Observing the Montessori classroom: freedom, responsibility and dead butterflies

I was lucky enough to observe a Montessori class of about 18 3-6 year old children yesterday. It is wonderful to experience the energy in a room full of young learners and experimenters. Children choose whether to work individually or in groups. The 3 teachers wander the room, sometimes giving feedback in an unobtrusive way. One teacher presented a new material about numbers and addition to a group. The room is abuzz, but not the least rowdy. Some older children give advice to younger ones. The children choose which materials to use themselves, and return them when they were finished. Elsewhere, children help themselves to fruit and wash their dishes before returning to the materials.

Downtime in the Montessori classroom

What struck me less positively about the children’s behaviour with the materials was the amount of ‘downtime’ they appeared to have. There were extended periods when children were chatting with no regard to the materials, or using the materials in a playful way which did not seem to relate to the purpose of the materials.

Perhaps I am misinterpreting? Perhaps ‘downtime’ is necessary for the children to process the task? Maybe they are revisiting what they did last time. Perhaps young children need downtime between spurts of concentration?

A pedagogical issue is never wholly an issue of high principle

writes Henry Homes in his 1912 introduction to The Montessori Method (p xxvi), and clearly that’s true. Pedagogies and teachers have to be somewhat pragmatic. Young children, in particular, are undergoing so many developmental changes. One-size-fits-all pedagogical prescriptions never work, and for young children most of all.

Dead butterflies

Maria Montessori makes a very stong case for the lack of prescriptive intervention from the taching staff. She encourages ‘the spontaneous expression of [a child’s] personality’ (page 14) so they don’t become like dead butterflies mounted in a case. The school must encourage ‘…free, natural manifestations of the child’ (page 15). ‘The principle of slavery still pervades pedagogy’, she rails (page 16):

We know only too well the sorry spectacle of the teacher who, in the ordinary schoolroom, must pour certain cut and dried facts into the heads of the scholars. In order to succeed in this barren task, she finds it necessary to discipline her students into immobility and to force their attention. (page 21)

Such students are inattentive learners because they do not see the point of it (page 22). These learners need to understand the intrinsic benefit of the learning, and no teacher can impose that upon him/her.

Does this therefore mean that downtime should be tolerated?

Freedom and responsibility in the Montessori classroom

Melinda Nielsen points out that with freedom comes responsibility, and children need to embrace both. She offers a variety of techniques for slightly older children, such as journaling, understanding social expectations, and meetings with the teacher guide. These strategies may not be appropriate for younger children, but the point about matching freedom and responsibility is well taken.

Montessori teachers spend a lot of time observing students. During my observation, the teaching staff would sometimes attempt to refocus a child back to the material they were using. There were moments when these opportunities were not taken, and perhaps the teachers needed to step back from other tasks to observe the room more regularly.

Teaching staff need to talk to students to understand the cause of their disengagement. They may be sick, confused or tired. If the teacher-student ratio is too high, there is probably not enough time for this, and the alienated students risk becoming even more so. The Montessori method can fail such students just as much as a conventional method can.

On the other hand, consider this anecdote told me by a parent: a child spent one year observing without putting hands on the materials, then in her second year conquered them in two months. Unless we talk to such a child, we might completely misinterpret her learning style.

Montessori teachers face a difficult balancing act between allowing a child the freedom to learn in his own way, and focussing him on the intent of the learning material.

Parents have a role in educating their children about the discipline of work. Parents are the child’s greatest role-model. The child sees the parent working all the time. Children need to understand the routine and disciplined nature of work.

At the Montessori school, the student has some freedom to choose what work to do, but the work itself is not negotiable. The teacher can and should be refocussing them, or assessing the child for any other problem, when the downtime becomes too great. If the child fails to find any intrinsic interest in the material, perhaps the child needs to revisit less complex materials.

We all need downtime to process and to re-energise, but we also need to develop the skills to become independent, life-long learners. The Montessori method, with its focus on the intrinsic value of knowledge, seems a perfect approach to developing the human as a ‘learning machine’. But independent learning also requires discipline, and perhaps we need to make the discipline required for learning more explicit to young minds.


Montessori, M (1912) The Montessori Method (partly available from Google books).

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