The Montessori Work Cycle

 The following post is used with courtesy from Jescott Montessori Pre-school. It originally appeared in a Parent Information Pack at Jescott and is reproduced here with permission of its author Jessica Langford. 

What happens during the ‘3 Hour Work Cycle’ in our Montessori classroom?
Each day the children engage in a prolonged, uninterrupted ‘Work Cycle’ in our Montessori classroom. Throughout this period the children engage in a range of different activities, some of which are chosen independently and others that are presented by a teacher. As the Work Cycle progresses the dynamics of the group changes. There is a reliable pattern that emerges when observing the dynamics of each Work Cycle. This pattern is so consistent that Dr Maria Montessori was able to observe it occurring in her Montessori environment over a century ago. This emerges today in the Work Cycles of countless Montessori classrooms around the world…including ours!

Let’s first have a look at the diagram that Dr Montessori used to represent this pattern the Work Cycle:

"Whole class at work" diagram by Maria Montessori from Spontaneous Activity in Education, Pg 99

 

In this diagram the horizontal dotted line represents ‘repose’ which essentially means a ‘resting state’. When the solid line moves up, away from the ‘line of repose’, this represents that the children are engaging in thoughtful activity rather than ‘intellectually resting’. The highest points of the solid line represent the most intellectually stimulating work of the children. The lower points represent moments when the children engage in tasks that are more familiar or when children seek out calming activities for period of rest and respite.

We have utilised Dr Montessori’s method of observation and discovered that our own 'work cycle' almost identically fits the patterns that she observed. Our diagram includes the specific timeframes of the peaks and troughs of activity in our classroom. We have numbered the points on our line so that we can more closely explain how and why each aspect of this pattern occurs in our Jescott classroom.

 

  1. Observe the room in the first few minutes of the morning and you will see lots of friends approaching each other, hear lots of enthusiastic chatter and notice lots of children still interacting with parents. At this stage the children are spread throughout the centre – some still hanging up their bags outside, others just crossing the threshold to the Dining Room, a few considering the tasks in the Practical Life room and others standing in various locations throughout the main classroom. Only a few children will be seated and engaged in work, and it is likely that these children will be accompanied by a parent. If you can see a child quietly sitting and concentrating on some work without a parent then it usually means that family came early enough for the child to ‘settle in’ and gain focus before everyone else arrived! At this stage the teachers are usually conversing with children and parents. The teachers will be moving around the room to politely greet each individual child. Occasionally a teacher will be engaged with assisting a child who is feeling anxious about saying goodbye to mum or dad.

The first few minutes of the Work Cycle (or ‘session’) are always the most busy and noisy. This is a period of time when friends are excitedly greeting one another, sharing stories and ‘catching up’. This is similar to what we experience in adult life – if you meet a friend you have not seen for a while then there is usually a flurry of excitement at first and then you will both start to settle back into the calmer, more comfortable dynamic of being together. In the initial minutes there are also lots of adult bodies in the classroom – something which has a palpable effect on the dynamics. Lots of grown-up bodies in the room means extra conversation and more children seeking attention and affection from parents rather than focusing solely on the Montessori environment.

The noise and excitement that occurs at the start of the session is not a bad thing, nor is it unusual, but it would not be ideal if this dynamic continued throughout the session. Luckily we consistently find that the chaos of the first few minutes quickly evolves into calm, focused activity and purposeful, polite communication.

 
  1. Observe the room once all the children have ‘settled in’ and separated from mum or dad and you will notice children working on a series of short, familiar tasks. At this stage in the Work Cycle almost all children are actively engaged in work but there is a lot of movement in the room as the children tend to go through their chosen tasks quickly, return it to the shelf and then choose the next activity. Some children will be working at the tables in the main classroom, others will be sitting around Green Mats on the carpet, a few children will be taking an early snack to gain some energy for the work ahead and others will be sitting in the Practical Life room preparing food or working with trays. At this stage the teachers are primarily making observations and providing short lessons to assist a child who needs a ‘refresher’ to complete a familiar task. The teachers will also be making suggestions to children about what they might like to choose from the shelves.
This is a period when children tend to choose a familiar activity that they have experienced many times before. This ritual helps children to mentally ‘switch on’ and to build a sense of self-confidence through independent achievement. By working with a relatively ‘easy’ task a child is able to feel competent, empowered and ready for the more challenging tasks that are ahead. This is akin to an adult arriving at work and routinely, almost unthinkingly, checking through an email inbox before taking a breath and moving on to the ‘real’ work of the day.
For a period of around half an hour the children will choose a series of these short, familiar exercises. During this half hour period the most popular tasks in our Pre-school classes are self-contained activity ‘trays’, puzzles, Sensorial materials and Practical Life tasks (such as peeling carrots). Literacy and Numeracy are not commonly chosen during this early stage. When these topics are chosen it tends to be that children use the most fundamental and familiar counting or letter exercises. A child who chooses a challenging or unfamiliar task during this early stage (such as word-building, Golden Bead work or starting an elaborate recipe for cooking) is showing an unusual enthusiasm and an enhanced sense of self-confidence. A teacher will immediately understand that this child must be in a particularly Sensitive Period for their chosen topic and we will use this opportunity to provide lessons that extend the child’s explorations.
 
  1. Observe the room about an hour into the Work Cycle and you will see that some children are still working on their familiar tasks, others are packing up, some are chatting to friends while a few just seem to be just resting or wandering. At this stage in the Work Cycle the level of noise and movement in the room increases temporarily. Some children continue to sit and work but there are a lot of children who are on their feet, moving around the room or gathering in small groups. At this stage the teachers will be assisting these children to find constructive and courteous ways of moving, talking and resting while the other children finish their initial work.
After the initial series of familiar tasks the class generally experiences this briefly unsettled period which Dr Montessori called ‘false fatigue’. During ‘false fatigue’ an observer could be mistaken for thinking that the Work Cycle is over. The children become less focused, often wandering around the room or chatting with friends rather than choosing further tasks. The noise level increases and the room hums with an energy that feels less productive. The children seem restless, the work seems finished…and the worst mistake that a Montessori teacher can make is to consider this the end of the Work Cycle! It is called ‘false’ fatigue for a reason – it is a temporary setback that actually occurs before the most engaging work of the day. A true Montessori teacher looks at a class experiencing ‘false fatigue’ and is immediately excited by the fact that this means confidence has been built and the ‘great work’ is about to begin.
  
  1. Observe the room a few minutes after ‘false fatigue’ and you will discover that the movement and noise has decreased again and most children are now intently focused on an important project.  At this stage the children are again spread out through the various rooms but a change may have occurred – the children who chose ‘familiar’ tasks in the Practical Life room first might now be ready to find a challenge in the other curriculum areas found in the main classroom, whereas children who felt more comfortable counting when they first arrived might now be ready to follow a complex recipe in the Practical Life room. All the children will be engaged in work that is quite new and challenging. The movement in the room will be from children who are in the midst of their work – walking to collect the next tool they need or to choose paper to record results.  At this stage the teachers are all engaged in giving direct presentations or assistance. The teacher in the Practical Life room is usually assisting the children with some cooking or presenting a new Practical Life activity. The teachers in the main classroom are generally presenting lessons in Numeracy, Literacy or Cultural Studies. These lessons are sometimes a ‘one-on-one’ presentation to an individual child who is ready for the next step in his or her learning journey. Teachers also provide presentations to small groups of children who share an interest, or readiness, for a particular lesson. The teachers are able to know what to present, and who to present to, because of their previous observations and records of each child’s abilities, experience, interests and level of confidence.
The relative chaos of ‘false fatigue’ is suddenly followed by a moment when suddenly the children settle back into purposeful work. Some children work on elaborate cooperative activity with a few friends, others focus diligently on an individual task, while some accept invitations from teachers to participate in new, challenging lessons. The work that happens during this period, which Dr Montessori occasionally called ‘the great work’, tends to be tasks that involve long, drawn-out processes and a great deal of cognitive stimulation. This is time when teachers present lessons that require a child to be feeling confident to face a challenge, and to be ready to focus to attend to a prolonged period of concentration. There are still a variety of activities occurring around the classroom at this time – for some children their ‘great work’ will involve mastering the buttons on a Dressing Frame, for others the ‘great work’ will be setting up the Bead Bank to collect ‘thousands’ of Golden Beads while yet another child will complete the ‘great work’ of making a booklet examining the anatomy of a turtle. The common thread at this time is that the children are concentrating, and actively moving towards new acquisitions (as opposed to the refinement and revision of the earlier period of familiar activities).
 
  1. Look around the room around 2 1/2 hours into the session and you will find that some children are still intently focused on their work while others are packing away, cleaning up or gathering for a group relaxation experience. The ‘great work’ of the day is almost complete and so children are looking for a way to unwind after these taxing intellectual and physical challenges. At this stage there is quite a lot of movement but it is productive and purposeful. The children who are still working barely seem to notice this movement as they are so focused on the task at hand.  At this stage you will find that one or more of the teachers will still be supporting the children who are working while another teacher might be assisting with the cleaning or leading the group in a relaxation activity at the ‘circle’.
When the ‘great work’ has been completed the children begin to pack away their materials and look for a chance to ‘wind down’ from this intellectual and physical stimulation. Some children choose to do this by engaging in routine practical tasks, such as cleaning the table tops with a spray bottle and sponge or collecting stray pieces of paper from the floor to place in the ‘Recycling’ basket. Other children choose to find meditative activities, such as flipping through the pages of a familiar book or staring at the movement within a decorative ‘lava lamp’ or sand-timer. At this time one or two children usually spontaneously begin a movement exercise such as ‘Walking the Line’ around our blue circle mat. A child will decide to balance a beanbag, or carry a small bell or jug of water, while carefully walking heel-to-toe along the curved edge of the circle. Soon a friend will join, then another and before long we have a whole class of children patiently waiting for their turn to ‘Walk the Line’. Other group relaxation activities occur at this time, such as a teacher reading a story or the children collaborating to play the ‘Silence Game’ of creating ten whole seconds of absolute silence.
     
  
Then we find that the room is once again clean and orderly. The children have rested enough to be at a balanced point of having enough energy to play but not too much energy to control. This is the time when we invite the children to walk out of the classroom and explore our outdoor environment**. Some children stay inside – they may not have yet finished their ‘great work’ or they may wish to assist the teacher with the finer details of the daily clean such as mopping the floors (which cannot easily be performed while the room is still full).
The ‘Work Cycle’ of that session is over…but the next day it will begin again!
   
  
  
**Please note: One of the principles of the Montessori method is the concept of 'indoor-outdoor flow'. Due to the regulatory requirements of ensuring adequate staff ratios and effective supervision (and within the insurance/legal realities of a privately owned/operated centre) we are not always comfortable to allow our children unrestricted indoor-outdoor flow. Our capacity to move freely between the indoors and outdoors depends on the availability of staff to be positioned appropriately in all of the respective areas of the classroom and garden. Whenever possible we do make this opportunity available and we do arrange for teachers to take small groups of children outside during the morning work cycle for specific activities, for gross motor activities, to tend to our garden or for sensory exploration. The information about our Work Cycle is not limited to indoor activities - our explorations of the outdoors can occur at any stage, including as part of the 'great work'. 
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Comments

  • adolphus - October 31, 2016

    Wonderful post never under stood the work cycle better until I read this post! Thanks

  • Irene - October 08, 2015

    I just re-read this post to refresh myself on the three hour work cycle :)

  • C20kie - January 11, 2015

    Thank you so much for this post!! I’ve seen this concept referred to so much without ever being explained. I really appreciate this resource :)

  • Irene - May 13, 2014

    I love this post. I have been wondering to myself about the 3 hour cycle and how it is in action. Thanks for this post!!

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