The Prepared Environment
A Montessori classroom is strikingly different from a traditional classroom: there are no rows of desks. Colorful materials are neatly organized into clustered areas—like a science area with materials to conduct experiments, reference texts, binders labeled with student’s names charting their individual progress through the curriculum and housing their science reports, and a terrarium. Desks are interspersed with open space where work together on rugs, or cluster around a teacher sitting on the floor answering questions. Students are typically so actively engaged in their work that visitors are undisruptive and an atmosphere of quiet concentration prevails.
The Montessori classroom facilitates independent learning and exploration. The environment is designed to strike the imagination, to lead the student to abstraction, and to provide a system of information storage and retrieval. The Prepared Environment facilitates the student's exploration of the essential principles of all disciplines through sequenced order and aesthetic appeal.
Technology elements are integrated into classroom life. Students learn to use calculators, computers, and multimedia devices as part of their everyday experience. Throughout the curriculum, as appropriate, internet resources supplement research collected first-hand from resources found in the classroom and the community.
Montessori classrooms tend to fascinate both students and their parents. Typically, they are warm, bright, inviting, and filled with plants, animals, art, music, and books. There are curriculum centers with intriguing learning materials, such as three-dimensional mathematical models, colorful maps, botany charts, and collections of natural specimens. Each material stimulates curiosity and the five senses.
Multi-Age Learning Communities
Montessori education places students in multi-year age groupings. Students aged six to nine and nine to twelve are placed into lower and upper elementary classes. Students age thirteen and fourteen are placed in middle school classes and students fourteen through eighteen are placed in high school classes. This multi-age grouping gives many advantages to learning, including the following:
- Students can progress through the curriculum at their own pace, guided by an individualized learning plan.
- The classroom serves accelerated students as well as remedial or English Language Learner students well because it is enriched with materials for an age-range, up to the level of challenging the interests of the most advanced students. It is acceptable and expected that students will excel in one area but may struggle with basic concepts in another. The three year curriculum gives each student space to grow at various levels while meeting end-criteria before moving forward.
- Younger students are constantly stimulated by the interesting work of older students.
- Older students serve as tutors and role-models, providing leadership experiences. Older students grow from helping younger students and reinforce their own knowledge by teaching others. They also learn to empathize with the needs of students who are younger than themselves, building important social and character skills.
- In a mixed-age class, teachers work with the same students for three years, forming an integral and close mentoring relationship.
- The class retains a high degree of continuity since the majority of students in each class returns the following year. This makes it easier to orient new students and individualize the ongoing curriculum for each student.
The multi-age classroom is a groundbreaking concept for developing community and supporting students of varying levels of academic and social development. By creating a bond between parents, teachers, and students, Dr. Montessori sought to create a closely-knit community where individuals could learn to be empowered; where students could learn to become contributing, sharing members of their school-family; where students could learn to care for younger students, learn from older people, and trust one another; and where students could find ways to be acceptably assertive rather than aggressive.
Montessori philosophy posits that for education to touch a student's heart and mind, the student must be learning because he/she is curious and interested. Montessori strives to make learning its own reward with each success fueling the desire to discover even more. To appeal to each student in this way, the curriculum is individualized according to the following principles:
- Individual learning styles, timetables, and capacities are respected. The student must develop herself; the adult acts as a resource and a catalyst for development.
- Students are given the opportunity to choose what to investigate and learn.
- The student is responsible for mastering basic skills and basic core knowledge. The student will follow a written study plan for each week, which is arrived at jointly by the teacher and the student.
- The student will be supported in planning an individual schedule for completing work.
Materials and activities are designed to support different learning styles and multiple intelligences, such as linguistic, mathematical, spatial, musical, kinesthetic, and interpersonal. Some students—kinesthetic learners—learn best by using their hands, taking measure of materials physically and thereby mapping them mentally. Others—linguistic learners—are especially attentive to verbal cues and have an innate ability to verbalize knowledge and to learn by listening attentively. Other students may benefit greatly from interacting with others, sharing, teaching, and collaborating to master the material; these are students with strong interpersonal learning skills. Montessori philosophy supports these differences and recognizes that students may also transition from one learning skill set to another as they develop during these formative years. One-size-fits-all teaching can fall short for these students.
Montessori materials are designed to stimulate the senses and engage students in active learning. Students are encouraged to pursue areas of particular interest to them, becoming “experts” and using all available resources, including internet and community sources to engage their curiosity.
The classrooms are prepared with Montessori-sourced materials, which are hands-on and encourage “experiential” learning, as opposed to the more traditional model of lecture and drill exercises, which are comparably passive. Repetition is accomplished by having a variety of materials with which to practice the same concept. It is this repetition—through active and multiple modes of learning—which leads to mastery of the concept.
Students learn by trial and error and by discovery. They learn to ask the right question, spontaneously engage in their own research, analyze what they have found, and draw their own conclusions. The extended work period, typically three hours, offers both the time and resources for investigation and experimentation, using the internet, classroom library, and related indoor and outdoor materials, as well as opportunities to pursue research outside the classroom, in a community garden, the local library or museum, or by contacting outside experts. Throughout this process of discovery, students are not afraid to take risks and to learn constructively from their mistakes.
Students engage with the Montessori materials, which are designed to transition students from concrete understanding in early elementary to abstract thinking. This means that students arrive at abstraction through their own creative process and their desire to understand. This is a joyful process of intellectual development, inner awareness, and creative thinking. Again, the student's education is forged on the path to discovery.
Active learning is the heart of Montessori education. Rather than present students with the “right information” and supply the “right answers” up front in the form of lessons and lectures, Montessori educators guide students to ask the “right questions” and help them to discover the answers for themselves. With this active approach, learning becomes its own reward and each success fuels the desire to discover more.
Role of the Teacher
Dr. Montessori observed that students learn most effectively through direct experience and the process of investigation and discovery. Thus, the basis of the Montessori method of instruction utilizes the prepared environment with specially selected materials and a teaching style that emphasizes observation and guidance rather than direct teaching and providing answers.
Montessori teachers consider themselves enlightened generalists, trained in the details of the Montessori curriculum and active participants in the student's development. Montessori teachers have four principal obligations:
- To awaken the student's spirit and imagination;
- To encourage the student's natural desire for independence and high sense of self-esteem;
- To help the student develop kindness, courtesy, and self-discipline that allows him to become a full member of society; and
- To help the student learn how to observe, question, and explore ideas independently.
The teacher rarely presents a lesson to more than a handful of students at one time, and these lessons are limited to brief, efficient presentations. The goal is to give the students a taste of the activity in order to capture their attention and spark their interest, intriguing them so that they will come back on their own to work with the materials. The teacher then stands by as an ongoing resource to facilitate the student's learning, direct him towards new challenges, and to ensure his mastery of important principles.