The Absorbent Mind, p. 222.
I have been involved with Montessori education for over 13 years. When I talk to prospective teachers or parents, I find that they always ask the same questions. They want to know about the materials, the idea of mixed age grouping, the ideal class size, the amount of adult involvement, and the concept of freedom. In chapter 22 of The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori addresses all of these questions.
The Absorbent Mind, Chapter 22: Social Development
How were the Montessori materials chosen?Although the materials used in the environment were developed by Dr. Montessori, it was the children who chose which ones were important. “We started by equipping the child’s environment with a little of everything, and left the children to choose those things they preferred.” (p. 223) It seems that the children were partial to certain materials and ignored others. As a result, those unused materials were removed from the environment. And it wasn't just decided by children in the original Casa dei Bambini; it seems that these same choices were made by children all over the world. “We found there were objects liked by all children, and these we regard as essential.” (p. 223)
How many materials do we need?Montessori was very clear about how many of each material there should be in each classroom. “For if there are too many things, or more than one complete set for a group of thirty or forty children, this causes confusion. So we have few things, even if there are many children.” (p. 223) The common argument is always, “If there is only one of each material, then the children will have to wait when they want to work on something.” Montessori agreed! If the material is being used, the children must wait respectfully for their turn, “not because someone has said he must, but because this is a reality that he meets in his daily experience.” (p.223–4)
By having more than one set of a particular material, we are robbing the child of the opportunity to learn maturity and patience.
The old saying that “patience is a virtue” rings true. Montessori says that only by experience can one develop virtues. If we do not provide the experience, the virtue cannot develop. We think we are helping by having more than one set; we do not want children to have to wait, so we provide for them. We are not helping but hindering by denying them the opportunity to grow.
How much adult intervention should there be?This leads right in to Montessori’s statement that “When adults interfere in this first stage of preparation for social life, they nearly always make mistakes.” (p. 224) Adult intervention may seem to have the best intentions, but our solutions differ from those of the child. In our rush to rescue, we inevitably disrespect the child. He learns that we do not trust him to problem solve and come up with his own solution. He becomes irritated if we intervene. And rightly so as he cannot learn to take care of himself if we continue to intervene on his behalf.
What is the best class size?Modern, conventional education states that small class sizes increase educational effectiveness. (Barnett, Schulman, and Shore, 2004) Again, this is a key difference in Montessori philosophy. “When classes are fairly big, differences of character show themselves more clearly, and wider [social] experience can be gained. With small classes this is less easy. The higher levels of perfection all come through social life.” (p. 225) While conventional early educational theorists dictate that early childhood class size should ideally be less than 20 (and some argue less than 15!) (Barnett, Schulman, & Shore, 2004), it is not unusual to find 30–40 children in a Montessori early childhood environment.
Why mixed age groups?“To segregate by age is one of the cruelest and most inhuman things one can do…” (p. 226) Montessori believed that artificial separation by age deprived children of companionship and social development. Children learn from one another. Older children are role models and delight in helping their younger peers. The younger children look up to the older ones and look forward to the day they, too, are capable. To grow together is natural. Montessori also believed that children should be free to wander between classrooms. Elementary-age children can mentor the younger ones, while early-childhood students can look to see what they will be learning in the future. “The child’s progress does not depend only on his age, but also on being free to look about him.” (p. 228)
It is often thought that the older child might become burdened by having to teach the younger ones. But we must remember, he is not teaching all the time. He takes joy in helping and his classmates respect his freedom. It is also true that by teaching, he is truly performing the greatest extension of any lesson. He is analyzing and applying his own knowledge and creating a new lesson for his peers.
These mixed age groups instinctively know when to offer help, when to encourage, and when to comfort those around them.
They are not quick to offer help when it is truly not needed. They intuitively know how important it is that individuals do the work themselves. They understand the enormous effort it takes and they recognize each other’s accomplishments.
Chapter 22 is a true wealth of information about the how and why behind the Montessori environment. The ideas may not align with modern conventional wisdom, but the truth and the power behind them rest not on the adults making the rules but on the children who have chosen them.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Tuesday, November 18, 2014.