Friday, September 13, 2013

The Importance of Control of Error in the Montessori Environment

“The teacher should never intervene in an action when the impulse prompting it is good, neither with her approval nor with her help nor with a lesson or correction.” — Maria Montessori, Some Words of Advice to Teachers, 1925.

How does it feel when you try something new and someone you know and trust comes by and tells you, “You did that wrong”? Or maybe you tried a new recipe and put forth your best effort, only to have your loved ones tell you that you should have done it differently. Even when it is well-intentioned, criticism hurts. Dr. Laurence C. Smith, a developmental clinical psychologist, suggests that, along with rejection and abandonment, criticism is one of the three most traumatizing psychological effects on an individual. Smith goes on to say that the repetitive nature of criticism “continuously reinforces the negative self-image of the individual being criticized.” (Laurence C. Smith, 2009)

So firmly did Dr. Montessori believe in this that she said the teacher must “give her lesson, plant the seed and then disappear; observing and waiting, but not touching.” (Montessori, 2005)

Control of Error: Why It is Such an Important Part of the Montessori Environment

Whether to offer approval or correction, the teacher should not intervene in the work of a child. “She can destroy the good impulse of children by intervening; or at least her intervention will cause the real ‘ego’ of the child to withdraw within himself as a snail into its shell.” (Montessori, 2005)

Dr. Montessori designed her materials so that while working with the material, the child receives instant feedback on his progress. In addition to developing independence, working with self-correcting materials helps the child learn to recognize, understand, correct, and learn from any mistakes that he makes. Having a control of error in the materials liberates the child to take control of his learning and not rely on adult judgment. As well, it boosts his self-esteem and motivation. Rather than being reluctant to try something new and make mistakes, the child feels free to take risks, knowing there is a control in place.

In the Montessori 3–6 environment, control of error is readily visible. Spills happen in practical life and need to be cleaned up. Many sensorial works — the Cylinder Blocks, Red Rods, Brown Stair, and Pink Tower to name a few — just do not ‘fit’ if they are built incorrectly. Once the child is shown how to use the materials, he is left free to work with them on his own, without teacher intervention.

As children learn to read, write, and compute abstractly, the control of error may not be so apparent. For example, the controls of error for math and language cards are the answer keys. Sometimes teachers consider removing the answer keys from the shelf so their students do not “cheat.” However, if the students cannot access the control, they must find the teacher to correct their work. Instead of figuring out their errors themselves, the children are told what their mistakes are and are asked to fix them. A kinder, more respectful approach is for the teacher to model the appropriate use of the answer keys and to trust the children to correct and learn from their own mistakes.

When they are constantly corrected, children learn to be afraid of making mistakes. They begin to limit their exploration and cease to try new or challenging work. By allowing children to self-correct and learn from their mistakes, we teach them that the purpose of work is not just about getting the right answers. It is about the process of learning to learn.
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, September 13, 2013.


  1. Children who do not learn to cope with constructive criticism and correction will not be able to function as adults in the real world.

  2. Agree with above comment from anonymous.


  3. This article is discussing destructive criticism that comes from the adults to children. The control of error is built into the material/ lesson/ environmental design itself. The adult might set the environmental design so that the materials can break on their own. Think of the difference between a wooden floor and a carpet floor / glass and plastic materials when they are dropped. The glass has a higher chance of breaking on its own if it is dropped by a child on a wooden floor. The adult presents a lesson on how to use the material, but if the child drops the material and it falls and breaks then the child learns from that moment to be more careful in the future without the adult saying anything.

  4. The point of this article isn't that you never correct; it is the timing and method behind correction. Many who have been trained in Montessori can correct me if I'm wrong but the message is to wait and represent the information to the child at a time when they are not working with the material. Many times by using this method, I have observed students learning far more than they ever would have if I had stepped in at the first sign of trouble with a work.

  5. Agree with above comment from anonymous no. 3


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