Frequently Asked Questions
How is learning organized in a Montessori classroom?
A Montessori classroom is usually a large, open space, with low shelves and differently sized tables that seat one to six children. It is arranged into areas divided by low shelving. Each area has materials for working in a particular subject (art, music, biology, mathematics). Every material has its place on the shelves, and children are expected to put each material neatly back in its place after use, ready for another child. Children are free to work where they choose—at tables, on the floor or on small rugs. They can choose to work alone or in self-formed groups, except when the teacher is giving a lesson. Lessons are almost always given to individuals or small groups, as children are ready for them.
What are Montessori materials?
Montessori materials are designed in ways that gradually introduced children to increasingly complex concepts.
The “pink tower”, for example, consists of a series of ten graduated cubes (all the same color) that increase in dimension by one centimeter on all sides. The child is expected to build the tower by successfully placing the largest piece at the bottom and smaller pieces on top. An important aspect of this and many Montessori materials is that they are self-correcting; if the child incorrectly places one of the cubes in the series, he or she will be faced later with a larger cube needing to go on top of a smaller one. Using the pink tower material is intended to introduce concepts such as the decimal system, numbers to ten and the notion of cubing.
The children’s work is highly organized in Montessori classrooms. The children carry out activities in a series of steps that their teacher or other children have shown them. The materials on the shelves are designed to attract children’s interest and teach core concepts via repeated use. Each material has a purpose and a particular way of using it, which the children are shown. Materials are presented in a hierarchical sequence; rather than give the children tests to assess their competence, Montessori teachers observe their children at work, noting whether children use the materials correctly and if they are not benefitting from the intended learning.
Why did Montessori think movement was so important for learning?
Montessori believed that children should be given opportunities to move their bodies in purposeful ways and explore new things for themselves. For example, young children in Montessori classrooms move about freely, wash tables, trace sandpaper letters, put large wooden map pieces in place and compose music using musical bells. Older children place colored cards next to words to designate parts of speech, create models of houses from the past, and count squares and cubes to learn why 3 cubed equals 27. Children’s moving out of the classroom to learn about their surroundings is another integral part of Montessori education.
A key aspect of Montessori’s view on movement came from her belief that movement should serve real and apparent goals, such as with the “exercises of practical life” she developed for pre-school children. These included activities such as dressing frames to help children develop the skills needed to fasten their clothes, and “table washing”, for which the children are equipped with a set of appropriately sized materials that are needed to carry out the task. Montessori saw the purposes of practical life activities such as washing tables as including:
Assisting children towards independence: By repeating simple routine acts such as washing tables, arranging flowers, or polishing objects, children were able to independently carry out useful, meaningful actions.
The educational value of movement: By engaging in and repeating practical life activities, a child’s actions become more orderly and precise, which Montessori believed helped children to develop a mathematical mind.
The sensorial materials Montessori developed are sets of objects designed to educate the senses. For example, children can feel different degrees of roughness and smoothness on sandpaper tablets, and arrange them from smoothest to roughest. Some of the materials help the children develop the lightness of touch and wrist action needed for writing. For example, children trace the outlines of leaf shapes and geometric shapes using the metal insets, and learn their names in the process. Some sensorial materials teach mathematical concepts, such as the binomial and trinomial cubes (wooden boxes with hinged sides that open to expose a set of blocks inside), which embody the algebraic formula for finding the volume of a cube. For more information, see case study 1, which demonstrates how an infant school used mathematical equipment to help young pupils develop visual images of numbers.