Friday, April 11, 2014

The Montessori Method: An Heuristic Approach to Learning

“When the child is given freedom to move about in a world of objects, he is naturally inclined to perform the tasks necessary for his development entirely on his own.” — Maria Montessori, Education and Peace


There has been some buzz lately about the term heuristic. When I went online to check current definitions, I read on Merriam-Webster.com that heuristic is “currently in the top 1% of lookups and is the 154th most popular word on Merriam-Webster.com.” In fact, the site goes on to note that there has been a significant increase in people looking up the word “heuristic” in the last seven days. (Merriam-Webster.com) So, what does “heuristic” mean and what does it have to do with Montessori?

Montessori as An Heuristic Approach to Learning


Heuristic: using experience to learn and improve: involving or serving as an aid to learning, discovery, or problem-solving by experimental and especially trial-and-error methods: of or relating to exploratory problem solving techniques that utilize self-educating techniques. (Merriam-Webster.com)

Heuristic activity begins in infancy. Using their senses, infants explore using their experiences to learn about the world around them. Infants taste things to determine if they are edible, throw things to see if they will bounce or roll, and shake things to find out if they make noise. All of these trial-and-error investigations “provide infants with opportunities to explore, learn, and work independently – an important part of the Montessori program.” (North American Montessori Center, 2010)

Heuristic activities provide a pathway to learning. They develop a thinking process that can be used in a variety of contexts. First, there is the exploration: “Let’s see how this works.” Then, there is the analysis: “What did we learn?” And finally, there is the synthesis: “Where do we go from here?” This may sound like a pretty complex process for infants to put into practice, but building the neural pathways early helps set the foundation for their future learning.

All learning is a series of progression. Let’s consider the progression of learning geometry in the Montessori environment:
  • Infants/toddlers: The youngest Montessori children explore shapes sensorially. They learn that round objects fit in round holes, etc.
  • Ages 3–6: In the early childhood years, children continue with their sensorial exploration of shapes. As well, they learn names of plane and solid figures and they classify by size and degree.
  • Ages 6–9: The lower elementary years focus on moving toward abstract thought. Students build on their previous knowledge learning nomenclature and classifying characteristics of points, lines, angles, properties of triangles, circles, etc.
  • Ages 9–12: In the upper elementary program, students progress from a concrete to abstract understanding of measurement, including perimeter, area, volume, surface volume. etc.

What the children learn in each stage is a direct preparation for the next. By exploring geometric concepts using concrete Montessori materials, children heuristically make decisions based on their own investigations. Along the way, they have a series or progression of “a-ha!” moments as they come to understand, for example, that the triangle is the building block for all construction and that a circle is a tool of measurement. Students come to understand highly abstract concepts such as Pythagorean theory and Euclidian geometry not from lectures and written texts but from physical movement and independent exploration.


Having seen and used the Theorem of Pythagoras material for years, great is the day when students realize that this material is more than just a puzzle; when they truly see what this material represents and they understand that a2 + b2 really is equal to c2.

Left to freely develop and explore, the child is able to understand the rules of the universe. Interrupted by well-meaning adults who explain too much too soon, the child loses interest and ceases to be interested in discovery. When activities are not heuristic, children can lose the drive to explore on their own. They get used to having information handed to them and because they are not invested in building the information themselves, they easily forget it. Heuristic activities allow the child to internalize information, making it part of their reality.
As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Friday, April 11, 2014.

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