In the last few weeks our homeschool has undergone quite a transformation. Inspired by the work of Dr Maria Montessori, we have undertaken the task of using her method as a vehicle for a homeschool curriculum.
Montessori revolutionised the way in which children, between 3 and 6 years old, were educated-seeing them as whole, as self-motivated learners and viewing them with extraordinary compassion and interest. She understood the importance of the sense of ownership of one’s own learning and the need for little learners to experience intrinsic motivation in their learning environments- scorning traditional disciplinary methods of punishment and reward. Montessori ‘classrooms’ were filled with a range of educational materials, tailored to learning through direct experience and utilising all of the senses. Her didactic materials were carefully designed to ensure that they focused on the need of the child to move, and the way in which he or she experiences their learning through self-directed play.
Many of these materials are still being used by Montessori schools today, faithfully following her exacting specifications for the dimensions, weight, colour and texture of each item. Mainstream education utilises many of these ideas, and similar resources today, in modern classrooms and most of the materials would be familiar to classroom teachers.
Her approach to discipline was pioneering, stemming from a time when children were expected to sit still for very long periods, necessitating punitive measures in order to keep the children still and focused on the teacher at the front of their classrooms. Montessori recognised that children, and especially young children, need to move in order to experience their learning and learn best when they are left to independent learning choices. Montessori criticised the use of punishment and reward in the classroom, understanding that these are extrinsic motivators and do not work in the long term ( however they are still used by most schools today !). She also pioneered the use of child-sized furniture in the learning environment and the importance of beauty and art.
For those of you who would like to learn more about this extraordinary doctor and teacher, I highly recommend reading ‘The Montessori Method’ by Dr. Maria Montessori in which she explains her ideas fully and expresses her opinions readily ! An audio version of the book is available here through Libri Vox. Through this text, this ground-breaking teacher explains her ideas of both reform of the classroom and her ardent wish for social reform in an era of passionate ideas of charity, part of a much larger movement to transform the lives of ordinary Romans.
Here I will outline the methods we have adopted with our (just turned) 5 year old and our 17 month old. It must be noted, however, that it would be undesirable, and impossible, to completely replicate a Montessori school in a home environment. Her classrooms rely heavily on peer to peer observation where the children watch and learn from each other. Unlike the traditional Montessori school, we also incorporate some aspects of modern technology to facilitate learning. For example, when learning about the Earth, we began by ‘flying’ to our home ( and grandparent’s house) using Google Earth. We are also beginning to use these resources from age 5 years, a full two years later than many children begin Montessori learning.
In a Montessori classroom, the children begin by sorting carefully graded materials into size and number. We began with some old pennies, with which we built number lines and number stacks. We may use the more traditional ‘pink tower’ and brown stair with our toddler when he is approximately 2 and a half. For our purposes today, we simply used what we had already available in our home to sort and classify.
We then introduced the numerals using the sandpaper numbers, traced lightly with two fingers. These help the child to form a ‘muscle memory’ of each numeral. The next few tasks utilised the number bead ‘stair’ to familiarise the learner with the difference in quantity of each number.
Using the numerals, we then built number lines using the bead materials. First in 1-10 and then 11-20.
In our next few lessons, we are going to use the place value cards to begin to build an understanding of the place value of each numeral.
The vast majority of early learning methods utilise spoken language as the first step to literacy and Montessori was one of the first teachers to recognise the importance of great quality experiences in listening and speaking, before we begin to formally read and write language. Since we are beginning the use of some of the materials at age 5, we began simply with the sandpaper letters, tracing them with a feather-light touch with the two fingers of the hand used for writing and ending each touch with sounding the letter out, using the phoneme.
We have then used a ‘movable alphabet’ to practise writing words. This is such a great resource, as it allows the child to write freely, even if he does not necessarily have the fine-motor control needed for writing with a pencil. Our eldest son uses this enthusistically to practise his phonics, but also in free writing to label and practise his ideas ( usually related to mechanisms, for which he has a keen interest).
We have used a set of the metal insets to practise fine motor control, develop pencil grip and build writing stamina. The child begins by using the pink outer stencil to trace a line inside and then moves on to using the blue inner shape to draw carefully around. Each shape produced is then filled with different ranges of lines – from simple horizontal lines to a series of zigzags.
We continue to cook, clean, garden and mend together. This week, one of the things we tried was dairy-free chocolate ice cream – which was rather lovely!
‘A’ has expressed an interest in space and the earth, so we began by looking at the Earth using Google earth and pretending to ‘fly’ towards our house. He then used a globe, with textural differences between the land and sea, to explore, and a puzzle of the continents. We also used a light source to model the rotation of the Earth and walked its yearly orbit around the Sun.
Shelves For Our 17 month old
Our youngest child has enjoyed playing with the various toys set out for him and has become a very careful steward of his playthings- placing them back on the shelf when he has completed his tasks. This week’s activities included:
Top shelf – a blanket for folding, two different types of stacking materials
Middle shelf- a cash register in which to place small items, a vehicles puzzle, a basket of lacing beads
Bottom shelf- construction blocks, with a castle theme, and a bag of soft vehicles, which have different textures and sounds.
We continue to enjoy books together at many points during the day. Here we used Gerda Muller’s Summer – the gorgeous illustrations are such a great inspiration for sharing spoken language, something I find difficult when presented with a book without text !
We have prepared some of our meals together. Here ‘little A’ is shelling peas, ready for supper.
We have also continued to draw, paint and model together. This week we have painted a lot and I showed my eldest how to paint and mix the colours for a colour wheel, after he expressed an interest in colour combinations. I also painted some samples of shades of blue and began to talk about shades of colours. I have used some frames donated to the clothing library ( !!) to display the children’s art (as a precaution I removed the glass from the frames).
We also celebrated my eldest son’s 5th birthday with a cake he made with me ( an unusual choice of coffee cake!) and a very, very special visit from Grandma and Grandad, who we have not seen for several months due to the COVID 19 lock-down. The smiles on the boys’ faces really say it all !
Some further reading and watching:
A Montessori morning – an astonishing short film showing the three hour work cycle of a four year old in 4 minutes – the level of attainment takes your breath away!
The boys are such lovers of music – but our youngest absolutely ADORES The Singing Walrus – great practise of numbers, please and thank you, seasons, vegetables – the range is great. My favourite at the moment is the cowboy-themed Count In 5s song – wonderful !
Maria Montessori’s own words on Rewards and Punishments
from Discovery of the Child by Maria Montessori:
‘No one who has ever done anything really great or successful has ever done it simply because he was attracted by what we call a “reward” or by the fear of what we call a “punishment.” If an army of giants were to wage a war for no other reason than to win promotions, stripes, or medals, or simply to avoid being shot against a band of pygmies inflamed with a love for their country, the latter would certainly obtain the victory. When an army has lost the spirit of heroism, rewards and punishments can do no more than complete the work of its destruction by leading to its corruption.
Every victory and every advance in human progress comes from some inner compulsion. A young student can become a great teacher or doctor if he is driven on by an interest in his vocation; but if he is motivated solely by the hope of a legacy or a good marriage or some other external advantage, he will never become a real teacher or doctor, and he will not make any great contribution to the world through his work. If a young man must be punished or rewarded by his school or family to make him study for his degree, it would be better for him not to receive it at all. Everyone has a special inclination or special secret, hidden vocation. It may be modest but it is certainly useful. An award can divert such a calling and turn one’s head to the loss of his true vocation.
We keep repeating that the world is making progress and that men must constantly be urged to pursue it. But true progress consists in the discovery of something hidden. Frequently it may be something that simply needs to be improved or perfected. No reward is offered for the discovery of something not foreseen; and, in fact, one who tries to bring it to light is frequently persecuted. It would be a disaster if poems were written solely with the hope of winning a state award. It would be better for a poet’s vision to remain concealed within him and for the poetic Muse to disappear. A poem should flow from a poet’s mind when he is not thinking of a reward or of himself; and even if he wins a prize, it should never make him proud.‘