Montessori Moments

September 20, 2009

The Relativity of Right and Wrong

Five year-old Stacy and I were working with the geometric cabinet.  As we went through the language lesson involving several shapes, it became clear that she was having a hard time telling the difference between the oval and the ellipse.  Since she can read, I introduced the geometry cabinet classified cards, which consist of the following:

– Cards showing the shapes of the geometric cabinet (the shapes are in blue and the background is in yellow, just like the cabinet)

– Cards where the names of the shapes are written (ellipse, oval, curvilinear triangle, etc.)

– Cards where the definitions of the shapes are written (“an egg-shaped figure with curved lines that narrow at the top” would be the definition of oval)

– Control cards that show each blue shape with its corresponding name and definition on one long yellow card, so the child can check her work when she’s finished

I handed Stacy the card that showed the blue oval, and then invited her to find the label for the shape.  She chose the label that said “ellipse” and placed it next to the oval.  I then invited her to find the corresponding definition, and she chose the one that defined an ellipse.  Without pointing out her mistake, I gave her the card that showed the blue ellipse.  She chose the label and definition for “oval” and placed them next to the card with the elliptical shape.

At this point, she had labeled and defined an oval as an ellipse, and vice-versa.  Hoping the control cards would help her see her mistakes and understand the difference between the shapes, I invited her to check her work.  I pointed to the card that said oval, which she had placed next to the elliptical shape, and asked her to find the matching control card.

After three years in Montessori, Stacy was familiar with the use of control cards, which allow the children to check their work and make corrections without having to depend on an adult to point out mistakes (we call this “control of error”, and it is present in most authentic Montessori materials).  She shuffled through the cards, found the one that corresponded to the oval, and placed it below the cards she had paired.

I saw her eyes shifting several times from her work to the control card and back.  It was clear that, while the name and definition of her cards matched the control card, the shape on the control card (an oval) was different from the shape on her work card (an ellipse).  She repeated the process with the control card for the ellipse, and again looked from one card to the other.

“How’s it going?” I gently inquired.

“Something’s wrong,” she remarked.

“Oh?” I asked, relieved that she had found the mistake in her work.  “What’s the matter?”

Stacy looked up from her cards.  “This card,” she pointed to the oval control card, “is wrong.”

My eyebrows popped up.  “Really?” I asked, intrigued by her perspective.

She continued, unphased.  “Yeah.  If you give me a blue marker, we can change this shape,” she pointed to the oval on the control card, “to look like this.”  She pointed to the ellipse on her work cards.

I gently explained that we couldn’t color on the control cards, because they were designed to help us check our work, and asked her if she wanted to look at the cards again.  She looked back at her work and insisted that the control card was wrong.   Without pressing any further, I suggested that we put away the work because it was almost time to go home.

I didn’t dare tell her that she had made a mistake: that’s not my role as a guide.  I will simply continue to expose her to the two shapes in different situations throughout the school year, until at some point she will have her little “aha” moment.

I marvel at the strength of her convictions; discovering the world in this manner creates much more awareness and self-reliance than depending on others to show us the way, and helps us appreciate the relativity of right and wrong.


August 29, 2009

Five Children, Four Paintbrushes: An experiment in sharing

During school tours for prospective students and their parents, the question I am most often asked is: How do you get the children to share?

It’s an obvious question for parents to ask, considering there’s only one of each material on the shelves and up to 24 children in each classroom.  I wish I could distill what happens in a Montessori classroom down to a quick and easy solution for parents to apply at home, but I doubt that is possible.  Come to think of it, even I don’t really know how children in our classrooms have such an easy time sharing.  They just do…

Consider the case of the four paintbrushes… During summer school, I took five children outside to paint our volcano.  Our group consisted of a girl who just turned 3, another girl of 3.5, a boy of 4, another girl of 4.5, and a boy who recently turned 5.  They had all been students in the Montessori environment for one year, except for the 5-year old, who’d been there for two years.  I took four different paints, four containers, and four paintbrushes.  We set the volcano down on the grass, I put the painting materials on the ground, and I invited them to decorate the volcano.  Each child took a paintbrush, and the 4-year old piped up, “I don’t have a paintbrush!”

“Well,” I replied matter-of-factly, “Then you’re all going to have to share and take turns.”  I waited to see if this particularly energetic and impulsive 4-year old would snatch a paintbrush from the 3-year old’s hand.  However, all he did was look around at his friends to see what they were doing.  Suddenly, I heard the 4.5-year old girl say, “Here, you can use my brush.”

She handed the boy her brush and sat back to watch the others work.  The boy thanked her, and as he did so, the 3-year old girl said to the newly brushless girl, “Use my brush.”  The brush was passed from one girl to the other, and the children kept painting.  Moments later, the 5-year old said, “Could I please have the brown?”  The child who had been using the brown looked up and, without hestitation, handed the brown paint and corresponding brush and took the one that was no longer wanted.  “Could I use the purple, please?” asked the 3.5-year old, and the 4-year old boy immediately put his brush down and handed it over with a smile.  Somebody handed a brush to the 3-year old girl who had voluntarily surrendered her brush, and they continued in this way for at least 10 minutes, until they decided their volcano was ready.

I sat back silently throughout the activity, observing and marveling at their social skills and maturity.  What is it about a Montessori environment that teaches children to behave in this manner?  I doubt that my presence had much to do with it.  I simply pointed out that the situation called for them to share, and after that I stepped back and remained a silent witness to their interactions.   There were no threats or punishments, no rewards or praise.  There was simply an expectation on my part, and an understanding on theirs: If they wanted to participate in the activity, they would have to share.

This phenomenon can be witnessed daily in a Montessori classroom, and it’s one more example of the magic that occurs when the ground rules (limits) are in place, the expectations are set, the adult is willing to release the reins, and the abilities and potentialities of the children are respected and nurtured.

If you have experience in the Montessori classroom, I would love to hear your thoughts.  In your opinion, what are the aspects of the prepared environment that show the child how to share?

Create a free website or blog at