A Montessori classroom is a sight to behold. Far from being the stereotype portrayed by naysayers—that it's either a hippie commune or a moppet free-for-all—a classroom in a true Montessori school is the stage on which girls and boys develop a sense of responsibility, cooperation, and independence.
Except that the people on this stage aren't actors. They're children who are developing a legitimate love of learning. This love, it turns out, is kindled in no small part by their surroundings.
As the father of two boys at Stepping Stones, I have seen firsthand the prepared environment of the Montessori classroom. And it's beautiful.
The Conversion of a Skeptic Begins
I'm a product of a public school system in southeastern Pennsylvania. I had long held a view that I suspect is common among people lucky enough to have gone to a good public school—namely, that public schools work well.
I had never seen or experienced anything different, so I always believed—strongly, I should add—that private schools (parochial, Montessori, or otherwise) would never be a serious option for my own children. After all, if I pay taxes, then why not have my children in a system that worked for me?
That was before I met the woman who I would later marry.
With a master's degree in Montessori education and several years of teaching experience in a Montessori school, Sarah gradually educated me on the merits of a Montessori education. I learned about the prepared environment of a Montessori classroom, about freedom with responsibility, and about practicing skills to the point of mastery.
But, of course, I still hadn't seen any of this for myself. In fact, even a couple of visits to my wife's classroom at her Montessori school in New York City didn't complete my conversion. I popped in, met some of her colleagues and students, and that was it.
In short, I never really got to see what goes on in a Montessori classroom.
A Peek Behind the Curtain in a Montessori Classroom
In the fall of 2015, I observed my son in his classroom. At the time, he was almost three years old, which made him among the youngest.
Those familiar with the Montessori philosophy know that the typical Montessori classroom is home to what would normally be three grade levels in a public school—first, second, and third grade, for example. In the case of my son's classroom, the kindergarteners were the oldest.
I was at my son's school for two reasons: 1) the teachers encourage parents to observe their child in the Montessori classroom and 2) I was curious.
What I saw was nothing short of astounding. The first thing that I noticed was how quiet it was. Calm and order reigned.
And this wasn't because some overbearing tyrant of a teacher had scared the children into submission, either. It was simply the natural byproduct of the environment. When a child has a purpose, after all, she's not thinking about "misbehaving." (I now think that the entire concept of "classroom management"—a synonym in many public schools for "keeping the kids in line"—would become obsolete overnight if we just allowed and encouraged children to actively engage with physical objects in school.)
Height-appropriate shelves and cabinets held neatly arranged materials. Each student was surrounded by options without feeling overwhelmed.
Some children were working individually with materials that they had chosen, while others prepared the classroom snack. (My three-year-old was cutting carrots. Take that, Gordon Ramsay!)
Still others were paying attention to Fire and Ember, the cockatiels that add a touch of the exotic to my son's Montessori classroom.
In fact, out of 20 children, I saw only one who looked like she needed a purpose. She was wandering around the classroom, trying to decide on a work—and even this lasted only a minute or two.
Intense Concentration Equals Deep Contentment
In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi describes "flow"—complete and utter absorption in an endeavor. When a person is in a state of flow, nothing else but the activity matters.
It was flow that I witnessed in a young girl who spent 12 straight minutes working with clay. She was totally engaged, oblivious to anything else going on around her. (If 12 minutes doesn't sound like a long time, consider that some researchers think that an adult's attention span may be as short as 8 seconds.)
I saw a boy choose a book, sit down on a pillow near the corner, and begin to "read" it. Although he was too young to interpret the words on the page, he was looking intently at the pictures and slowly turning the pages from front to back. His level of concentration was total.
Another boy selected a work designed to hone fine motor skills. Using a pair of wooden tweezers, he practiced picking up cotton balls from one bowl and transferring them to another. He worked patiently, deftly squeezing and releasing the tweezers at just the right time. I felt like I was watching a surgeon in training.
Where Are the Adults?
You might think that a Montessori classroom is an idyllic world in miniature, a society of cooperation and mastery run entirely by four-year-olds—you know, Lord of the Flies without the strife and bloodshed.
But there are adults in the mix, too. In my son's classroom, a lead teacher and an assistant were constantly but quietly observing their charges.
"Can you help with this?" a young girl asked the lead teacher. Meanwhile, the assistant began reading a book to a small group of children.
In short, the teachers in a Montessori classroom are facilitators more than they are instructors. Think "guide on the side," not "sage on the stage."
This is in no way meant to diminish their contributions to learning; they simply don't need to lecture a group of desk-bound kids from the front of the classroom. (To that end, I don't know if I could even tell you where the "front" of the classroom was, a reminder that in my grade school days, the locus of power was wherever the teacher was positioned—usually at the blackboard or behind her giant desk.)
In this case, the lead teacher moved freely about the classroom as needed. Here she reflexively pushed in a chair, there she gently reminded a student to put away his work.
Why Montessori Students Will One Day Make Great Colleagues
Perhaps nothing could have prepared me for what I witnessed in my son's classroom that day. Children who weren't yet in kindergarten were cooperating.
Instead of arguing over a work or pulling an object out of someone's else hands, the children in my son's class were more courteous to each other than most adults are on their best day.
It's no surprise, then, to learn that grace and courtesy make up one pillar of the philosophy in a Montessori classroom.
"Will you please let me know when you're done with that work?" a young girl asked her friend. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up—it's a verbatim quote. I wrote it down because it so perfectly embodies how my son's peers talk to each other in the classroom.
Remember the little girl working with clay? Well, as she started to put her work away, she bumped the tray, sending most of the materials onto the floor. One of the other students immediately came over, got down on the floor, and began helping her pick up what had fallen.
This simple gesture from a friend may not have particularly impressed anyone else in the room—after all, it's how they act every day. But I had to pick my jaw up off the floor before breaking into a wide grin.
If my remarks seem effusive, it's because I'm in awe of what I observed. I wonder why more schools don't use materials to allow young minds and hands to explore.
What I saw that day in my son's Montessori's classroom is what I would want all parents to see in their child's classroom: an engaging, safe, and calm environment where girls and boys are encouraged to explore and cooperate.
I guess you could call me a convert.
Matthew Kushinka is a proud member of the Stepping Stones community and the owner of a language services company.