Celebrating the Uniqueness of Montessori Part 4
The Community of Children
In an era when a low student-teacher ratio is considered one of the hallmarks of a good school, Montessori education again reveals its uniqueness. Maria Montessori deliberately called her schools "The Children's House", emphasizing that the community belongs to the children first, not the adults. While exact student-teacher ratios may vary, most Montessori schools intentionally seek to create large classes of around 30 students with two adults from the primary (3-6) age group upward. Why are big classes better in Montessori? And how do Montessori schools create such a strong sense of community among students?
"Joy, feeling one's own value, being appreciated and loved by others, feeling useful and capable of production are all factors of enormous value for the human soul."
Multi-years Age Range
Unlike traditional schools, Montessori schools do not divide children up into single-year grades. Rather, each classroom covers a three year age range: 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, and so on. This means that students spend three years with the same pair of adults and many of the same peers. Not only does this allow them to build a strong relationship with their teachers, but it also encourages the development of strong peer relationships between students of different ages. Older students take responsibility for supporting the younger ones, helping them with activities and modeling appropriate behavior. Younger students, in turn, have the opportunity to observe and collaborate with their older classmates, absorbing both academic and social skills.
Furthermore, a multi-age class ensures that almost all students, regardless of their level of maturity or present academic capability, can find classmates at their level. As we all know, children's skills develop at different rates in different areas, and in a single year class, a child whose abilities don't align with their peers may feel acutely isolated. But in a multi-age classroom, with students of all different levels working on all different kinds of things, there is no perception of a single, "normal", developmental pace. All skill levels and all levels of maturity have equal value and an equal place in in the community.
Grace & Courtesy
Of course, a positive classroom culture doesn't happen by itself. Children are not born with innate social skills; they have to develop them through experiences. Traditional schools often struggle with how much time to spend on things like "character education" and how to fit it into a curriculum that is mostly focused on intellectual skills. Montessori, however, has incorporated social development into the curriculum from the beginning.
Montessori guides don't just observe the academic progress of individual children, they also observe the social-emotional health of the classroom as a whole. They use these observations to present what are usually called "grace and courtesy" lessons, but might also be termed "social skills practice". These involve everything from simple lessons on how to move through the classroom without bumping into other people to nuanced presentations on how to resolve an argument. For younger ages, these lessons often involve role-playing social scenarios, practicing the words and actions appropriate to various circumstances. Among older children, social issues are more likely to be addressed at a class meeting, in which the guide may present their observations and invite the students to collaborate in developing effective solutions.
The Power of Self-care
A community can only be as healthy as its individual members, so just as social learning is part of the Montessori curriculum, so is developing students' capacity for self-care. For the youngest children, learning self-care skills is at the core of the curriculum. Many parents are surprised to come into a Montessori classroom and find children scooping beans, pouring water, and tying knots, but these are the skills that allow children to take care of their own needs independently. When young children are able to change their own clothes, get their own snacks, wash their own faces, and so on, they become more confident, relaxed, and better able to regulate their emotions. A child who is physically and psychologically comfortable is a child who is ready to learn.
As children mature, the classroom continues to develop their capacity to understand and meet their own needs. Students are free to get something to eat when they're hungry, or take a quiet rest when they're tired. For the child who needs to move a lot, there are activities that involve big movements and lots of walking, while the child who prefers stillness can choose a quiet desk that faces the window. When a child needs to socialize, there are materials designed to be done with a group of peers; when they want to work alone, they can choose a work designed for just one person. For children who are processing difficult emotions, most classrooms have a dedicated "peace area", full of activities for relaxation and contemplation. Maria Montessori believed that education should support the holistic development of the child's personality, and so Montessori classrooms provide spaces for children to meet their full range of needs.
Making a Meaningful Contribution
Finally, Maria Montessori observed that children particularly love to be engaged in activities that make a meaningful contribution to the world around them. Children don't want to be helped nearly so much as they want to help others. And so, to this day, Montessori students take a large, active role in caring for and developing their classes and schools. Younger children will joyfully wash tables and windows, water plants, and sweep floors, while older classes are eager to design fundraisers, plan events, and even build new structures. Adults may see these kinds of things as chores, but Montessorians know almost all children, from the tiniest toddler to the most stubborn teenager, are looking for developmentally appropriate ways to make a positive difference. It is encouraging this desire, perhaps more than anything else, that makes Montessori communities so strong. When children are empowered to make meaningful contributions, they come to care very deeply about the well-being of their community and will work diligently for its improvement.
Maria Montessori believed that within each child lies nearly unlimited potential; the potential not just to do amazing things with their individual life, but the potential to change the world. In the 114 years since Montessori education began, some of that potential has been realized-- Montessori children have grown up to make major contributions to human advancement, and Montessori educators have influenced the direction of educational practice in more humane, developmentally-appropriate directions. Montessori ideas have spread beyond the domains of private schools into both public education and home-schooling. But there is so much more we can do! Now, more than ever, we must follow the example of children and look for ways we can make meaningful, significant differences in our communities, within Montessori circles and beyond.
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