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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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’.