Did you know that 95% of kindergarteners spend most of their classroom time being taught things they already know? This is the conclusion recently reached by Mimi Engel of Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, according to Science Daily’s recent article.

How can I, as a parent and teacher at Montessori Jewish Day School, be sure that that this never happens in our classrooms and with our students? Easily. Because Montessori education is designed to ensure that each child is learning what that child needs to learn at that particular moment.

How is that even possible? The answer is paradoxically complex and simple. The simple answer is because Montessori is systemically different. The complex answer comes in the explanation of the differences, because the differences are fundamental, varied and interrelated. I use the word “system” in the vein of Sociologists, Biologists, Physicists and other systems theorists – it is the whole, the structure, the pieces, the relationships between the pieces, and the movement and growth there of, and the way in which the system relates to other systems. In terms of education, this includes every aspect of: the physical environment (think classrooms, hallways, playgrounds, office etc.), the teachers and other staff, the students themselves and their parents, the way time is structured, the relationships that evolve, the curriculum itself, desired outcomes, goals and opportunities, and possibly most importantly, the philosophy which leads our practice and informs each and every aspect of the system.

Traditional schooling, as many of you I’m sure know, is based mostly on two models: the Austrian (Prussian) military, and the American factory/assembly line, both of which were designed to create certain traits in the populace, including punctuality and obedience. These models are also designed to ensure a basic level of what was considered essential knowledge. The driving forces of the resulting system are therefore the curriculum and its delivery, and strict externally imposed structure. The methods used are behavioural (ie, based on the work of Behaviouralists like Skinner and Pavlov).

MJDS Middle School students work with Middle School students from another Montessori school to prepare a meal to share.

Montessori, on the other hand, is a system built with the child in mind, and with Dr. Montessori’s assertion that “all politicians can do is keep us out of war; creating lasting peace is the work of educators.” It is a return to Socratic ideals of education. Montessori, like other constructivist theorists (Itard and Seguin in particular were very influential to her work) understood that there is an element of self-construction in all things natural, including humans. She understood, long before we had the technology to prove it, that nature and nurture influence each other, and it is through both that the human is created, inside and out. The system she created, therefore, is driven by the idea that providing an environment that feeds moral and psychological development will result in a populace with stronger morals and healthier psyches, which in turn allows the populace to both learn more easily and to better use our knowledge to impact the world in positive ways.

At MJDS, everything we do, from where we place the shelving in the classroom to how we bring the children in from recess, is carefully thought out and implemented in specific ways in order to achieve our goals as educators to the best of our abilities. One of these goals, to come back to the topic at hand, is to provide a challenging academic experience for each child; in Montessori-speak, this means presenting the right material at the right moment, which is different for every child.

I know you’re dying to ask – how on Earth can you do that? Well, it’s because the system was created with that very thing in mind. In order to understand it, you really have to let go of your ideas around school. You have to be willing to understand that we may use similar terms, and that while best practices in education are increasingly aligned with Montessori practices, mainstream education is still based on the same model. Montessori, on the other hand, was designed from the ground up with these practices already in place.

Maria Montessori conducting a class in Adiyar, India, in the 1940’s. Photo by Nachiappan.

Let’s start with the basics: the role of the teacher, the role of the prepared environment (read: classroom) and the role of the child. The role of the teacher in traditional education is first and foremost to impart information. The role of the teacher in Montessori education is to promote the overall development of each child by ensuring s/he has whatever s/he needs to flourish. This includes space, movement, time alone, social interaction, opportunities for exploration, opportunities for reflection and introspection, and lots of stuff to do. The teacher spends very little time teaching, and lots of time supervising from a distance, conversing with students, supporting various endeavours, and answering questions. This is why Dr. Montessori called us directors and directresses, and many of us prefer the term “guide” to “teacher”. We hardly do any teaching, but please don’t let that scare you, because our students are academically well beyond what the Ontario Curriculum and Canadian standardized testing expects of them. They are, however, for the most part, exactly where we expect them to be. Our role, in Montessori terms, is to be the conduit between the children, and their learning environment.

So let’s talk about the prepared environment. Whether consciously prepared or not, our physical surroundings inform much of our behaviour. Think, in adult terms, how you feel and behave when you walk into a waiting room versus when you walk into a concert hall – all the same elements are there, seating, lighting, walls, person whose job it is to greet you, reading materials etc., and yet the experience is markedly different because the spaces are designed for different purposes. The classroom in traditional education is set  up for the delivery of curriculum and imposition of external standards of behaviour – desks for students, larger desk for teacher, chalkboard, closed cupboards, note-taking tools for students, books, bulletin boards, and in some cases, teaching aides. In very rare cases you may find artwork on the walls. Nowadays, there are sometimes smartboards, computers, and tablets.

A Montessori classroom, on the other hand, has a few desks, lots of floor space, and is filled with materials and activities that are not only enticing to a child, but are learning tools (not teaching aides – there’s a big difference). There is no teacher’s desk – sometimes we have a stool somewhere in a corner. There is artwork at the children’s eye-level, and anything above that is left pretty much blank. We take tremendous care in arranging everything beautifully, and in only bringing things into the classroom that are beautiful. Excepting where the teachers keep a few supplies, every shelf is open and within the children’s reach.

Everything they need to succeed in their endeavours within the classroom is freely available to them. We call what they do “work”, in order to validate its importance, but in reality, they are engaging in what child development experts call play. It is through their play that they learn – the materials are the means for that learning, and are designed with such purpose and to such specific parameters, that it blows the minds of most adults when they first begin to understand this… and it is too much to take on in this post, so I will go back to what I was talking about. As the students get older, the materials change to suit their needs – they become more abstract and sophisticated, until by Middle School, the materials are mostly texts, microscopes, notebooks and computers.

Finally, the role of the child – on the surface, the role of the child in both systems is that of pupil or learner. The difference is that in the traditional system, children are expected to learn passively what is given to them – they are the receivers of information, seen as receptacles, blank slates or empty vessels. They are unfortunately often expected to rebel, misbehave, and resist the courageous (no facetiousness implied – I applaud great teachers no matter where they teach) attempts of the teacher to control their behaviour and get them to learn their lessons. These expectations of passive intake and rebellion are reinforced by the setup of the room, and the role teachers are given.

4 and 6 year old children work to keep their classroom clean and beautiful.

In a Montessori classroom, the children are directly responsible for their learning – they are active (literally constantly in motion) and held to very high expectations in terms of behaviour. The children are in charge of their community, responsible for the cleanliness and order in their space, and to each other in their behaviour. Part of the reason we take such care to ensure the environment is beautiful is so that the children will be inspired to keep it that way. Because of the way all of the things I’ve spoken of work together, the children are working for their own personal satisfaction and enjoyment – and so they will most often choose to do work that is relatively challenging. Once they have reached a level of mastery, they tend to ask for more, because they get hooked on learning, on exploring, on expanding their minds, consciousness and abilities. It is a truly inspiring thing to watch.

Now let’s move to another radical difference: time. In traditional schools, we all know there are schedules to which teachers and students alike must adhere, during the day, and through the course of the year. In a Montessori environment, children are given what we call a three hour work period. This is, as it sounds, three hours of time to work. This time is rarely interrupted – in fact, most great Montessori teachers will fight tooth and nail to protect this three hour work period, because without it, the rest of the system falls apart. During this time, the children, environment and teacher are fulfilling their role as described above. It is fluid. Children work intensely, and play, and socialize and read. Teachers watch to see when a child needs direction, and step in as necessary.  The other major difference in terms of how Dr. Montessori structured time is that children in Montessori classrooms have three whole years to cover the materials in their classroom. There is no pressure to finish a given unit by a given date. There are, however, benchmarks to which teachers’ pay close attention – these tell us at what level each child functions in each area of the classroom, both behaviourally and cognitively.

So how does this all translate into being able to present ideas, lessons and activities to children individually and still ensure that the needs of the whole class are met? How do we know what the right moment is? When each of the things I’ve described above is in place, and the environment is running itself much in the same way as our bodies run themselves, then the teachers can do their best work. We can unobtrusively and without the children even realizing it, assess exactly what each child knows, and what the next challenge ought to be. We can then invite the children to have the next lesson, to give someone else a lesson, or otherwise inspire them to take the next step in their academic journey.

So how do I know my child and yours are not spending most of their time being taught things they already know? Simply, because the system works.

1044655_10152506707341970_9207790789488290418_n ~ Andrea Lulka has spent her whole life in and around Montessori, the last ten years more formally than the rest. A certified 3-6 teacher, working towards 12-18 certification holding an MEd. in Montessori Integrative Learning, Andrea also has experience in various capacities with every age group from Toddler through to Middle School as well as with parent education and school administration. By far her toughest and proudest role in the Montessori community is that of mother to a Montessori boy.