when compared to the approaches of other educators of her time.

As her educational practice and theory evolved, she found that the result of her work also stood in stark contrast to established educational practices of her time.  “Our concept of education,” she explains in What You Should Know About Your Child, “may be figuratively described by saying that the educator stands behind the child and allows him to go forward as far as he can, whereas the other method is to stand in front of the child and prevent him from going further than the limits imposed on him by the teacher.”

Because she began her work in reverse order to the approach of her peers, practice preceded theory.  This was the genesis of a new role for educators that was the opposite of other educational approaches. 

And something else interesting happened …

Montessori once commented that the educators of her time worked hard to establish discipline in their classrooms so that the children could work and learn. But her own experience showed that the opposite approach was much more profitable for children (and teachers)-- It was work itself  that led to self-discipline!  Backwards, when compared to the widespread educational thinking of her time (and our time also, it seems).

Because of this discovery, Montessori teachers focus on finding activities that engage the attention and concentration of the children.  Once the children begin to work, concentrate and learn, a change occurs: They become self-disciplined.  The teacher does not need to impose external discipline because the children discipline themselves and each other!

This approach allowed the children to reveal previously unsuspected educational principles, each of which was the reverse of prevailing educational wisdom of the time …

Montessori could hardly believe it herself:

It took some time before I could persuade myself that this was not an illusion.  At every new experience of the same phenomena I said to myself, “I do not yet believe it: next time I will”.  For a long time I was incredulous before the children, though always astonished and moved.  Again and again I reproached teachers who reported results to me which I could not believe to be true, and the teachers said to me that indeed they could scarcely believe them themselves.

--Mrs. Sheila [Jamieson] Radice,The New Children: Talks with Dr. Maria Montessori

Here are some examples of these astonishing “backwards” principles that can be observed in the Montessori approach.  They are as remarkable today as they were when Montessori first discovered them:

1.  Children profit from large classes. There seems to be an ongoing effort on the part of educators and legislators to reduce the number of children in classrooms and to increase the number of adults with whom they come into contact.  Maria Montessori learned from observation that, in fact, the reverse is actually more aligned to the children’s needs:  25-30+ children per teacher is preferable.  A classroom assistant may be present if one is required by the authorities, but not in a teaching role.

You see, Montessori discovered that the most dynamic, productive learning opportunities occur when there are enough children to form an independent learning community.  The formation of the first such communities happened spontaneously in Montessori’s first classes, and the phenomenon continues to occur now in the twenty-first century.

Mainstream schools aim for a ratio of small numbers of children to a large number of adults … Then there is Montessori’s approach, which is backwards according to mainstream approaches:  A large number of children and few adults.

2.  The Teacher Doesn’t Do All of the Teaching. When people hear that Montessori offers an individualized program to each child, the question that they invariably ask is:  How can a teacher teach each child individually?  There just can’t be enough hours in the day for this!”  It’s a fair question, and the answer illuminates yet another way in which Montessori approaches education in reverse.  This is because the teacher in a Montessori classroom doesn’t’ do all of the teaching ...

When there is only one adult in the learning community, children must sometimes depend on their own resources and upon each other.  This in itself cultivates a striking self-confidence and independence in Montessori children.  They also learn from their mistakes, they experiment, and they teach each other.  Children are excellent teachers, perhaps because they are so close themselves to the learning experience that they are sharing.  They also profit when functioning as teachers: To teach something, one must know it in a deeper, more profound way. 

In a Montessori classroom, the teacher is not solely responsible for all of the teaching that takes place – The children also teach one another.

So the teacher teaches and the children teach. To these two facets of instruction Maria Montessori added a third facet that turns the idea of “manipulative materials” on its head.

Manipulative materials are common in schools around the world.  Maria Montessori pioneered this approach, and in the process she discovered that it is best for the teacher not to use these materials as tools for instruction during a lesson. 

Montessori found that manipulative materials can serve as teachers in their own right!

This is a difficult concept to grasp:  In a Montessori classroom, the teacher’s lesson is intended to show the children how a Montessori material is used.  Once the children have grasped the process, they are left to work at their own pace with the material, and the experience, the material, teaches them!

The Montessori teacher’s lessons tend to be shorter as a result (meaning that more lessons with more children can be delivered each day).  Their objective is very often not to ensure that the children have grasped a particular concept or acquired a particular skill.  Instead, the objective is to ensure that the children know how to use the material.  Once this is accomplished, the teacher’s job is done – It is now the task of the children to teach themselves with the material – They are taught by those marvelous Montessori materials!

So in a Montessori classroom the teacher teaches some of the time. 

The children also teach one another, and all learn in the process.

… And the Montessori materials teach!  They are designed not as tools for the teacher to teach with, but as tools for the children to learn with!

3.  Writing comes before reading. Maria Montessori responded to the sensitivities that she observed in young children.  She observed, for example, that at a certain developmental point they are fascinated by textures – They want to feel everything.  So one educational material that Montessori introduced was letters made from sandpaper. She found that her young children loved to follow the contours of these letters with their fingers, learning how each letter is formed and at the same time, learning the sound that each makes.

Soon, they were ready to write, but their hands were often not controlled enough to write with a pencil.  Montessori introduced cut-out letters of the alphabet and these children (aged four to four-and-a-half) began to write word after word with these mobile letters.

Surprisingly, they showed no interest in reading the words that they had formed, and for a time, they appeared to be unable to do so.  That’s backwards to the beliefs of most people who would say that you can’t write until you can read!  Who could have imagined that young children would write, but be unable to read what they had written? 

Not even Montessori, but this is what she discovered!

… And she also found that this inability to read what had been written was short-lived.  Soon, the children not only wrote copiously (graduating to writing with chalks and pencils in what she called an “explosion” into writing) but they also read insatiably.

4.  Universe first in the elementary. As Montessori turned her attention to elementary children six years of age, she found that they had an endless curiosity about the universe that surrounded them.  (Their questions always seemed to be begin with the word  “Why ..?”, or “How …?). 

Educators of her day tended to introduce these children to a study of their family, believing that this was a more immediate interest to them.  But based upon her observation that these children seemed curious about much grander things, Montessori decided to start at the other end of the spectrum:  She introduced them to the universe!

An enthralling story, complete with scientific experiments (including a volcano that actually erupts) and eye-catching posters sets the scene. Then more lessons follow, expanding upon this introduction and inviting the children to study elements of astronomy, geology, chemistry and meteorology.

The result?  Totally engaged, enthralled students whose studies take them further than their teachers could ever have imagined. 

All because Montessori does it backwards

5.  Field Trips Led by the Children: The typical school field trip is planned and supervised by the teacher. The teacher decides where the children will go, why they will go, how they will travel, what they will do when they get there, and what they will do when they get back to school.

It should be no surprise that Montessori does it backwards here also…

The Montessori “Going Out” program for older elementary children is planned and supervised by the children themselves.  These senior elementary children have been preparing for the “Going Out” experience for years, guided by their teacher and partnering with her, assisting as she organizes class field trips, and thus acquiring the skills that they will need to do this for themselves.    

When a mature “Going Out” program is underway, small groups of children decide where they will go, why they need to go there, how they will get there (and back), what they will do when they arrive, and what they will do when they get back to school.

A responsible adult chaperone shadows them, making certain that the children come to no harm, but, in reality, the children lead the adult.  (How backwards is that?)  The children make the decisions.  They make the mistakes.  They solve the problems that they encounter.  They do all of the work before, during and after the event.

… And they have a dual learning experience.  They obtain the information that they went out to obtain.  (This is the children’s agenda.)  But they also find that they have developed the skills to go out into their community independently.  They blossom socially, because this is very much a group effort, and collaboration is vital if a “Going Out” is to be successful! (This is the adult’s agenda.)

... That’s Montessori:  Moving forward by doing things backwards, as the above examples demonstrate … There are plenty more examples once you start looking for them!  The striking thing about all of this is that it’s not really backwards for the children!  Each of these “backwards” approaches are in place because they work.  And each approach works because it was inspired by the children themselves.

As Montessori often remarked, she did nothing but follow the lead of the children. 

Montessori education may look backwards to some – but watch Montessori children as they move forward with impressive momentum!


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