Montessori: An Education for Life









Wednesday, March 15th, several Three Tree Montessori staff and parents had the pleasure of attending a talk by Dr. Steven Hughes, board certified pediatric neuropsychologist and vocal supporter of Montessori education. (Special shout-out to Pacific Crest School for opening up this parent ed talk to the Montessori community at large.)

Human beings learn and develop through motivated, repeated trial and error, and experimental interactions with the environment. Curiosity, if not constrained, leads to cognitive development, and if constrained, can lead to permanent impairment (think about the cases of children who were not exposed to language in the critical early years: they missed the developmental window during which those neural pathways are formed).

However, appropriate constraints are essential to the development of Executive Function (EF) skills. Executive Function is defined as inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Here are just a few ways Montessori education supports the development of EF skills:

  • The freedom the children experience goes hand in hand with the limits of the classroom. For example, children are free to choose their activity, and to do it without interruption until they are satisfied. However, there are limits: you can choose activities which you have been shown how to do, and which are available on the shelf. There is a fair amount of latitude in how you do the activity; however, there is an expectation that what you do will be respectful of the material and of the people in the environment, and that you will return it to the shelf when you are done.
  • We play lots of memory games with the materials of the Primary classroom to help build the children’s working memory. The work with the concrete materials in the math curriculum, such as the Golden Beads, or linear and skip-counting with the Bead Chains prepares the mind to recall math facts, to hold information in the mind and effortlessly access it. To scrub a table, you need to remember a complex sequence of tasks to be successful: the fetching of water, donning an apron, soaping the brush, how much pressure to apply, etc. In order to successfully play the Detective Adjective Game, you need to remember lots of descriptive language you learned by working with the triangles in the Geometry Cabinet: isosceles, right-angled, scalene, obtuse, etc. All of this supports future academic success.
  • The materials in a Montessori classroom are plentiful, but limited (for example, there is only one Pink Tower, one Thousand Chain, one set of Metal Insets, etc.). This supports cognitive flexibility. Imagine the effort it takes for a 3-year-old—upon discovering the brass polishing work they really, really wanted to do is already in use by another child—to stop, reconsider, and make another choice. Instead of the adult orchestrating forced turn-taking (think of the tantrum that awaits when you tell a child who is just getting engrossed in her activity, “Okay Clara, you’ve had this long enough; now it’s time to give it to Owen”), the children know that once it is their turn with the activity, they can do it for as long as they wish, without interruption. This ethos of the Montessori classroom is sharing on the macro level.
  • Activities that promote physical self-control and the learning of new, complex sequences (like a martial art, or ballroom dancing, or for a young child, any of the myriad activities in the Practical Life curriculum) promote the development executive function skills. They can also support children with ADHD, who tend to struggle with executive function skills. The Montessori curriculum focuses on concrete, manipulative materials to scaffold experiences for the child, leading the way to later abstraction. Dr. Montessori wrote, “The hands are the prehensile instruments of the mind.”

Another important way Montessori education supports cognitive development is through promoting concentration and repetition. The fundamental purpose of the Montessori materials, according to Dr. Hughes, is to facilitate concentration. Through engaging in interesting work, freely chosen, accompanied by concentration, the children are able to enter a “flow” state of complete absorption. Dr. Hughes referenced the research of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who identified the concept of “flow”. Research indicates that people are the happiest when in a state of flow. People in flow are so involved that nothing else seems to matter—temporal concerns are ignored. It is most likely to occur when we experience the right balance of challenge to skill. Dr. Montessori wrote, “As soon as concentration has begun, act as if the child does not exist.” This was an acknowledgment of the importance of protecting the intrinsic motivation of the child, versus the extrinsic motivation on the part of the adult. Because Montessori education is individualized for each child, children can work at the right balance of challenge and ability.

Repetition is key to not only promoting a flow state, but to acquisition of permanent knowledge. According to Dr. Hughes, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The more repetition, the stronger the neural pathways become, leading to permanent knowledge. Children are free to repeat activities as much as they like—and in fact, it warms the cockles of a Montessori teacher’s heart to see a child repeat an activity until self-satisfaction is achieved. Repetition is something we hope to see. Because we are not bound to a rigid or teacher-centered, tightly scheduled daily lesson plan, children can work deeply until they are fulfilled. If a child works exclusively on their shark report for four days straight, or spends the entire work cycle repeating a lesson they received on the Phonetic Object Box, or embroidery, or the Binomial Cube, it’s fine—actually, it’s great! The material or activity will then have served its developmental purpose for the child.

To paraphrase Dr. Hughes, the essence of humanness is action and a sense of personal agency. Montessori’s great legacy is that she realized it is the children’s work of development, not the adult’s. By preparing an environment in which children are free to independently explore and act in accordance with their own developmental drives and needs, by supporting their own sense of agency, we follow the child’s own natural path of development.

“And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment.”
–Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind


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