Observations and Discoveries

Chapter 19: Observations and Discoveries

In this installation of our monthly blog, we reach the stage of The Secret of Childhood where Dr. Montessori details the creation of her educational method. As you’ll see this developed through a series of observations and discoveries. Following the scientific method, Dr. Montessori would carefully observe the children and test hypotheses with the end goal of improving their experience. This did not start out with the goal of education, however the end result was so profound that these methods are used worldwide over 100 years later.

As we covered in the last installment, this classroom itself was given to Dr. Montessori not to be a place of education, but as a daycare for children whose caretakers worked all day. She hired an assistant to watch over the children during the day as she took notes and made suggestions. The first of these observations and discoveries involved repetition of an exercise.

Order and Concentration

Dr. Montessori noticed a child of about 3 or 4 “slipping cylinders in and out of their containers”. The child was so focused that Dr. Montessori decided to test her concentration. Despite the entire class making noise, and the teacher physically lifting this child onto a table she continued this exercise with the cylinders. In total she repeated the exercise 42 times. This level of concentration is the exception of course. However it helped in the discovery that repetition of exercises assists in children’s development immensely.

The next discovery grew out of what can be observed as a sensitivity to order (for more on this, read our blog on the Sensitive Periods). Dr. Montessori noticed how children worked diligently to keep their room tidy. One day her assistant accidentally left the cupboard open which housed the classroom materials. Students went inside, chose works in an orderly fashion and put them back in the same way. 

Dr. Montessori was intrigued by this and allowed students to continue choosing their works. She noticed that children showed obvious preferences for certain materials while others began to collect dust. She realized that “interest and concentration arise specifically from the elimination of what is superfluous” (p122). This preference was especially true for toys, which were only touched when there was nothing else to do. The interest of children is piqued more by things that assist their development than even the most splendid toys.

Exercise and Practice

The children possessed such intrinsic motivation that they seemed above rewards and punishments. One day she walked into the classroom to see a child sitting on a chair in the corner wearing a badge that was given out as a reward for good behavior. This child however, was being punished. What happened was a different child, indifferent to his reward, had given it away to this child who was being punished. Neither the punishment nor the badge seemed of much importance to the child sitting in the chair. The indifference to rewards and punishments “marked an awakening in the conscience of a sense of dignity that had not previously existed” (p123).

As Maria Montessori continued participating in this first classroom, she continued to make observations and discoveries. One day she brought an infant inside with her and joked to the children that they should be as quiet as it was. What followed was a period of such profound silence that they made an exercise out of it that they continued on other days as well.

Eventually she asked the children to move silently through the building or courtyard. They seemed delighted by this exercise and participated with a joyful, deep concentration. The exercise of silence taught her that “exercises involving movement where mistakes can be corrected is of great assistance to a child” (p124).

Discipline and Learning

In fact practicing skills and improving them can have profound effects. One day Maria Montessori decided to give a joking lesson on blowing your nose. She demonstrated how to blow her nose as quietly as possible and expected a round of laughter. Instead, the students were astounded. They asked her to do it again and broke out in a round of applause. For the rest of the day the students practiced blowing their noses and profusely thanked Dr. Montessori for the lesson.

It turned out that nobody had ever taught them to blow their noses properly. Because of this, they did so in a very undignified way and felt humiliated at the shame this caused. The lesson wasn’t successful because there is something special about noses, but that it gave the students a sense of dignity. From here Maria Montessori began to notice dignity in all their behaviors- in welcoming guests as well as in their home life.

Although the children were given free choice in the classroom and generally went about the day with an easy manner, they conducted themselves with discipline. Even when the teacher came in late or left the children to their own devices they behaved in an orderly, concentrated manner. Visitors from all around came to observe these children. Even foreign dignitaries and authors came to visit and marvel at these children.

The Results

One day 2 mothers asked Dr. Montessori to teach their children to read and write. Although this she did not originally intend the classroom for these types of undertakings, she decided to give it a try. She cut out the shapes of letters from sandpaper and backed them with wooden blocks. She grouped similar shapes and taught the children to trace, thus she creating the “sandpaper letters”.

Another day, after the children had spent some weeks with sandpaper letters, Dr. Montessori saw a child walking around and muttering to himself. “To make Sofia, you have to have an ‘S,’ an ‘O,’ an ‘F,’ an ‘I,’ and an ‘A’.” This child had discovered all on his own that these letters corresponded with spoken sounds. Dr. Montessori observed  the children making the connection between written and spoken language in real time.

With this discovery children began writing all over the place. Where before they might welcome visitors verbally, they now wrote their messages on a chalkboard. One child, in response to learning about an earthquake that devastated the city of Messina in Sicily wrote the following: “I am sorry that I am small. If I were big, I would go to help. However, despite this level of writing Dr. Montessori could not pique their interest in books. 

They first learned to read signs, and even elaborate fonts. It took months however before they learned to read books. A child brought in a piece of paper that he found to show his friends one day. They didn’t see anything special at first. Then he pointed out a story on the page. From then on, books held a special place in their lives.

All in all these observations and discoveries allowed Dr. Montessori to remove the obstacles to the children’s development. As she did so she marveled at their dignity, order and ability to learn. Even more amazingly, these developments improved the children’s health. While it may be common knowledge today that mental and physical health are linked, back then this improvement was one more marvel of the Montessori Method.

Council Oak Montessori School