“While the Montessori Method sounds great in theory, it seems impossible to integrate into a traditional classroom setting!” I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard this, especially from my traditionally trained, public school teacher friends. And I hear you all! I do. Similarly, the Montessori community will likely tell you that the Montessori method is a thoughtful and comprehensive system from which you cannot just pick and choose…and I hear that too! I do.
There are characteristics of this way of educating that would undoubtedly be out of the question for most public schools in America, such as the mixed-age environments. However, I also believe that there are fundamental aspects of the Montessori method that could be incorporated into any traditional classroom with ease. I’d argue that some of this stuff is just best practice—plain and simple.
Just promise you’ll hear me out until the end…
The Very First Step:
Start with your view of the child. What are some of the innate characteristics that come to mind when you think of a child?
We are often socialized to see children as unruly little beings that need to be controlled and filled with information.
However, children are far more competent, peaceful, and intrinsically motivated than we often give them credit for. When we offer them an environment and tools tailored to their needs, they become self-sufficient and harmonious in ways that adults don’t necessarily think is possible.
The Physical Space or “The Prepared Environment”:
This method of education emerged from Montessori’s work of studying children from various racial, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds for more than fifty years. Montessori teachers often refer to their classroom spaces as “prepared environments.” The Prepared Environment can be defined as a place where children can live with freedom to fulfill their greatest potential. It is meant to serve as a home away from home that has been physically and psychologically constructed in order to respond to the physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual needs of the whole child. The classrooms contain special materials, specifically designed with the child’s development in mind. (For more information about Dr. Maria Montessori and this way of educating children, check out my post: “What on Earth is Montessori? An Elevator Speech.”)
One of the most essential goals is to help the children feel comfortable, adapted, and as though they are able to participate in and contribute to society in meaningful ways. Montessori observed that as children fell deeply in love with their environments, they felt inclined to take thoughtful care of them. Some of the big picture, fundamental characteristics of the space are designed with the following principles in mind:
1. Freedom- Freedom of Movement is of the utmost importance, so the children can have an active relationship with the environment. For example, the children may choose where to work (e.g.-on a rug, at a table, etc.) and they’re free to work with a material for as long as they’d like, so long as they’re engaged. Freedom of communication is also a necessity, as humans are social beings. Of course, there are reasonable limits to each of these freedoms…
2. Movement- Dr. Montessori acknowledged, and research confirms, that movement and cognition are inextricably linked and thus designed materials and activities that aid in the development and perfection of movement (both gross and fine motor skills are addressed).
3. Independence- Both functional and intellectual independence are encouraged. Independence, in all of its forms, is one of the central tenets of the Montessori philosophy.
4. Concentration-“The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. The child who concentrates is immensely happy.”-Dr. Maria Montessori
In order for children to learn, they first need the capacity for concentration. As such, we should be sure to offer activities that spark an interest in the child and respect their need for concentration by not interrupting them when they are engaged in their important work, as we are often inclined to do.
With these fundamental aims in mind, consider:
How accessible is your classroom for the children? Is it set up in such a way that supports independence? Remember that dignity is born when we have the ability to do for ourselves.
How is your classroom decorated? Is it full of commercialized posters, learning materials, etc.?
Accordingly, try to keep the room as simple and uncluttered as possible. We select items in our classrooms with care—lovely objects we’d like to have in our homes too. Original art is always welcome. Incorporate cultural objects that you can also use as an opportunity for storytelling, and elements of nature should be as present as possible. The environment should, of course, be orderly (this is especially important if you’re an early childhood educator). Young children have a need for order and it will also allow for the learners to be more independent in their space.
Teaching vs. Guiding:
Rethinking Your Role as the Adult
The role of the adult in the Montessori classroom is quite different than that of a traditional teacher. In fact, Dr. Montessori preferred to use the term “guide” as opposed to “teacher,” understanding that it is the children who ultimately educate themselves. Our duty is to meticulously prepare the classroom environment with children’s holistic development in mind and guide them on their journeys. Educators are meant to serve as the dynamic link between the children and the learning environments.
Dr. Maria Montessori emphasized the importance of scientific observation. How often do you observe in your own classroom? Maybe, instead of all the endless testing--this is how we get the best, objective feedback (of what’s working, what’s not, etc.), by simply looking around and observing.
Do you have a list of rules that you establish before the school year begins posted on the wall?
If so, you are definitely not alone, but I’d like to invite you to instead consider having guidelines agreed upon by the entire classroom community in order to live together peacefully, respectfully, and joyfully. Elicit these community guidelines from your students. Perhaps you can have each child sign the document (to the best of their abilities, depending on their ages). You should sign it too. Educators have a lot of power and it’s important that we keep that power and our pride in check. We are not infallible beings. We, too, will make mistakes and will need the grace and forgiveness of the children in our classrooms.
“How much of my instructional day consists of teacher led activities? For example, how often am I standing in front of my students and just…talking?” Is this aligned with how we know children learn?
“How often are my students engaged in work that includes only a pencil and paper?”
In most cases, the answer to this question is “too often.” As much as possible, allow children to be engaged in hands on, sensorial activities. As Dr. Montessori once said: “The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.”
Did anything in this article resonate with you? If so, what? What else would you like to know? Let me know in the comments.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article on my blog at razanabdin.com! It will cover freedom and limits (discipline), rewards and punishment, and the non-competitive nature of the Montessori method. While you’re browsing through my blog, sign up for our newsletter to get FREE resources delivered right to your inbox!
May we collectively liberate our systems of education, our communities, our homes, ourselves.
P.S.-Check out my most recent article: “Planting the Seeds for a New World: Cultivating An Anti-Bias, Anti-Racist Home.”
Razan is an Educational Consultant + Coach with a passion for developmentally appropriate practice, educational equity, culturally responsive pedagogy, and creating safe, transformative, inclusive spaces for all students and staff members alike.
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