The Montessori Difference: Work

Montessori is different.  Walk into a classroom and the evidence is everywhere you look.  In fact, there are so many differences in Montessori that many of them tend to slip by unnoticed.  So I’ve decided to devote a few blog posts to some of the most important differences (both obvious and subtle).  The first part in this little mini-series will discuss “work.”

Let’s do a little word-association test.  I’ll say a word and you tell me all the words that pop in to your head.  Ready?  Here goes; “Work.”

O.K.  Obviously this is a one-sided blog post and you can’t really tell me what you thought.  However, those of you who said your answers out loud just now get extra credit in my book.  Chances are, you didn’t come up with words like “Yay!”  “Give me more!” or “Fun!”  some of you might have have thought of words like “necessary”, “challenging” or “important.”  More than likely, the words you heard were something like “boring”, “commute”, “boss”, “tedious”, “NOT fun.”

What about the images that popped into your head?  Did you see visions of a cluttered desk?  A giant yard full of leaves to be raked and weeds to be picked?  Did you envision a disappointed boss with a scowl on his or her face?  Maybe you saw a line of traffic 10 miles long.  Perhaps you saw a stuffy, dark windowless office full of cubicles as far as the eye can see.  All of this and more are common adult responses to the notion of work.

It’s a simple little word, “Work”.  Its a verb and a noun.  It’s a concept and an object.  It is the effort put forth to accomplish something and it is the something on which effort is exerted.  No matter how it is defined, work just isn’t to adults what it is to children.  The fact is that for adults, unless it is something that we love to do, most work is something to be avoided.  Even if we love the work, there are still plenty of things we’d rather be doing instead.  Never the less, this is an adult view and I mention it because it is absolutely critical that we do not project it onto our children (anymore than our society does on a daily basis).

Young children are driven to work, to refine themselves, to correct mistakes and to figure it out.  Their work is to build the adult they will one day become.  In spite of how many times we might clap or praise, sitting up, crawling, walking, talking, eating and the million other little milestones that children achieve are not done because of external reward.  The motivation comes from within.  Children work for the sake of the effort.  Even when their actions do not appear successful to us, they feel accomplishment because the work  is its own reward.  This applies even to things children don’t necessarily love to do.  Right now, its the process which  holds the most value.  Isn’t that the way it should be?

We are products of our environment.  Our parents, family, friends, school, teachers, the jobs we have held and the people we have worked for and with, all worked together to lead us to the perceptions we hold today.  As a result of our life experience, most of us are more likely to focus on how many answers we get right and wrong or whether the job is complete to a certain standard than how we got the answers or how we completed the job.  It takes a conscious, directed effort for us to look back on the process -very often, this acknowledgement comes in the form of “self-evaluation.”  Even then it’s after the fact.  It is this view -the adult view, that has led us, in the larger educational world, to create work and curricula which focus on the results and pay little attention to the entire reason children would choose the work in the first place.  This view even drives current teaching techniques, because teachers realize the work they prescribe has lost its value and they feel forced to attach praise and rewards to help the children find motivation.

Not so in Montessori.  From day one we operate from the child’s point of view.  We start with what motivates them.  It’s not an accident that we call everything in the classroom “work.”   It’s the best word to describe what it is that the children are doing.  To them, this word means exciting, new, challenging, satisfying, purposeful, fun, interesting, fulfilling and rewarding.  It’s what they love and what they are biologically born to do.  Blowing your nose is work.  Tying your shoes is work.  Washing dishes, sweeping the floor, helping a friend, learning to read, write, count -it’s all work and when they choose it, there is nothing these children would rather be doing and there is no place they’d rather be.

So how do we ensure that the work is interesting to children in the first place?  What makes them choose a specific work over another?  At first, it’s all based on brain development.  Each material, or work, is designed to appeal to children as their brain moves them through sensitive periods.  These are windows of time where a child is particularly receptive to certain things.  There are many of them; water, small objects, order, language -to name a few.  Dr. Montessori observed that children enter these sensitive periods at relatively specific periods throughout their growth.  There is a definite opening of the window as well as an obvious closing.  If you’ve been in any of our classrooms you’ll notice elements of those sensitive periods in all of the materials in the room.

Knowledge of brain development is part of the genius behind the design of Montessori materials (many of which remain unchanged in more than 100 years).  As I said, its what encourages children to choose their own work spontaneously -which is a huge benefit to the child’s ability to internalize the concept.  What Dr. Montessori did with this knowledge, frankly, is a whole other level of genius.  She designed works pairing what children want to do with what they need to develop.  It seems so simple -and that’s the genius.  It’s called indirect learning.

What does a three-year-old need most?  Among other things, they need patience, concentration, self-reliance, fine motor development.  Look closely at any of the practical life works and you’ll see how children learn all of this and more from every one.  Indirect learning is one of those subtle but important differences I mentioned.  Pouring between two small pitchers requires the use of the pincer grip.  It must be taken from the shelf to the table and then replaced on the shelf when it is completed before the child can choose a different work.  This creates a beginning and an end to the work, all of which are controlled by the child.  Walking back and forth from the sink while holding a pitcher of water and not spilling a drop requires patience.  Likewise, it takes patience, concentration and self-reliance to clean up the inevitable spill.

What I love most about work like this is that mistakes are every bit as valuable as success -perhaps even more so.  It may sound funny but we Montessori teachers share a secret sense of glee when children spill pouring work.  Its not schadenfreude.  Its because we know what is coming next; opportunity.  The moment that water hits the table and the floor,  a whole world of options opens up.  It’s a beautiful process to behold;  “Uh oh!  Why did that happen?  What do I do know?”  We can see the wheels turning as the child scans the room for some kind of assistance or clue as to his next move.  He settles upon the teacher, making eye contact with her.  His eyes tell the story “I need help!”  The teacher, maybe without even stopping what she is doing, looks at the child and gives an inquisitive but encouraging shrug, clearly saying “What can you do about this?”, but instilling confidence at the same time.

From that point on, the possibilities are endless, but you can be sure that the teacher will not interfere unnecessarily.  Whether a friend comes over to help or the child continues to work alone, he’s using problem solving and logic both to complete the work and to figure out how and if he should do it differently next time.  “Maybe if I keep the pitchers on the tray any spill will be contained and easier to clean up.”  “Maybe if I hold the pitcher differently or pay closer attention to what I’m doing, I’ll get all the water into the pitcher.”  However he goes about doing it, the end result is that the child has turned a mistake into a success, and he has done it virtually on his own.  The value of his work is as plain as the look of pride on his face when he returns his work to the shelf.  That’s how work is done the Montessori way.  That’s the Montessori difference.