The Science Behind the Genius

July 26, 2018 Published by ,

I feel it is important for all families to have an understanding of the key principles of Montessori education. This led me to re-read Angeline Stoll Lillard’s book, The Science Behind the Genius (2005), in which she discusses the scientific research that has been done to support the Montessori approach. The book is organised into eight main chapters, each of which focuses on Montessori’s insights and how these are enacted in classrooms. I thought it would be useful for both current and prospective families to read a bit more about the philosophy that underpins our method. I have selected a sentence from each chapter that summarises the principle, and then provided some examples of what you might see in the classrooms at EMAS that exemplifies each. Serendipitously, many of these principles were addressed in the conference that Emma reviewed above.

Movement and learning are perpetually entwined in Montessori education

Our environment is designed not only to allow children to move (by, for example, having a range of table sizes, floor tables, and floor mats), but to encourage them to move. The movement is built into the materials as well.

For example, in order to prepare snack in Infant Community, the child first goes to the kitchen to collect the snack items. He or she may then need to go to the sink to wash the fruit or vegetables. Some food then needs to be prepared further, by peeling, cutting, or spreading. The child then transfers the prepared food to a serving dish. Any equipment or utensils used are washed. All the snack dishes are carried to the table, and the children serve one another. After snack, each child takes his or her dirty dishes to the basin, and two children then return to the kitchen to help the teacher load the dishwasher. All of the movement involved in this process is purposeful. It not only allows the child to enjoy the food, but supports him or her to contribute to the classroom community, to develop gross and fine motor skills, and to learn the steps of safe food preparation.

In Children’s House, children may walk back and forth collecting golden beads for the Bank Game; trace the shapes of letters using different materials; scrub the table after painting; or create a path showing the orbits of different planets. Concrete materials continue to be used in Elementary, so that the child, for example, might physically assemble an atom model from loose protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Children in Montessori classrooms freely choose their work

Once a child has been given a presentation on a material, he or she is free to choose that work at any time (unless another child is using it!). Providing children with a range of appropriate choices, with guidance given by the teachers as needed, encourages them to develop an understanding of their own interests and strengths. Having this control (to make independent choices) improves learning and well-being. In Elementary, expectations are increased through discussion with children about making choices that are constructive, well-

planned, and responsible. At home, you can provide scaffolded choices for any age by offering a limited selection of, for example, snacks, clothing, or books. Children will choose work that aligns with their interests.

Montessori education is designed to awaken interest and to allow children to pursue learning about issues that already personally interest them.

The Elementary class have been involved in making architectural drawings of what a new classroom might look like. They have explored different tools for measuring, looked at scale – including building three- dimensional scale models, used architectural rulers, and engaged in heated  debate  about  the  best  layout. The architect working on the site has generously shared her expertise, and her drawings, so the class has also benefitted from professional input and have been able to discuss what an architect’s job consists of.

As children are free to choose their work, part of the role of Montessori teachers is to ensure that work (materials, books, etc.) are available that correspond to children’s interests and inspire them. In Children’s House, children are exposed to a very broad range of topics at an introductory level, to spark their imagination. Particularly in Elementary, children are encouraged to extend these interests and are asked to think of ways that they could find out more – which could include inviting people in to the school or ‘going out’ into the community, for example to a museum. Children are then asked to share their learning with their peers in a variety of ways, which may then prompt further exploration…

The prize and the punishment are incentives towards unnatural or forced effort, and therefore we certainly cannot speak of the natural development of the child in connection with them.

Completion of a task well done can bring its own rewards – rather than offering external motivation in the form of a sticker or a ‘pupil of the week’ certificate, we discuss the importance of, for example, caring for class pets because of their needs and that we have accepted responsibility for them. Even praise must be used judiciously, and should be focused on effort rather than results.  This  ties  into  Dweck’s research on growth mindsets.

Montessori’s comments on ‘unnatural’ or ‘forced’ effort relate to how rewards in particular can lessen children’s motivation: they tend to rush through activities to get to the end, or the reward; they are less likely to return to the activity by their own choice; and they tend to retain the learning less well. Even the use of grades can be de-motivating, and so we instead focus on self-evaluation (perhaps against a rubric in Elementary) and discuss how it feels to have tried hard to tackle a big piece of work. Similarly, we aim to play cooperative rather than competitive games. Rather than ‘punishments’, we discuss logical consequences, and these are often considered even before the child has engaged in a work or behaviour.

Children in Montessori classroom have ample opportunity for learning by imitating, through peer tutoring, and in collaboration.

The mixed-age classroom is an essential aspect of a Montessori school. Children learn through observing others, working in groups, and being ‘mentored’ by an older child. This knowledge exchange provides benefits to both the younger child (through providing a role model) and the older child (by enabling them to consolidate their knowledge and feel pride in their role as teacher). Montessori in fact noted that children can sometimes learn even better from peers than they can from adult teachers. Watching older children at work can also inspire younger children, who can then be introduced to a sequence of activities leading up the more complex materials. Children are expected to be good examples to one another and to help each other – we see this pro- social behaviour both in ‘academic’ areas and also, for example, helping another child get his wellies off. Collaboration and true joint work is more apparent in Elementary, as children’s social development is progressing and they are more able to allocate responsibilities within a group.

Meaningful experiences and contexts are connected to one’s daily life, and they feel important.

We recognise that children have rich, busy lives outside of EMAS. We constantly engage in discussion around children’s experiences at home and in the community. For older children, we make specific links between the context of a lesson or material and their previous knowledge. We also aim to discuss practical implications, such as our Parent Liaison Ellie below introducing a wormery and speaking about how and why food waste can be recycled.

In Infant Community and Children’s House, the exercises of Practical Life provide children with the skills that they need to participate in both family and school life. These underlying skills then enable the children to move on and apply them to other contexts – for example, as a child develops his or her ability to use scissors, these can then be used for flower arranging, art, opening packets from lunch boxes, etc.

Dr. Montessori advised that teachers show a degree of warmth and sensitivity that is reminiscent of the characteristics of parents whose children are securely attached.

We believe that relationships of trusts between children and teachers are essential for the children to develop. While this relationship does not replace the parental bond, we recognise that children must feel secure in order to be open to learning new experiences. In Infant Community, the children’s sense of physical security remains very important, so teachers spend much of their time on the floor interacting at the children’s level. In Children’s House, and even more so in Elementary, the teacher enters a ‘conspiracy of learning’ with the children, viewing them as partners in exploration. Preparing to support children just enough, but not too much, is  an  important  part  of  Montessori  teacher  training.  If  the  Montessori  approach  were  described  using parenting styles, it would be ‘authoritative’: providing clear boundaries that are enforced with the child’s emotions in mind. Nurturing relationships are further developed as the child usually has teachers for more than one year.

The children in our schools are free, but that does not mean there is no organisation. Organisation, in fact, is necessary… if the children are to be free to work.”

Organisation of the physical environment leads to organisation within the mind. Classrooms are organised on a macro level, which is apparent from observing the layout of the shelves and the material on the shelves; within materials, there is also internal organisation. As children get older, they are able to provide more of this organisation themselves: for example, taking a box of mixed colour-coded arrows and sorting them into units, tens, and hundreds, before sorting them into categories, before sorting them in numerical order to lay out with their physical representation.

In Montessori classrooms, the physical environment is considered a ‘third teacher’. The environment is organised in such a way that it facilitates learning. Resources are arranged in such a way that there is a logical relationship between them, that there is a progression from more to less concrete and less to more abstract, and that each work has its place on the shelf. This organisation then allows the children to feel secure, as it is orderly and predictable, and they understand they can freely choose within this context. Children in all classrooms are expected to contribute to the care and upkeep of the classroom environment, with responsibilities increasing with age. In Elementary, because children have started to internalise the logical organisation of the materials, it is less important that the physical environment is as strictly organised; however, the underlying order remains.

While I have included many concepts within this article, I hope that you are able to see how these principles of Montessori education are enacted within our classrooms. Each principle could be a parent workshop in its own right, with associated discussion of how to support these principles at home; these may be the topics of parent education sessions running over the next academic year if there is interest.

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This post was written by Emma