Montessori 101: Environment vs. Classroom

We Montessorians sometimes use terminology that’s unfamiliar to folks more accustomed to a traditional school model, and this can lead to a bit of a mystification around the philosophy. It can even lead to the notion that Montessori schools are out of reach for the general population—that the methods in a Montessori school are too specialized, too… strange.

In fact, the concepts of Montessori, and the vocabulary we use to describe those concepts, were borne from Dr. Maria Montessori’s education, research, and maybe most importantly, her observations of real children at work. In other words, Montessori concepts and vocabulary are rooted in the natural processes of child development, and these concepts are very familiar, even intuitive, to anyone who lives or works with children. In our Montessori 101 series, we’ll demystify Montessori vocabulary and explore the concepts that inform it. This week, we’ll unpack what we mean by an “environment,” as opposed to a “classroom”.

Montessori often compares human development to the growth of a plant. The plant has everything it needs to grow within itself; it only requires the proper environment (soil, water, sunlight, warmth). Similarly, humans require certain environmental factors to mature and flourish. We know infants require consistent positive interaction with caregivers in order to form attachment and one day function in society. Babies need freedom of movement in order to learn to walk. They need to hear their native language to be able to develop language themselves. Amazingly, typically developing little humans acquire the abilities to walk and speak without any formal instruction! Movement and language develop organically in an environment rich with stimuli and interaction.

“Education is not something which a teacher does, but it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment.” (emphasis added)

(Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind)

As children develop, they require a developing set of stimuli to aid them toward their full potential. Dr. Montessori observed that children pass through four stages of development from birth to adulthood. She called these stages, “The Four Planes of Development.” An in-depth look into the four planes of development is coming to the blog very soon—for now, the takeaway is this: the characteristics of children change from plane to plane; and each plane of development requires a particular environment and trained adult suited to the needs of that plane.

In a Montessori school, classrooms (yes, we still call it a “classroom” sometimes!) are designed and thoughtfully prepared along the lines of the planes and sub-planes of development. Montessori divides the first plane into a sub-plane of zero-to-three years old and three-to-six years old—these are the Young Children’s Community (YCC) and the Children’s House. The YCC environment is designed to facilitate the natural work of the very young child: the construction of physical and biological independence. The YCC assists children as they learn to walk, talk, and perform activities independently. From ages to three through six, the Children’s House environment continues to foster the independence of the first-plane child.

In the second plane of development, the sub-planes break down into six-to-nine years old and nine-to-twelve years old—Lower Elementary and Upper Elementary. In these environments children are offered materials and lessons to develop mental independence and a reasoning mind. The elementary environments also offer social opportunities as children become motivated to work and spend time with others. For this reason, the Montessori elementary environment provides larger work tables to accommodate groups of children. The elementary guide presents lessons to groups of children because of the intense drive to work with peers.

A “classroom” connotes a room in which a class is held, where information is imparted from one person to another. Montessori doesn’t see education that way. In a Montessori school, we see the innate power children have to form themselves, as flowers do, given the appropriate surroundings—surroundings that meet the needs of the particular developmental stage. As Dr. Montessori said,

“An adult can assist in shaping the environment, but it is the child that perfects his own being.”

By calling the classroom an “environment,” Montessorians seek to give agency to the child in their process of formation. We see the trained adult as an important part of the environment, who guides the child in his journey toward becoming a fully formed adult.

Montessori 101: Guide vs. Teacher

Ever wonder, why do we call teachers “guides” or “directresses”? What do we mean by an “environment,” as opposed to “classroom”? Are we simply being esoteric, or is there a deeper reason? We Montessorians sometimes use terminology that’s unfamiliar to folks more accustomed to a traditional school model, and this can lead to a bit of a mystification around the philosophy. It can even lead to the notion that Montessori schools are out of reach for the general population—that the methods in a Montessori school are too specialized, too… strange.

In fact, the concepts of Montessori, and the vocabulary we use to describe those concepts, were borne from Dr. Maria Montessori’s education, research, and maybe most importantly, her observations of real children at work. In other words, Montessori concepts and vocabulary are rooted in the natural processes of child development, and these concepts are very familiar, even intuitive, to anyone who lives or works with children. In our Montessori 101 series, we’ll demystify Montessori vocabulary and explore the concepts that inform it. Today, we kick off the series with “guide” vs. “teacher”.

When many of us picture a traditional school setting in the United States, there’s an adult—the teacher—and a room full of students in desks. The teacher is at the front of the room imparting information to children. The teacher decides what, when, and how the students will learn material, usually in specifically scheduled blocks of time—one hour for math, one for English, etc. The teacher in this model is the active giver of information, and the students are the passive receivers. 

Dr. Montessori believed that children should be active participants in their own learning. In fact, much of the learning they are doing is constructing their selves. She used the words “directress/director” and “guide” to describe the role of the teacher because she saw that children thrived when they were directed or guided into their own learning. The guide is simply a part of the classroom environment in which children grow. Dr. Montessori also recognized that adults cannot perform the self-construction of the children—that responsibility can only belong to the children themselves. The responsibility of a guide in a Montessori environment is to assist children as they learn by connecting them to the work they need in the environment. 

On any given day in a Montessori environment, you’ll find the guide observing (always observing) and gently, quietly supporting each child through their school day. Through observation, the guide identifies and removes obstacles in the child’s way. For example, a guide may notice that a child struggles with a particular kind of paper or work partner, so they might offer the child an alternative style of paper or subtly direct the child toward new work partners to remove these obstacles. 

Montessori guides give children keys to unlock concepts and areas of learning through the lessons they present. Children repeat the lessons until they understand and master each of them. For instance, a guide presents a material called the “checkerboard” in the lower elementary classroom in order to teach multiplication. The guide connects the child to this material when the child is ready and the guide demonstrates how to use it properly. The guide then leaves the child to explore and repeat the procedure as long as they need, and steps in only if the child is truly struggling. Through time and practice, the child learns the concept of multiplication on their own. 

As Dr. Montessori wrote, 

“To aid life, leaving it free to unfold itself, that is the basic task of the educator.” 

In short, a guide is a teacher, but not a teacher in the way that’s presented in a traditional school model. A Montessori teacher, a guide, is a facilitator who journeys alongside children in the process of learning and self-construction and guides them toward their innate human potential. 

We Are VdM: Tina Lavi Condratov

The very best part of Villa di Maria is our people. Our community of families, faculty and staff is something to be proud of. In this series, We are VdM, we’ll highlight the energies, talents, humor and wisdom of some of our amazing people. Today, we’ll meet Tina Lavi Condratov, guide in the Upper Elementary Dodecahedron classroom. We were so lucky to have Tina join our team this Fall. She is a seasoned Montessori teacher from the St. Louis area. She adds tremendous expertise, fun, and dedication to our community. We also love getting to know Tina’s husband, Andrei, and their son, Aero, who is in the YCC. 

How did you discover Montessori?

Montessori pedagogy is an extraordinary gift I serendipitously discovered. After graduating from St. Louis University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education, I was exploring the St. Louis area for a full-time teaching position. I had never heard of Montessori education before, but a colleague of mine, whom I had been working with as an assistant at a Rockwood Elementary School at the time, mentioned a local Montessori school offering sponsorships for AMI Montessori training. She had recently accepted a Primary training sponsorship and recommended that I look into the opening they had for an Elementary training sponsorship. After I toured the school, I was immediately sold! I was fascinated by the small children deeply engaged in their work, focusing with such precision as they carried out their tasks. The beautifully prepared environments were so magical, and I wished to be a part of that fairytale. After a year-long training course in Baltimore, Maryland, I received my AMI Elementary diploma as well as a Master’s Degree in Education from Loyola University. I began teaching Lower Elementary that fall. After 8 years of guiding LE children, I was fortunate to expand my class to a combined LE and UE environment for 3 years before transitioning into the role of an Upper Elementary Guide. I am so incredibly thankful for my Montessori journey, and my husband, Andrei, and I are beyond grateful that we are able to have our son, Aero, experience the joy and wonder of the magnificent Montessori Method. Aero is genuinely thriving in his own magical fairytale of a classroom here in the Young Children’s Community at VdM.

What is something you love about Montessori?

Of all the wonderful things I love about Montessori, the thing that stands out the most to me is how unbelievably happy the children are to come to school each day. During undergrad, I was asked to write a philosophy of education. An excerpt I wrote was, “I grew up with children faking being sick so they could stay home from school. My goal is to inspire children to want to fake being well so they can come to school even when they’re sick.” Not that I condone coming to school when children are ill, but that mindset is something important to consider. A child’s positive relationship with school has a direct impact on their love of learning. This passion, curiosity, and drive will set them up for a lifetime of confidence, independence, and success. Amazingly, my wish came true: my students often share how much they despise missing school, and when given the choice to take a day off (not related to illness), they often joyfully choose to come to school! 

“One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.”

-Dr. Maria Montessori

What is your favorite thing to do on the weekend?

I love to spend time with my family outside, playing and exploring. Aero just recently built his first snowman and had his first sledding adventure. It is so much fun watching him experience things for the first time!

What was your favorite book as a child and why?

Where the Red Fern Grows. (SPOILER ALERT!) Even though the devastating ending is a real tearjerker, I related so much to the main character, Billy. I always wanted a dog growing up, and this boy’s story of dedication, hard work, loyalty, and LOVE for his dogs (before he even had them!) charmingly broke my heart. I spent my childhood days running around in the woods with my friends, exploring creeks and fields, and loving nature. The continuous adventure and suspense in this book spoke to me as a young child and has always been my favorite.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a teacher from a young age, but I actually began my college career studying to be a physical therapist. With a family full of doctors, I had always had an interest in the medical field, and they encouraged me to follow in their footsteps.  I later decided to follow my heart and pursue a degree in education. I also had a dream to someday write children’s books, and perhaps be the voice of a cartoon…

 

What is a favorite memory with one of your students?

There are too many to choose from! Lately, I really love it when my students “freak out” after I show them something spectacular. “Ms. Tina, you’re blowing our minds again!” is a recent favorite of mine. Just the other week, I was showing a group of students how to divide fractions by multiplying the divisor by the reciprocal. While checking our work, one student stood up, threw his pencil down, and walked away. “No…Stop. Just stop,” he said with a giant grin on his face. I should start writing these all down!

Emotional Well-Being in the Montessori Classroom

 

In today’s world, emotional literacy and well-being are vital for the flourishing of our children and young adults. Montessori philosophy naturally fosters this because we care about the development of the whole child—their emotional, physical, social, and intellectual development.

In a Montessori environment, children are encouraged to pursue their unique learning styles; they aren’t rushed to master content for tests; and there’s no pile-on homework after a long school day. Montessori does not arbitrarily confine students in a one-size-fits-all grade level. Instead it encourages children to explore and learn at their own pace—it keeps natural curiosity alive and fosters intrinsic motivation. Montessori develops intellectual tools that grant children the joy of being life-long learners.

Another way Montessori supports emotional well-being is through movement. In her work with children, Dr. Maria Montessori observed a need for movement and a drive to explore the world through the hands. We know from our own experience that we are connected body and mind. How we use our bodies affects our concentration, outlook, and emotions. Nutrition, sleep, and exercise (read, “movement”!) are critical in the development of strong mental health.

In the Montessori classroom, children choose where and with whom to sit—where their bodies are most comfortable working. Many of the materials in the classroom environment incorporate movement of the body. For example, children move around the classroom to gather the materials for work; they manipulate small beads to do division; they follow language commands that lead them around the environment; and they perform experiments with solids, liquids, and gasses. When children are allowed to move freely in their learning environment, we see the positive effects expressed in their enjoyment of work and their upbeat demeanor at school.

In addition to movement, nature has a powerful effect on our mental health. Numerous studies including those cited here reveal a link between time spent in nature and improved attention, lowered stress, and improved mood. At VdM, children have ample access to the outdoors and nature. Children at VdM experience daily hour-long outdoor recess. They also have the opportunity to work outside during the work cycle, spend time in the garden, feed the chickens, walk the classroom dog, rake the neighbor’s leaves, or carry out the trash, recycling, and compost.

Finally, Montessori guides seamlessly weave techniques into their lessons that help children manage their challenging emotions. For example, guides model positive self-talk when a child is struggling to learn something new. They offer social scripts to help students navigate conflict; for instance, “I need some time alone before I’m ready to talk,” or “It made me feel… when you…” VdM guides employ specific lessons and work choices geared toward the development of emotional literacy as well. Some guides lead regular meditation practice, yoga, or teach breathing techniques to calm bodies and minds. Specific areas of the classroom environments are set up for children to practice calming techniques, such as a finger labyrinth or yoga poses.

The wheel of emotions is a beautiful material that gives students a robust understanding of their feelings and those around them.

At Villa di Maria we are grateful to accompany each child in their unique journey and contribute to the prioritization of emotional literacy and well-being in education and our world. We are raising future leaders that care about the individual and all the complex facets of human beings.