THE MONTESSORI PRESCHOOL CLASSROOM IS A DIFFERENTIATED CLASSROOM
Current expectations for preschool classroom teachers in both the United States and Canada are that they create curriculums and classrooms to support the needs of all children, including children with special needs. Educators are expected to create differentiated classrooms to meet the unique needs and learning styles of every child. Yet at the end of the day there is not a recommended specific curriculum or a model of education that has been chosen to help educators learn how to create successful classrooms with differentiated or individual instruction. In both countries teachers are expected to teach children to fulfill standardized test requirements. All the needs of every child must be met in order for each child to reach the expected academic milestones, but there is not a universally recognized effective model of a differentiated classroom. Through an examination of the Montessori preschool program and the characteristics of a differentiated classroom, it will be evident that the Montessori preschool classroom is a successful differentiated model of education.
Approximately one hundred years ago, Dr. Maria Montessori studied how children learned in a classroom where all the furniture was child sized. Dr. Maria Montessori’s first classroom was called, “Casa dei Bambini” or “the Children’s House.” The first preschool classroom was opened on the sixth of January 1907… (Montessori, The Montessori Method, 1912, p.43).” One hundred years later in the United States, government, and educational administrators require teachers to create differentiated classrooms. As well it is a trend in the Canadian public school system to create differentiated early education classrooms.
Dr. Maria Montessori changed her path from a medical doctor to become an educator. She took a population of children from a mental institution that were considered not teachable and observed them in a classroom designed to meet the needs of all children to maximize their unique learning styles (auditory, visual, experiential). These children not only thrived in their Montessori classroom and were active participants in their learning, but they also scored on par or better on the exams compared to children in the public education system in Italy. Dr. Maria Montessori was inspired by these results and concluded if special needs children could thrive in her classroom she believed children in regular public schools would excel too.
Dr. Maria Montessori found a way to teach hard to reach children, children who had been locked up in a mental institution. She created a classroom that was a successful differentiated classroom. According to Tomlinson (1999), a differentiated classroom is a place where, “…teachers who strive to do whatever it takes to ensure advanced learners, students with varied cultural heritages, and children with different background experiences all grow as much as they can each day, each week and throughout the year ( p.2).” Dr. Maria Montessori set up teaching programs throughout the world to educate teachers in the Montessori Method. A method that has been successful for 100 years by supporting children to reach their full potential in a respectful manner with an academically rich curriculum.
Dr. Maria Montessori (1988) observed, “There is in the child a special kind of sensitivity which leads him to absorb everything about him, and it is this work of observing and absorbing that alone enables him to adapt himself to life (The Absorbent Mind, p.57).” The Montessori Method takes into account all the factors that are necessary for a successful differentiated classroom. A Montessori classroom recognizes the following observations that are characteristics of children that need to be supported in a differentiated classroom:
(a) Same-age students differ markedly in their life circumstance, past experiences, and readiness to learn; (b) such differences have a significant impact on the contact and pace of instruction; (c) student learning is heightened when they receive support from the teacher that challenges them to work slightly above what they can do independently; (d) student learning is enhanced when what they are learning in school is connected to their real-life experiences; (e) student learning is strengthened by authentic learning opportunities; (f) student learning is boosted when they feel they are respected and valued within the context of the schools and community; and (g) the overarching goal of schooling is to recognize and promote the abilities of each student. (Rock, Gregg, Ellis, & Gable, 2008, p.33)
A Montessori preschool classroom supports all of the above-mentioned situations of a differentiated classroom and satisfies all of the requirements in order to provide children with an excellent education.
It is apparent that the Montessori program fulfills the philosophical requirements of a differentiated classroom model. One of the main principles of a Montessori preschool classroom consists of children in a mixed age group ranging from 3-6 years old. The Montessori model supports children helping each other and embodies an environment of peaceful peer teaching and learning. The children are responsible for their community and this encourages respect amongst the children. A Montessori trained teacher is taught to follow the individual needs of each child in his/her classroom. Tomlinson (1999) described a differentiated classroom as having, “a powerful curriculum and engaging instruction (p.2).” Montessori teachers are trained on giving individual presentations to children that are academically challenging using self-teaching materials that the children can remove from the shelves and explore independently after being given a lesson from their teacher.
Furthermore the four major curriculum areas created by Dr. Maria Montessori over one hundred years ago are universal throughout the world. The four major areas are practical life, sensorial, language and math. Montessori (1966) discovered through observation that in, “The practical life area is one of the four general areas in the prepare environment. Activities here build on the child’s natural interest and help him develop good work habits, concentration, eye-hand coordination, a lengthened attention span and control of his body (The Secret of Childhood, picture p.1).” The practical life area has work for children to do such as, cleaning the classroom, taking care of plants, tweezing or sorting small objects to help increase control and coordination movement of their pincer grips in preparation for writing. The Montessori practical life area is considered by many to be the foundation of the Montessori curriculum.
The second major area in a Montessori curriculum is the sensorial area. It is an important area where learning through the senses is crucial and materials are created to maximize the keen awareness that children have from 0-6 years old. Dr. Maria Montessori (1966) wrote:
Since ‘nothing comes to the intellect that is not first in the senses,’ the Montessori environment provides a wide range of sensorial materials designed to help the child develop his ability to make judgments, to compare and discriminate on the basis of size, shape, weight, texture, color and temperature; to store up impressions in his ‘muscular memory,’ There are jars to be sniffed for the aromas, sound cylinders to be listened to, color tablets to be arranged in gradation, block towers to be built and knobbed cylinders to be put in their places. (The Secret of Childhood, picture p.2)
All of the sensorial materials are mathematically designed based on the system of numbers one through ten or the base ten system. Dr. Maria Montessori believed that children must comprehend mathematical concepts in a concrete manner before moving into abstract understanding.
The third major area in a Montessori classroom is the language area and Dr. Maria Montessori (1966) created a program where each writing or reading activity builds upon the last and leads children further on their road to a love of writing and reading:
In the language area, tracing the outline of metal insets as the quatrefoil…prepares the hand and arm muscles for drawing and writing. Working with the individual letters of the moveable alphabet, the child can match these with the sandpaper letters, tracing their shape on the sandpaper with his fingers thus reinforcing his visual recognition of the letters. Using small pictures the child will then sound out and construct words with letters. (The Secret of Childhood, picture p.5)
The Montessori preschool language program is phonetically based well organized curriculum that teaches writing, reading, and grammar. In a Montessori preschool classroom children do not slip through the cracks by pretending to read through memorization as each Montessori language material is a step to the next and helps move children along at their own pace of learning guided by the Montessori teacher. Montessori teachers are trained to observe and monitor each child’s progress and each presentation given.
The fourth major area in a preschool Montessori classroom is the math area. Dr. Maria Montessori (1966) created concrete materials to demonstrate the abstract concepts of math. The math materials are an amazing array of self-teaching materials in a Montessori classroom:
In the math area materials such as the numerical rods enable the child to get a physical sense of quantity and then to associate this with the numeral that is the symbol for that quantity. The spindle box gives them a chance to reinforce this skill, counting from zero to nine, and introduces the concept of sets. The decimal beads let them build up to the quantity 1000 in a visible way and to learn the value of place. (The Secret of Childhood, 1966, picture p.7)
A Montessori teacher follows the needs and academic abilities of each child. Children that complete the three-year cycle in a Montessori preschool classroom work with materials that teach addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
Thus all of the examples of Montessori materials mentioned in the four major curriculum areas only represent a small portion of all of the materials in each area. The Montessori curriculum materials are taught to the children in an ordered sequence that is universal and taught to Montessori teachers in their training programs. Children are guided through the curriculum at their own pace. The materials are organized on the shelves in the order they will be presented to the child when the child is ready. In the Montessori classroom teachers strive to challenge each child to help him/her reach his/her full potential, another characteristic that is necessary in a differentiated classroom. It is often said that if a teacher presents a Montessori work and the child gets the concept easily that the teacher waited too long to show the material. Therefore in a Montessori classroom children are continually challenged by the curriculum. There is only one of every material and this teaches the children patience, sharing and turn-taking.
Montessori teachers are trained to meet the needs of the whole child, socially, emotionally and academically within a prepared Montessori environment. The concept of teaching the whole child is a characteristic of a differentiated classroom, “whole children: The teacher understands that children have intellect, emotions and changing physical needs (Tomlinson, 1999, p.31).” Dr. Maria Montessori agreed over one hundred years ago that teachers must nurture all aspects of a child. She realized the importance of movement for brain development in children from birth to age six and created her classroom model where the children had the ability to move throughout the environment freely, choosing materials to work with independently and sitting at small tables or using mats on the floor to work.
Dr. Maria Montessori (1988) wrote, “If the work of man on the earth is related to his spirit, to his creative intelligence, then his spirit and his intelligence must be the fulcrum of his existence, and of all the working of his body. About this fulcrum his behavior is organized, and even his physical economy. The whole man develops within a kind of spiritual halo (The Absorbent Mind, p.56).” Thus Dr. Maria Montessori was a great advocator of teaching to the needs of the whole child.
Moreover Montessori teachers are trained to have a high level of respect for children and to help them reach their full potential as whole people, socially, emotionally and academically. According to Tomlinson teachers in successful differentiated classroom are, “teachers begin where students are, not the front of the curriculum guide (Tomlinson, 1999, p.2).” Montessori teachers are equipped with excellent curriculum albums but are taught to follow the needs of each child in a very respectful manner. On a daily basis in a Montessori classroom teachers present new works to children individually, in small groups and at circle time. Montessori teachers can use the materials to gage the academic level of each child on a regular basis. Each child moves through the Montessori curriculum at a comfortable pace based on the individual needs of each child.
In the Montessori preschool classroom there is either one teacher plus an assistant or it can be a co-teaching model. All adults in the room work together to provide a place where children can work peacefully and concentrate when using the Montessori materials with as few interruptions as possible. During a presentation the child is given full attention and respect by his/her Montessori teacher and is not corrected. If a child does not understand the presentation his/her teacher will make a note to represent the presentation at a later date. After a presentation a teacher will invite the child to work independently with the exercise, “you can take that work out anytime you want.”
Montessori materials have built in control of errors and have been created to teach children at different levels of learning. For instance there is a material in language called the three part matching cards, a non-reading child will match picture to picture whereas a reading child will match picture to picture and word to word. On any given day in a Montessori preschool classroom one child may be using the washing a table work from the practical life area while another child works on the multiplication number chart #1 with the control chart to check his or her answers. A child uses the multiplication chart by putting one finger on the multiplicand and one other finger is on the multiplier where the two fingers meet is the product. The child can check his/her products with the control chart that has all the answers. There are number charts for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The purpose of the mathematical charts is to help the child memorize mathematical facts such as the multiplication tables. Thus multiplication chart #2 has fewer answers on the board and the child begins to fill in the blanks using his/her memory.
Tomlinson (1999) states, “Everyday, the teacher should make himself increasingly useless in his students’ lives. These kinds of teachers do not provide solutions when students can figure out for themselves” ( p.34). In a Montessori classroom a teacher will eventually be able to observe her classroom all day without being interrupted as the classroom runs itself while she observes from a corner in the room.Throughout the school year Montessori classrooms permit observers. Another key aspect of a differentiated classroom described by Tomlinson (1999) is, “Differentiated classrooms feel right to students who learn in different ways and at different rates, (p.7).” The Montessori experience reaches children with many different learning styles including, visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic (hands-on) learners. Therefore the Montessori Method satisfies the different learning styles of every child:
These and many other understandings tell us much about the individuality of learners and about the nature of effective curriculum and instruction. Brain research tells us that each learner’s brain is unique, and educators must provide many opportunities for varied learners to make sense of ideas and information. (Tomlinson, 1999, p.19)
It is clear that a Montessori preschool classroom fits the model of a successful differentiated classroom including a, “a powerful curriculum and engaging instruction (Tomlinson, 1999, p.2).” Dr. Maria Montessori created the Montessori model of education based on her observations of children. The process of observation continues to be a central aspect of Montessori classrooms around the world. Through daily observation of children a Montessori teacher records what his/her children are working with and how they are interacting and communicating with each other. The environment in a Montessori classroom supports respect for children, their independence, movement (important for brain development) and free choice.
A Montessori classroom is built on the main principle of following the needs of each child in a respectful way to challenge them academically and help them reach their full potential academically, socially and emotionally. The Montessori preschool classroom provides a place where there is freedom of movement and materials with built in control of error encouraging independence. Thus each child finds success as he/she repeats the work until he/she has mastered a new skill. It is common in a Montessori classroom to hear a child proclaim proudly, “I did it” after he/she masters a work. “Differentiation instruction (DI) means that teachers create different levels of expectations for task completion, and emphasize the creation of environment where all learners can be successful (Waldron & McLeskey, 2001) (Tobin, p.159).” Therefore a Montessori preschool classroom is a model of a differentiated environment where children of all learning styles and differences are guided toward reaching their full potential while discovering a love of learning.
Montessori, Maria. (1988). The Absorbent Mind: The Clio Montessori Series. Oxford, England: Clio Press.
Montessori, Maria. (1912). The Montessori Method. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company.
Montessori, Maria. (1966). The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine Books.
Rock, Marcia, L., Gregg, Madeleine, Ellis, Edwin, Gable, Robert, A. (2008). REACH: A Framework?for Differentiating Classroom Instruction [Electronic version]. Preventing School Failure, Winter, 31-43.
Tobin, Ruthanne. (2008). Conundrums In The Differentiated Literacy Classroom [Electronic?version]. Reading Improvement, Winter, Vol.45 Issue 4, p.159-169.
Tomlinson, Carol Ann. (1999). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of all Learners. Alexandria, VA USA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.