The importance of observation in the Montessori classroom

By Robin Wilkins – Pūriri teacher

Even when helping and serving the children, the teacher must not cease to observe them, because the birth of concentration in a child is as delicate a phenomenon as the bursting of a bud into bloom.”

 Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Maria Montessori was a scientist and a medical doctor, trained in making careful observations. She applied these observation skills to children, much like an anthropologist or botanist, who observes the smallest details. She, watched, learned and changed.   

One of the most vital teaching tools available to Montessori teachers is scientific observation. It is an integral and ongoing part of a Montessori teacher’s work. Observation allows the adult to assess situations, ākonga and strategies without judgment. Observation is a critical component of lesson planning and management of the classroom. We need to have insight about ākonga’s behaviour, social interactions and learning styles. With observation we can help them overcome difficulties and redirect their interest when necessary.

We remember to see who they are, not who we want them to be. We see them with new eyes as they are developing every day, every hour and every minute. They show us what they want or need to learn and then we can see how we can support that. Constant physical movement in a busy classroom can mean we miss out on cues (physical, verbal and social). As the adult, it is important to take time to step back, slow down and silently view the environment with fresh eyes.

Recently I observed two ākonga, at different times, take out the same piece of equipment. A piece was missing and it was very interesting to see the reaction. One put it back on the shelf, the other created the missing piece and then proceeded to practise the concept. This was something that I could have easily missed and gave me new insight into each ākonga.

What can we observe?

Observations can be made for many different reasons. We may need to look at how we can support social, emotional development in the classroom.

We may choose to focus on one thing at a time or observe one child for an extended time. Other times, we may be wondering about the classroom dynamic or an issue. We often see much more detail when we observe so we come to know a child better. We can see when there is a change in their development, for example having success with something they have previously struggled with.

Some questions we might ask about a child or the class include:

  • Is there a feeling of respect and community in the classroom?
  • Which materials are being used, which ones aren’t?
  • Is the activity still productive or are they being safe?
  • What stage of development is each ākonga in? Are they working to master a concept or skill or are they working towards abstraction?
  • Is a child able to concentrate on their work? For how long
  • Is there concentration being protected?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the class?
  • Maybe some Grace and Courtesy lessons are needed to help create more peace in the classroom.

It’s also important for the adult to reflect on their observations and their own practises. We need to allow our mind to be open to change. Have I guided ākonga carefully enough to create a community of respect and peacefulness.

How often would I normally want to interrupt ākonga at work? Sometimes it takes a lot of self-control to stop the impulses of wanting to help or be in control. Are we speaking too much – are our voices constantly interrupting their focus?

We can learn to trust ākonga, especially if we take the time to really observe and understand them.

Taking Pleasure in the “Small” Things

By Krista Kerr – Pōhutukawa teacher

For me, one of the best things about teaching (and there are so many) is the reminder tamariki give us numerous times each and every day of the wonder and delight to be taken in ‘small’ things – if we are open to seeing the importance of them!

Wearing the same shirt as a friend, enjoying a book, tying a perfect bow, noticing a rhyming word in their sentence, making someone else laugh, figuring out where a puzzle piece goes, being able to reach the tap for the first time… these are all examples of what we as adults may casually accept as everyday occurrences. However, for tamariki they are all moments of joy; self-made discoveries that add to their experiences and to their character. We have seen a child become completely absorbed in making funny faces for 20 minutes in the mirror they were walking past – and then laughing so hard that their whole body was shaking! Perhaps they had never before realised or explored the different expressions that their face could make, or perhaps they were simply absorbed in enjoying the moment.

Our classes are a hive of activity as tamariki use their hands and minds to explore the world around them; the materials on the shelf as well as the social aspects of being part of a community. Alongside this learning we also place importance on learning outside. Well-being is a term that is being used more widespread these days, with the recognition that holistic well-being (mind, body and spirit) is an area which needs more attention, increasingly for children. Getting outside, exercising our bodies and calming our minds is great for hauora (health and wellbeing), as well as a great place to wonder, make discoveries and explore.

Exploration is a feature of our early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki. The strand of Exploration/Mana Aotūroa has as its goals:

Children experience an environment where:

  • their play is valued as meaningful learning and the importance of spontaneous play is recognised
  • they gain confidence in and control of their bodies
  • they learn strategies for active exploration, thinking and reasoning
  • they develop working theories for making sense of the natural, social, physical and material worlds.

This theme of mana aotūroa is also a feature of Montessori education, and the acknowledgement that exploration thrives on as well as feeds the sense of delight that tamariki so easily find in their days. “We observe that a child occupied with matters that awaken his interest seems to blossom, to expand, evincing undreamed of character traits; his abilities give him great satisfaction, and he smiles with a sweet and joyous smile.” (Maria Montessori, Citizen of the World, p. 96)

So why wait for big events to celebrate when so much is going on all the time – if we only take the time to see and appreciate it!