The Role of Observation in Montessori Classrooms by Jan Gaffney

One of the key principals Montessori teachers often talk about is observation

and the importance of it, so I thought it timely to explain what we mean by that.

There are many different kinds of observation.

One is on the fly.  As we move around the classroom in between giving lessons, we make a note of what children are doing (often in written form so we don’t forget what we have seen). We look at what choices children have made – have they taken up lessons presented, or have we not yet captured their interest?

Another kind of observation is in dedicated sessions, where we sit with our notebook, writing down what we see. We are not available to answer questions or respond to the children for that moment, but instead we are looking for trends across the whole class, while also looking at what individuals and small groups are doing. We look at the work level happening – is there a quiet hum or is the volume at a level that tells us work has fallen off and ākonga are off task?

Another is the observation we do when giving lessons and watching ākonga practice lessons they have received. From watching them work we can tell if they understand a concept enough to keep going unassisted, or if they need our help a while longer.

The length of an observation can range from certain times during the day to across a whole week or longer, depending on the need of the child. In those longer observations we look not just at what they do, but other variables such as:

–          Are they choosing it themselves?

–          How long do they stick at it?

–          Is it a challenge or is it quite easy?

–          Are they doing it with deep concentration or are they a bit distracted?

–          Have they chosen the same thing over a few days or weeks?

–          Are they doing things in the same order, or do they like to mix things up?

–          Do they like to work with something new until they have mastered it before moving to something else, or do they like to space their work choices out?

All of these things give us clues to the student’s individual needs, interests, abilities, learning styles, and more. It is through observation that we are able to make individual plans to cater for the needs and interests of each ākonga.

Observation also lets us see what is happening in the class as a whole.

–          Do we need to be giving grace and courtesy lessons?

–          Are children treating each other well?

–          Are they handling the equipment responsibly?

–          Are there some children who need to broaden their choice of people to work with, or others who need to narrow theirs down?

If we didn’t spend this time observing, we would end up looking to see what the next lesson on the list was and deliver it, regardless of any interest or ability, and regardless of whether the planned lesson was going to meet the child’s developmental needs. We would also make assumptions about what we need to do instead of looking to really see what was needed.

Instead, teachers are striving to offer the child or children( in primary and above, where they are more group oriented) the lesson they need in order to develop to the best of their abilities.


The Prepared Environment by Tara Israelson

Last night as I tidied my room I came across some old notebooks from when I first moved to Aotearoa New Zealand.  I began flipping through the pages and realized that the notebooks were the records of my first days, weeks and months in Nikau class as a brand new teacher.

It was a fascinating read – observations of children, the classroom, the routines and structures that I had walked into.  I noted EVERYTHING – what children were working on, what they might be ready for, what I needed to buy / make / change to create the classroom of my Montessori dreams.

At first I found it funny how detailed and specific I was about everything.  “Buy a beautiful basket for button sewing”, “Need a special tray for table scrubbing”, “Create enticing folders for maths papers”, etc.

As I continued to read I began to reflect on what it means to be a Montessori teacher and what it means to create the most perfect environment for learning.  I could not buy any old basket for button sewing; it had to be beautiful.  No ordinary tray would do for my table scrubbing; it needed to be special.  My display of maths papers needed to be enticing to the child.

My notes also included bits about the “flow” of the classroom – where children were bumping in to each other, which materials seemed hidden away, gaps in furniture that were leading to running through the classroom.  These notes all reminded me of what it takes to create a Montessori Prepared Environment.

The Montessori classroom is like a little laboratory for learning, a place set up so perfectly that the child has the freedom

to work, play and learn independently.  Everything in the classroom must be attractive and well-presented so that the children in the classroom want to use it.  This is where the “beautiful basket” and “special tray” come in.

Everything must also have a purpose, nothing superfluous or unnecessary to learning.  Our jugs and trays are made of glass because, while the direct purpose of a material may be for cleaning a table, an indirect purpose is to refine the movements of the hand.  How better to refine these movements than by being extremely careful with a fragile and precious object.  We often try to sneak in ways to make connections with other areas of the classroom, or the wider world.  The dish we keep our erasers in might be hexagonal or the beads in the sorting activity might be ovoid, cubic and cylindrical.

We put great effort into preparing the environment of our ‘learning laboratory’, with love and attention to detail, using what Montessori described as ‘real objects for real life’.  We move furniture to achieve the best classroom flow, we walk around the Warehouse and Farmers putting little jugs on little trays and then trying to find a cloth that matches, we op shop for the perfect wooden tray or a box shaped like a square-based pyramid.

This prepared environment, the lab your child works in, allows him / her to be successful independently in his / her learning journey.  This is our job as Montessori teachers and we love it – to give the child the keys to the world and stand back as they open the doors.

For more information on the Prepared Environment, check out Montessori Madness, a book by Trevor Eissler.


Developing Resilient Children by Robin Wilkins, Puriri Teacher

Lately, I have had a number of parents express concerns about their child’s social and emotional competence. So I decided to do some research to assist in how we can develop resilient children.

At the turn of the 20th century Montessori called for a revolution in society’s approach to human development. She developed a precise, scientifically based theory that has stood the test of time, decade after decade.

In this millennium however, we are faced with a number of issues that Dr Montessori could not have predicted. Students are influenced by technology. Some suffer from medical issues around food. Others have learning difficulties that can be difficult to understand and deal with.

Nonetheless Dr Montessori’s directive that adults respond to the ‘internal needs of a life in the process of development’ still remains clear.

Children need the emotional safety provided by an environment built upon support, nurturing, consideration, mutual contribution, a sense of belonging, protection, acceptance, encouragement and understanding.

Emotional safety and the ability to learn have been correlated in contemporary education and brain research. This research has shown that the emotional centre of the brain is so powerful that negative emotions such as hostility, anger, fear and anxiety automatically “downshift” the brain to basic survival thinking. Under such stress the reasoning centre of the brain shuts down. In the presence of strong negative emotions, hormones are secreted in preparation for fight or flight. Fear limits perception, communication and learning.

So, What is Resilience?

Research maintains it to be the capacity of a child to deal effectively with stress and pressure, to cope with everyday challenges, to rebound from mistakes, disappointments, trauma and adversity, to develop clear and realistic goals, to solve problems, to interact comfortably with others and to treat oneself and others with respect and dignity.

Research also maintains that ‘resilient children’ possess certain qualities and/or ways of viewing themselves and the world that are not apparent in children who have been unsuccessful in meeting challenges and pressures. It suggests some ‘guideposts’ that form the foundation of a resilient mind-set.

Being Empathic is a critical factor in developing resilience. Children will develop empathy more easily when they interact with adults who model it daily, even though there may be times when it is difficult for us to show empathy if we are upset, angry or disappointed with our children. In a relationship of adult to child empathy is placing ourselves inside the shoes of the child and seeing the world through his/her eyes. It does not imply that we agree with what they do, but is an attempt to appreciate and validate their point of view.

Communicating Effectively and Listening Actively. Communication is an umbrella that affects all that goes on between human beings. Resilient children demonstrate a capacity to communicate their feelings and thoughts effectively and the adults in their world serve as important role models in the process. How we communicate our needs and listen to the needs of others determines whether needs are likely to be met. It is not only how we speak with another person, but involves actively listening, understanding and validating what they are saying.

In modelling these traits we are helping our children develop resilience – an vital quality for facing the ever changing world of their future.