Conversations about Montessori
Normalization occurs in a classroom where children work seriously and consistently with materials and activities. When Dr. Montessori herself first observed this phenomena in her classroom in San Lorenzo she was surprised. What she was observing was counter to the view society held of young children. It is still not a view of young children that is widely held.
Most people do not think of three year olds as people who are yearning to concentrate deeply and dive head first into a work that will completely occupy them for several minutes. As children work devotedly to the task at hand their feeling of accomplishment also inspires them to contribute further to the classroom community. The children take on greater responsibility for one another and the physical space.
It isn’t just the children working calmly for periods of time that are the hallmarks of normalization. It is also the satisfaction that the work provides for the child that creates a calm, relaxed contentment. When a child feels satisfied with himself he is also more compassionate with others.This impact on the relationships between the children in the classroom also impacts the feel of the class environment. The result is peaceful with a hum of quiet activity.
It is sometimes controversial that Montessori asserted that children prefer work over play. But in this there is no equivocation. In Montessori education we believe that children become normalized through work. Montessori said, “The child’s aptitude for work represents a vital instinct, and it is by work that the child organizes his personality.”
The teacher must carefully organize the class to facilitate the work of the children, because it is through this work that they will meet their individual potentials and fulfill their part of normalizing the class. It is easy to be fooled by the work of the teacher. When observing a class she can be seen moving around the room, providing lessons in small groups, large groups and to the individual. She is redirecting and providing guidance. She is updating the materials on the shelf and maintaining the prepared environment. She is stepping back to observe and to record the accomplishments and struggles of her students so that she may lend a hand when needed.
When watching the teacher undertake all these tasks it is easy to believe that these are her primary responsibilities and that she is the center of the classroom, but that would be incorrect as any Montessorian would be quick to explain.
The focus of the classroom is the child working with the materials. The focus is creating an environment where this concentrated work can flourish.
Montessori education, like other professional fields, has a great deal of jargon. One of the most confusing terms is normalization. Normalization in a Montessori classroom might be termed being in the “zone” or a “flow state.” Normalization is when everyone in the class is regularly engaged in work which they find meaningful and personally fulfilling, seamlessly moving from one task to the next.
Sometimes as adults it is not as easy to see why stacking one pink cube on another until a tower of ten cubes, balanced carefully, can stand on its own would be a challenge. But for a person who is only 3 years old, with the limited experience associated with that age, takes on that work it feels much harder. The struggle to place each cube exactly on the former takes a great deal of planning and muscle control. Two things which a young child is still working to develop.
“The goal of the teacher is the ‘normalization’ of the class. Montessori’s term means that the children will have thrown off their abnormal behaviors and discovered the enjoyment and concentration that comes from work that challenges them at just the right level of difficulty. Normalization comes from work that meets the child’s needs, and in Montessori’s thought, this has a positive effect on all levels of the child.” -John Chattin-McNichols, The Montessori Controversy
Dr. Montessori expected a high level of social and emotional competence in her students. This may seem like an unreasonable expectation until you consider the pieces she put in place to facilitate that development.
- The children are in a multi-age classroom where from the earliest days in that environment they are surrounded by good models and leaders
- The children stay with the same teachers for three years allowing them to develop a deep relationships in which the children trust the teacher and the model she represents.
Montessori believed that these high levels of social competence were evidence of the child’s normal development.
The Practical Life area is designed to strengthen fine motor skills and follow multiple step directions with care.
Practical Life is an essential part of a child’s development in the Montessori classroom. The children are usually first drawn to this area because most of the materials in Practical Life are everyday materials that the children recognize and feel comfortable using.
The main purpose of Practical Life is for a child to gain order, concentration, coordination, and independence. Dr. Montessori believed that a child must develop these skills to succeed in the classroom and life. Practical life activities also provide children the opportunity to develop inner discipline, confidence and a conception of a work cycle. Once children gain these skills they are ready to move into other areas of the classroom curriculum.
Did you know that the Table Scrubbing Lesson in a Montessori classroom is 21 steps?
You may be reading that and thinking that it seems excessive to break down such a simple task into so many steps. The point of the activity, however, is far bigger than just scrubbing a table. This activity teaches a child to follow a sequence of directions, all the while demonstrating careful movements.
This is how the work of Table Scrubbing breaks down:
First, the child must have prior experience in carrying a table (in case it has to be moved), hand washing, pouring, folding, and rock scrubbing.
Next, the appropriate materials must be assembled.
The following are needed: an apron, bucket or bowl, mat, three soap dishes, 2 hand towels, sponge, pitcher, scrub brush, and a bar of soap. These items are often kept together in a bin.
- Consider the readiness of the child
- Remember in a Montessori classroom we are following the child. We observe their behavior to determine what they need from us. This includes lessons.
- Invite the child to watch the presentation.
- Locate a table that needs to be washed.
- Bring the materials from the shelf and place in front of the table. Take out the apron, put it on, and push up sleeves.
- Take out the mat and spread it to the left of the table.
- Place the objects left-to-right on the mat.
- Remove the pitcher and take it to the sink carrying in an acceptable fashion.
- Fill the pitcher with warm water.
- Using both hands, carry the pitcher to the bucket/ bowl and pour slowly into the center of the bowl. Use sponge to wipe the drip and place pitcher on the appropriate place on the mat.
- With the dominant hand, pick up the soap.
- Rub the (dry) soap over the table surface using a circular motion, working right to left.
- Replace the soap in the dish.
- With the dominant hand grasp the handle of the brush.
- Dip the brush in and out of the water in the bowl.
- Still inside the bowl, give the brush a shake.
- Move the brush to the top left corner of the table.
- Scrub with a circular motion moving to the right across the top of the table.
- Return to bowl to dip and shake (repeat as necessary scrubbing entire table.)
- Rinse and shake the brush in the bowl.
- Replace the brush on the soap dish.
Why is this work, and other practical life work important? What is gained, besides a beautifully cleaned table?
Through following this process of many sequential steps the child learns focus and order. The steps and materials are well organized and deliberate. The materials are carefully arranged left to right to provide an indirect preparation for reading. The child coordinates their movements and performs this task independently with skills they have mastered on their own.
The child also is left with a feeling of contribution and self satisfaction as their work benefits their community.
Practical Life is about much more than the materials and the movements. It is about the stewardship, the community and the trust.
Practical Life is a curriculum area which includes materials and lessons to hone coordination and skill in activities of daily living. This curriculum includes four major sections: Care of Self, Life Skills, Grace and Courtesy, and Care of the Environment.
What do those materials and lessons look like? Here are some examples of our hardworking students.
Care of Self:
- Dressing frames
- Shoe tying
- Nose blowing
- Hand washing
- Putting on a jacket (for younger students this may be the coat flip)
- Putting on gloves or mittens
- Calming oneself
- Food preparation
- Using hand tools
- Sorting items
- Running a business
Grace and Courtesy
- Setting a table
- Offering food or drink
- Learning how to apologize
- Conflict resolution
- Offering or asking for help
- Use of courtesy words
- Using table manners
Care of the Environment (Classroom, Home, Community, Earth):
- Community Service projects
Through these activities children develop
- a sense of independence and stewardship
- trust in his/ her own abilities
- the feeling of contributing to his/ her community
The importance of the Montessori Prepared Environment has been noted by educational researchers inside and outside of the Montessori community. In the conducted research there are lessons for us all. There are also a number of research studies, recently conducted, which do not name Montessori by name, but do extol the characteristics of a Montessori Prepared Environment.
Here are a few of my current favorites:
This article discusses the decorations in a classroom and the effect they have on learning and attention. In our Montessori classrooms we strive to make the Montessori materials, the curriculum, the focus.
The beginning of the school year is full of fresh starts and promise. Each year as we prepare for the arrival of students the teachers spend hours and hours thoughtfully choosing every item that becomes part of the students’ classroom. They intentionally consider the placement and sequence of every object. The design of the environment is part of the Montessori teacher training and is a fundamental tenet of the Montessori Method.
Classroom design is a core subject in our Montessori teachers’ training. The layout of the materials in the classroom determines the accessibility of the curriculum to the child. It could not be more important to our teaching. Teachers have the greatest influence on the student through the careful engineering of the physical properties and design of the educational environment.
In the Montessori Method the primary relationship in the classroom is not between the adult and the child, as we see in more traditional settings. In Montessori, assisting children to develop independence and concentration is furthered by nurturing a direct relationship between the child and the environment, often referred to as the curriculum or the content in other settings. In the Montessori classroom there are no obstacles between the child’s interests and the child. They have access to the full sequence of Montessori materials. As the teachers follow the child and observe his/ her understanding they are able to assist the child in moving forward at his/ her own pace.
This photo is a geography shelf from one of our Children’s House classrooms. At the top left you can see the teacher has thoughtfully begun the study with a globe of land and water. From there she has added an element with a work which shows three classifications: land, water and air. As you continue to move left to right and top to bottom the materials become increasingly complex and abstract. On the bottom shelf children will have the opportunity to learn about the biomes of the world and life on the coral reef.
This shelf is just one of more than a dozen in a Montessori classroom. Each following the pattern of concrete to abstract, left to right, top to bottom in a sequence children understand and can follow in their own time.
If you have any questions about the your child’s prepared environment please reach out to their teacher. The faculty at The Glen love to discuss their beautiful classrooms.