Teacher Choice, Student Choice
Educators who follow the Montessori approach know that Maria Montessori placed a lot of emphasis on the idea of “choice.” However, while the notion of choice is universally celebrated and held sacred for young children up until around the age of 6, this idea sometimes falls to the wayside when children enter into elementary and adolescent programs. Especially for public Montessori schools, who are accountable for mandatory standardized testing results…teachers and administrators alike can often find themselves biting their nails as they observe a child carefully and deliberately coloring their own self-created Timeline of Life that was inspired from a lesson given the week before. He’s been working on that all day for the past 3 days…but what about all of the language and math he needs to master before the testing happens in May?
Teachers often find themselves in the midst of this false dilemma. They typically see two options: facilitating an environment that allows the opportunity for children to choose their work, or setting up systems of accountability to ensure that the children are learning skills and content that will result in testing success. However, it is important for teachers to realize that these two options are NOT mutually exclusive!
6-12 teachers often feel anxious about the choices that elementary children make, because the stakes are much higher. While students are preparing for the typical assessments that come with this age, all eyes are on teachers, and they are evaluated (whether it be officially or unofficially) based upon whether their students are performing to standard, or not. And if not, the unfortunate reality is that those looking in from an outside perspective will likely question the teacher’s competency and/or express doubts regarding the effectiveness of the Montessori approach.
This fear of children “falling behind” can lead to teachers feeling compelled to generate highly structured work plans for children, making sure that they are ticking off all the boxes that society deems necessary for children to become competent and thriving adults. While this response to fear is well-intentioned, it can result in a compromised Montessori program. Instead of a vibrant hum of energy and enthusiasm, such a classroom feels dull, silent, and unengaged. Anyone who has spent time observing in different Montessori classrooms can attest that there is a HUGE difference between environments where children are choosing their own meaningful work and environments where the focus is on children completing assigned work.
Different levels of choice
There are different levels of choice that can be seen when observing various Montessori environments. One level of choice involves children having a list of work to complete that is assigned by the teacher. In this scenario, children are usually able to choose where to do the work, and when to do the work (as in, ordering the list according to their own preference), and maybe even how long they have to do the work. However, they don’t get to chose what work to do. With this level of choice, teachers have preconceived notions of what work they want their students to do. While it can be the case that there are children who will need this kind of support at the beginning of the school year, it’s important to consider this as a temporary condition, until the child has had several lessons under their belt and has the ability to choose from a banquet of options. There are also some children who struggle with making choices in general and might need a structured plan until they can navigate the environment independently. However, it is important to remember that we are always moving the children in the direction of independence, and the children should be given greater freedoms when they show that they are capable of making choices and managing those choices.
Another level of choice involves the teacher choosing some of the work the children engage in, and the child choosing some of the work. Often at this stage, the teacher’s choice takes precedence, and the child has the option to make choices after the work assigned by the teacher is completed. The danger with this framework is that children will often rush through the work assigned by the teacher so they can get to the work that they would rather do.
Another stage of choice involves children working on a combination of teacher and student choice, but they can organize their work according to their preference. It is at this level that the classroom is beginning to show deeper engagement in their work. Students might have some work that is assigned to them, but there is flexibility in terms of when it gets completed, and it can be completed before, after, or in between other activities. The children might have deadlines that extend several days, giving them the opportunity to have greater agency over their time. This level of choice is a level that public Montessori schools can easily attain, as it strikes the balance of ensuring that some work in certain required areas is being attended to, while at the same time allowing for students to explore their passions and interests.
The ultimate level of choice involves children engaging in projects, materials, and activities that are self-selected, most of the time. They can choose where they sit, with whom they work with, how long they work, and what they work on. The teacher may ask the children to choose follow-up work after a lesson to cement the learning process. The teacher collaborates with the child in regards to the nature of the follow-up work, inspiring them by suggesting ideas such as undergoing a complex project or a filling up a poster with super long division problems. The teacher may brainstorm with the children in a lesson various possibilities of follow-up work to help with the retention of a lesson, and the children in the group may all choose the same follow-up work, or not. While facilitating follow-up work could be considered an aspect of “teacher choice,” the child has a significant amount of input in the learning process.
Can students have “choice” in their work and still develop the skills needed to master standards? Yes!
The first level of choice mentioned, where the children don’t choose the content or activity but choose the order in which they complete the assigned tasks or where they work within the room, offers a very limited experience. This is not a true choice. While as a teacher you are responsible for ensuring that your students are progressing in key areas, it is important to strike a balance between supporting work that needs to be completed for mastery, and work that is a meaningful and growing experience for the child.
Because the standards are largely skill-based rather than content-based, almost any common core standard can be built around a child’s interest. As an example, here is a fourth-grade writing standard: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly. This standard aligns perfectly with the various research studies Montessori students spend much of their time engaged in during the work cycle! Inviting a child to choose something they want to write a report on and scaffolding the process as they practice conveying ideas and information clearly can be addressed whether or not a child wants to learn about Ancient Egypt, koalas and their habitat, or motorcycles. Therefore, children can choose content while at the same time building skills that society indicates they need to learn. What better way to practice a skill, than through genuine interest!
Observe the children, assess their levels of independence, and start from there
You might have some children at the beginning of the year who cannot make a choice, because they have never been given the opportunity. For these children, you might be creating a list of work for them to do at first. But this should be a transitional experience, and it doesn’t mean that everyone in the class has to do it this way because some children are not yet independent. I once taught at a public school where the students had to complete work logs. For some children, I wrote in the work that they were to complete (and always with their input when they had input to offer!). For other children, I wrote down a couple of choices, and they wrote in a couple of choices. For other children, I gave them a blank work log, and they filled it in completely, and the only work directed from me were lessons (they chose their own follow-up work). This is one example of what personalization of work within a classroom of children with varying levels of independence can look like.
How to ensure that children are being held accountable while offering choices
In Montessori elementary, there are said to be three tools of accountability. These are the work journal, the student and teacher conference, and the standards for where the child lives. If you, as the teacher, plan your lessons to cover the standards and help children learn to use these three tools, then you can rest easier giving them the freedom to pursue their interests because you know that you are covering the lessons they need, and they are doing follow up work to these lessons that cement their learning.
The work journal
Have the children record lessons that they’ve received, follow-up work that they are doing, and the independent work of their choosing. This record of work allows the child to reflect back on their work and helps them keep track of skills they are practicing towards mastery.
The student and teacher conference
The teacher meets with each child at least once every 1-2 weeks (and more frequently for children who need additional support). The teacher will use this time to ask the child what has been enjoyable, what has been difficult, and how they are progressing on their goals. This is a time to collaborate with the children on what you both determine needs to be practiced. It is a good time for them to commit to what they need to work on and when they plan to practice the work that needs repetition, as well as how they plan to repeat their work to attain mastery. Remember, in elementary, repetition comes through variety. Instead of using the bead bars for multiplication practice, are there other ways in which you can suggest for the child to practice? Can you give the child a choice within what is required? Can you help the child generate their own ideas?
Have the standards available for your students to review. Gather them by grade level at the beginning of the year and share the most basic standards with them so that they know what they need to accomplish by the end of the school year. Helping the children be aware that they should have their multiplication facts memorized by the end of third grade will give them 9 months to practice and prepare for this end of the year milestone.
Understanding how to facilitate, organize, and prepare an environment that fosters student choice is one of the most challenging aspects of being a Montessori elementary teacher. Striking the balance between teacher-led experiences and student-led experiences will go a long way in creating an environment that sparks interest in the child and supports them in digging deeper into their topics of interest, while still ensuring that they are making adequate progress in their academic development. It is through their interests that they will be practicing and developing many of the skills they are required to learn, and they are doing it in such a way that simultaneously satisfies their need for self-construction.
Letty Rising is an international Montessori consultant. She holds an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as Montessori Elementary Teacher, Education Coordinator, and Head of School with several different Montessori communities over the years, including the LePort Schools. See More