The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, “The children are now working as if I did not exist” (Montessori, 1967a).
In essence, the Montessori Method was developed with a first principles lens on learning and development. Maria Montessori did not look to attain some perceived efficiency of delivery, as in the traditional setting. Nor did she prioritize summative assessment, as an attempt to quantitatively rank, compare, and track student performance. Instead, she focused entirely on the learners and their needs. She observed, she designed, and she iterated.
Montessori developed her Method in stark contrast to traditional pedagogy. The latter relies entirely on teachers, the “educators,” to direct every action and every pursuit, to distill information and convey it into the conscience of those under their tutelage. Many of us who have had prolonged, first-hand experience in such an environment, and who have thought deeply about its effects, have come to the realization that this particular set of inputs is grossly misaligned with the human experience.
In her own words, Maria Montessori described observing children in a traditional classroom as being tantamount to an entomologist studying dead insects pinned to a board, “where the spontaneous expression of a child’s personality is so suppressed that he is almost like a corpse, and where he is so fixed to his place at a desk that he resembles a butterfly mounted to a pin” (Montessori, 1967b).
Developing bodies and minds need something much different.
One direct aim of the Montessori Method, as succinctly encapsulated in the quote that opened this post, is functional independence. Children gain independence, simply put, by practicing being independent. Further, children (read, people) can also improve upon their ability to act independently when environmental circumstances require that they exercise their independence close to the limits of their current abilities—not so easy as to bore, and not so difficult as to frustrate. There is a sweet spot.
What are the direct aims of an educational system where students are told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it? Perhaps complacency and obedience? It is certainly not autonomy, nor creative problem-solving. Baked into the Montessori Method is the understanding that children are naturally curious, and are driven to pursue and construct their own knowledge. This proclivity for sense-making, combined with environmental conditions that encourage students to act independently, has a tremendous enabling effect—an effect which cannot be recreated with top-down mandates.
Having understood this, one sees that a fundamental shift in the role and responsibilities of the educator becomes not only obvious, but paramount. The teacher (or in Montessori speak, the aptly titled “guide”) becomes not the disseminator of information, but instead the one who creates conditions conducive for learning. There is no such thing as knowledge transfer, only knowledge construction.
Formal education now must evolve from something that is done to the student, to something that comes from the student—the way we have always learned. Fundamental to this evolution is replacing the teacher-as-gatekeeper model with one more akin to the guide-as-environment-creator model. By thoughtfully and meticulously creating an environment favorable for learning, the guide enables the child to develop as their individual nature allows.
In order to do so, guides must take on several responsibilities. Four of the principle responsibilities, which are ongoing and iterative, are: the preparation of the guide, the preparation of the environment, adult-child interactions, and observation.
1. The Preparation of the Guide
One cannot say enough about the preparation of the guide. In her own words, Maria Montessori said, “An ordinary teacher cannot be transformed into a Montessori teacher, but must be created anew, having rid herself of pedagogical prejudices” (Montessori, 1989).
Even further, and to the greatest extent possible, guides must rid themselves of any prejudice at all. They must see each and every child through an objective lens, not only from day to day, but from moment to moment. A child’s actions in the past shall not prevent the guide from employing patience and wisdom with the child in the present.
A guide “must acquire a moral alertness which has not hitherto been demanded by any other system, and this is revealed in her tranquility, patience, charity, and humility. Not words, but virtues, are her main qualifications” (Montessori, 1967b). Not words, but virtues. It is the guide who first establishes the environment. When I say environment, think beyond the layout of the room and the materials populating the shelves. Consider the lessons on Grace and Courtesy, or the guide’s nonstop interactions with students throughout each day. (Read more about the importance of these interactions here.) Consider the expectations that the guide has for the students. These are also foundational aspects of the environment.
Combined, all of these aspects create the classroom’s distinct culture; the water that the students swim in. Initially, students will notice this culture at a conscious level, as it may be different than what they are used to in other contexts. However, the expectations and routines soon enter the subconscious, not to be considered again. Eventually, for example, students won’t think about having to put their work away when they’re done with it, they will do it by default. What becomes second nature in the classroom, the habits, the routines, etc., which help to determine the quality of the children’s experience, are first established and reinforced by the guide.
“The vision of the teacher should be at once precise like that of the scientist, and spiritual like that of the saint. The preparation for science and the preparation for sanctity should form a new soul, for the attitude of the teacher should be at once positive, scientific and spiritual” (Montessori, 1991).
2. Preparation of the Environment
“The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child” (Montessori, 1967a).
The preparation of the guide is of supreme importance, because the guide then goes on to prepare the environment, the culture, and the atmosphere, which then subsequently scaffolds student decisions, behaviors, and habits. It is not desirable nor practical for the guide to be mandating all of the students’ actions directly, as they must learn to exercise their own independence and judgment. In fact, often unbeknownst to students, the environment directs their behavior. The environment thus becomes an additional guide.
So much of the world is not created with children in mind. Their classroom, on the other hand, is designed entirely around their needs, to enable them to act on their own behalf, and to allow for their own self development. In preparing the environment, no detail is overlooked, and everything is considered. Guides adjust the layout of the room very purposefully, even down to the exact placement and orientation of the shelving, the number of chairs at a table, and the direction they face.
Guides must also prepare the shelves with materials that are inviting, and that call to the children. Materials should be sequenced from easy to difficult, concrete to abstract, and must be appropriate for the group of students to whom that classroom pertains. Activities placed on trays use a quantity of a base ten when possible in preparation for the decimal system, and move left to right to prepare the eye for reading. Materials must be kept in good repair, to send the message to the students that they require respect and care.
As mentioned above, the environment consists of more than just the space and the physical objects in it. It also entails the culture of the classroom, as established by the demeanor and expectations of the guide. The guide models the behavior she expects to see in her students, and holds them accountable, in a developmentally appropriate way. It is important that the culture of the classroom be prepared with the same fastidiousness as the materials themselves.
3. Adult-Child Interactions
The adult-child interactions set the tone in creating the culture of the classroom. This is yet another aspect of the classroom environment that must be addressed purposefully and meticulously. Every interaction matters.
Again, the guide is to model the behavior she expects in her students. This may include using common courtesies like “please,” and “thank you.” It may also include speaking in a near-whisper to maintain a space that is conducive to focus, and not interrupting those that are diligently concentrating on their work. A guide must model the lessons on Grace and Courtesy that she gives to her class.
An important outcome of Montessori education is for children to have ownership over their own learning, and to stay intrinsically motivated to pursue their interests and goals. Toward that end, adult-child interactions centered around a student and their work must stay centered around the student and their work.
Students may often ask, “Do you like my [art work]?” By responding directly, the adult conveys that their opinion is relevant, perhaps more relevant than that of the student, and may even become a desired end for the student. Guides must de-emphasize their own personal feelings, as this takes away from the student and their work. Instead, guides may turn such questions back to the student, and ask them about their own work instead. The guide may respond with, “Do you like your artwork?” or “Did you mix two colors to make a third color?” You won’t hear a Montessori guide shower her students in praise for their work.
A guide may also ask, “Did you work hard on this?” Here, in addition to making it about the student, the guide also emphasizes the process, not the product. Placing value on the process will yield “desired” products in the long term, but emphasizing the product may encourage students to try to attain it through any means. Consider how placing emphasis on grades rather than learning often leads students to cheat.
When it comes to discipline, the guide first creates the environment to enable children to develop their own discipline. A child who is contented and engaged with their work seldom stirs up trouble— they usually stir up order and peace.
When the adult must intervene, their approach is best described as authoritative. There are clear expectations and boundaries in the environment, within which the child is welcome to act autonomously. As the child toes or crosses the line of what is expected, and does not self-correct, they are met with warm but firm redirection from the guide. This will usually include the opportunity to attempt again whatever it was that they were trying, though with some additional scaffolding provided by the guide as needed.
We believe that all behavior is communication, and that “undesirable” behavior is often due to a skill deficit, which can be amended through practice. Young children aren’t giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time.
Every aspect of the role of the guide mentioned in this post is vital for the Montessori approach. However, the entire pedagogy falls apart without the guide’s diligent observation.
Maria Montessori said, “I believe that I have by my method established the conditions necessary for the development of scientific pedagogy and whoever adopts this method opens in doing so a laboratory of experimental pedagogy” (Montessori, 2013). It is through the scientific method that guides iterate on the environment they provide for students, and it is through observation that they collect data on their students. Armed with this data, guides are then able to adjust and iterate on the classroom environment.
Observation is crucial for guides to be able to assess students’ understanding as they start out in the classroom, and as they learn, grow, and develop. Guides must continue to evolve and adapt the environment to meet the needs of the students, and observation completes the feedback loop in order for guides to properly do so.
Further, it is not just what the students do that matters, but also how they do it. Summative assessment does not paint a complete picture, because it only conveys what the student did. Through observation, guides can detect not only what a student is doing in the moment, but also how they do it, what their strengths and weaknesses are throughout the learning process, where they may be having difficulty, and why. Guides become much better equipped to address students’ needs with this detailed understanding, which they then use to provide targeted activities for students’ individual and specific needs.
Guides, not teachers, carry out all of these activities to activate their students. It is the guide who, by design, creates the environment that is most conducive to student learning. Guides provide the scaffolding on students’ journeys through the construction of their own knowledge. By taking on these responsibilities, guides enable their students to develop themselves.
In her own words, Montessori said, “to stimulate life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself, that is the first duty of the educator” (Montessori, 1967b).
Montessori, M. (1967a). The absorbent mind. New York, NY: Henry Holt.
Montessori, M. (1967b). The discovery of the child. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Montessori, M. (1989). Education for a New World. United Kingdom: Clio.
Montessori, M. (1991). The Advanced Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to the Education of Children from Seven to Eleven Years. United Kingdom: Clio Press.
Montessori, M. (2013). The Montessori Method. United States: Start Publishing LLC.