curriculum

Freedom Within Limits

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“To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.”  -Maria Montessori

One of the more common misconceptions about Montessori education is that we let the children run free to do what they please all the time.  It is true that we let our students make choices for themselves, not just about their work but about their preferences and even care of their own bodies, but those choices are made within carefully crafted parameters.  To give a child (or any human) choice is to give them empowerment.  To give them choice within boundaries will assist them in becoming the adult they are meant to be.

Why give choice?

When we give children the ability to make their own choices, we are letting them know we trust their decisions.  If children know the adults in their lives trust them, they will begin to trust themselves.  When a person has confidence in their own abilities, their thoughts and energy can be put into new ideas and making progress.

Decision making is a skill that must be learned just like anything else.  From the most basic everyday tasks to major life events, we all need to make choices in our lives.  When we create an environment that allows children to practice this skill and be successful, they are given an opportunity to become successful as they grow older.

Giving choice is also a means of showing respect.  We respect that children should have a say in what they want.  While as adults our role is to keep children safe and guide them, we do not have all the answers nor do we understand what is always best for each child.  Giving kids a say shows them that we honor their autonomy.  

Why place limitations?

While we believe it’s important to give children choices, too many choices can feel overwhelming and be counter-productive.  Placing some limitations keeps their decision-making process safe and manageable.  Children actually want us to define limits for them as boundaries give them a sense of structure that is critical for their development.

Think about the last time you went to a typical grocery store.  Just deciding on a box of cereal can seem like huge task!  There are so many choices, and while it feels good to have options, there can definitely be too much of a good thing.

Another benefit of placing limitations on choices is that we can create a scenario in which any choice made will achieve the desired results.  If we want children to practice a specific skill, we can give two or three options that will allow them to do so.  If we want them to complete a certain task or meet a goal, we can envision different paths that will lead to the same destination and let them decide which they would like to take.

What does this look like in the classroom?

When it comes to academic work, Montessori children get to make choices about which work they will focus on, where they sit, who they sit with, and in what order they do things.  They move about their mornings with a sense of purpose, because they get to call the shots in regards to their own education.  In a structure like this, school doesn’t feel so much like a place where you go to receive knowledge that’s being given to you; it’s a place where you go to explore, learn authentically, and immerse yourself in work that’s important to you.

With all those choices, it’s important for teachers to create an environment that sets kids up for success.  Montessori guides only give children lessons on materials they are ready for.  They only put materials on the shelves that the children as a group are ready for.  The materials they do put out are so beautiful and interesting that the children cannot help but want to choose them.  

Even when it comes to taking care of themselves, we want children to be in charge.  We create structures that allow them to eat when they are hungry, use the restroom when they feel the need, and to rest or move their bodies as they see fit.  Most Montessori classrooms have a snack table that children can sit at whenever there is a seat available (limiting this to two chairs is one way guides make snack socializing manageable).  Children don’t need to ask permission to use the restroom; we make sure they have access to a toilet that they can use at any time.  The furniture in our classrooms are arranged in such a way so as to encourage safe avenues to body movement, individual seating, group seating, floor seating, or table and chair options.  As adults we need variation and choice to be productive and we recognize that children do as well. 

Our job as Montessori educators is to create the conditions for children to independently make decisions that will help them grow and develop.  We want them to explore who they are, to learn about each other, and to gain basic academic skills.  We want to cultivate inquisitiveness, leadership skills, and a sense of humble independence.  All of these goals can be met through careful planning of a classroom environment that facilitates choice within limits. 

What might this look like in the home?  

It can help to observe in your child’s classroom to get ideas.  If you are just getting started with offering choice at home, it can help to focus on just a few areas in the beginning.  Food, clothing, and entertainment are good places to start.

While we do not advocate making separate meals for everyone in your home (this can quickly lead to picky eating habits), kids can have some say in mealtime choices.  Find ways you are willing to be a little flexible and ask their opinion.  Perhaps they can choose some fruits or vegetables at the grocery store, or help decide what gets packed into their lunches.  If you have several dinners planned for the week, your child could help decide which one to have on a particular night and then help you prepare it.  When it comes time to eat, let your child practice serving themselves, while reminding them about the importance of not wasting food and only taking as much as we expect to eat. 

Getting dressed for the day is great time to practice decision making.  This tends to be one area that requires the most intentional release of control from us as parents, as young children tend to have quite the eccentric tastes when it comes to personal style!  Keeping weather and activities of the day in mind, set some guidelines and let your child pick out their own clothes.  Some Montessori experts recommend only putting desirable options in the child’s drawers.  If this isn’t feasible, even young children can follow simple directions such as, “Please choose something with short sleeves and long pants.”  Expect combinations you would never choose for yourself and remember that this is an important step in their development and self-expression.  How we dress is one way we present ourselves to the world and letting your child make these choices tells them you trust that they know who they are.

When it comes to having fun, children love to give input.  If you read stories at bedtime, your child could select whatever number of books you decide, or they could choose from a pre-selected few that you give them.  If you let your child watch television, give them a pool of shows that you feel are appropriate to choose from.  If you want to get them outside, ask them if they would rather go to the playground or ride their bike.  The key is to consider your true objective, then present multiple ways to achieve that goal.  

We hope that this post has been helpful, and we would love to hear how you implement choice at home!

Math Fact Memorization: Montessori & Current Research

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When someone starts talking about memorization of math facts, people tend to have strong opinions.  We all had a variety of experiences as children ourselves, and those experiences coupled with notions of best practices in education can cause for heated debates.  In today’s post we would like to share the results of recent research on the topic.  At first glance, the results may seem at odds with Montessori theory, but upon further examination this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Read on to find out why our materials and methods can provide children with exactly what this “new” information suggests they need.

The Findings

This summer Paul L. Morgan, Ph.D. published an interesting article for Psychology Today.  Morgan works at Penn State as a professor in the education department as well as Director of the Center for Educational Disparities Research.  He and several colleagues (George Farkas and Steve Maczuga) conducted research to investigate instructional practices and their effects on student achievement.  Their specific focus was on first grade classrooms in math.  

The researchers observed a variety of students and classrooms and determined that the only teaching method that had a positive effect on student achievement was teacher-directed instruction, as opposed to student-centered.  [This is the part where those of us who adore Montessori will audibly gasp, but keep reading!]

Morgan, Farkas, and Maczuga define teacher-directed as the following: “Teachers initially demonstrate specific procedures for solving problems, and then provide students with repeated opportunities (e.g., worksheets, routine practice and drills) to independently practice these procedures. Teacher-directed practices should help students increase their procedural fluency in applying explicitly taught and repeatedly practiced sets of procedures to solve mathematics problems, which should result in more effective use of higher order thinking and problem-solving skills.”

What Do Montessori Teachers Do?

According to the researchers’ definition of teacher-directed learning, this is exactly the approach that is taken in regards to students learning their basic math facts in Montessori classrooms.  Our initial reaction is simply a result of semantics and misconceptions.  Do Montessori teachers utilize worksheets and drills?  Well, not exactly, but we still meet the definition in other ways.

One of the most common misconceptions about Montessori education is that the children are let to do whatever they want all the time.  Some people think that choice is the driving force (it is, at least in part) and the students run amok.  Anyone who has spent any time learning about Montessori or observing in a classroom knows the opposite to be true.  Montessori is really all about choice within limits.  Teachers create an environment rich with materials that call to the children, and while they do have lots of decision-making opportunities, they are only provided with options that will lead them to meet desired outcomes.  The same is true for math fact instruction and practice.  

Let’s get down to the facts: in Montessori classrooms, the teachers provide direct fact memorization instruction.  At the lower elementary level in particular, one will find shelves stocked with materials that were designed to aid the process of math fact memorization.  Typically a teacher will give a child a lesson on a material to explain how it is to be used, and then detail their expectations to the child.  Children are generally going to be practicing and recording their facts on a daily basis.  Montessorians believe that while understanding the concept of why we manipulate numbers and having a visual representation helps children in the long run, we agree that when it comes down to it those basic facts really need to be memorized with an emphasis on speed and accuracy.  This is one of the reasons our children are able to solve larger complex operations problems at a younger age than children in many traditional settings.

Bead Cabinet

Bead Cabinet

Taking a closer look at specific materials, how they are used, and their intended outcomes may help to refine these points.

  • The bead chains/bead cabinet: Children begin using this material as early as 3 years old.  While the initial purpose is for children to learn to count, during the elementary years that skip counting translates into speedy memorization of multiplication tables.  The transition tends to be fairly smooth, as they’ve already been practicing for years!  Bonus: the same material will help them understand squares and cubes just a little further down the road in their school career.

  • Addition and subtraction strip boards: While a student initially uses these materials to explore the concept of adding and subtracting, they quickly notice patterns and build speed as they gain confidence.  These materials are typically introduced at age 5 or 6.

  • Multiplication and division bead boards: Like the strip boards, these are initially used by students to gain a basic understanding of the concept.  As they master individual facts, they naturally start to create shortcuts for themselves and a trained Montessori teacher will observe that they are ready to move on to more challenging materials.

  • Finger boards: Created for each of the four operations, these materials are essentially wooden versions of the classic fact charts.  Children are slow to fill them in the beginning, but after repeated practice they build speed and accuracy.  Control charts are readily available for immediate feedback, ensuring that even when a child is practicing independently they will be able to know whether they are answering correctly or not.

  • Blackline masters: Montessori teachers have blackline masters, which are essentially paper copies of the finger boards, that are available for children.  Children are expected to complete the material and then record the information on the paper version, thus providing another layer of repetition.  

Room for Improvement?

If there is one area that many math teachers (Montessori and otherwise) could stand to improve upon when it comes to math facts, it would be taking the time to target math fact instruction.  Making sure our students are practicing daily, quickly, and accurately is critical, but might we also help them practice smarter?

Sitting down with each individual child to gather a quick assessment periodically can make a huge difference in progress.  While gathering data in this fashion is time-consuming, we may find it well worth the effort.  Teachers can sit with a child and quickly run through a chart of facts, asking the child for answers orally.  Highlight the facts the child can answer quickly and confidently, leaving the others blank.  Teachers make a copy of this sheet so that the student can keep it to reference.  When it’s time to practice math facts, children can focus on the ones they haven’t yet memorized, rather than eating up time going over the facts they’ve already mastered.

If you are interested in reading more about Dr. Morgan’s work, follow the links to his article and the research findings:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/children-who-struggle/201808/should-us-students-do-more-math-practice-and-drilling

http://journals.sagepub.com/stoken/rbtfl/J2BxFXoAWRPSo/full