Revisiting the Observer

Anna Freeman, Tōtara Teacher

Kia ora te whānau,

For my very first Newsletter article I want to revisit my discovery of how Maria Montessori began to develop the Montessori method. I hope you find the example and its wide ranging practical applications as inspiring as I did.

At the heart of Maria Montessori’s philosophy lies the discovery that children have an innate ability to focus on work. As Paul Epstein (2012, p. 36) puts it: “at the start of the 20th century, educators assumed young children were incapable of sustaining their attention for long periods of time”. As a result, Montessori observed, even discovered, that concentration is innate in young children when she visited San Lorenzo, Rome. There, Montessori went to observe a classroom and discovered that a child maintained concentration even though people around them were singing. Since then, schools around the world have replicated and adapted this idea of innate concentration and focus.

At school, we work hard to create a classroom that allows children to create their own pockets of calm, focused work. There are two main ways that we do this: firstly, all children are expected to work. They have options that they can choose from but if they do not choose challenging work it may well be chosen for them. Secondly, a Montessori classroom is a very social space where helping each other out with work is the norm. This includes respecting other people’s focus. Even the Montessori guide makes a point of this by leaving learners alone who are immersed in their work. Both of these seemingly straightforward rules rely on a complex network of further expectations that most students are familiar with from their time at preschool. For new students, these rules are restated and reinforced. From my own experience, establishing a relationship with all learners is the first step for that. Learners will follow rules if they respect you — not fear you.

At the 6-12 level learners work towards intellectual independence. This means that children are socially oriented, are developing a sense of justice and develop their own morals. As their reasoning mind develops, learners are starting to develop their imagination and this is reflected in their work becoming more abstract. These Sensitive Periods are navigated with the idea of freedom within boundaries. The Montessori guide observes children routinely. If they notice that a specific learner does not get much work done or is using a privilege (devices, outside time) to avoid challenging work, then that privilege will be put on pause and a new work agreement will be put in place.

At home you can support your children’s developing focus by protecting pockets of calm work. You should include children in everyday tasks where practical: in this way you will experience hands-on focused work together and explore different practical approaches to subjects.


Epstein, P. 2012. The Observer’s Notebook. Florida, USA: The Montessori Foundation.

Montessori, M. 1919/1955. The advanced Montessori Method 1. Oxford, England: Clio Press.