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Montessori Education: Redefining the Role of the Adult in the Classroom

Deborah Hession

Development of the Young Child

Fall, 2010

Montessori Education: Redefining the Role of the Adult in the Classroom

Defining the Issue

We are blessed to live during a time when the discoveries of human neuroscience have

shed so much light on how we think about ourselves, our beliefs, human development and

human society. Especially exciting is how brain research has begun to touch the field of

pedagogy. Educational theorists, for the most part, appear to agree on what needs to be done to

transform educational practice in the light of these discoveries. But this discussion, taking place

in the isolated halls and journals of universities, have not found ground in the principal's offices

and practices in the classrooms of our communities. Professional pedagogists, PhD's and

professors may agree loudly about what children need to learn, but there has been little effect on

the way adults view their roles as "teachers" in the classroom. Most of the transformation in

teachers' roles has occurred at the pre-K and kindergarten level - well before the federally- and

state-mandated assessments begin and where the least amount of funds is allocated. Allowing

children to explore an enriched environment over long periods of time has fit into our concepts

of what little children need - less structure and more play and exploration.

But what about the school-aged child? Pressure from administrators, government

agencies and public policy compel us, as teachers, to "buckle down" and get to work teaching

those children how to read, how to master math concepts, how to be good and educated citizens

of the classroom and the community. Feel-good environments of exploration, curiosity and play,

where teachers are more "hands-off" and allow more freedom of choice, are left behind for the

serious work of classroom instruction and mastery and assessment of skills and concepts in a

teacher-centered routine (McDowell & Hannafin, 2004, p. 101). As a result of these continuing

pressures and prejudices about teaching and mastery, there has been little change in the way

adults view their roles as "teachers" in the classroom, despite all of the wonderful new research

and discoveries of neuroscience.

Surprisingly, amidst this wondrous new age of scientific discovery about the human

brain, a loosely organized educational movement across the planet has, since the first half of the

20th century, been organizing and founding schools, training teachers, holding educational

conferences and gently influencing pedagogy at the edges of the global discourse. Evidence of

the influence of this movement can be seen in the adoption of child-sized furniture and fixtures

in the classroom, in specially-designed learning materials sold in popular as well and teacher-

specialty stores and in literature addressed to parents about preparing the home for young

children. All of this activity stems from the observation of a woman trained in science and

medicine in the late 1800's.

Without the aid of advanced electronic equipment that neuroscience benefits from today,

Dr. Maria Montessori observed children, recorded her observations, analyzed her findings and

experimented with materials and the role of the adult within a classroom setting, resulting in the

movement which bears her name. Today's neuroscience confirms her findings about how

children learn. But Dr. Montessori went a step further. She developed guidance and training for

adults who wanted to "teach" in her specialized environments. She recognized that until

educators are recreated, her vision of what she called the "normalized child" would be impossible

to realize.

Herein lies the heart of the issue, as well as the greatest challenge. Traditionally, and for

generation after generation, across the planet, "teaching" has been understood as the activity of

someone more learned imparting knowledge unto someone less learned, as in adult to child, guru

to disciple, master to apprentice. Montessori discovered, and now the discoveries of

neuroscience have confirmed, that the child with its individual and unique brain and timetable

for development (Rushton et al., 2010), best teaches itself when provided with a certain kind of

environment with an adult trained in a certain way to support that individual child. But this is

the rub: "That's all very well," says the classroom teacher. "But I have 25 little individuals with

25 unique brains and 25 different timetables for development. It is not possible to teach 25

different lessons!"

Montessori education responds with a resounding "Yes!" It is not possible to teach 25

different lessons. But it is possible to design a classroom so that 25 different learners can teach

themselves, guided by their inner timetable, what Dr Montessori called "the teacher within the

child", and an adult presence that acts as facilitator, investigator (Rushton et al., 2010), observer,

coach and role-model. Lessons become brief encounters, words of encouragement, intriguing

questions and hints, rather than long explanations, presentations, demonstrations and adult-

focused, hierarchical group encounters.


Dr. Montessori, in one of her signature works, The Montessori Method, (1964) addresses

directly the kind of training teachers should have. "The more fully the teacher is acquainted with

the methods of experimental psychology, the better will she understand how to give the lesson"

(p. 107). In her collection of speeches entitled "The Formation of Man" (1983) Dr. Montessori

called her method the "new psychology" and emphasized that it was born in the field of

medicine, not in the field of education (p. 19). She stressed that those wishing to be teachers of

her method need preparation and training in scientific observation, to study life, to observe it and

to understand it without intervening (Montessori, 1964, p. 88). Current brain research confirms

that the rapid growth in the minds of young children inspires them to explore, discover, play and

make the natural connections between self, others and their environment (Rushton et al., 2010).

Montessori also observed this rapid growth by observing the activities and interests of the

children. She taught, and current educators agree, that the role of the teacher is to develop an

engaging and stimulating learning environment, and then to invite the child in an attracting way

to engage with the environment (Rushton et al., 2010). A traditional classroom teacher seeks to

repress activity and movement, to reward passivity and silence. She imposes her own agenda

and substitutes her will for the child's (Stephenson, 2000, p. 99). Montessori considers this the

greatest difference between traditional classroom teaching and her method. In The Montessori

Method (1964), Dr. Montessori states, "The pedagogical method of observation has for its base

the liberty of the child; and liberty is activity (p. 86)." The young child has incredible energy,

the élan vitale or vital force that pushes the child towards activity (Haines, 2001, p. 45).

Through movement, activity, experimentation, making mistakes, resolving conflicts, social

interaction, and hands-on engagement with materials, the child may practice greater and greater

refinement of movement, self-control, social consciousness and order. Traditional classroom

environments substitute the will and activity of the child for the will and activity of the teacher.

The teacher controls and directs the activity in the room, rather than the children, as if through

stillness and quiet the children will achieve more self-discipline! Additionally, there can be no

true liberty when there is dependence. The first goal of the Montessori teacher at the beginning

of the school year is to cultivate the independence of the children - to put on their shoes, hang up

coats, prepare for meals, clean up, bathroom skills, and all of the countless small behaviors that

strengthen the child's will, motor skills and confidence for independent work with materials later

on. Too often teachers rush in to restrain, advise, correct or praise children. A Montessori

teacher does not correct the child in the use of the materials either (Pritzker, 1997, p. 102). Such

interruptions are anathema to the Montessori method because 1) they interrupt concentration -

the beginning of normalization, and 2) they thwart the purpose of the materials which are

designed to be self-correcting. The long term result of teacher dependence is a multitude of

management problems, giving all of the lessons, solving all of the problems, answering all of the

questions (Pritzker, 1997, p. 102). The Montessori teacher directs a child to seek assistance from

another child, thus creating bonds of a caring community of children.

After being well-grounded in observation and psychology, the teacher must be trained in

the use of the materials. The presence and importance of materials in a Montessori classroom

are often mistaken for what defines the Montessori method. This is far from true. The key to

unlocking the child's mind is the child's own interest in some material in the environment - the

"teacher within the child" directing the child's interest and subsequent concentration on some

piece of work or object in the classroom. The principles built into the design of the materials -

self-directing, self-correcting, control of error, experimental, isolation of a single abstract

concept - are an important link in the process of independent work. But it is the child's interest in

the materials that must first occur. The role of the teacher is to invite interest, to give brief

hints and demonstrations with the materials. Therefore, as a trained observer, when the teacher

determines the child is showing signs of real interest in some concept such as size, shape,

texture, numbers, letter sounds, etc., she may invite the child to a particular piece of work that

embodies the concept.

Then, the teacher's role again changes to that of protector (Haines, 2001, p. 49). If the

child is concentrating on some work, this period of concentration is the key to unlocking the

child's mind for everything that follows in a Montessori environment, and must be protected

from interruption at all costs. From this intense focus comes the real fruit of Montessori

education - "the normalized child". Briefly, the normalized child is a child in complete harmony

with its environment. Such a child exhibits certain behaviors - love of order, love of work,

profound spontaneous concentration, attachment to reality, generosity, ability to make good

choices, cheerful obedience, independence, cooperation and helpfulness, self-discipline,

initiative and joy in learning (Haines, 2001, p. 48). A normalized child is guided by the teacher

within. The sensitive periods of brain development, "windows of opportunity" (Rushton et al.,

2010), observed by today's neuroscientists - for language, order, math concepts, and self-care -

guide the child's activity and choices in the classroom.

Long-term studies of children educated in Montessori environments showed that a

Montessori education was a key positive factor in the child's academic, personal and social

development and is an important factor in their current identity (Glen, 2003, p. 3).

Academically, children educated in Montessori environments demonstrate superior mastery of

math and science than their peers (CAPE Outlook, 2003). They knew how and where to look for

information, worked collaboratively in groups and learned for learning's sake (Glen, 2003, p. 3).

Montessori children favor life-long self-improvement, self-confidence, greater patience, social

and environmental awareness and open-mindedness (Glen, 2003, p. 3).

At this point, the enemy of the child is "too much help!" Traditional teachers present

pertinent facts already extracted from context in order to simplify the material. They draw

conclusions from the material, rather than recognizing that the brain is wired to detect patterns

and distill information for itself. They focus attention on teaching, while at the same time

terminating interaction between the children (Liston, 1994, p. 9). The result is weak brains and

dependent children!


In order to re-conceive teacher training, we must first recognize that our preconceived

notions of children and the role of the teacher has been based on erroneous concepts. Then we

must see ourselves not as teachers, but as scientists, coaches, role-models and protectors of

children, and be trained in the methods associated with those roles. We must become humble

observers and rediscover the child. We must examine and root out our unconscious prejudices

about the nature of children and the role of the adult - giving up those ideas that define children

as empty vessels needing filled or blank tablets to be written upon. We must undergo a process

of self-examination and reflection to weed out those obstacles within ourselves that cause us to

react and to control, rather than to support and nurture.

We must become masters of the environment in order to be able to respond quickly and

briefly to a child's interest by knowing how to demonstrate a material cleanly, with as few words

as necessary. We must also become skilled observers and record-keepers, following the child's

interests. More important than preparing lesson plans or curriculum objectives, we must prepare

ourselves, our personalities, and become experts in neuroscience, psychology and human


However, none of this will be possible until educational policy and politics follow the

science. As long as teachers are pressured to "teach to the test", to adhere to schedules of

teaching separate subjects, to using worksheets and textbooks, the possibility of the normalized

child will not be realized.

Montessori education is popularly perceived as expensive and impractical, due to the

specially designed environment with shelves of materials and without the standardized tests or

homework considered such a normal part of schooling. But quite simply, if the role of the adult

in the classroom changed in such a way as to respond to the interests and learning styles of the

children, we would see the transformation in the classroom that we dream of - children who love

to learn, who work together and help one another, who respect and want to obey their teachers,

who in turn feel respected by their teachers, who work at their own pace and according to their

own way of learning. Just as Dr. Montessori began her work with mentally and emotionally

challenged children, then expanded the method to the regular classroom, we too can take the IEP

for so-called "special needs" children and develop a plan of action for each individual child,

freeing the teacher to observe more and teach less. Until the policies catch up to the science,

such an environment, enriching and responsive, remains out of reach.


Rushton, S., Juola-Rushton, A., Larkin, E. (2010). Neuroscience, play and early childhood

education: Connections, implications and assessment. Early Childhood Education Journal, v37,

#5, p. 351-361

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Montessori, M. (1983). The Formation of Man. Madras, India: Kalakshetra Publications

Pritzker, S. (1996, July). Classroom management - the path to normalization. Paper presented

at the proceeding of the AMI/USA National Conference, Bellevue, WA.

Study shows long-term impact of Montessori education. (2003, September). Council for

American Private Education C.A.P.E. Outlook, 287

Glenn, C. M. (2003). The longitudinal assessment study: Eighteen year follow-up. Final

report. Retrieved from The Franciscan Montessori Earth School website:

Liston, D. (1994). Story-telling and narrative: A neuro-philosophical perspective. Retrieved

from University of North Carolina

Kurz-McDowell, N. J. & Hannafin, R. D. (2004). Beliefs about learning, instruction and

technology among elementary school teachers. Journal of Computing in Teacher Education,

20/3, 97-105

Stephenson, S. M. (2000). Child of the world: Essential Montessori age 3-12+ years.

Sixteenth edition. Arcata, CA: Michael Olaf

Haines, A. (2001). The role of the teacher and the role of the assistant. Paper presented at the

AMI/USA Conference, Boston, MA.