Today we’re talking about Montessori math. In each classroom the range of work is broad and versatile to accommodate different ages, learning styles and abilities. There is so much to unpack in Montessori math that a full discussion would be far too much for a single blog post. So, we’ll pickup on some of the hallmark lessons in future posts, but for this one, we’re going to keep things at the bird’s eye view to focus upon the way in which math fits into the child’s wholistic classroom experience.
Whether language, math or anything else, part of Dr. Montessori’s genius was her ability to so clearly see the intersection between life lessons and academic learning. In our consideration of a child’s development, academics are rarely viewed in isolation. Math is a clear example of this approach, where lessons are often fittingly referred to as “problems.” Their answers are therefore called “solutions.” So before we get into adding or dividing quantities -before the first math lesson, Montessori teachers think children should begin learning to solve their own everyday problems. This ensures that every future math lesson provides a chance to strengthen a life skill as well.
For young children immersed in the minute-to-minute process of growing up, seemingly simple problems may produce big emotions. These emotions are very important -often more so than the problem itself. Disappointment is a common first reaction -especially to an unexpected problem. As partners in our children’s growth, regardless of how we adults may feel in that moment, teaching the child to manage disappointment is usually a better option than avoiding it. This can often be a solution unto itself, but it is a challenging prospect for anyone, not just young children.
In the Montessori classroom, we work with each child so they may learn to accept and recover from disappointment, regardless of its source. Rather than rushing the child to “get over it”, telling them how they feel – “You’re ok.” or ignoring their feelings outright, we encourage them to spend time with the emotion and we offer ideas for how to process the situation. Our response is unique to each child. This allows them to better understand and even anticipate their own emotions for future problems. It also helps them to recognize that, though they may not be able to control how they feel initially, they do have a choice as to how they act on those feelings. Practice in this concept not only leads to better emotional intelligence, but also improves their ability to consider the problem more clearly, which, in-turn, leads to greater success in solving it.
After that, we look at the details of the problem and the mechanics of solving it. Adult involvement can carry a great deal of influence. So when a problem presents itself, our first response is to assess whether resolving it is within the child’s ability. If so, we must be particularly thoughtful in our support. Once again, this is no time to rush. The child needs time to really dig into the cause and circumstances that lead to the problem, because this is often where we will find clues to its solution. Instead of pointing out what we know, we ask the child questions to help her acknowledge what she knows about the situation. When the child asks us questions, our answers may be simple and brief, or even another question in return. Whatever gives the child the most appropriate level of personal responsibility to feel empowered by the solution he or she chooses.
So, back to math. As a child works through a new lesson independently, he or she may encounter a moment where things did not go as planned. Or the solution may seem impossible. A child who has practiced daily problem solving and learned to recognize the resulting emotions will approach the challenge from a more confident perspective. By contrast, a child who is not prepared to respond to this problem, might seek help before attempting to find the answer independently. When help is not immediately available, the child may simply give up or at least take no further steps forward. Whether in math or in life, this could prove to be very limiting.
Our dual perspective of math continues as we review the child’s work. Here we are able to observe both math skills and problem solving, simultaneously. One may require more attention than the other. This comparison informs how we choose to correct errors or acknowledge success. For example, if we encounter an incorrect mathematical answer from a child who struggles with daily problem solving, we may choose not to correct the result at all. Instead, we would make note of the error for future lessons and focus upon the child’s success in navigating all the way through the problem. On the other hand, a proficient problem solver might be given on-the-spot mathematical guidance to correct the work.
As with all areas of the Montessori classroom, the child’s approach toward mastery relies upon repetition of work. So too does the teacher’s ability to observe progress and individualize support. So the process above recurrs naturally and intentionally throughout the child’s years in the environment. When it is done right, the outcome is a child who not only develops math and problem solving skills, but holds a personal appreciation for the many ways that math integrates into life.