Monday, November 23, 2009

The Montessori Classroom Part I: Practical Life

The Montessori Method is a student-driven, student-centered educational approach which relies on selective control of the environment, peer mentoring, and freedom of choice. The Montessori classroom is divided into curriculum areas, each of which focuses on a specific set of skills and knowledge. The primary curriculum area and the first to which students would be introduced is the ‘Practical Life’ area. This essay will attempt to summarize the purpose of Practical Life, its importance to child development, its principal characteristics and sequence, the role of the teacher in preparing the environment, the concept of ‘sensitive periods’, and how this curriculum area prepares the student for studies in math and language.

All the activities in the Practical Life curriculum serve a function on two different levels simultaneously. On one level, the one the children most readily appreciate, students learn how to perform common household tasks, use common implements, and take care of their person and the environment around them. For example, children may spend their time in this area learning to use scissors to cut along a line, pour water from one container to another, how to use a funnel or eye dropper, dress themselves, or even wash a baby. While this seems to be the direct goal of the child’s action, to the teacher the performance of these tasks are only indirect objectives, not unimportant, but secondary to the directed goals the teacher has in assigning them. The direct objectives of practical life exercises are most commonly to develop the skills of observation, coordination, concentration, and self-esteem. Furthermore, there is a focus on refining the child’s ability to manipulate their own hand musculature in a series of progressively more delicate operations where the hand must manipulate objects in certain ways to achieve desired outcomes. For example, a beginning student may start transferring beans from one container to another by hand. This focuses the child on a specific concrete objective, namely moving all the beans. This procedure is self-correcting. The child knows when the task has not been performed to completion and will strive to perfect its work. This develops concentration. The physical act of moving the beans will develop the hand musculature and coordination. The child will learn to notice spilled beans and beans left in one bowl or the other. They will also notice when other children are doing similar works, whether or not they make the same mistakes. This will increase their observational skills. Successful completion of the task will encourage the child to approach other tasks and build self-esteem paving the way for latter tasks of increased complexity. Once the child has mastered this method of bean transfer, they may be ready for more delicate maneuvers, such as pouring beans between two glasses, and then pitchers. From there, the child may learn to use a strawberry huller to transfer items, and then maybe even chopsticks. At each stage the child develops a greater refinement of manual dexterity, cognitive apprehension, and moral development.

Everything about the Practical Life area is organized to aid the development of these qualities. There is a specific sequence to the materials, top to bottom and left to right. This is meant to assist in the development of eye-scanning habits for later reading. The materials are arranged on trays on shelves. The trays help to separate one task from another so that the child is not lost amongst the arrays of various paraphernalia. There are also themes to the works. There are those, like bean transfer, which focus primarily on hand development. But there are also those which focus on care of the person like the dressing frames. Typically, the shelves would be arranged as follows. The first shelf may contain works devoted to bean transfer. The second shelf may introduce tools such as tongs or scissors. The third may be devoted to water transfer. Moving to the right, the next cabinet may have more refined water transfer works (such as those using funnels or basters) on the first shelf. The second shelf would have tasks requiring finer motor skills like using a clothespin or water transfer using an eye dropper. On the bottom shelf would be more tasks taken from daily life necessity, such as opening and closing jars or lunch boxes. If there was a third cabinet to the right, then it could continue with finer tasks like using nuts and bolts, locks and keys, or can openers on the top shelf. In the middle could be a sorting work, and folding or organizing works, followed by complex works like packing a suitcase or creating soap suds with an egg beater on the bottom shelf.

Once the children had become accustomed to the control of self and body necessary to accomplish these kinds of tasks, they may be introduced to more complicated tasks involving the care of the environment and their own person. They would probably start out with washing small objects like seashells, then move on to leaves of plants which are more delicate and then on to washing a baby doll. They learn to wash windows, tables, and chairs, to polish mirrors, wood, metal, and shoes, and to clean up after themselves. They learn how to dress themselves by focusing on a series of dressing frames designed to focus on specific fasteners for clothing (basically cloth fixed to a wooden frame which must be connected and disconnected using a specific fastening method like snaps or buckles). They learn how to prepare the food they eat and to sew. These works, being left out for the children to freely pick and choose, inspire the children to develop those areas where they are most in need of special practice. Once the child has mastered the skills therein, the child will move on by their own volition, for they will be bored with the task and it will have nothing more to offer them. However, which works will be made available to the children at what time will be something largely controlled by the teacher who bears the vital responsibility to control the environment of the class.

Since the children are free to choose the works they will, the teacher must be aware of the level of work appropriate to the children in the class. If the works are too simple, they will become neglected or be invitations to misuse. If the works are too complicated they will tend to draw the same and worse, they will tend to discourage the students from trying. For instance, a child who cannot transfer beans from one bowl to the other for want of hand strength and coordination cannot be expected to successfully remove the lid from a jar. More likely as not the jar will be thrown in frustration. But if the teacher, patiently observing which works the children are drawn to and how they are used, carefully selects the works to be made available at what time, then the children can be passively directed without infringing on their developing independence by actively assigning them to tasks desired by the teacher.

Also, the teacher has another principal method of controlling the classroom at their disposal. Contrary to what one may think, it is not a monopoly on knowledge. Other children in the classroom may very well be acquainted with all the practical life works and willing and able to instruct their younger peers. Montessori classrooms incorporate a peer mentoring element by teaching children between the ages of 3 and 6 in the same classroom. In this way, children can mentor and be mentored as they gain experience in the various activities available in the classroom. The teacher may be required to conduct larger lessons or to introduce works new to the classroom, but generally the classroom should be self-sufficient in terms of the transfer of knowledge and assuming it has been properly normalized. But the teacher holds authority as the ideal citizen of the classroom and a source of practical knowledge and experience. The teacher models constantly proper behavior consisting of calmness, grace, courtesy and deliberation. The teacher imbues in the students respect for the environment, not through lecture but by example and by maintaining an environment in which the children are able to have access to the tools and techniques necessary to maintain it for their own benefit. The teacher talks politely, and slowly. The teacher moves gracefully and measured. All this serves the double function of modeling polite, civil behavior and also to render one’s actions observable by children. Children, lacking adult proficiency in observation or a knowledge of critical essentials in any given situation, are not as adroit at picking out the salient components of an action, or the critical gist of a lengthy conversation. They need things broken down into readily comprehensible concretes. It is the teacher’s task to tell children what must be done in a way that can be heard and to show them how to do things in a way that can be seen. If a teacher can master these skills of observation and guidance then they will be able to lead children through the critical periods of their development in a way which will enable them to take full advantage of the opportunities they present.

Montessori refers to ‘Sensitive Periods’ of a child’s development. These are spans of time when children are uniquely attuned to a specific sensory input, set of skills, or knowledge. The most apparent example is language acquisition. There is a period of time when children are very young during which the acquisition of language is almost automatic. After this time period has lapsed, other languages can be acquired but it requires a high degree of personal motivation and effort. The same principle can be applied to almost any of the principle skills of human existence. There is a time for the effortless acquisition of gross motor skills, fine motor skills, and even eating and sleeping habits. After these periods have passed, they still may be learned or corrected, but if the proper stimulus is available at the proper time, then the acquisition will be practically effortless. The Practical Life curriculum area accommodates these sensitive periods in several ways. Each exercise in Practical Life is devoted to honing some specific skill. Later exercises build on skills developed in prior ones and create a scaffolding effect which helps children be prepared to successfully engage them. Children are free to select from a wide range of the activities and thus target the areas where they are deficient. As was pointed out before, if they have already mastered the work, it should, in principle, be uninteresting to them and thus something which they would not be engaged with for long. If it is too hard, the task would seem insurmountable. If, instead, the work represented a level of skill exactly in the range where development would be needed, it would also naturally fall in that area of works which would be engaging to the child. The self-correcting control of error present in the works would also help to discipline the child’s movements and help them focus on the tasks which drive their development. Now, especially if the child was in a period sensitive to the skills inherent in the work, they would be even more likely to be drawn to those specific works from which they could benefit the most. The reason is that they are simply more sensitive to and thereby aware of them more than others. As their sensitive period closes and they are drawn to different stimulus, they would move on to more challenging areas. So, too, once they have passed through the periods sensitive to the stimulus of Practical Life, they would be drawn out into the more challenging areas of math and language once they have acquired the basic skills necessary to preparing them to be sensitive to the more abstract works.

Practical Life helps prepare children for the study of math and language in various ways. The focus on hand manipulations in work which involve water transfer using an eye dropper or picking up beans with tongs readies them to physically hold a pencil. The focus necessary to achieving mastery of their work prepares them to focus on the salient variables of a complex problem amidst potential distraction. The social bonds formed during the exercise of their work cycle will also be a motivating influence when they see their peers and mentors investigating the more ‘academic’ works. More concretely, the organization of materials on the shelves and the order of movements in the works themselves are predominantly left to right and top to bottom—the progression in which English and most, if not all, European languages are read. Works like the jars and lids, which involve removing and replacing matching lids from their jars, teach one to one correspondence, an important pre-mathematical concept. This is also found in works which require the matching of nuts to bolts, the counting of steps, or the sorting of objects. Water and bean transfer may even be seen as a preparation for grasping concepts like Piagetian conservation of volume.

On one level, Practical Life prepares children for practical living. On another level, it prepares them cognitively, emotionally, and physically to engage their mind in productive works geared toward enhancing their own existence and apprehension of reality. This curriculum area builds self-esteem, self-awareness, and self control. It develops the child physically and cognitively to go into the world and begin to exert control over themselves and their environment. It also prepares the way for academic study, laying the concrete foundations necessary to ground abstractions in reality—a fitting beginning for an educational philosophy dedicated to unifying intellectual endeavor with physical experience.

For Part II: Sensorial, click here.

No comments: