It isn't easy to spot the teacher in a Montessori classroom. There's no grown-up at the front spouting facts. But if you look closely, you'll notice someone moving among the
students, gently making suggestions, helping children to teach themselves.
This is the heart of what Italian
educator Maria Montessori believed - that no human being can be taught by another; that you must learn for yourself or it won't mean a thing. In
Montessori-based classrooms, children get up and move around and let curiosity be their guide.
And because Montessori believed "the hand is the chief teacher of the brain," students most often learn by touch - by handling specially designed materials such as golden math beads, sandpaper letters, wooden maps of the world. The Montessori teacher's job is to show
children how to use these materials - then leave them to learn independently.
You can watch how this all works from the "observer's stool" in the primary class at the Children's Montessori Independent School in Toronto. It's 9:15 a.m. and two boys sit on mats in the middle of the floor, pulling cards out of a basket. Each has a verb on it that he acts out to the other - "Clap!" "Hop!" "Pose!"
Next to them, a boy and girl kneel over a book about marine life lying open on the carpet, trying to match rubber
replicas with the species on the page. Just outside the classroom door, a boy crawls along the hallway floor as he counts off a 1,000-bead chain.
But where is the teacher?
She is not with the five-year-old
practising cursive writing on a laptop chalkboard, or the two girls writing at a table, or the boy selecting number cards from a shelf.
No; there she is - over by the window at a low table, showing a four-year-old how to trace an oval, using a special Montessori stencil to guide his pencil. He begins, and teacher Susie Coughlan writes this down before turning to
another student who has strung words together with a special Montessori "moveable alphabet" of plastic letters, blue for consonants, red for vowels.
Suddenly, behind the teacher's back, the tracing boy tries to slip away across
the room. He has underestimated the peripheral vision of the teacher - and he is caught and gently guided back to his penmanship.
This is how Montessori believed a classroom should run - as a marketplace of discovery where children learn at their own pace, with the teacher stepping in only when needed.
Yet the bustle of a Montessori class is matched by a tangible sense of order. No running or yelling or drifting is allowed. Children are taught grace and courtesy, how to say "good morning" politely (with direct eye contact and a handshake), how to eat lunch with table manners (and a napkin and placemat), even how to walk a line to develop
And although students help
themselves to materials throughout the room, it's not a free-for-all. Students may choose only from materials the teacher has shown them. If they want to try something new, they must ask for a demonstration to spare them confusion or frustration.
It has been nearly a century since Montessori mapped out her unique approach to schooling and, although schools around the world now borrow freely from her methods - and her
stunningly designed materials - the Montessori philosophy is at heart a
non-traditional education designed by a non-traditional woman.
To Montessori, the stimulation for learning comes from the environment, not the teacher alone.
Maria Montessori was Italy's first female doctor when she graduated from medical school in 1896. While working with families in a poor part of Rome, she became fascinated with how children learn, and began to make observations that would become the cornerstone of her philosophy - that children are
hungry to learn at a young age if we give them materials they can touch and let them discover for themselves.
Today, nearly a century later,
research seems to be proving Maria Montessori right.
From watching how effortlessly a
child learns to speak, or walk, or get to know his world, Montessori concluded that a young child's mind is like a sponge - she called it "the absorbent mind."
And because it is so absorbent, Montessori called the first six years "the most important period of life; the time when intelligence, man's greatest tool, is being formed."
It sounds just like what Dr. Fraser Mustard told the Ontario government last spring in his landmark Early Years Study - that "the years from conception to age six have the most important
influence of any time in the life cycle on brain development."
As a result, Montessori classrooms often expose children to abstract
concepts earlier than the public school system does.
Pre-schoolers learn cursive writing before they learn block printing.
They can learn grammar and sentence structure as young as five, multiplication before Grade 2 and global geography in kindergarten - if they're ready.
And they seem to grasp such abstract concepts with the help of Montessori materials.
"You may wonder why Montessori introduces grammar, geography and geometry to children between the ages of three and six. The reason is because at this age, youngsters can joyfully absorb many abstract concepts - the usual stumbling blocks of the elementary grades - if they meet them in materials they can manipulate," Pennsylvania author Aline Wolf writes in A Parents' Guide to the Montessori Classroom (Parent Child Press, 1995).
Timing is also very fluid in a Montessori classroom. Don't look for a lesson schedule. Each child's curriculum is presented at its own pace. Montessori believed children pass through phases where they're suddenly ready to understand a certain idea - such as adding, reading, climbing stairs. And she believed children hit these
sensitive periods at different times, so they must be allowed to learn when they're ready, not be dragged to a lesson when the teacher is ready.
"A Montessori teacher may give 15 to 20 lessons per hour to different students - each lesson only two minutes long," says Adalove Gorrie, head of the Children's Montessori Independent School. "The child chooses the work to do, and the teacher observes when the child is ready to be guided to the next step."
Today the basic principles are the same at any of our Montessori schools.
Because children learn at different times, Montessori put students in
three-year clusters to offer a broader range of materials within the same
class. A Montessori pre-school class includes children aged three to six;
the primary class has kids aged six to nine, the junior class has kids nine to
12, and so on. The three-year age span also allows younger children to learn from older students, and lets the older ones reinforce what they know by
teaching their juniors.
"This mentoring really does occur," says Gord Phippen, principal of Oakville's Dearcroft Montessori School. "The older kids are expected to be
helpful - and the younger ones discover this. Multi-age grouping is a very
important part of the Montessori
Phippen says younger children also pick up messages of tolerance and respect by watching older students. And having every student for three years gives Montessori teachers a rare chance to get to know each child on a meaningful level.
Very young children like to imitate grown-ups so they feel important.
Maria Montessori felt a child's first "work" in school - ideally enrolling at age 21/2 - should be simple tasks
familiar from home, such as washing dishes, polishing shoes, sewing on
buttons. Not only do these make children feel they are helping out, but they boost concentration span, good work habits and co-ordination.
Moreover, if each task is practised from left to right, it prepares children for the direction of reading.
To make this easy for young hands, Montessori designed large frames on which children can practise doing up buttons and snaps and zippers and pins, laces, buckles and bows. They even learn to dice carrots - "and in six years, we have had only one small cut," boasts Adalove Gorrie.
"The Montessori philosophy is to encourage independence. We encourage children to walk, not be carried by their parents, and to dress themselves and help out at home."
That's why you'll see Montessori pre-schoolers work their way up, step by step, to the thrill of washing their own chairs. It's partly a
lesson in caring for their environment, but also an exercise in mastering a sequence of skills. First they learn how to fetch a jug of water, then prepare the area with a waterproof mat, then pour the water - a skill they have practised by pouring rice and beans - then wash and dry the chair and clean up the area.
When they finish the task properly, Gorrie says, kids feel proud of their
co-ordination and responsibility.
Children learn to write in two ways - they must memorize the shape of letters and their corresponding sounds, and they must master the co-ordination to draw the letters themselves. Montessori classrooms provide special materials to help children develop these skills step by step.
Perhaps the most famous Montessori equipment is the golden beads, which illustrate the decimal system. A single bead represents one unit. A bar with 10 beads represents 10. Ten of these Ten Bars represent 100, and a pile of Hundred Squares forms a cube that
By building different combinations of bead materials, children get a sense of longer digits. The teacher might say, "Bring me 8,437," and the child would gather eight Thousand Cubes, four Hundred Squares, three Ten Bars and seven single beads.
These so-called "bank games" teach children collectively what it means to add, subtract, multiply and divide.
And it is through such creative
elements of a Montessori classroom that the gifted Italian educator continues to promote "the excitement of learning" in new generations of children.