Dr Susan Feez, author of Montessori: The Australian Story, recently presented the De Lissa Oration at the University of South Australia. She spoke at length about the influence of the Montessori method on several key members of the ‘kindergarten’ movement in South Australia, particularly Lillian De Lissa.
In the audience were many ‘Montessorians’, but also students from the university, interested members of the public and a series of academics from various fields. At the conclusion of the oration the facilitator invited questions from the audience. The last of these questions came from a gentleman who asked about the function of the adult in the Montessori environment. He mentioned the Vygotskian approach, where the task of the adult is clearly defined as the ‘more knowledgeable other’ or expert who scaffolds the child’s learning, and wondered whether there was a similarly distinctive characterization of the Montessori adult’s role. Due to the timing of his question (coming at around 8.28pm with a scheduled 8.30 finish!) he did not receive a particularly comprehensive or satisfying answer.
So, for that interested individual and anyone else who shares his curiosity, here is my attempt at answering that question: What is the role of the adult in the Montessori experience?
In my opinion the Montessori adult – whether it is the teacher in a classroom or a parent in the home – has four distinct ‘jobs’ to do. Considering each of these jobs separately, using relatable examples from the real world, will help us to better understand the complex and holistic task of the Montessori adult. However it is important to note that the Montessori adult’s role is so nuanced and multi-faceted that it is impossible to identify every aspect in a single blog post.
I am certainly not the first to use these terms, either separately or in various combinations, but I’ll explain my personal perspective of how they interrelate to define the role of the Montessori adult.
The Montessori Scientist
Dr Montessori was a scientist by training and in many ways her first “classroom” was really more of a laboratory. She engaged in a series of scientific studies of the children in her care, going through processes of hypothesis, experimentation, observation and interpretation. This scientific process is what allowed the methodology to develop in such a logical and developmentally appropriate manner, rather than following the educational traditions and preconceptions of the day. She based her decision on evidence not expectation. There is no doubt that her method would be entirely different if not for Dr Montessori’s education and experience as an objective observer of scientific phenomenon.
So it is no surprise that Dr Montessori wanted those who utilised her method to similarly embody the spirit of the scientist. She did not feel that the title of scientist was limited to a doctor in a white lab coat – she believed that “We give the name ‘scientist’ to the type of person who has felt experiment to be a means guiding him to search out the deep truth of life, to life a veil from its fascinating secrets, and who, in this pursuit, has felt arising within him a love for the mysteries of nature.” (1) This description could equally apply to the Montessori ‘teacher’, who must search for truth and help to guide the child towards discovering the fascinating secrets of the world. The Montessori teacher approaches each child as one of the ‘mysteries of nature’ that we must seek to understand.
Dr Montessori encouraged her fellow educators to continue her work of scientific observation of the child, suggesting that, “the teacher must bring not only the capacity, but the desire, to observe natural phenomena”. She also went further, explaining that “the teacher must not limit her action to observation, but must proceed to experiment….in this method the lesson corresponds to an experiment.” (2) So in each ‘lesson’ that the Montessori ‘teacher’ provides, he or she is actually engaging in a scientific experiment with the most fascinating subject that the world can offer; the unfolding development of the child.
The Montessori Architect
The Prepared Environment is often referred to as the ‘third teacher’ in the Montessori method. The first is the child, who engages in a great deal of ‘auto-education’ as he or she discovers, explores, engages and problem-solves. The second is the adult, who observes and guides the journey of those little explorers. The third is the environment, which invites delight, provokes interest, stimulates activity and provides the ideal materials and conditions to assist the child’s natural development. Maria knew that “the tiny child’s absorbent mind finds all its nutriment in its surroundings. Here it has to locate itself, and build itself up from what it takes in. Especially at the beginning of life must we, therefore, make the environment as interesting and attractive as we can.” (3)
The prepared environment is the cornerstone of the Montessori method. It is inextricably linked to every element of the overall pedagogy and without the focus on the preparation of the environment the magic of Montessori would simply cease to function. As Maria herself said of the environment, “a large part of the result depends on it”. (4)
Yet sometimes it is easy for parents and interested parties to forget that the prepared environment doesn’t happen by accident. It is the result of the careful, meticulous and constantly evolving design of the Montessori teacher. It is dynamic, almost a living organism, which must constantly be readjusted to precisely suit the needs of the children. Maria clearly instructed us that "the teacher must not content herself with merely providing her school with an attractive environment; she must continuously think about this environment”. (5) It is a constant and ongoing task for the Montessori educator to act as the architect of the prepared environment. The scientific observations that have been made serve as the basis for decisions about each minor (or major!) adjustment to the prepared environment.
Just as the architect considers even the slightest detail, knowing that one or two degrees out could cause a whole wall to collapse, so too does the Montessori architect meticulously consider and review every minute detail. The Montessori adult knows that the environment requires and deserves this close attention because "The child has a different relation to his environment from ours... the child absorbs it. The things he sees are not just remembered; they form part of his soul. He incarnates in himself all in the world about him that his eyes see and his ears hear." (6) These words impress upon us the powerful impact of the environment on the development of the child, and thus remind us how vital this role of architect is for the Montessori teacher.
The preparation of the environment is an enormous task in itself. The Montessori “environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences." (7) Each material, each piece of furniture, each decoration or adornment must be considered carefully before it is added to the environment. What is its purpose? How should it be presented? Where should it be located? What affect will it have on each child as an individual? How will it affect the classroom community? What lessons of ‘Grace and Courtesy’ (such as how to handle the item) need to be introduced around it? Once these initial questions are answered, and the change made, the process of critical reflection continues. Has it made the impact we expected? Has it had unexpected consequences? Should it stay, move, go or be adjusted? These ‘big picture’ questions are accompanied by matters of tiny detail – Are all the pieces present? Is it still in perfect condition? Somewhere along the line I heard it said that you’re not truly a Montessori teacher unless, upon leaving the room at the end of the day, you spot one piece out of place on one of the shelves and find that you simply cannot make yourself walk out of the door until you fix it!
So we observe, we prepare, we reflect, we revise and we constantly adjust the environment to try to design the ideal balance at any given moment for our classroom communities. We go to all of this effort because we know how powerfully positive the results can be when the prepared environment is functioning to the best of its capacity (and we know how damaging it can be when the conditions of the environment do not suit the needs of the child). Once a Montessori teacher has seen the power of the prepared environment then we cannot help but relish our role as architect. For we know, as Maria did, that “the child whose attention has once been held by a chosen object, while he concentrates his whole self on the repetition of the exercise, is a delivered soul in the sense of the spiritual safety of which we speak. From this moment there is no need to worry about him - except to prepare an environment which satisfies his needs, and to remove obstacles which may bar his way to perfection." (8)
The Montessori Gallery Tour Guide
Many people speak of the Montessori teacher as the ‘guide’. It is a way of explaining that we absolutely do engage in the intentional and proactive practice of helping to lead a child towards experiences or ideas. The word ‘guide’ is also meant to distinguish the role of the Montessori educator from that of the traditional ‘teacher’. We do not ‘teach’ information, in the sense that we do not simply try to transmit facts from our brain into the ears of the child, but we do ‘guide’ the child towards the materials or experiences that will result in spontaneous exploration or realisation! Dr Montessori herself made this clear by reminding us that, “We are the guides of these travellers just entering the great world of human thought.” (9)
So I could have likened Montessori teaching to being a ‘guide’ or a ‘tour guide’ generally, but I have specifically chosen the idea of the Gallery Guide because the presence of art in the metaphor brings to mind another of Dr Montessori’s lessons on the art of education. In relation to our task of guiding the child, but not trying to force activity or progress, she told us that “To stimulate life – leaving it then free to develop, to unfold – herein lies the first task of the educator. This art must accompany the scientific method.” (10) So it seems appropriate to me that the Montessori guide is inside a gallery, filled with works of art and with eager eyes ready to absorb these beautiful sights. The Montessori educator is an artist and this compels the adult to guide each child towards the creation of his or her own works of art.
Of course, I can’t take credit for thinking of the Montessori teacher as an artist drawing the child’s eye to a work of art. She said it herself when she mused, “It is very much as if, while we are looking absent-mindedly at the shore of a lake, an artist should say to us – “How beautiful the curve is that the shore makes there under the shades of that cliff.” At his words, the view which we have been observing almost unconsciously is impressed upon our minds as if it had been illuminated by a sudden ray of sunshine, and we experience the joy of having crystallised an impression which we had before only imperfectly felt. And such is our duty towards the child: to give a ray of light and to go on our way.” (11)
The Montessori Conductor
This is an analogy that Dr Montessori herself drew when she said that, “A concert master must prepare his scholars one by one in order to draw from their collective work great and beautiful harmony”. (12) The Montessori classroom is not a place of chaos or anarchy; it is a place of balance and cohesion. Each member of the Montessori orchestra is focusing on their own task and tools but the combined effort is harmonious and beautiful.
So, like the orchestral conductor, the Montessori educator keeps a watchful eye on an entire group who are working in harmony yet each performing a unique role. The conductor notices even the slightest change in tempo from a single instrument, or one dropped note from the furthest edge of the orchestra pit, just as the Montessori educator observes the slightest changes in behaviour, interests and abilities in each of her children.
The metaphor of the Montessori conductor also reminds us that although the conductor plays an integral role it is the orchestra itself that is beautiful. The conductor does not need to be the centre of ‘attention’, although he or she is absolutely central to the success of the group. The conductor turns the baton to whoever requires support, bringing that musician back on track with a subtle yet powerful flick of the wrist, all the while keeping half an eye on the needs of the rest of the group. How familiar this all feels to the Montessori classroom, where “the teacher moves quietly about, goes to any child who calls her, supervising operations in such a way that anyone who needs her finds her at his elbow, and whoever does not need her is not reminded of her existence.” (13) The Montessori teacher is central, but not the centre of attention, and this adult turns to whoever needs attention without needing to ever interrupt the flow of beautiful music.
So, the Montessori educator embodies these four roles; of objective scientist, diligent architect, artistic guide and attentive conductor. I will let Maria herself have the last word on the subject, as she reminds us that the combination of all these roles is so different from the more traditional image of the teacher in the ‘old’, or mainstream, method of education...
“We may liken the child to a clock, and may say that with the old way it is very much as if we were to hold the wheels of the clock quiet and move the hands about the clock face with our fingers. The hands will continue to circle the dial just so long as we apply the necessary motor force. The new method, instead, may be compared to the process of winding, which sets the entire mechanism in motion.”
-Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method (2002), Pg. 230
References for quotes used in this article:
(1) The Montessori Method, Pg. 8
(2) The Montessori Method, Pg. 107
(3) The Absorbent Mind, Pg. 82
(4) Dr. Maria Montessori, 'Some Words of Advice to Teachers', AMI Communications, 1995, 4, 14
(5) Dr. Maria Montessori, 'Some Words of Advice to Teachers', AMI Communications, 1995, 4, 14
(6) The Absorbent Mind, Pg. 56
(7) The Absorbent Mind, Pg. 84
(8) The Absorbent Mind, Pg. 248
(9) The Montessori Method, Pg. 237
(10) The Montessori Method, Pg. 115
(11) The Montessori Method, Pg. 115
(12) The Montessori Method, Pg. 117
(13) The Montessori Method, Pg. 246