The Montessori method is incredibly complex and rich. The benefits of this richness of method are too numerous to mention, but there are some downsides too. Or, more accurately, some of the benefits might be at risk of becoming downsides!
You see, the richness of the method means that it consists of an enormous amount of intense, intricate and interconnected information. Such complexities are, inevitably, the source of consideration and deliberation over their precise definitions, purposes, meanings and applications.
The Montessori method essentially experiences almost endless amounts of interpretation and reinterpretation. This interpretation has been, and continues to be, done in thousands of schools, by countless individuals, across the world and over a very long period of time (it has been more than a century since the method was first designed!). As such, this ‘single’ methodology actually contains many variables and many different ‘schools of thought’ in terms of both philosophy and practical application.
In my experience, these ‘schools of thought’ often tend to be drawn along the lines of the various training institutes. Many individual Montessori educators seem to stick to the interpretation that they were taught by their institute and/or by individual trainers**.
In fact, there are some Montessori educators who would be offended by my use of the word “interpretation” in the previous sentence. These educators view their own training not as one interpretation, or one ‘version’, but as the definitive truth of what Montessori is and should be.
I am personally very open and proud about referring to my own training as being one ‘interpretation’ of the method. I am not concerned that there might be other perspectives; I am delighted by it! I am not fearful that I might be ‘wrong’, or that there might be information that I do not yet know; I am eager to discover it! One of my personal heroes is Socrates, a philosopher who believed that there was nothing more ignorant than believing you know everything. Maria Montessori herself must have shared some of my admiration for Socrates; she quoted him within her own writing. So I feel as though I have her seal of approval for not only admitting but embracing my own inability to know everything!
When it comes to these many different ‘schools of thought’ within Montessori, I also believe that this diversity of interpretation and application can be beneficial. It promotes critical thinking, honest reflection and (hopefully!) continuous improvement!
The downside of divergent thinking tends to appear when it causes educators to draw immovable ‘battle lines’ against one another. Sometimes (more often than I am proud to admit) I see this happening. Two or more individuals, each with their own interpretation of what Montessori ‘is and should be’, stand opposed and both staunchly sticking to their own ‘side’. From these positions the discussion serves only to reinforce each individual’s own viewpoint.
I think that the difference between positive, collaborative reflection (leading to continuous improvement) and negative, circular argument (leading to nowhere!) is the way that the discussion is framed. When one or more educators engage in an open and intellectual description of their own personal perspectives, or of their experiences and ideas, then we can take these issues constructively. When one educator presents her (or his) perspective as fact – or as the definitive definition of Montessori – then circular, close-minded and sometimes downright disempowering argument ensues.
In the interest of presenting a personal perspective - in a way that is open, honest but in no way definitive – I would like to discuss an example that was recently brought to my attention.
After a recent Cultural Workshop an attendee volunteered the feedback that ‘the images on the Three Part Cards should be relative to one another’. That is, if an elephant and a lion both appear in a set of Three Part Cards introducing ‘African Animals’, then the elephant should stretch to the outer limits of the card while the relatively smaller lion should take up less space on the same sized card. The attendee was basing this assertion on the guidance she received during her own training, and it was a directive that she now passes on to the students that she trains. I do not question the validity or wisdom of this perspective, but I don’t make my cards in this manner. I also don’t necessarily accept the assertion that I “should” do so.
This is just one example of a tiny detail within the very large Montessori method. Yet the fact that this small element can still provoke differing perspectives, and be pulled apart in terms of both philosophy and practicality, is indicative of the much broader trend.
My perspective, detailed below, is not intended to be the answer to the question of how the cards should be presented. It is just an example of how an individual educator can use their knowledge of Montessori in conjunction with experience, critical reflection and external influence in order to reach a perspective that can be defended with logic and yet is open to further consideration.
The following words aren’t meant to be an argument. I do not want to convince you, the reader, that my way is ‘right’. I just want to explain how I got here. Through that journey I hope it will show how multiple perspectives might actually be equally valid. I also hope that sharing my ‘Montessori inner-monologue’ might act as an example of the thought process you can go through to arrive at your own informed, conscientious and unique perspectives.
So here is what I think about when deciding whether the pictures on my Three Part Cards should be scaled in relation to one another;
I start by asking myself: “What is the purpose of using the cards at all?”
I believe the answer (in most cases) is; to offer an experience in observation and examination that is otherwise unavailable.
That is, there is not an immediate or accessible opportunity to engage in this exploration through real experience.
The card therefore acts as a scaffolding step. I don’t have a real platypus in my classroom, but the children are interested in Australian animals, so one of the resources I use is my set of models and Three Part Cards. The purpose of the cards, in this context, is to provide the children a chance that is otherwise unavailable to become familiar with the visual characteristics of (in this case) a platypus.
So then I have to ask: “Is this purpose supported by the use of ‘relative’ sizing?”
In some cases it may be. If the set of cards is specifically designed to show relationships or demonstrate some element of growth then the relative sizes of the images may be quite pertinent. For instance, in my classroom I have a set of cards that show the adult and the infant of various animal species. These are not strictly ‘Three Part Cards’ as I designed them to be used for matching pairs. The cards show couplings such as a ‘puppy’ on one card and a ‘dog’ on another, an ‘owlet’ on one and an ‘owl’ on another, a ‘gosling’ and ‘goose’, a ‘tadpole’ and ‘frog’ and so forth. The primary purpose of the cards is to introduce the vocabulary specific to the young and the adult. I therefore feel that it is therefore vital in this situation that the two are easily distinguishable by size. If the owlet isn’t immediately recognisable as the ‘young’ version then it defeats the purpose because the child may learn to attach the term ‘owlet’ to a fully-grown owl. The use of relative sizes of the images absolutely supports the overall purpose of the activity itself.
However, I also feel there are some instances where the use of relative sizing is either irrelevant or may actually detract from the overall purpose. Specifically, I feel that the use of relative sizing may be detrimental when I am presenting activities that are meant to increase the child’s recognition of the physical appearance of an animal or object.
This is the case with the majority of my applications of the Three Part Card format. I am usually presenting these cards as a means of increasing the child’s familiarity with the visual characteristics of the animal/object in question. These are often grouped by some sort of theme – such as ‘Australian Animals’ – but the images on the cards are there to let a child engage in visual examination of the physical characteristics of each individual animal.
The cards are always going to have a practical limitation in terms of size – it is not functional to present a card that is 20cm by 20cm as too few could fit within the child’s field of vision at any one time. So there must be a ‘top end’ to the size spectrum – a starting point into which the ‘largest’ of the object/animal in the set must fit. To then ‘scale down’ accurately from that point would, in many cases, result in the smallest of the set being so small as to be difficult to examine in any particular detail. This would, in some cases, defeat the purpose. The card would no longer provide the child with a clear, detailed image of the animal/object in question. The small size of the image would make it harder to identify as much visual information.
So if I have accepted that there may be both benefits and costs to presenting relative sizing, depending on the context and purpose of the cards, then next I ask myself: “How can I minimise the risk of confusion when I present cards that do not include relative sizing?”
If the images of the animals/objects on my cards are going to be approximately equal in size, as opposed to scaled to represent their real relative sizes, then I need to consider whether I need to take steps to ensure that children don’t take this too literally. I genuinely do not want the children in my classroom to believe that a lion and an elephant are of equal size, so I need to consider whether they will come to believe this if I show cards featuring an image of an elephant that is the same size as the image of a lion. The primary way that I can avoid this risk is to ensure that this is not the child’s sole experience with the particular concept.
I personally believe that, ideally, the cards should never be presented in isolation. If that is absolutely the only example of a concept available to the child then it is probably insufficient no matter how beautiful the cards are!
For instance, the Life Cycle cards that I choose to make tend to show each of the stages in relatively the same ‘size’. This is not a strictly true representation – a ladybug’s egg is obviously miniscule compared to the size of a fully grown ladybug. Similarly, frog spawn is smaller than a tadpole, and the tadpole is smaller than the adult frog. Despite these different sizes, the Life Cycle cards that I currently use depict enlarged versions of the earlier stages because this increases the level of detail that is visible. Most of the images on my cards reach towards the outer limit of the card itself, even if that image is smaller than another stage in the life cycle sequence. There are some slight differences in size, but these are not equal to the actual variations in size in the real creatures. So how can I be so confident that a child will understand that a turtle egg is smaller than an adult turtle? Because the cards are not presented in isolation! Before I even present the cards I will present the models. In a perfect world I would present a real turtle first – allowing a child to watch its life cycle unfold just as I have been able to do with tadpoles to frogs and silkworms to silkmoths. When those real experiences aren’t accessible I present the models first, and the cards will follow. The models do demonstrate the variations in size in a way that is realistically comparable to the actual variations in size of the real creatures. The egg is much smaller than the hatchling, which is smaller than the juvenile, which is smaller than the adult. These models provide a three-dimensional and more ‘concrete’ representation of the life cycle stages. At this stage the relative sizes are physically apparent. When we progress to using the cards the child is able to take their existing knowledge of relative sizes and build upon it with a more detailed observation of the other physical characteristics (thus fulfilling the original purpose of the cards!).
Even when models are not readily available, or when they also have not been designed to show realistic comparisons of size, there are other ways to expose the child to variables of size.
Earlier on I used the example of the children using the Three Part Cards to learn about a platypus and other Australian animals. This example came readily to my mind because it is such a commonly shared interest among the children in my classroom. On a day-to-day basis we do not have any kangaroos or bilbies in our classroom or our local area. Occasionally a koala or two will visit our gum trees, but even these are quite hard to observe as they tend to stay hidden in the higher branches. So when a child asks about Australian animals, the materials that are immediately available to us in the classroom are our models, Three Part Cards and books! In addition to these, however, we also do make efforts to expand the child’s field of experience. Excursions can form a part of this – if you can’t bring the kangaroo to the child, take the child to the kangaroo – but we also make use of a great local resource known as the Nature Education Centre. The ‘Nature Ed Centre’ loans live animals as well as animals who, upon reaching the conclusion of their natural lifetime, have donated their bodies to science. So we do, on occasion, have an opportunity to bring a real (albeit stuffed) platypus into our classroom. This is an example of how we use external sources to surround and support the lessons provided by our Three Part Cards. In an absolutely ideal world I would always present the real platypus first. But I don’t live in an ideal world, I live in the real one (with all its beautiful flaws!) and so, when a child says “What does a platypus look like?” I don’t answer “Hold that thought for a few weeks until the Australian animals box is available at the Nature Ed Centre”, I say “Let’s get the Three Part Cards so we can have a look”.
The classroom can also be filled with other materials that provide opportunities to explore relative sizes. There are countless, high-quality non-fiction books that examine as many animals and objects as you could possibly name. These books can be carefully selected to, among other things, provide illustrations that allow the child to compare characteristics such as size. The cards we use in my classroom to learn about different species of dinosaurs show all of the dinosaurs at a relatively similar size. Yet most of our dinosaur books have at least one page dedicated to showing the relative sizes of these animals (and most also feature illustrations to show the way that they scale to humans and other modern animals/structures).
In our modern world I also think I would be rather arrogant if I believed that my Three Part Cards were going to stand as the singular, or even the primary, source of a child’s experience with that particular animal/object. The majority of the children in my own Pre-school are fairly well-schooled in the use of iPad apps and most of them can handle the television remote better than their parents can. I am not making any positive or negative judgements about this relationship with technology, I am simply making the factual observation that it is a part of their lives. The children I teach also tend to be blessed with extremely proactive, conscientious parents who go to great efforts to take their children on trips, outings or excursions and who seek to engage in positive learning opportunities. It is this type of conscientious carer who often seems drawn to methods like Montessori, so it is neither a surprise nor a coincidence that my Montessori Pre-school is filled with proactive parents! I must, therefore, embrace the fact that the children in my care are encountering information from many different sources. I cannot control or account for each individual piece of knowledge they encounter. I also can’t assume that the child has automatically had prior experience with every topic I might introduce. I can, however, be fairly confident that the sum of this information may prepare the child to have a scope that is broad enough to accept that a picture of an elephant is not, in fact, an elephant.
Even if I have accepted that the risk of confusion might be minimal, and I have taken steps to provide other experience to contextualise the cards, it is still worth pushing myself to consider “How significant is the remaining risk that my cards might cause confusion to the child?”
I tend to have an enormous amount of faith in the ability of young children to understand even more than we expect them to! No matter how many children I teach, and how high I believe my expectations are, I am still continuously surprised by the staggering heights of cognitive comprehension that these little ones are capable of. I must still be respectful of my duty to help provide the scaffolds that allow them to build that towering intelligence but I must be even more respectful of the child’s own capacity for learning.
Therefore, even taking into account the young child’s tendency for being literal before reaching abstraction, I have faith that a child is not likely to definitively believe that a chicken and a cow are the same size simply because two pictures of them are the same size. In a decade of teaching (a tiny length of time compared to that of many of my colleagues!) I have never observed a child developing such a belief. If I did see this happen then it would be a stark reminder to me that I had not been fulfilling my duty to contextualise the experiences that I was presenting through the use of abstract materials.
Becoming too fixated on accurate scaling also tends to lead me towards another paradox – if realistic portrayals of size and scale are vital then how can we use the cards at all? If the child is at serious risking of taking the cards so literally that each image must be accurately scaled against its peers, then surely the cards themselves become too risky to use. After all, it is true that a kangaroo and an echidna are not the same size as one another, but it is also true that neither of these animals is 10cm tall! If I genuinely believe that a child will form the impression that a kangaroo and an echidna are the same size as one another because the two pictures are the same size as one another, then I must also believe that the child will form the impression that a kangaroo is 10cm tall. Either the image on the card is an abstract representation, and I can trust the child to accept this, or the image on the card is a literal copy in which case my options are very limited indeed.
In this instance, I am confident that I am not alone or off-course in my interpretation. There are many precedents within the materials of the Montessori curriculum. To my mind the most notable comparisons would be the Anatomy Puzzles and Puzzle Maps.
The Anatomy Puzzles consist of a series of knobbed puzzles showing the anatomy of various flora and fauna. One set features examples of the main classes of animals; a mammal, an amphibian, a mollusc and so forth. Some of the classes feature more than one example – many Montessori classrooms will have a human anatomy puzzle, a cow anatomy puzzle and a horse anatomy puzzle even though these three puzzles show the same class (mammal). These puzzles are not made to reflect relative size – the frog fits into a puzzle of the same size as the horse. The fish puzzle, the human puzzle and the cow puzzle all rest upon the same base dimensions, despite the fact that obviously a real fish, a real human and a real cow vary significantly in size.
If we chose instead to ensure that the sizes of the anatomy puzzles showed an accurate scale model of the relative sizes of the real creatures then we would firstly struggle on a practical level. The horse puzzle would surely be a little too large for a child’s reach and each individual piece would be cumbersome to handle.
Furthermore, the purpose of the puzzles might be eroded by the use of realistic scale sizing. The puzzles are intended to break down the animal’s anatomy into various identifiable elements. This can then be supported by the introduction of related vocabulary, and the child encounters an additional physical benefit when removing and replacing the puzzle pieces. If a horse was to fit on the standard size puzzle then by the time we scaled down to the relative size of a snail it would be incredibly difficult to identify any of the parts of this mollusc, let alone handle and replace its tiny pieces! The developmental value of the puzzles would actually be diminished by the use of relative sizing.
Similarly, the Puzzle Maps also forsake relative sizing in favour of portraying detail. Any Montessori teacher will know that the Puzzle Maps tend to be quite large as it is. They seem to have been pushed to the absolute limits of what a Pre-school child could possibly carry! Yet the Puzzle Map showing all seven continents – the World Map – is roughly the same size as each of the Puzzle Maps showing the individual continents. Montessori educators don’t question this puzzle because it is an “official” Montessori material….yet surely if a child will be confused by handmade Three Part Cards that don’t incorporate relative sizing then they must also be confused by the Puzzle Maps? And yet, in my experience, they are not. Primarily because the Puzzle Maps, like the Three Part Cards, are not intended to be presented in isolation. The Puzzle Maps tend to come after the use of the Globes – which show the continents set out upon a 3-dimensional ‘concrete’ representation of our Earth – and the children are able to make the cognitive leap that they are looking at representations, not at the actual land masses. (Incidentally, when children first encounter the Globes they don’t seem to walk away with the assumption that the Earth is actually that size. If we are able to credit the child with the capacity to accept that the real Earth is larger than the model then I would assert that we can also trust the child to accept that illustrations do not always represent exact sizes in other contexts too). The purpose and value of these Puzzle Maps is not only retained without the application of ‘relative’ sizing but is actually enhanced by avoiding it. Allowing each continent to fit into the standard sized puzzle board maximises the opportunity for the child to visually recognise, identify and absorb these complex formations.
So there, in an extremely large (long?!) nutshell, is the thought-process I went through to arrive at my (current) position on how to design my Three Part Cards.
It is not the definitive position, it is not even my definitive position. It is simply where I currently stand in light of the evidence, my experience and a lot of careful consideration.
This long process of contemplation and deliberation is not unique to the Three Part Cards; it is a process that occurs time and time again in the career of a conscientious educator (Montessori or otherwise!). The process might seem exhausting (if you’ve even made it to the end of reading it then I’m impressed!) and sometimes it is, but it is also always invigorating!
**In relation to my early assertion that ‘many’ Montessori educators remain steadfastly loyal to the ‘school of thought’ introduced by their training, it must also be said that many Montessori educators do think critically about their training. They take the foundation of knowledge acquired during their Montessori training and then build upon this in a range of ways. These additional levels come from personal experience, independent research, consideration of other methods and the inclusion of other information or evidence pertaining to child development. All of these factors combine to create the educator’s personal style that is, by its very nature, fluid. When one of the contributing factors changes, for instance if new research is presented, the teaching style responds. It is, in my opinion, absolutely possible to be one of these critical-thinking, fluid educators but still remain extremely true to the core of the Montessori method. And that seems a perfectly uplifting place to officially end this post!