It is no exaggeration to say that this learning experience has overwritten more than a decade of professional thinking. To qualify this statement it is necessary to set a context, summarising my educational background before demonstrating an overview of my experiences of Montessori teacher training. Following this I will focus specifically on the two areas of the Montessori curriculum that have most challenged my beliefs: Knowledge and Understanding of the World and Numeracy. Finally, I will address my role as a Montessori educator and the potential I have to promote this method as the very best start a child can have.
In 2004 I embarked on my Secondary PGCE in Geography and subsequently had a very successful 7 years teaching in both state and private secondary schools in London. Although attending a prestigious teacher training department that highlighted educational theory, Maria Montessori was never mentioned. In fact, the only time I had seen the word was when passing a Montessori Nursery School on my daily walk to my undergraduate university in the late 1990’s. Having moved to rural Cambridgeshire, in 2012 I became the Deputy Headmistress, SENCo and Year3/4 class teacher of a preparatory school. The integrated nursery was my first experience of the Early Years Foundation Stage.
After a family bereavement in 2015 I decided to reflect upon my career and following a relatively whimsical comment made by a family member I decided to purchase a local but severely neglected Montessori Nursery School that had been operating for almost two decades. I was still unaware of the Montessori approach but from a purely financial perspective I thought that this was a unique selling point that would set us apart from the strong competition. Little did I know that integrating Montessori practice into my ingrained pedagogy would alter my perspective on the education of children forever. As Cossentino stated, ‘To attend a Montessori training course was both to discover a new and better way to educate and to learn how to do it.’ (2009, p521).
There is no doubt that the course itself has been challenging, particularly as I have worked full time as the owner/manager of my nursery throughout, familiarising myself with the statutory requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage, the role of the Key Person and so forth, which are alien to a practitioner more familiar with teaching teenagers! The complexity of the educational theory was initially daunting, but I ensured that from the day I purchased the nursery I read relentlessly around the subject. Despite this, ‘No matter how compelling the vision or attractive the community, one cannot become a Montessorian by reading books or claiming a belief in child-centred learning and peace. Rather, Montessori bona fides are conferred only upon those who have mastered the technical as well as cultural scripts of the pedagogy.’ (Cossentino, 2009, p522). The focus on the ‘hows’ of practice are in conflict with the view of teaching I have become so familiar with. The scripted rigidity of how to lay out material, what to say and when to say it is daunting, not least because it removes the individuality of practice that deems teachers to be ‘good’ at their profession. This is perhaps why the practical workshop is so crucial but equally so nerve-wracking and I agree with participants referenced in Cossentino who describe the experience as ‘”boot camp,” ”gruelling,” “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” “transformative.”’ (2009, p522). Never before has it felt so much like knowledge is being transmitted from those who are the keepers, initiating students into a members’ only club that holds the key to what could be so positive about society.
As a Geographer it is the Knowledge and Understanding of the World area of the curriculum that I am most familiar with. Geography will always be my passion and I am still employed by Cambridge Assessment in leading a team of assessors who examine the subject for candidates across Europe, Africa and Asia. Yet throughout my career, Geography has been ridiculed as a subject where the student becomes adept at using colouring pencils but little else. In fact, due to strong transferable skills the employment rates for Geographers are amongst the highest recorded. Likewise, the subject area in itself cultivates a world view and a certain cultural sensitivity. The fact that Maria Montessori held the subject in such high esteem when developing her educational method fills me with confidence that Montessori educated children will give Geography the respect it deserves.
Although associated principally with primary education, the key element of Montessori’s Cosmic Education is the theory of evolution as explained in the Great Lessons. The lessons highlight the ongoing change within the cosmos and the interdependence of all existence on our planet. It also considers adaptability of species and the stewardship concept, our responsibility for the future of the Earth and how we need to be mindful about our use of the planet’s resources. Children are made aware that they are a Citizen of the World, acknowledging the importance of similarities and the need for respect and acceptance of difference in the hope of preventing world conflicts. Montessori felt that the future of harmonious co-existence on the planet lay in the hands of the child and it is by teaching children to have caring attitudes towards all people that the world can be a more peaceful place. Perhaps at no point in recent history has this been more relevant.
The geographical content that children of such a young age are interested in is in stark contrast to that which children in primary schools are taught as part of the National Curriculum. Although statutory guidance proposes that the subject should inspire pupils about the world and its people, my experience as both a primary and secondary level teacher shows that it tends to be side-lined as time-constraints prioritise literacy and numeracy. In some cases, a one-week project on rivers, for example, constitutes a year’s primary Geography education. The result is that children arrive at secondary school with little knowledge or interest of the world and its inhabitants and no understanding of the human, physical and environmental make-up of our planet.
Now I have seen that activities that are made relevant to a child’s experiences even at the age of three and four can lay solid foundations for later learning. I have developed resources that introduce the child to the solar system, the Earth and its continents as well as animals, seasons, cultures and nationalities. These include 3-part classified cards about the structure of a volcano alongside a piece of volcanic rock; a land, water and air classification activity; and continent folders containing artefacts, costumes and animals. Our Knowledge and Understanding of the World shelves are in fact some of the most popular in the nursery and I am proud that our children are developing the passion for Geography that I have had for so many years. After all, what could be more important than the world in which we inhabit?
The numeracy area of the curriculum has been nothing short of inspirational and I must make particular reference to the excellent video from LePort Schools that features in the workbook for Numeracy Arithmetic. Although I appreciate that the presentation of the materials in the video differs slightly from the method I have been taught, the hands-on nature of the materials where children gain concrete gain concrete experiences before moving to abstract operations enables all children to grasp the most complex of mathematical concepts. My past experiences have taught me that children have a ‘love/hate’ relationship with the subject, primarily the latter. Children cannot see the relevance of multiplication, algebra and trigonometry in their everyday lives, a view that has been exacerbated by the use of calculators and computers. If I had a pound for every time a child in my class has questioned ‘when am I ever going to need this?’ I would be very rich!
Mathematics is all around us as the world is made of shapes and numbers. Most very young children will comprehend that 2 is more than 1 and that their age is represented by a number. The fact that Montessori devised activities encompassing matching, sorting, pairing, 1:1 correspondence, ordering, comparing, organising and pattern making using physical objects meets the innate human tendencies for order, exactness and precision that are manifested in the sensitive period for order. Mathematics and problem-solving are inherent in so many of the practical life and sensorial materials that rather than being a discreet subject to be avoided they are ingrained in nursery life. I have seen first-hand that ‘The nursery provides very solid grounding in numeracy and arithmetic, as well as opportunities to develop these skills far beyond what is usually expected of those children who display interest and aptitude in this area of learning.’ (Isaacs, 2012, p83).
When ‘children’s attitudes to Mathematics’ is put into a search engine such as Google, results on the first page include the headlines ‘bad attitudes to Maths make children switch off’, ‘attitudes to Maths fixed by the age of 9’ and ‘how can schools help change negative attitudes to Maths?’. Surely this is a national crisis if as a country we wish to compete educationally and subsequently professionally on a global scale? I genuinely believe that if the Montessori approach to numeracy and arithmetic were adopted across all early and primary education in the United Kingdom we would have a system whereby children not only understood all aspects of Mathematics but they actually enjoyed it. There shouldn’t be an educational establishment in the country that does not have the full set of bead material!
I now have a role as a Montessori educator and it is a very different role to that I have held for well over a decade, simpler in concept but more difficult in practice: I am a facilitator, I maintain order and I observe. I am the link between the material and the child, I will explain the use of the material. I am ‘…able to choose an object suitable for a particular child and place it before him in such a way that he understands it and takes a keen interest in it.’ (Montessori, 1967, p152). In doing so I must achieve a delicate balance, ‘…not hold[ing] back minds that are more developed by giving them materials beneath their individual capacities and thus bore them; and, on the other hand, …not present[ing] objects to others who cannot as yet appreciate them and thus discourage their first childish enthusiasm.’ (Montessori, 1967, p152). In addition to being a facilitator I am maintaining order in the nursery which forms the basis for external discipline. The concept that every object has a definite place where it is kept and where it stays when not in use leads to a harmony amongst the children but also for myself. The fact that a child is free to choose their material from the shelf but must put it back in its place after use (in the same condition that it was in when taken) leads to respect for the environment and the rules that govern it. This is not always easy to implement in practice but through consistent modelling the children clearly benefit, ‘’Montessorians lead by example, not by noise. They know their messages are better heard when offered quietly.’ (McTamaney, 2005, p75). I also observe the children to ensure that they have every opportunity to express their unique characteristics and creative tendencies.
Successive governments are finally understanding the importance of pre-school education ‘as a significant contributor in laying a firm foundation for later learning and nurturing a strong sense of self.’ (Isaacs, 2012, p98). I believe that it is important for all children to have some form of early education before they begin primary school, and, of course, I now believe that the best possible early education is Montessori. Yet I have battled to spread the word in rural Cambridgeshire where families seem reluctant to adopt an alternative to plastic toys, monsters and computer games. When asked, as I regularly am, ‘what is Montessori?’ I feel confident in my understanding of the theory. More importantly I say that Montessori children are sociable, creative, imaginative, self-directing, organised, enthusiastic and committed. For some this is not enough, but I will continue to promote the method to anyone who will listen. After all, rather unexpectedly, I have become an unwavering advocate of Maria Montessori.
Cossentino, J. (2009) Culture, Craft, & Cohenrence: The Unexpected Vitality Of Montessori Teacher Training Journal Of Teacher Education (Vol 60) pp520-527
Isaacs, B. (2012) Understanding The Montessori Approach Abingdon: Routledge
Isaacs, B. (2015, 3rd Edition) Bringing The Montessori Approach To Your Early Years Practice Abingdon: Routledge
Lillard, P. (1972) Montessori A Modern Approach New York: Schocken Books Inc
McTamaney, C. (2005) The Tao Of Montessori: Reflections Of Compassionate Teaching Lincoln NE: iUniverse
Montessori, M. (1966) The Secret Of Childhood New York: Ballantine Books
Montessori, M. (1967) The Discovery Of The Child New York: Ballantine Books
Montessori, M. (2007) The Absorbent Mind Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company
Montessori, M. (2012) The 1946 London Lectures Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company
Montessori Centre International (MCI) (2013) Numeracy Arithmetic London: MCI