Types of Observations in the Montessori Environment

July 19, 2016
NAMC montessori types of observations in environment smiling boy
This idea, that life acts of itself and that in order to study it, to divine its secrets or to direct its activity, it is necessary to observe it and to understand it without intervening — this idea, I say, is very difficult for anyone to assimilate and to put into practice.
—Maria Montessori
The Advanced Montessori Method, p. 198.

When we observe students, we take on the role of scientist. According to Paul Epstein, Montessori “understood that observation places us in three different modes of experiential knowing: empirical, rational, and contemplative.” (Epstein, 1995)

Types of Observations in the Montessori Environment

Empirical observations are based on a comparison of quantities. We can look at the sensorial materials, for instance, and notice that they are all based on the decimal system. There are ten blocks for the Pink Tower, ten Red Rods, ten prisms for the Brown Stair, etc.

Rational observations measure experiences derived from ideas, imagination, and logic. If all students in the Montessori elementary community were exposed to the Five Great Lessons and the concept of cosmic education, we can say that rationally, they have shared the same cultural experience.

Contemplative observations are closely align with the philosophy of the Montessori method. Based on observations from one’s spiritual self, the purpose of contemplative observation is to observe the inner life of the child, or the “life acts of itself.” New Montessori teachers often struggle with the idea of contemplative observations because there is no way to describe exactly what they are supposed to do or observe. The nature of the contemplative observation means that it is different for each child. However, Montessori gave us a model of what we should be aware of at each plane of development.

Within each plane, children move from disorder to self-discipline and pass from concrete to abstraction understanding and the acquisition of knowledge. The Montessori environment provides the framework for this learning by allowing children the freedom to develop according to their own abilities and without adult intervention.

… it is necessary that the spontaneous development of the child should be accorded perfect liberty; that is to say, that its calm and peaceful expansion should not be disturbed by the intervention of an untimely and disturbing influence. … But to ensure the psychical phenomena of growth, we must prepare the ‘environment’ in a definite manner, and from this environment offer the child the external means necessary for him.
—Maria Montessori
The Advanced Montessori Method, p. 198.

Epstein says that, rather than focusing on the child’s progress toward literacy and numeracy, we should focus on the psychical development of the child, or “the miracles of the inner life.” (Epstein, 1995) The child, given the materials in the environment, will spontaneously develop the skills necessary to read, write, and compute. It is how they work with the materials and engage in their work that is important.

Learning is the work of the child. We must leave him free to learn, without interference or interruption.

As we observe and contemplate the inner growth of the child, we can facilitate this auto-education by providing the environment the child needs to advance. These changes in the environment will be discovered by the child on his way to learning more through self-actualization.

Works Cited
Epstein, Paul. (1995). “The Montessori method: Informed by observation.” The National Montessori Reporter, 1995, vol. 19, no. 3, p. 14–15.
Montessori, Maria. Spontaneous Activity in Education: The Advanced Montessori Method. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1965 (first published 1917).

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate
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