Montessori Society AMI (UK)
I have been reading with interest about the government’s new plan to set up free schools and I have been wondering how many Montessori schools will be taking advantage of these reforms?
Free schools are a flagship part of the new Government's reforms to education in England. They allow groups of local parents, teachers or charities to establish their own school and choose their own pedagogy. Like academies, they'll be outside local authority control and will receive money directly from the Department for Education. They will have substantial freedom to set their own ethos and subject specialisms. This obviously seems very appealing to those of us in the Montessori movement who have long regretted the fact that Montessori is mainly available to those who can afford it and that in the very few number of state Montessori schools that exist compromises have been made.
We know of several school owners who are presently making applications to set up free schools. However, it also seems a little too good to be true. It seems unlikely that the government will allow the kind of freedom they are suggesting. How will they assess whether the schools are a success or not? This will have to be done by measuring the children’s progress and as soon as standard tests are devised to measure children’s progress we are back in the same situation of teaching to a curriculum. So whilst the Montessori movement welcomes the initiative, we are also waiting to see whether it is really going to give us the freedom to practise authentic Montessori unfettered by government restraints.
I was interested to read that Apple have brought out an iPad App using Montessori techniques to teach children numbers and letters and that this is aimed specifically at toddlers. Do you think this is appropriate for use by children of this age?
Actually, Montessori actively seeks to disassociate itself from these kinds of product. Firstly, as you will have read here previously, we do not condone the use of screen based learning for children of this age, who need hands-on experiences. At this age children are trying to develop a connection between their hands and their minds. When children tap a screen to move things around it gives them an unrealistic view of this connection, and the pathways that connect up in their brain as a result of this kind of activity are not helpful for their real lives. Secondly, these applications suggest that Montessori is about mathematics and learning to read and that somehow a toddler can get the full benefit of Montessori through a screen.
The impression being given to those who know no better is that Montessori is an academic learning programme for young children rather than an approach to life that can help children to develop into confident, self-reliant, independent and highly socially adapted human beings. As we know, this does not come through the screen of an iPad – however alluring it may be.
I read recently that Sarah Teather, the Children’s minister, announced a wide-reaching review of the EYFS because she feels that it is overly rigid and puts too many burdens on carers and teachers to tick boxes rather than spend time with the children. What do you think about this?
At the moment there are 69 ‘early-learning goals’ that four-year-olds are expected to master by the time they start school. This is a statutory requirement of the EYFS and Sarah Teather is quite rightly keen to look again at whether young children’s development needs to be formally assessed and also to consider what the latest evidence tells us is the best developmental approach for children. The Montessori movement welcomes this kind of thinking. Sue Palmer, president of the Montessori Society AMI UK, has made the following comment:
British children have always started school at five, earlier than other European countries, where the starting age is six or seven. But that first ‘reception’ year used to be a settling in time, when children learnt – as their brains are naturally primed to learn – through play, stories, music and art.
As our natural culture grew ever more competitive, it was easy to convince parents that an early start was a good thing. In a dog-eat-dog world, no one wants their child to be ‘left behind’ or ‘held back’. So over the last fifteen years we have seen children required to start on formal approaches to reading and writing when they are five, four and sometimes even three years old. Many therefore fall at the first fence in literacy learning and, sadly, catch-up programmes do not seem to work.
I believe this is a key reason behind our country’s inability to reduce ‘the long tail of underachievement’, especially in areas of deprivation, despite the huge investment of recent years. Increasing numbers of children now arrive at nursery or primary school with poorly developed speech, attention and social skills. Many have had few life experiences beyond watching TV. This means that there is much ground-work to be done before they’re able to read and enjoy books, wield pencils and understand what writing is about.
Our early start also often causes a problem for boys, who tend to be developmentally behind girls. They need opportunities to develop their spoken language and plenty of active play to develop physical control and co-ordination they’ll need for writing. If pushed to achieve skills that are developmentally beyond them, they can be put off for life.
In Finland, which does best in international studies of literacy, children follow a personally tailored, play-based ‘kindergarten curriculum’ until they are seven. Children are encouraged to read and write and supported in their interests and efforts, but as individuals (as they would be in a caring family home) not in a ‘schoolified’ way.
We should follow the Finns’ example and focus on the importance of outdoor play, music, song, stories, art and drama in early learning and the need to respond to young children’s developmental needs, rather than enforcing a top-down educational model at an early age. Raising the school starting age to six [or even seven] and providing a ‘kindergarten’ stage from the age of three would give all children a better chance of achieving a good standard in literacy.
It would also send a very strong message to parents and the general public about what really matters in early childcare and education, and the social, emotional and physical basis of a ‘good childhood’.
From time to time, we read in the press stories about a general lack of discipline and a high truancy rate in traditional schools. Yet this same phenomenon does not seem to apply to Montessori schools. Even if we look further a field to the United States, where the Montessori philosophy is applied through to adolescence level, there are still none of the negative stories we see so much of in traditional schools. What is different about Montessori schools that seems to make children want to learn and enables them to be able to focus on their learning without encountering any issues about discipline?
Children in Montessori Schools love school. This is because it meets with their developmental needs and the curriculum is child-centred rather than adult-led. Montessori Schools provide the child with the opportunity to work in an environment that is meticulously prepared for their needs. This unique characteristic of Montessori schools goes a long way in ensuring that the problem of discipline does not arise.
If a school is providing what you need then surely you would want to go there? A important aspect of this environment is the mixed age group, the freedom of choice that the children are given and the developmentally-designed materials. These things all come together to work with the individual not just in the Children’s House but at the primary and secondary level as well.
It is hard to come by one Montessori child who does not love school. This is because Montessori schools see education as an aid to life, not as a means to getting a job or passing exams.
Montessori also has a unique approach to discipline in that the children are helped to develop self-discipline through their own engagement. This is in contrast to traditional schools where discipline is applied externally with the result that the discipline
of the class is only as good as the teacher’s ability to maintain it and often when the teacher leaves the room chaos will break out. If children have not been helped to develop self-discipline during their formative years the job of a traditional teacher can become very difficult.
My daughter has just turned 4 years old and has attended a Montessori school since she was 2 ½. She has not yet been introduced to the sand paper letters and I am concerned that she will fall behind her peers. I have other friends at traditional schools where their children are learning how to read and write at a much earlier age. The teacher assures me not to worry, but how can I not? How do I know when my child is ready to start learning to read and write?
One of the core Montessori principles is the concept of indirect preparation. Essentially, in the classroom, this means helping your daughter indirectly to prepare for what is next to come. Let’s take for example the simple activity of singing. By singing simple but exquisitely worded songs, poems and rhymes, we are introducing her to new language that she can use later on when she comes, for example, to writing a story for example. Sound games like I Spy and naming games and reading books aloud and verbal stories as well as work with the sensorial materials such as the geometry cabinet and sound boxes, all in their own way give her the necessary tools. More specifically, these games give her practice with the sounds of the letters, extends her vocabulary, gives examples of sentence and story structures, and help with the sensorial discrimination of shape and sound, which all come together to help her to decipher the letters, words and phrases she will meet later on. Indirect preparation in a Montessori classroom forms the solid grounding necessary for future learning.
Her interest in words, which was nurtured by songs, stories and naming games, will set off a desire to learn the letters that make up the words. Her ease with identifying the letters is helped by the Sensorial materials which give her practice in discriminating different shapes and sounds. Her ability to blend sounds together, helped in turn by the sound games and enriched vocabulary, will help her find the meaning of the sounds as she says them. When she is ready for writing and reading, it will be a joyful experience that will truly last a lifetime because she has been prepared for it.
I am aware that screen based entertainment is not good for young children, but my children do watch television occasionally (if anything to give me a bit of a break!). I have noticed however that they do learn a lot from the documentaries they watch. My son has learnt the names of different types of animals from the programmes and I have heard from others that children have also learnt different languages from watching television. Can watching television really be that detrimental to their minds?
Children have absorbent minds, and they will undoubtedly learn things from watching television. As they take in their environment, so the sights and sounds they are exposed to will become part of them as they grow and develop. The concern here is what television takes away from the child. Due to the innate one-way communication flow of television, the state of the child in front of the television is trance-like, not a concentrated one.
By watching television, the child actually loses his capacity for attention because of the constant bombardment of different and changing images on the screen, which assumes that the person watching has a short attention span. It is also worth thinking about what kind of activities your child is missing out on in the meantime. Purposeful activity is the key to developing concentration in young children, and through the exercise of showing and encouraging repetition, we as parents can nurture this incredible potential. An awareness of the negatives of screen-based entertainment cannot be forgotten, and if there are times when all else fails and we switch on the TV, we need at least to maintain a realistic picture of the consequences of our actions.
I understand that the Montessori Approach does not advocate the age old method of ‘rocking’ a child to sleep. Where does this thought originate from and what alternatives should be used?
From the moment a child is born, he is able to fall asleep and awake by himself. Naturally, it takes time for him to get accustomed to the hours of night and day because he has not experienced night and day in the womb. The secret is to allow the child to be awake when it is light and asleep when it is dark - so don’t be tempted to darken the room during the day to imitate night and induce sleep unnaturally. With patience, he will develop his own cycle and he will start to follow the rhythm of sunset and sunrise before long. Employing a low bed will allow him to crawl into bed when he is tired, and crawl out, when he is refreshed from his sleep. He is soon then able to regulate his own sleep pattern. The capabilities of the child under three are often underestimated. However if the environment is carefully prepared and the incredible power nature has given him is respected, the flourishing of his potentialities will be witnessed.
The idea originates from Montessori’s writings on independence, ‘The child needs to do things by himself from the beginning of life, from the moment he is capable of doing things...By helping the child to do things by himself you are helping the independence of the child.’ (What You Should Know About Your Child) Rocking a child to sleep implies a dependence on the adult that really does not need to exist. What ‘alternatives’ should be used? The question assumes that the child needs our help. At times (when he is ill or out of sorts), he may need our presence or our voice; in essence, the reassurance found in closeness, but any further ‘help’ offered to the child can only be viewed as an obstacle to his natural development.
A revised version of the EYFS Statutory Framework and Practice Guidance document was published on 19th May 2008. The guidelines are now statutory. Has AMI formulated a response to this statutory framework?
There is much of the EYFS that is compatible with Montessori practice so in theory the guidance should not cause a problem to Montessori schools. However, the problem is that these guidelines are going to become statutory and this inevitably leads to the situation where teachers will feel compelled to tick boxes which is in obvious conflict with the Montessori idea of auto-education.
A task force which includes AMI trained teachers was set up by ME[UK] to put together a comprehensive document that to explain how Montessori fulfils the requirements of the EYFS. It is intended to help teachers to know how to explain their practice to officials and to raise the standard of practice as well. The document also addresses the issues around those aspects that many officials believe are not covered by the Montessori curriculum – i.e. creativity, imagination and role-play. It is hoped that if teachers are helped to find a way to explain how a Montessori environment provides for these things they will feel less obliged to make compromises.
I understand that the EYFS legislation sets learning goals for as young as 22 months and the ability to use a mouse and keyboard by 40 months. My Children’s Montessori nursery does not even own a computer for the children to use. Does this mean that my children will be at a disadvantage when it comes to using computer technology?
This is one of the areas where Montessori practice does indeed differ from that suggested by the EYFS. The thinking for this is based on sound developmental principles that have been a part of our practice for one hundred years but are now being backed up by current research. Of particular relevance here is the fact that the child needs to be engaged in real activities, what Montessori called ‘purposeful activities’ because these are the kind of activities that engage his mind and help him to adapt to the life around him.
For example when the child is allowed to wash up his plate and utensils after his lunch he will learn that if he puts too much washing up liquid in the bowl it is impossible to get rid of the bubbles. He will learn how hard he has to rub to get all the Marmite off the plate and in doing so he will start to be able to control his hands for a real task - he is being prepared to take part in the life going on around him. Now it might be said that when we show the child how to use a computer mouse we are also preparing him to take part in the life going on around him, certainly there are plenty of computers in his life. But there is a crucial difference here - when the child uses a mouse to make a tower appear on the screen he is not seeing the real consequence of his movement - when we tap our fingers this does not really build a tower. The signals being transmitted between the child’s mind and hand are confusing for the young developing brain. At this age the child is making synaptic connections in his brain. These are made in response to the repeated activities that he carries out with his hands.
The idea that tapping his fingers performs such a complex task as building a tower is not helpful to the strengthening of the bond between hand and mind. There is no doubt that children will find the use of computers ‘fun’ and the many toddler programmes that flood daily onto the market are of great appeal to both adults and children - especially when they are accompanied by claims that they will help children to get ‘an early start on learning’ but this is not a good enough reason to allow our children to be exposed to something that is harming their development. World renowned Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman tells us that ‘computer use too early has long term detrimental effects on children’s maths and reading. Early exposure may have long-lasting adverse effects on educational achievement’. He goes on to say that ‘we should keep computers and televisions out of the classrooms and especially not in nurseries at a younger age’.
So then how will these children learn to use computers? There is no doubt that this is a skill they will need in the future. It may seem complacent to say this - but there is plenty of time for them to acquire these skills. If we look at today’s teenagers do we have any doubt that they can use computer technology? Yet did they have a mouse in their hands before they could ride a bike? Children can be taught these skills easily when the time is right - when they have the kind of mind that understands easily what it means to use a computer and what it is used for - and its not to build the Pink Tower!
I have heard people say that Montessori may be all right for girls but is not suitable for little boys who have so much excess energy and need to be able to run around. How is this excess energy catered for in a Montessori environment that focuses on the development of concentration?
It is true that one of the main aims of the Montessori approach is to help the child find engagement so that he can bring his actions under the control of his mind. This is essential for all children regardless of their sex. However children cannot be be forced to concentrate. The route to concentration is through activity - children are not able to concentrate simply because an adult tells them to.
Any activity that helps the children take control of their bodies must be done by helping them to use their bodies and so the children are offered activities that require them to do this - to scrub a table, to clean the windows or balance on a line for example. The control that the child gains in this way feeds into all of his physical activity and as a consequence he finds that playing sport and climbing trees all become a fulfilling experience for him.
Furthermore because choice is an essential part of the Montessori approach the child is never compelled to sit at a table and concentrate and if at any one moment his choice is to dig up the weeds in the garden or clean everyone’s Wellington boots then he is perfectly welcome to do so - there are plenty of activities that help soak up those boys excess energy!
© Montessori Society AMI (UK)