A few years ago when I was teaching at a Montessori public charter school, the lower elementary teacher next door invited me to observe her classroom and look at her shelves. When I walked in her classroom, I could see that in her eyes, more was better. Soon to retire, she had amassed a great quantity of materials over her teaching career and every piece of it was on display. In comparison, my classroom looked rather simple and plain, a fact she was very quick to point out.
The Montessori Environment: Simplicity Supports the Method
This teacher believed it was her responsibility to present every lesson and material possible each year. There were so many things on the shelves that it was difficult to know where to start. The sheer number of works was overwhelming. Sadly, many of the Montessori materials had been pushed aside as flashier plastic materials took up room on the shelves. The effect of the busy shelves could be seen on the students who seemed to wander around at a frenetic pace, picking up materials only to quickly discard them for something else. While the students looked busy, they did not seem to be focusing on anything long enough to truly understand and learn about it.
Looking at my colleague’s room reminded me of encountering a vast holiday buffet at a fancy restaurant. When you first enter, you are instantly amazed at the sight before you. You rush to take as many tiny samples as you possibly can, having only a little bite of many different things. When asked what your favorite or most memorable dish was, you are hard pressed to remember. However, if you were to have an intimate, well-prepared three-course meal, it would be easy to remember not only what was served, but the flavors of the ingredients and how well each dish paired with the other. You would understand the thought and the preparation that went into each dish and would be thankful for the artistic presentation created by the chef. While seemingly more simple, the depth of the gustatory experience would be vastly enhanced and your memory of the meal greater.
The Montessori curriculum is amazing in both scope and sequence. To give every single lesson every year to every child is not only impossible, it is impractical. Moreover, it is does not respect the child’s learning, since the focus is more on giving lessons and getting through the curriculum than on following the passions and abilities of the child. It is for this reason that Montessori teachers begin each year in the elementary programs with the simple telling of the Five Great Lessons. Through these impressionistic stories we give the children the keys to the universe, thus freeing them to explore, ask questions, conduct research, and create their own understanding. When you think about it, we explain all of creation in just five stories. Nothing could be simpler and, at the same time, so very critical to understanding. And this simplicity is really what Montessori is all about.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Tuesday, October 8, 2013.