by Letty Rising
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The notion of flexibility without compromise seems, at first glance, contradictory.
Like many terms used in Montessori circles that are joined together and also seemingly paradoxical, such as freedom and responsibility, structure and choice, and follow the child vs order and procedure, there is an endless conversation running through the Montessori community about the following:
- How far can we deviate from what we learned in our training?
- In what ways can we deviate from what we learned from our training?
- When we deviate, what does that look like?
- Can we deviate and also remain true to the philosophy?
- When is deviation an enhancement of what is already offered, and when is it departing from the core of what we do?
These are tough questions indeed! And also worth pondering. Let’s look at each of these questions more closely and unpack each of them.
How far can we deviate from what we learned in our training?
This is a question that passes through the minds of teachers regularly. It is my understanding that the albums we receive are a starting point, and that we can prepare additional lessons for children who want or need them. This means that our albums are to be considered living documents. We update them as new information arises, and we take different approaches as new research and evidence come to light.
The beauty is that Maria Montessori was ahead of her time, and the Montessori approach is in alignment with much of current research! Still, we want to offer children the universe, which comes through the Great Lessons and the Key Lessons.
In what ways can we deviate from what we learned in our training?
When it comes to a procedural lesson that involves a process, which includes most math lessons, grammar boxes, sentence analysis, and geography-science experiments, there isn’t a lot of room for deviation, but there still is some! For example, I had a student who was bothered when using the checkerboard when he had a “zero” in any one place, and therefore no beads (or anything else) in that square. He decided to take a “zero” from the number tiles and place it in the square whenever he ended up with a zero, both so he could remember that he intentionally didn’t put any bead bars there, and to prevent him from miscounting.
However, when it comes to most of the other lessons, which are largely rooted in story, there is room for creativity. You want to deviate from the original script at least enough to make the story your own!
Can we deviate and also remain true to the philosophy?
I think the key here is to remain true to the philosophy. The saying goes that you can do Montessori without the materials, but you can’t do Montessori without the philosophy. Of course without the materials what you are offering will be limited, but without the philosophy, you are not offering a Montessori approach, which is not only an approach to education but an approach to life! You might be in a public school setting and have to adhere to certain practices that at first glance don’t seem in alignment with Montessori.
However, with some creative thinking, you can often transform traditional practices into Montessori practices. For example, perhaps you work in a district that requires the children to use math booklets. You can conference with each child about how to use the booklet independently during work time, or even gather them for small group lessons where you show a concept being introduced in the booklet with the Montessori material, have them practice, then they can use their math booklets for follow up work. With some strategizing, anything can be used similarly to other materials.
When is deviation an enhancement of what is already offered, and when is it departing from the core of what we do?
I think this is sometimes difficult to discern, especially for the new teacher. My thoughts are that if you are giving a Layers of the Earth lesson, what would look like an enhancement would be giving separate presentations on the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, and the atmosphere, maybe by telling a story for each layer, and having your students think of a topic to write about for each layer, and come up with a follow-up activity. This would be enhancing the presentations you already have! Also, this example of an enhancement offers an element of sparking curiosity, then hands-on engagement.
What would be a departure would be to give the students a series of worksheets to fill out on the layers of the earth, and possibly quiz them on each section at the end. A worksheet as a vehicle for practice, such as practicing math facts or handwriting, can be helpful, but as far as using a worksheet as a vehicle for learning new content, that can best be implemented in a Montessori fashion of offering an enticing presentation and having students complete a hands-on, student-generated activity.
Can we be flexible without compromising the essence of what we do?
Most of us who become Montessori teachers do not have the childhood experience of having been in a Montessori school. Therefore, we don’t have the muscle memory that would allow for the kind of guidance we offer, the structure we provide, and the environment we facilitate to be automatic. This is particularly true for new teachers, but it is also the case that experienced teachers who grew up educated within a traditional paradigm will have to check themselves periodically to ensure they are not gravitating towards a traditional education mindset.
One example of this is the tendency of some Montessori teachers to focus on math and language while excluding other areas in Cosmic Education. Particularly for those in public school settings who must adhere to the standards, the “common core creep,” can be very real.
So being flexible means offering the basics, but the story might be a bit different, you might break lessons into smaller ones, or combine some lessons into larger ones. You might suggest lots of creative and varied follow-up activities for students to work on after the presentation. You might see that the child is very excited about the ecology lesson you presented, only to notice that there are only a couple of ecology lessons in your album, so you decide to create a series of lessons on consumers and producers, food webs, ecosystems, and the like! This is extending what is there to meet the needs of the child, which we know was of utmost importance to Maria Montessori.
What does flexibility without compromise look like?
Flexibility without compromising the basic tenets of Montessori pedagogy is not only doable, but it’s also essential. If we become rigid in our approach, then there is a lack of organic spontaneity that fuels inspiration. Flexibility without compromise can look like the following:
- Taking the lessons in your albums and expanding upon them
- Breaking lessons into smaller lessons
- Being receptive to a child showing you a new or different way to use a material or engage with a concept, and supporting that.
- Not going through every single lesson with every child in lock-step fashion.
Being flexible without compromise means taking a close look at everything you bring into the classroom that hasn’t been vetted by your training center, and having solid reasons why you are using these additional lessons or materials. It also means observing what the child is interested in and customizing their learning experience based on what you observe.
The opposite of this would be to compromise the fidelity of the approach. Replacing the math materials with another math curriculum that looks more familiar and has textbooks, workbooks, or worksheets without a hands-on component.
What are the Montessori essentials?
There are many aspects of the Montessori approach that seem essential, and there are endless debates regarding how long or short that list should be. Here is a short list that most people would agree upon:
- An environment prepared for independent activity
- Mixed-age classrooms
- Trained teachers
- Freedom of movement
- Opportunity for agency choice
When we are talking about being flexible, it’s safe to say that most people would express strong opposition to being flexible about any of the above. The one exception that we are finding right now in our time of teacher shortage, is related to the lack of untrained teachers in comparison to the desire for increasingly more Montessori classrooms. So while most people would say that a Montessori classroom cannot be led by an untrained Montessori guide, what is true is that the guide would need to be in process of teacher training in order to experience even a small amount of success, which will increase over time as new information is learned in training.
Without a prepared environment, mixed-aged classrooms, trained teachers, freedom of movement, or opportunity for choice, the very foundational components of a Montessori classroom are lacking.
While there are clearly areas that we would not want to compromise, it is also true that being a Montessori teacher is about being flexible and responsive to the child’s needs and interests. If we can keep the essentials in mind, there can be a lot of flexibility within those essentials that involve meeting the children where they are, and taking them to where they want (or need!) to go.
Your albums and presentations are just a starting point, so don’t be afraid to spend more time on the Fundamental Needs of Humans than you expected, or to go deep into the fundamental needs of Ancient Mayan civilization because a group of children in your class happens to be interested in knowing more about them. While we don’t have a lesson on the Mayans in our albums, we are being flexible by going beyond the Fundamental Needs of Humans and getting more specific.
Our initial lessons are the keys… keys that unlock the doors of further knowledge for the children to explore.
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 pubic and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. She currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.