by Letty Rising
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The world is rapidly changing all around us. When I think of the Timeline of Humans, and just how long it took for change to take place from the beginning of human life until now, it’s easy to see that the amount of transformation the world has seen in the past 20 years is massive in comparison to the 200, or even 2000 years before.
The pandemic propelled us to the next level in the evolution of the virtual world, and life seems to be moving faster than ever before. Just as it is often the case that a small child can understand and feel a lot more than they are able to express, we are currently living in a time where our inner lives are moving much faster than their outward manifestation.
For example, in the realm of education, we find that there are many people holding the desire to start new schools that are responsive to the needs of children and families. Naturally, many have turned their attention toward the Montessori approach. Even learning environments using the Montessori approach can further splinter into sub-categories…schools in a traditional brick and mortar setting, a small pod-like setting, an outdoor setting, or a homeschool environment. In fact, I even know someone who has started a Montessori school on wheels!
In order for the world to successfully accommodate the variety of learning structures that have either popped up as new innovations or grown exponentially in recent years, there has to be a way to acquire the physical resources that go along with these increasingly desirable learning paradigms. For example, there’s been a renewed interest in Montessori education, whether it be in a traditional school setting, a small group setting, or at home. Increasingly, there are more public Montessori schools opening up every year.
However, with the small handful of Montessori manufacturers, and not to mention the intensive nature (and up until recently, the scarcity) of Montessori training, getting both materials and trained teachers in front of children has become a supply chain ordeal that has resulted in an obstacle to starting a Montessori environment from scratch.
In Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, professor and researcher Angeline Lillard, identified 8 basic principles central to Montessori education that contribute to positive outcomes in children. These principles are as follows:
- Movement and cognition are closely intertwined, and movement can enhance thinking and learning.
- Learning and well-being are improved when people have a sense of control over their lives.
- People learn better when they are interested in what they are learning.
- Tying extrinsic rewards to an activity, like money for reading or high grades for tests, negatively impacts motivation to engage in that activity when the reward is withdrawn.
- Collaborative arrangements can be very conducive to learning.
- Learning situated in meaningful contexts is often deeper and richer than learning in abstract contexts.
- Particular forms of adult interaction are associated with more optimal child outcomes
- Order in the environment is beneficial to children.
Reading through these principles, you probably noticed that there isn’t one single principle mentioned that specifically addresses the Montessori lessons or the materials. This is great news for teachers teaching in new schools that are waiting for their materials and supplies, or under-resourced schools that don’t have all of the materials they need.
It’s also encouraging news for traditional teachers who have heard about Montessori and want to make their environments more aligned with Montessori teaching practices. In fact, these principles can also be applied to the home environment as well. In addition, there are lots of Montessori schools currently operating with untrained guides, due to teacher shortages, lack of accessible training options, etc., and these principles serve as a great starting point for anyone wanting to incorporate the most general and accessible aspects of the Montessori approach.
Below are some practical ideas on how each of these principles can be addressed in an environment that is lacking in Montessori resources and/or untrained guides, allowing those classrooms to move the needle closer to where they want to be while waiting for resources to come or teachers to be trained. They are also simply great ideas that teachers in all kinds of settings, both Montessori and not, can employ to augment the student experience.
Movement and cognition are closely intertwined, and movement can enhance thinking and learning.
People learn when they move, and this is especially true for children! In the Montessori classroom environment, there are many lessons that involve children moving around. There are some simple activities that children can do that incorporate movement at home or in school environments.
Tips and Tricks
- Children can bounce a ball or jump rope while skip-counting to memorize multiplication facts.
- Offer a challenge by having students create a word list (could be suffixes, prefixes, compound words, etc.), study the list, then move to another part of the room and write down as many as they can remember, going back and forth until they have jotted most or all of them down.
- Younger elementary children can label the environment by writing down objects in a room and taping an index card or small piece of paper to the object being labeled.
- Using various units of measurement, have children measure the area and perimeter of large objects inside and outside of the classroom. With older children, you can invite them to measure the circumference of a tree!
- Children can go outside and take a nature hike while listing all of the things that they see, or even write a list of things they see in the classroom.
Learning and well-being are improved when people have a sense of control over their lives.
Children concentrate best on things that they find interesting, stimulating, and engaging. You will want to give choices whenever possible! It might be that choices are limited at the outset, whether it be due to limited resources or the children are not yet able to navigate an environment with too many choices. You’ll want to start with a few familiar or easy-to-grasp choices, and eventually branch out.
Tips and Tricks
- Children should be able to choose where they do their work, when they do their work (ordering the tasks according to their preference) and how long they do their work. Maybe you have a student who would prefer to do math first thing every morning, or maybe you have a student who would like to leave math until after lunch. Let them choose, and as long as they are able to follow through with their choices, continue supporting them with independent choices.
- They should have significant input on the nature of the work they are doing. Open-ended work is ideal in a well-functioning Montessori classroom. For example, perhaps the teacher has assigned each child in the class to write a biography due to a standard that needs to be adhered to. The child can choose who they write the biography about, and what kind of project they might want to do that is related to the biography. Options will go a long way in inspiring interest!
People learn better when they are interested in what they are learning.
Children learn best when the learning experiences are built around topics that they enjoy!
Tips and Tricks
- Interest can easily be fostered through the children’s explorations via projects, independent research, and open-ended questions. Children’s questions arise organically during the work cycle. They might ask questions such as: “How do plants eat?” “Why is the sky blue?” or “How come there are no more dinosaurs?” You can use these questions to help discover what the child is interested in and wants to know more about, and find the resources that are either in books or online to nurture these interests. Then you can extend their interests even further by suggesting additional projects or activities that will expand their explorations.
Tying extrinsic rewards to an activity, like money for reading or high grades for tests, negatively impacts motivation to engage in that activity when the reward is withdrawn.
This is more of a caution regarding what NOT to do. Many adults were students during a time when traditional education involved handing out stickers, candy, or prizes for learning. Even many traditional settings have put that idea to rest, refraining from giving children external rewards for performance, but it’s easy to fall back to what we know and what we have experienced in the past when trying something new.
Tips and Tricks
- Approach students with the assumption that they WANT to learn and are interested and excited about at least some things. Although it might be tempting to offer rewards for good behavior or performance, this will backfire in the long term, as they will focus on the reward rather than the activity itself. Research has shown that the rewards have to increase in value in order to be effective over time. Also, when the reward is taken away, the behavior that was being rewarded will stop because an extrinsic motivator fueled it. Help your child see the value of learning new things, inspire them, and model interest and curiosity in your own life.
Collaborative arrangements can be very conducive to learning.
Children love to work with others, and it is in working with others that children can discuss, create, collaborate, negotiate, and debate. These are such important communication skills that children develop in the elementary years!
Tips and Tricks
- Inviting children to read to each other is a positive and enriching experience for both involved. If the child is older and already reading fluently, you can have your elementary child practice reading with “voice,” which will enhance their presentation skills. Elementary children can also collaborate with each other by conducting research together, discussing topics of interest, participating in book clubs, engaging in debates, sharing ideas, and even just simply connecting with each other without a particular outcome.
Learning situated in meaningful contexts is often deeper and richer than learning in abstracted contexts.
While children in the first plane of development (ages 0-6) will perform activities in order to develop a certain skill, elementary children want to engage in activities that they perceive to be meaningful or relevant to them. They do not want to wash a table just for the sake of doing so.
Tips and Tricks
- Connecting their learning to real-world experiences as much as you can will go a long way in sparking interest, which will also lead to higher retention and mastery of content. You might not yet have the Montessori materials you need, but math can be made meaningful through engagement in meaningful work. For example, cooking involves estimation, measurement, and fractions. Using another example, children might not like to write stories or reports, but maybe they will want to write the recipe for their favorite cake that they can bake, or maybe they want to write a letter to their grandma who they haven’t seen in a while. Having them write down directions, instructions, and lists are great ways to make writing meaningful for the kind of child who needs a particular “reason” to write.
Particular forms of adult interaction are associated with more optimal child outcomes.
While it’s hard to respond perfectly to every child at every moment, it’s worth striving for high-quality interactions with students. This includes being open and receptive to children as they ask questions and instigate new (and possibly messy!) projects and refrain from discouraging them from exploration.
Tips and Tricks
- Elementary children like to engage in big projects, and in order to allow for this, you also have to be able to tolerate a certain level of mess. At the end of the project, the mess needs to be cleaned up, and the children need to be responsible for the majority of that. If you find yourself breathing heavy sighs or eye-rolling as a child or group of children asks to make yet another project out of cardboard or set up another messy science experiment, try to shift from discouragement to encouragement, while also holding them accountable for the cleanup. John Gottman, a relationship expert, has found in his research studies that for any relationship to go well, there need to be 5 positive interactions to every one negative interaction. Fill their buckets by giving them a smile, a touch on the shoulder, asking them curiosity questions about their projects and activities that they are excited about, and even joking around with them. Elementary children love to hear and tell jokes!
The most important thing to remember is that when educators are stressed, they tend to issue a lot of directives or commands. However, these can become discouraging to children if they are not balanced with lots of positive engagement.
Order in the environment promotes and establishes mental order and is beneficial to the child.
Children feel better and do better when they are in an environment that is relatively orderly, and where everything has its place. It not only helps with the organization of the physical space but also the organization of their minds.
Tips and Tricks
- Be sure that shelves contain neatly stored materials and are presented in a thoughtful display. Loose pieces can reside in containers such as baskets or small boxes. This way, children can easily find what they are looking for, and there is a logical manner in which it is returned so that they can find it the next time. Elementary children need some sort of area for supplies, whether it be a supply shelf or a supply closet, the supplies need to be organized, everything needs to have a place, and small objects that are alike such as pencils should have their own separate containers. Having an organized area for supplies will help children as they participate in follow-up work or “big work” that involves large pieces of paper, tape, string, scissors, glue, etc. Having an environment in which the children can navigate independently is one of the most important aspects of a Montessori environment, and you as the educator will want to actively support this so that the children aren’t constantly turning to you for help in areas where they can help themselves.
As you can see, the 8 principles outlined above can easily be accomplished in most learning environments without the use of traditional Montessori materials, and without an untrained guide. While the materials are, of course, ideal to have in a Montessori environment, there is so much more that the children can do to support their needs and characteristics that go beyond the materials.
Having access to books and articles for children to pour over as they pursue their interests and conduct research so that they can write reports, make timelines, and create booklets, along with the supplies necessary to create these things will keep your students busy and engaged! They need work that is meaningful and relevant, and the Montessori approach is all about introducing children to the real world. Sanding and refinishing the shelf that will be used for their supplies, measuring the garden plot and identifying which seeds are best for planting in which seasons, and planning and preparing meals for the whole family to enjoy are all real-world Montessori activities that can be done at home.
Most of all, children need the human element: friends to connect with, and warm, loving adults to care for them and to guide them. Helping children identify and nurture their interests will go a long way in addressing the principles above, especially when you find yourself in the situation of guiding a Montessori environment without the resources to do so.
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.