Education and schooling is an experience we’ve all had and everyone has their own impression of it spanning from a good experience to a horrible one – often accepting it as ‘just how it is’. Traditional education as we know it, with scheduled bells, lessons by subject, uniforms, tests and exams, and teachers telling you what to do has become somewhat like the water in which fish don’t know they’re swimming. And we the fish.
Usually, it isn’t until we have a negative experience, or until we see our child struggling, that we seek alternative solutions. But what if traditional education, as we know it, is simply not as well-suited to our natural development as a whole human?
What if there is a solution that is better suited to the whole person development of an individual, rather than just the academic development?
1. There are no bells.
Pavlov’s dogs we are not! The concept of bells ringing to mark blocks of time came from the factories of the industrial era. In Montessori education, the children have a daily uninterrupted 3-hour work cycle where they have a space of time to get into the flow of their work. They choose their work, have one-on-one lessons with the teacher, and build-up their concentration in work they are actively and meaningfully engaged in. Their concentration is protected from other children, bells and even the teacher. With the freedom to work for as little or as much time as they like to accomplish the task, they cultivate the experience of autonomy and sense of achievement.
2. Every day is casual day.
Having no uniforms may seem like a small thing, but the process of choosing what to wear as well as dressing oneself for school is a vital opportunity to tap into how one wants to express themselves for the day. No uniform may seem inconvenient; it would appear easier to have one less thing to think about in the morning scramble for school. However, the independence of casual-wear engages the child with their emotional awareness as well as foresight into the practicality of their choice.
i.e. how warm or cold it is, it’s suitability for playing on the monkey bars, is it ok to get paint on it? etc. Having no prescribed uniforms is an invitation to celebrate an individual’s personality, emotion and artistic expression.
3. Children lead the way.
In traditional education, children typically present themselves as a unit to the teacher and passively receive the lesson that has been planned for all of them at the same time. In a Montessori classroom, each child is greeted individually, and they start their day with their own idea of what they would like to do – it could be something they’ve been shown earlier and would like to repeat it to get better at it, it could be something they’ve seen another child do or they can approach the teacher to request a lesson. As they do this, the teacher pays attention to the interest and abilities of the child, weaves it into the Montessori curriculum and invites the child for lessons with enticement and enthusiasm.
4. I like to move it move it. I like to – move it!
We all know children who can’t sit still. You might have been one. We can either remember being told off for fidgeting or witnessed someone else getting in trouble for it (and made an example of). The Montessori classroom is designed with movement in mind. The room is articulated with shelves for exploration. The activities are designed to make children move from one place to another. The activities are set up on trays to be carried by the children from shelf to table or mat to incidentally practice balance and coordination. They engage with physical tasks like Table Scrubbing, Window Washing, Walking On The Line for big, purposeful movements their little bodies need. The desks are set up for individual work to allow a child to work with concentration, but also as little stations for children to visit each other with the Grace & Courtesy to interrupt with consideration or to gauge whether or not their friend is available. The freedom of bodily movement translates to freedom of mentality which, in turn, becomes more inviting for a child stay-put and concentrate at the task at hand.
5. Mixed-age classrooms.
Traditional schooling seems to be the only context in which humans are grouped together by birth year. In the real world, groups of people tend to be of mixed-ages. The Montessori classroom emulates this reality and group children in their development stages: 0-3 years, 3-6 years, 6-9 years and 9-12 years. While a 3-year-old is very different to a 6-year-old, they still share the same developmental needs and have valuable things to teach each other. Each Montessori child experiences being the youngest, middle and oldest of the group. They get inspired by the older ones, play peacekeeper between the younger and older, and then become leaders who set an example to the rest of the children. This builds a positive cycle of humility and confidence as they move from one year to the next. They spend three consecutive years with the same teacher who really gets to the know them: their interests, quirks and talents. Trust is gradually built, and deeply embedded. The child learns a healthy standard of relationship with an adult. Mixed-aged classrooms tend to have an air of calm as there is a good dose of children with experience and confidence, so new children have a gentler induction into the classroom amongst children already familiar with the space.
6. Learn from mistakes.
Have you ever witnessed yourself reluctant to try something new for fear of making a mistake? Or feeling embarrassed (even ashamed) if someone comes along and calls out what you’re doing as wrong? Often this hang-up is born from well-intended adults who correct and judge mistakes or provide alternative answers, and we learn to regularly turn to them to assess our work and decision-making. At Montessori, we embrace the child’s natural inhibitions to ‘have a go’ and understand that the child has a natural ability to self-correct. Many of the materials of the Montessori environment are designed with a ‘control of error’ so that the child can find the solution independently. If not, Montessori educators hold their tongue and make a note to demonstrate the task at a later time for the child to have another go. Any ‘mistake’ is normalized in the classroom with calmness, reflection, and action. In Montessori speak, we call this ‘friendliness with error.’
7. No stickers or stars.
Initially it might seem cold to not give awards, rewards or praise for effort and achievement, but in Montessori education we understand that external affirmations for learning and achievements undermine the child’s intrinsic learning experience. We work towards the euphoric sensation of ‘I did it!’ and allow the child to enjoy their self-produced endorphins in association to their efforts. This positive connection to one’s own work and feeling becomes the intrinsic motivation to work for sake of work rather than reward.
8. Freedom within Limits.
Traditionally, order is kept by having all the children seated, being told what to do by the teacher, and a silent room is a mark of a ‘good’ room. However, this structure creates blind obedience, passiveness and lays barren soil for autonomy and executive functioning to grow. Montessori takes on a different form of order. It is known as ‘Freedom Within Limits’. It is often misinterpreted as the child can ‘do whatever they want’ and images of chaos ensues. A visit to any Montessori classroom will show you the contrary. Order is a collaborative effort by the children creating a calm and harmonious environment. You will see children working meaningfully, free to move, free to talk, free to choose. They work within clear expectations that are set for the greater good of the group. They can work with any friend they’d like, but they need to work sensibly. If not, they choose separate tasks. They can move freely in the classroom but can’t disrupt other children’s concentration. They can talk freely, but their volume mustn’t disturb others. When the children experience the harmony of the room, they find solace in it and feel empowered by their own contribution.
9. Educating the whole child.
In his popular Ted Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” the late Sir Ken Robinson says in reference to traditional education: ‘as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.’ He indicates that the traditional model of education places a hierarchy on subjects, placing maths and science up the top and the humanities and arts at the bottom. It results in the child feeling disembodied, quite literally, without the priority of learning dance, music, art and drama. In Montessori education, the social, emotional and spiritual development of the child is held with equal importance as intellectual development. The children learn in an environment where they are free to find themselves as humans: develop social connections with others, discover their talents, follow their curiosities and understand their emotions. Their days are balanced out with opportunities to engage in all areas of the curriculum either with structured lessons or by answering the call of creativity. They can paint, draw, sing, dance or role play during their uninterrupted work-period. They can also have ‘down-time’ where they can read in the reading corner, do some work in the Practical Life area, help themselves to fruit snack or roll out a yoga mat for some yoga and meditation. These opportunities to express their creativity and care for their own wellbeing provide the children with a much stronger foundation to develop intellectually – which is the goal of traditional education anyway! After 3 years of being in the classroom, the child often leaves with a greater sense of self where they are knowledgeable of their talents and unafraid to express them.
10. Teacher is nearly invisible.
A teacher is normally expected to be in the front of the class with a projected voice in a traditional setting. But in a Montessori environment, it is typical to walk in and not spot the teacher straight away. She is often at the same level with the children at their individual desks or on the floor. Her voice rarely raises, and if things get a bit too noisy, the source of the noise is personally addressed and the child or children aren’t made ‘an example of’. She is a guide more than anything. She follows the child and trusts their instincts to learn. Or she entices them into work with knowledge of their interests and abilities, making learning an enjoyable, engaging, personal experience. She often steps back to observe the children as they move, work, play and talk independently so that the room basically runs itself and she’s part of the furniture. As Dr. Montessori said, ‘The greatest sign of the success for a teacher… is to be able to say ‘the children are working as though I do not exist’.
The current school system in Australia had its genesis in creating workers to fuel our economy. And since that time, not a whole lot has changed. As Seth Godin said in his education manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams, “we teach facts, but the amount of knowledge truly absorbed is miniscule.”
The fundamental philosophy of North-Eastern Montessori is to empower individuals to excel by fanning the flames of curiosity. We take these ten key differences, and we embody them in everything we do. Our students are engaged, and excited to come to School. They are the epitome of self-directed learners – the love of learning, desire to explore and interest in curiosity – which sets them up for a life of exploration and interest in the world around them. At North-Eastern Montessori our students are not just learning facts, but are whole-hearted, well-grounded, kind, creative, innovative and automomous young people with a sense of purpose in this world.
So if you find yourself thinking, ‘School is school, ‘Education is just education’, ‘There’s a school just down the road. What’s the difference?’
Perhaps ask yourself: Will it help them develop a life-long love of learning, born from intrinsic motivation and natural curiosity?
Will it help them become a compassionate person with an affinity for peaceful cooperation and harmonious collaboration?
Will it give them a strong sense of self and understanding of the world and their place in it?
If you’d like to experience the Montessori difference, come along to our Montessori Journey on Saturday 21st May from 10 – 12pm. Hear from our teachers, our students, and explore the learning materials and environments for yourself. We look forward to seeing you there!