How the organization of the Montessori environment leads to greater learning

If the teacher has the ability to organize sincere respect for and interest in children and knowledge, there is no limit to the possibilities for a meaningful education in a Montessori elementary classroom.
—Paula Polk Lillard, Montessori Today, pg. 151

In her essential handbook, Montessori Today, Paula Polk Lillard says organization is the key to being a successful Montessori elementary teacher. That and respect for children. She comes to this conclusion after in-depth observation in an elementary environment where, as Dr. Maria Montessori directed, the teacher is in the background. The children and their work are, and should be, front and center.

As an elementary Montessori teacher, I observed some profound differences between conventional students and Montessori students. Usually taken for granted, these differences were usually brought to my attention when we had a new student enter the classroom. Looking through a non-Montessori child’s eyes, my classroom probably seemed very chaotic at first. Not noisy never that and not out of control. But rather, as Lillard states, a “veritable beehive of activity.”  (Lillard, 1996)

In the Montessori classroom, the children take control of their own learning. They arrive early in the morning, hang up their coats, put away their lunches, and get straight to work. They may stop to say hello to a friend or two, but they quickly settle into their morning work cycle, without having to be told what to work on or when to start. In fact, it isn’t unusual for elementary students to ask for lessons before the day has officially started.  

Designing your schedule for the child’s success

When I first began teaching in the Montessori elementary environment, I tried to hold a morning circle time to take attendance and help outline our day. I was soon met with resistance; the children just wanted to get to work. Having a morning circle interrupted their natural inclination to work and learn. Bringing them together for circle time was for my convenience, not theirs. I soon realized that they worked better without the interruption, and I removed this from my morning routine. Instead, we came together right before lunch to discuss any issues and questions or do a little quick planning together.

This same busy pace could be seen right up until it was time to go home. Then, they would quickly and efficiently tidy up the classroom and get ready for dismissal. Unfinished work was neatly labeled with the child’s name tag and left in place for the next day, whether it was on a table or on a floor mat. No one disturbed it; even the custodians knew to vacuum around work left on the floor. This sense of on-going work helps children know there is no rush to finish. Learning doesn’t follow a 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. time frame. It is continuous. Some learning is big and takes a tremendous amount of time and effort.  Other learning is shorter and can easily be put away. Long or short, neat or messy, learning is happening on all levels at individual paces throughout the day.

Planning to support the child’s learning

Organizational planning also looks different in the Montessori elementary environment. Lillard tells us that the Montessori teacher “has to resist the temptation to create her own curriculum on topics that capture her attention…Her personal interests and knowledge are of little use to the children.  She serves as a catalyst to the children’s explorations, not as an authority on specific subject matter.”  (Lillard, 1996)  At first glance, the Montessori classroom looks full of learning and didactic materials. This is especially true in the areas of math and language. But the elementary cultural shelves consist of nothing more than timelines, impressionistic charts, maps, and nomenclature cards. 

I have heard parents voice concerns over the lack of science materials or history texts on the shelves. However, we could never put enough materials on the shelves to satisfy the child’s own natural curiosity. Montessori cultural materials are not teaching tools like textbooks. Like the teacher, they serve as an introduction or catalyst to further learning and research. They are merely a place to start, not a means to an end. They call the child to pull them off the shelves to use, and in their simplicity, they spur the imagination so that children are encouraged to seek out more information on their own.  

The teacher must understand this, have the materials available to the child, and be organized enough to know that the materials alone will drive learning. By having the materials close at hand, the teacher is ever ready to present lessons and encourage further study. Follow-up work is not given in the form of formal assignments but as suggestions written in a journal after a lesson. If children are truly not sure what to do next, they can refer to their journals for ideas and motivation.

True organization is being able to keep track of student interests and progress. I did this every Friday afternoon after lunch. I left my assistant in charge of helping students if necessary, and I found a quiet corner. There I met with each child individually to discuss what they had worked on during the week as well as what their plans were for the following week. Having 35 children in class meant I did not meet with every child every week. I usually divided the class in half, meeting with one half one week and the other half the next. If a child truly needed to meet with me, I would make room in the schedule for them. This long-term strategic planning helped the children take control and responsibility for their own learning, a great time management and organizational skill that they will carry forward into adult life.

In all of this, the teacher is not the expert. Our job is not as teacher but as guide. As Montessori says, this is a help to life. We teach children to rely not on the adult to lead the way but on themselves to find the way. 

Works Cited
Lillard, Paula  Polk. Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from Birth to Adulthood. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1996.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate

— NAMC Staff


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