Montessori elementary student’s work

Front and center in an elementary glass classroom in the Czech Republic: supplies for students to create their own work. Photo © Agnieszka Rekucka

What is the work Montessori elementary students do and where do workbooks and tablets fit into the picture?

According to a survey by Angeline Lillard Ph.D., an American psychologist committed to the field of Montessori research, 100% Association Montessori Internationale trainers and 65% American Montessori Society trainers agree that workbooks do not belong in a Montessori classroom, with the rest finding them acceptable at best.

In the field of pedagogy, it is not only Montessorians that finds workbooks far from best practice. In the commentary to the national core curriculum published by the Polish Ministry of Education

professor Edyta Gruszczyk-Kolczyńska points out that teachers, in general, have excessive faith in the educational power of workbooks.

They simply do not deliver results that are expected of them.

Do we need to devise better workbooks then? Not really. For early elementary students, it is not developmentally appropriate to spend time sitting down and filling workbooks upon workbooks of schoolwork and homework, whether on paper or on a tablet.

For the early elementary level (grades 1 to 3) Polish law currently approves up to 50% time for language education for reading and writing while sitting at a table, and up to 25% time for mathematics for solving math workbook problems. Any teacher (or textbook author for that matter) who requires more of their students is not only acting against principles of Montessori education, but also against the law.

It is also worth noting that, as Polish Ministry of Education confirms, in Polish education law there is no obligation to use textbooks and workbooks at all. Therefore the school is free to spend the money allocated to textbooks and workbooks for the students on other educational materials instead.

What is the problem with workbooks? First of all, they are not very social in their design, requiring each student to work alone at their desk. They are not emotionally engaging because it is hard for a student to get excited about filling another page of a workbook. They follow a linear curriculum and usually provide closed-ended questions, not engaging critical thinking. By their very nature, they are standardized and do not take individual strengths and challenges into consideration.

The problem that with learning one size does not fit all has been recognized outside the Montessori community and various solutions have been devised. Let me briefly mention graded workbooks, like those which come with mathematics program “Matematyka z kluczem” by Marcin Braun, Agnieszka Mańkowska and Małgorzata Paszyńska, where students get one of the several different workbooks available, according to their ability, from the gifted to those attending supplementary lessons. The system recognizes that students simply will not solve the same math problems at the same time with the same proficiency, and aims to challenge students with problems at their level.

Another way of adjusting the pace of workbook work are tablet playlists, like those in use by ALT School in the USA. A playlist contains a set of individually graded tablet exercises of all school subjects for a week, chosen by an algorithm, based on the student’s previous performance. The system also aims to avoid allocating work that is too easy or too difficult for the student and orient the learning process towards mastery.

These solutions still require either the teacher or the algorithm to tell the student to complete a certain amount of schoolwork or homework, though.

Montessori materials, on the other hand, address the issue of individualization, as well as student engagement and self-pacing the work. They diffuse to more and more schools, which do not necessarily follow the Montessori approach. That is why it is worth noting that the Montessori apparatus is not to be considered as a collection of didactic materials, employed by the teacher to illustrate their lesson, as an introduction to workbook exercises.

From their beginning, Montessori materials were meant as tools of a child’s psychomotor activity, to reach the mind through the hand, to be owned by a child and to satisfy the internal hunger for being active and extracting understanding from their own experience.

Montessori apparatus based on concrete materials is exactly this: aids to abstraction. The teacher must anticipate and help with preparation, but never force the leap into abstraction. It is not to be expected of the child to be able, for example, to do calculations in their head. They will be amazed at their own accomplishment that ‘I can do it by myself now, like magic!’. The joy of such a discovery belongs to the child alone.

That is why there is no need to discourage the use of concrete materials or to value workbook work higher. A child works with Montessori materials as long as they are needed, according to one’s own internal process of maturing, and abandons them when one is ready, without the fear of ‘falling behind’ or being labeled as a remedial class student.

Is it fine then if we have an elementary classroom full of Montessori apparatus? Not yet.

When we look at a school-aged child’s needs and tendencies, we arrive at the conclusion that it is not only filling workbooks, but also matching cards not the kind of challenging work that makes a 6-12-year-olds blossom. Elementary students are naturally attracted to the big work, collaborating with their peers, experiments, research and self-directed going-outs.

As Baiba K. Grazzini, director of Montessori elementary training in Bergamo, Italy, said: if you have prepared beautiful materials for every topic imaginable, please leave them at home, because it is obviously you who needs them. What your students need is for you to ignite the interest in big topics and then leave the space for asking questions and following through with one’s own quest for knowledge.

Montessori presentations devised specifically for the elementary classroom are exactly these: aids to the imagination. These are followed by self-directed projects requiring teamwork, designing a process from start to finish and then executing, with necessary pivoting along the way, which is the primary way of work at the Montessori elementary level.

This way, not only do children gain knowledge, but also practical life, observation, communication and research skills, along with self-confidence and sense of accomplishment.

What needs to be supplied then are the materials to conduct experiments, construct models, create posters and yes, why not tablets – to code, not to play a pre-loaded, so-called “educational” track.

A Montessori elementary classroom respects the natural rhythm of work, allowing students to freely take ‘breaks’ from the challenging, big work, spending time quietly with the movable Montessori materials in the form of beads, figurines, cards, as well as art, handicraft, and DIY projects. These are often treated by the children as ‘recess activities’ and should be available at all times to provide freely-chosen, meaningful occupation.

And finally, what about those children who simply like to work in a workbook? There is a wonderful Montessori way of doing it which in its most simple form requires only blank paper, a paper punch and a piece of string. A workbook handmade by the child, with exercises matched precisely to their level and possible to finish in a few days respects a child’s autonomy and puts success within reach. If provided freedom in making their own workbooks, children soon start spontaneously decorating them with ornaments and learning more advanced techniques of bookbinding. They also collaborate on devising exercises for one another.

Which really helps them make the educational process their own.


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