The Montessori Lesson

How do you picture lessons being given in school?  Perhaps, children are seated at desks, at a table or on the floor in a circle, with the teacher at the front, standing and explaining or illustrating a concept on a white board or projection?  When you walk into a Montessori classroom, you will notice right away that there are no large tables for children to gather around, nor are there white boards and chalk boards (let alone electronics). 

How, and when do teachers “teach” in the Montessori classroom?

First, let us say that our environment and our materials are meant to teach the child with minimal assistance from the teacher.  The materials are self-instructing and self-correcting so that the child can learn within the framework of their developing independence! 

However, teachers still give lessons. Maria Montessori emphasized that lessons should be taught most often on an individual basis.  Sometimes, a small group lesson is used for children who are both developmentally ready, and rarely, group lessons are used.  Lessons are presented throughout the morning work cycle (typically 8:30am-11:30am) as well as in the afternoons for children who have grown out of the need for rest.

teacher and student studying at preschool

How, and when do teachers “teach” in the Montessori classroom?

The advantages of individual lessons are clear – a child is met where they are at, with no pressure to excel or compete with their classmates, nor are they being restrained if they are ready for something more challenging.  In addition, since our classrooms are child-led, it is rare to find a group of children all ready and interested in (let alone, developmentally ready for) a lesson at the same time.  Individual lessons allow our teachers the freedom to respect each child’s interests and availability. 

The individual lessons also give the teacher valuable time to observe the child’s movements, language and responses in a way they cannot while focused on a whole class.  Their observations are central to their ability to provide the child with developmentally appropriate lessons.  They can also experiment, customize and adjust the lesson to the child in response to their observations, again, something that is nearly impossible to do in a traditional, large group lesson.

The invitation.

The teacher will systematically invite the child to a lesson, in which new activities (“work”) are introduced. Each presentation builds on the last presentation and takes into consideration the child’s developmental readiness and interest.  The lessons are also hands-on activities: the goal is that the child gets to do the lesson! 

The teacher does not force a child to participate in learning but extends an invitation.  However, a child rarely declines an opportunity to learn as 1) the materials natural attract the child’s interest, 2) the invitation is presented pleasantly and respectfully, 3) the child enjoys the one-on-one time with and attention of the teacher, 4) the child remembers enjoyment of previous presentations and 5) the teacher observes the child, and extends the invitation when the time is right – she respects the child’s needs for rest, snack, working with friends, or time working alone. 

boy learning math at preschool

The location.

If the child accepts the invitation, the child and the teacher are usually found sitting side by side at a table or perhaps on the floor in front of a work rug.  The work rug gives the child space to spread out while still defining that space for other friends, and themselves.  Having the teacher at the child’s side ensures that they both are looking at the materials from the child’s point of view. The teacher will usually sit on the child’s non-dominant side, so that the child can see the work as it is presented. 

The content: concise and simple.

The teacher will speak to the child slowly, precisely and with utmost respect, allowing lengths of silence which allow the child to fix their attention on her hand movements as she interacts with the materials.  She will be methodical, sometimes exaggerating movements so that the child will not miss a step.  Lessons and presentations are concise and simple.  Each word is thoughtfully and intentionally spoken.  Each movement is purposeful.  The goal is not to confuse the child with too many words, but to give them just what they need to aid understanding. 

She is also very respectful with the materials, treating them as treasures – this is important, as it teaches a child to respect and care for the environment.  How the child handles the objects is also important, as there are often other indirect purposes, for example, as teacher sets up and uses the materials, she will move from left to right, which indirectly reinforces how we write and read in English (the sinistrodextral, or left-to-right, writing system).

The delivery: objective.

The lessons are given objectively, meaning the teacher conveys great respect for and fascination with the lesson, but without excessive emotions or reactions

If the child loses interest, the teacher does not express disappointment, but lets the child know that when they are ready for the lesson, they would be happy to share it with them. 

If the child expresses enthusiasm, the teacher does not respond exuberantly, nor does she praise the child.  Instead, the teacher contains her joy, and steps back and gives the child space to enjoy the journey of discovery without detracting from their experience by drawing attention to herself and her emotions. 

If the child makes a mistake, the teacher is neutral, simply returning to a misunderstood step and quietly demonstrating how it is done – often without speaking a word, so that the child can draw his own conclusions as he observes his teacher repeat the step.  Sometimes, if she can tell the child is struggling to understand, she does not insist on further demonstration.  Instead, she might view it as a sign that the child is not yet ready for the work, and will simply smile, end the lesson, and return to it at a future time.

children playing game on floor at preschool

Modeled by an older child.

The Montessori teacher often invites an older child to give a lesson to a younger child on a work.  This is an incredible advantage to our mixed-age classrooms, as both the young student, who adores that an older child makes the time to share their knowledge with hi, and the older, whose understanding of concepts and materials is solidified when they share their knowledge, benefit from this exchange! 

How many of you know that your child is more likely to follow in the steps of an older sibling than do what mom or dad said?  Our classrooms don’t just encourage older children to model for younger children, but provide opportunities for them to be the leaders, and guide the younger children! 

The three-period lesson.

Often, the teacher will use what is known as the three-period lesson to present the materials such as vocabulary, phonetic sounds, countries on a map, shapes, numbers, etc.  This is an excellent technique to learn and use at home, as well!

The teacher will introduce 2-3 objects during the course of the lesson, dependent on the child’s developmental readiness.  Introducing at least 2 objects at a time allows the child to compare and contrast.

  1. Naming
    The teacher will point to an object and say its name. “This is ___________.”   She will often ask the child to repeat after her.

  2. Recognizing
    The teacher will then change the order of the objects, and ask, “Can you show me __________?” or “Please pick up the _______________.” She might move the objects around a few times, all while asking the child to associate the name with the object.  This part of the lesson can be made very engaging by asking the child, “Please put the ___________ under the rug.”  “Please put the ________ on the chair.”  A variation might include the teacher placing the objects around the room, returning to her seat beside the child, and asking the child to retrieve the various objects, one at a time.

    If the child is familiar and confident in steps one and two, the teacher will continue with the third part of the lesson.

  3. Recollecting
    The teacher will last, place the objects in front of the child, point to one object and ask, “What is this?” She is asking the child to recall from memory the name of the object.

Montessori lessons foster joy and deep satisfaction because they are child-led (developmentally appropriate and interest-based) and are delivered by the teacher with utmost respect for the child and the materials.  Here, children truly experience the joy of discovery!

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