Being an Attentive Observer in the Montessori Classroom: Our Primary Role

June 30, 2016

I have a confession to make. When I first became a Montessori teacher, I didn’t know the first thing about observing children. I thought observations were only about marking down on record-keeping sheets which presentations were given, when the child had practiced the activity, and when they mastered it... and then I read a quote from Dr. Montessori that started me questioning my observational practices.

Often inexperienced teachers place great importance on teaching and believe they have done everything necessary when they have demonstrated the use of the materials in a meaningful way. In reality, they are far from the truth because the job of the teacher is rather more important than that. To her falls the task of guiding the development of the child’s spirit, and therefore her observations of the child are not to be limited solely to understanding him. All her observations must emerge at the end — and this is their only justification — in her ability to help the child.
—Maria Montessori
The Child in the Family, p. 139.

Well, if our observations are not only about the activities or what materials the children are working with, then what are they about? Dr. Paul Epstein tells us that observation is our primary role in the classroom. “Observation is much more than sitting, watching, and hoping to see something.” (Epstein, 2012) The observer must ask what she really wants to know about the child she is observing. Dr. Montessori tells us that in order to become fully engaged Montessori teachers, the first step is “to shed omnipotence and to become a joyous observer.” (Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 83.)

Epstein uses the acronym C.O.R.E. to explain the purpose of observations:



We need to have a goal in mind when we sit down to observe. What do we want to learn? Are we looking at the interests, habits, or preferences of a particular child? Or are we interested in the patterns and routines of the environment itself? Are we making connections on the personal, emotional, spiritual, or philosophical level?

Obtain Information

There are a myriad of ways to gather information. In addition to checklists, consider a running record, a behavior rubric, or a time scale. If you are not getting the type of information you are looking for, change your method for obtaining that information.

Reflect on Your Practice

Now that you have obtained your information, what do you do with it? Just as a scientist analyzes data, you have to reflect and make meaning from your observations. Can you identify patterns? Are you taking into consideration the child’s background, personality, socio-economic culture, and family transitions? What about your own biases, perceptions, and values?

Engage Actively

Finally, you get to act on your observations. Maybe the result will be that you need to conduct more observations! Maybe you will need to change the environment or implement new methods or practices.

Observations, says Epstein, are dynamic, not passive. We are not just watching children, we are learning from them, too.

Let’s become active participants and set a goal to become purposeful observers together while strengthening our Montessori practices.

Works Cited
Epstein, Paul. “An observational literacy.” 2011.
Epstein, Paul. An Observer's Notebook: Learning from Children with the Observation C.O.R.E. Bradenton, FL: The Montessori Foundation, 2012.
Montessori, Maria. The Child in the Family. Oxford: Clio Press, 1970.
Montessori, Maria. The Educate the Human Potential. Oxford: Clio Press, 2003.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate
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