We have found it helpful to offer a guide to observing and interpreting the dynamics of the Montessori classroom. Many parents, upon first entering the environment when it is abuzz with children, feel overwhelmed by the diverse activities that are going on. The suggestions below are intended to be focus points for your attention.
Visual Perspective – There is more to the Montessori classroom than the activities of your particular child. Naturally, the first tendency of parents is to focus and follow their child’s activities. Try to observe in a context. Alternate between a wide-angle view of the entire classroom and then focus in on your child. This way there will be less self-consciousness and you will have a true context.
Audio Perspective – Listen to the noise level as it rises and falls and try to see which groups or individual children are generating the sound. You will hear the normal hubbub of children being together and the special pitch of the children excited about learning. At times there will be a special peak of excitement of discovery. See if you can differentiate.
Learning – Notice that children learn different ways. With some types of materials you will see groups of children working cooperatively, and with others you will find an individual child working intensely. Still other children are walking through the classroom seemingly not engaged in any direct activity. Very often this last type of child is engaged in actively absorbing the children and materials in the classroom through observation. It will help if you alternate your focus on these three learning patterns. Note also the ease and joy with which the children work. You will see the intense self-gratification that the learning process affords your child.
Child-Child Interaction – Listen to the way (the style and context) in which children talk to each other. Try to hear the level of respect as well as the normal pushes and pulls of childhood. Very often observers new to Montessori are surprised that a child will jealously guard his or her work and tell another classmate that they are disturbing this work. A result of this verbal communication is that the other child will leave. Other new observers are bemused by the politeness with which one child will ask another if he or she would “care for a piece of apple” and the other will respond “yes, please, thank you.”
Teacher-Child Interaction – Watch the way teachers interact with children and compare it with the traditional classroom mode by which you were probably educated. Notice the way in which a teacher corrects a child and look at the instances in which she does not. Listen to the teacher’s tone of voice with the child. Many parents have asked how one Directress can “handle” a group of thirty children. The answer lies with this interaction process. The Directress is a facilitator of the child’s autonomous learning process. She guides, not directs. She prepares the environment, gives the child the tools to utilize the materials and then does whatever else is necessary to help the child do it without assistance. Sometimes this “whatever else” involves direct encouragement and at other times indirect appreciation and at still other times, judicious absence. There is basic respect for each individual child’s particular style of learning in the Montessori classroom. See if you can pick this up.
Sociability – Watch the ways in which the children offer assistance to one another with the materials and with everyday tasks. Watch for the ways that they are directly social with one another. The snack table is a good area to keep an eye on to see this dynamic.
The Montessori classroom contains a wide range of both ages of children and materials that are appropriate to the different developmental levels. Note how the children go to the material that is appropriate to their developmental level. Note also how the younger children absorb the older children’s work simply by being near them, and how, conversely, the older children will assist the younger one with the work that they have already mastered. These seemingly “academic” activities have a strong social component to them, one that instills a sense of responsibility for, and community with, all those in the class.
There are always present in the classroom pockets of purely social activities. Children may be clustered around a table discussing the latest cartoon superhero or in-vogue doll, or they may be making plans to play at one another’s houses that they have not yet told their parents about! Whenever a birthday nears, a child’s upcoming party is certain to be a major item of discussion. Children are children in the Montessori classroom and the child’s natural desire to form friends and be part of an ongoing community are present.
Autonomy – Absorb the independence of your child and other children as they do for themselves in their classroom environment. Watch even the youngest child take responsibility for his or her personal environment. Watch how, however precariously, a glass pitcher of water or a tray with fragile materials on it is carried. Watch as a child chooses a piece of work, takes it from the shelf, completes the work, and returns it so that the next child can use it.
The generation of this autonomy is a function of the prepared environment of the Montessori classroom. What this means is that the child will have available all needed materials, in good working order, to complete a task that has usually been chosen by that child. The structure of Montessori provides the child with as much time as he or she needs to complete this task and success is the primary reward. As you look around the classroom notice the materials, how attractive they are in placement, color, and cleanliness. The child is attracted to learn by the environment.
We recognize that you will not be able to sort out and see all the dimensions of the classroom that are outlined above and hope that you are not disappointed in yourself or in us when you find that all aspects of the classroom have either not been present during your observation or that you did not see it all. We recognize that the process of learning how to “read” the Montessori classroom is difficult at first, but we know that with each successive observation your skills will become increasingly honed.