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by Letty Rising
As Montessori education moves forward on the path of distance learning while people all over the world are navigating life through a global pandemic, there is much to consider and still so much to learn. And it is not only the children who are learning new things! Parents and teachers alike are learning how to navigate the world of video conference calls, YouTube video uploads, Google Classrooms, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Seesaw, Clever, and a host of other programs and tech tools that can be overwhelming for people who are new to the technology scene.
In Montessori schools and classrooms throughout the world, there has been much discussion about what kind of platform to use, how many hours children should (or shouldn’t) be in front of a screen, as well as what are the best apps, websites, and programs that will keep children engaged. In addition, there are conversations about what measures should be taken that will ensure the child is progressing, and will at the same time occupy them for lengths of time while parents are frantically working, parenting, and educating their children at home. None of us are experts in this instructional method. It is still so new that we don’t even know of its effectiveness in the long term, and in truth it is a grand experiment for all involved.
It’s easy to get lost in these details and forget some of the main principles that we hold dear as Montessori educators in terms of how elementary children learn best. While everyone had very little warning before we suddenly plunged into this new way of teaching and learning, it’s important to take a step back and look at the programming that we are offering from a Montessori perspective. Otherwise, we are just delivering the same kind of program as the traditional school down the street. Rather than abandoning our Montessori principles, or even adding Montessori theory on top of the distance learning program we have designed, I instead invite everyone to consider the best way that elementary children learn and develop and then build a program based upon those developmental needs. Rather than building a program and fitting a child into that program, we want to build the program around the child.
Developing a Distance Learning Program with the Psychological Characteristics in Mind
A great framework for building such a program would be the Psychological Characteristics of the Elementary Child as described by Dr. Maria Montessori. These are qualities and characteristics that Montessori observed in children ages 6-12 from all over the world, and therefore if you visit elementary children in any country, you are apt to see these characteristics come into play. While some educational models fold many of these characteristics into the daily experience of the elementary child, the Montessori approach for elementary children is reliant upon these psychological characteristics to inform and guide us in how to best serve the needs of the child in the second plane of development. It is from these characteristics that the elementary curriculum was developed.
How can we address the psychological characteristics of the elementary child in a distance learning environment?
Building a distance learning program from a Montessori perspective means doing so while keeping the following characteristics in mind:
Elementary children want to be connected with each other. They are very social and have a yearning to work together in groups. They have a deep desire to discuss, negotiate, debate, and collaborate with others, and these activities are important for their development. Children of this age generally do not enjoy working in isolation, and they learn best through hands-on work and discussion.
Practical applications: Ensure that any live video conferencing sessions you facilitate are as interactive as possible. Resist the idea of solely relying on the structure of imparting information to children during an online lesson, then sending them offline to do follow up work in the home by themselves. (This looks no different than traditional education!) As often as possible, you will want to keep them with each other online after the lesson so that they can feel a sense of togetherness when completing their follow-up work. Also, you will want to offer opportunities for book clubs, discussions of ideas, and debates. It’s also a great opportunity for children to sharpen their presentation skills! Singing together as a group is a great bonding activity. Children can also watch a video assigned by the teacher from the topics of history, biology, or geography, and teachers can use the “live” time to facilitate lively and meaningful dialogue amongst the children. Live video conferencing calls are wonderful opportunities to develop conversational skills and increase opportunities for socialization.
Separation from Family
Children have a desire to separate from the family at this age, and gravitate more towards peers. Children have been going to school without parents, and many of them will want to continue seeing school as something for “them” and not for their parents, even if it is happening in their living room with their parents nearby.
Practical applications: Create guidelines for parents so that they will understand the importance of giving their child space when the teacher is presenting a “live” lesson. This will help foster and support the growing independence of the elementary child. Encourage parents to stay on the sidelines, and empower the children to engage directly with their teacher and their peers, rather than having parents responding for their children. It is important that the second plane child has a sense of privacy. Whether it be a personalized workspace, or a private journal to jot down their thoughts, children of this age want to have something that belongs only to them.
Elementary children have a lot of energy and need to be able to engage in big projects that support gross motor development.
Practical applications: There are lots of wonderful practical life opportunities that children can engage in around the home. Along with regular chores, elementary children can put together furniture, refinish a wooden bookshelf, or plant a garden. Children are likely spending a lot of time indoors, and possibly in a back yard or a balcony, and so since their opportunities for gross motor play may be limited, practical life is the best solution for filling in the gap for physical activity during this time of restricted movement. In addition, there are lots of wonderful physical education activities that can be done online, such as: yoga, dancing, and aerobic exercise. These activities don’t take up a lot of space, and can also be done with online friends.
Elementary children have a sense of fairness and justice, and want to understand things for themselves and use their own judgment. They are very interested in the concept of “right and wrong,” and are keenly aware when someone is not being fair (and are usually not shy about pointing out when they see others acting in ways they perceive as unfair!).
Practical applications: Create small group lessons where children can debate and discuss topics that are important and/or intriguing to the elementary child’s developing sense of morality. An example: Would you rather kill the spider in your bathroom or capture it and set it free? What if it is a black widow vs. a harmless spider, does your answer change?
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Elementary children choose heroes based on people they admire. They love to hear stories of their accomplishments and do research reports. They often take on characteristics and values of people who they admire, and will spend a lot of time learning about their heroes.
Practical applications: Draw attention to heroes both past and present. Children can look into the past and in the present to find heroes who are scientists, athletes, inventors, singers, musicians, actors, activists…the list is endless! This is a hard time in the world right now, and helping children find heroes will give them hope and inspiration. Give children presentations on how to write a biography, encourage them to do research on their favorite heroes, then invite them to present and discuss with their friends.
Powers of Imagination
Elementary children are no longer exploring with only their senses..they explore through their minds. They can use their imagination to conjure up images from experiences they’ve had in the past, and even images they’ve never before seen.
Practical applications: As a guide, this is a great time to strengthen your storytelling skills to spark their imagination! While many lessons might be complicated to give online, storytelling lessons, with or without impressionistic charts, are certain to not only incite interest, but also will help them develop their imaginative powers. You can help them develop their storytelling skills as well, by offering them opportunities to tell stories in small groups with their friends.
Developing Powers of Abstraction
While the child younger than 6 explores the environment primarily through the senses, the second plane child moves from concrete to abstract. They can explore ideas and abstractly by manipulating concepts and images in their minds. While elementary children use concrete materials when initially exploring a concept, the goal is to move them towards abstraction.
Practical applications: Elementary children in Montessori classrooms are undoubtedly using Montessori materials for math, but most should have some operations that they can do abstractly. For example, a child might be using racks and tubes for long division at school, but is still working on mastering long multiplication with paper and pencil. Offer them extra challenges with addition by suggesting that they create a LONG multiplication problem (on adding machine paper, or any kind if paper taped together). Children often find it more interesting to do one long problem rather than a sheet of several short problems. There are also materials that children can use around the house to practice measurement, fractions, and even word problems. There’s lots of stuff the children can do around the home…no need for the didactic materials while distance learning on a temporary basis.
Repetition in the second plane happens through variety and elaboration. They want to demonstrate what they know through the creation of big projects. They get excited to build, to create, and to design what comes from their imaginations!
Practical applications: This exciting aspect of the Montessori elementary approach can be challenging to replicate at home while under the current circumstances, depending on what resources families have. Even families who can budget for additional resources will often find stores closed or with limited supplies during this time. However, most households have plain paper, and children can tape several sheets of paper together to write a long story, create a timeline, or solve a long math problem. It can even be folded up accordion style when finished! Another idea is to use paper bags from the grocery store as a canvas for a project, and children can use cardboard from recycling to make dioramas, or use as a base for a paper mache construction or clay sculpture…the opportunities are as numerous as the mind can imagine!
Sense of Responsibility
Elementary children not only develop a sense of responsibility for themselves, but for their community. The household is a small community, and this is a great time for children to be contributing to their household community, particularly as parents are feeling the extra pressure of shouldering numerous responsibilities at home.
Practical applications: This is a perfect time for children to be learning new chores, and helping out with younger siblings. While some parents might feel reluctant to ask older siblings to take on additional caregiving duties for younger siblings, the truth of the matter is that most families who homeschool long-term have greater expectations of their older children in this regard because it is essential for the functioning of the household that everyone contributes where they can. Fostering a household where older children care for younger children strengthens their ability to care for others and develops an increased sense of empathy. Having expectations that children at home are responsible for their work space and their projects, and cleaning up after those projects, will go a long way in instilling a sense of responsibility.
- You can do Montessori without the materials, but you can’t do it without the philosophy. Don’t worry about the materials right now. Teachers can rely on the various lessons using impressionistic charts, and also create their own lessons that give children various opportunities to debate, discuss, negotiate, and collaborate.
- We can’t meet everyone’s needs with a single solution. We don’t yet know what works and what doesn’t work. And what may work for some families and schools may not work for others. We need to “follow the family” as well as following the child. We can only make adjustments after we try new things. When Maria Montessori developed this method of education, she experimented a lot, and was continuously refining her work.
- We will make a lot of mistakes, and that is how we perfect things. Maria Montessori was a scientist who observed and adjusted. We also must observe, and adjust accordingly. School leaders will do well to give teachers permission to try and to fail. Mistakes are opportunities for learning and growth. None of us are experts here, we are all learning something new together.
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Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.