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.

The Heavy and Crushing Load

Stuart Mason, Chemistry Teacher – High School

“My vision of the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that certification from the secondary school to the university, but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher, by means of their own activity, through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual.” (From Childhood to Adolescence, 1948)

The industrial model of education sorts the population into vocational and academic streams through the unsubtle method of failing or passing exams sat in rows in silence, an experience with little practical relevance to very much else in life. The danger is that an examination system “…becomes a heavy and crushing load that burdens the young life instead of being felt as the privilege of initiation to the knowledge that is the pride of our civilization.” (From Childhood to Adolescence, 1948). But, well then, when it comes to experiencing elements of social (adult) life, or taking pride in the achievements of civilisation and experiencing an inner evolution, is NCEA any better for the individual than School Certificate, Bursary or the systems typical of Dr. Montessori’s time?

The flexibility, choices, internal assessments and lack of emphasis on failure all help. These days NCEA allows students to make positive choices to stay at school and follow vocational pathways in courses that contribute credits towards an internationally recognised qualification. Compared to the Old School, NCEA has a different attitude. It is a better fit for a Montessori programme and its goals. Still, it needs to serve the needs of humans as they are. It needs to know its place.

While some schools push their Year 10 students into starting NCEA Level 1 early there is no NCEA assessment in our 12-15 programme. Dr. Montessori recognised a temporarily diminished intellectual capacity in these students, the social newborns. The Kawakawa class is a place of social learning, of working through questions of identity and discovering how to be useful and valued in one’s community. There is academic and practical learning, but the day job of the adolescent is to test the adulthood of the adults in the space and to experience an education that is ‘an aid to life’. NCEA assessment is not compatible with those needs and tendencies in our 12-15 year olds. Coffee House, by contrast, is a joyful celebration of learning, full of character and humour that really explores identity and valorisation. There’s no need for them to sit in silent rows.

The transition between the 12-15 class and the 15-18 programme can take a while for some students. Typically in Year 11 they are Year 10 students until about May and become Year 12 students around September, by which time they have rediscovered their own agency for learning and realised a renewed intellectual capacity. And, actually, with less of the burden of assessment judgement dependant on exams, students even find the exams an engaging challenge.

Freedom and Discipline

By Kala Reyes — Rewarewa Head Teacher – Preschool

Freedom is regarded as the right to act, speak or think for oneself, while discipline is one’s ability to practice obedience towards set rules. Dr Montessori believed that freedom and discipline work hand in hand in the child’s development. In Montessori environments, freedom means a child can make his own choices from a carefully prepared environment. Freedom is important for the child to exercise and develop his will — but this does not mean that the child can do whatever he likes because freedom is accompanied by clear limitations, responsibilities, and whether one’s freedom is impinging on someone else’s. For example, a child is free to choose a material from the shelf as long as it is available (and this has been presented to him), he is welcome to observe but not to interrupt, he is free to take kai but need to be mindful there’s enough left for the rest of the group.

“A child’s liberty should have as its limit the interests of the group to which he belongs…We should therefore prevent a child from doing anything which may offend or hurt others, or which is impolite or unbecoming. But everything else, every act that can be useful in any way whatever, may be expressed.”

Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, p.50

Dr Montessori’s idea of discipline does not involve rewards or punishment, but an intrinsic motivation or inner discipline to do what’s right simply because it is the right thing to do. Rewards and punishment may work short-term; some children may follow rules out of fear of punishment while children who thrive in praises and rewards may be motivated to work in anticipation of more rewards. Punishment itself creates a negative feeling about oneself and gets in the way of learning.

Self-control is a manifestation of inner discipline. When we see a child waiting patiently for a material to be returned to the shelf so he can use it, when he wipes a spill on the floor so no one slips, or when he pays attention during story time without interrupting — we can say that the child has self-discipline. The purpose of discipline is for children to know how to be positive members of their community. Discipline does not happen overnight and neither does the child acquire it just because we instructed him about it. As Dr Montessori said, “inner discipline is something to come, and not something already present” (The Absorbent Mind, p.239).

At school, we support the development of inner discipline by preparing real, purposeful activities that encourage independence, repetition, and support concentration. We role model the behaviour we want to see in the children and we take advantage of their absorbent minds and sensitive periods to guide them towards positive behaviours. Eventually, when many of the children have discipline, the result is a productive community of little people who show respect, kindness and empathy towards each other.

“An education capable of saving humanity is no small undertaking”

By Zena Kavas — Biology Teacher, High School

Maria Montessori often discussed the education of the whole child and the value of education not being limited to mere academic development. In Education and Peace (p30) she wrote An education capable of saving humanity is no small undertaking; it involves the spiritual development of man, the enhancement of his value as an individual, and the preparation of young people to understand the times in which they live. Although this book was first published in 1949 the message is just as valuable today. This concept fits well with the Te Whare Tapa Wha model developed by Professor Mason Durie in 1982. Originally developed for the healthcare sector, it is now used in education and career development settings, and is valued due to the focus on holistic development. 

This model represents our ākonga in four dimensions

  • Taha wairua (spiritual aspect or beliefs about purpose or place in the world)
  • Taha tinana (physical aspect or beliefs about ability to do something)
  • Taha whānau (family and friends and beliefs about belonging)
  • Taha hinengaro (mental and emotional aspects, self-confidence)

These four aspects represent the four walls of the whare, and when all four walls are strong and resilient, the whare will be strong and stable. In education, when our ākonga are strong in all four dimensions, they will learn well and develop to their full potential (not just getting good grades.) However, if one of the dimensions is weaker, or compromised, learning and development will be compromised.

When approaching a task or a course, our ākonga will already be having an internal conversation and be forming a set of beliefs.

  1. Do I believe I can do this? (Taha wairua)
  2. Do I have the physical resources I need to do this? (Taha tinana)
  3. Do I have others supporting me to do this? (Taha whānau)
  4. Can I handle or cope with this? (Taha hinengaro)

We encourage students to see the reason why they are working on a task, not just to get it done, or gain the credits, but to see the importance of the learning, to foster curiosity and to see the bigger picture. We attempt to ensure that the physical environment is safe and conducive to learning, and that ākonga will have all the resources that they need. We provide a supportive learning environment, both within the school and by inviting the involvement of whānau and the wider community. And we nurture our ākonga so that they develop the belief that they can achieve what they want to, and that no matter the outcome, valuable learning has occured. 

It is our job as teachers and caregivers to ensure that all aspects of our tamariki are strong, so that our ākonga are receiving an education that is capable of saving humanity.

The Age of Rudeness – The Primary Years

By Tania Gaffney –  Deputy Principal Primary

Kia Ora Koutou,

Often in Primary School the question is asked by parents – “What has happened to my sweet pre-schooler?” Montessori often referred to the primary years as the age of rudeness.

In Montessori speak, we often talk about the planes of development. Pre-school is the first plane and primary is the second plane. It can take many months for ākonga to transition from one to another. For a very long time they can have a foot in both camps. The physical changes are easier to see e.g. coarser hair, teeth falling out, and the face thinning out, but the social, emotional, and intellectual changes can be harder to spot.

Tamariki are transitioning from the absorbent mind to the reasoning mind; from thinking about self to beginning to think about others; from thinking about the here and now to being able to think about the past, the future, or any situation that is not concrete or sensorial.

When children come into the primary this will be the first time that they are interacting with others with this newly forming reasoning mind (although when they first start, they are still in the first plane). They are developing this ability at varying speeds. Primary ākonga are attracted to the group; they have a need to be with others that are outside of the family now. This is where we need to understand that tamariki are learning the skills to go with this need, just as they are learning the skills to read or write and it can take a long time – in fact, it takes a lifetime and this is just the beginning, therefore mistakes will be made and feelings will be hurt.

In primary we often talk about the social and emotional curriculum and remind ourselves that this is a ‘big work’ for the child. Some of the internal struggles of the child at this age might be – What do I do if someone annoys me? What if I want to annoy someone else, what could happen? I know that if I say this to that child this will happen – should I do that? How do I react if someone touches my stuff? How do I ask to play or work with someone? What do I do or say if they say no or yes? What if someone else asks me to play or work with them and I don’t want to – what do I do? If I am doing a shared project how do we split the work – there are just a million interactions to think about over a day.

For progress in this area to be made we need to provide the environment where children can practice these social skills again and again. Although there is the occasional time for this, if we are always telling them what to do e.g. deciding the work groups, dividing the work, managing their time, then they are never able to practice to improve. It is our job as the adult to help them navigate their way through this time of building their social skills and being able to interact with one another in civil ways.

What Makes an Expert

By David Starshaw–Mathematics Teacher–High School

How does someone become an expert? This is a driving question for teachers as we guide our students from being relative novices to relative experts in a specific area. But it’s also relevant for all of us in any area of our lives where we try to become more proficient. How do I win at this game? How can I run faster? How can I be more confident with public speaking?

Many of us intuitively understand that practice is a key ingredient of expertise. You have to practise to get better. As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect” (or alternatively, “practice makes better” or “practice makes permanent”).

In 1973, William Chase and Herbert Simon performed an experiment where a chessboard was set up with around 25 pieces positioned as they might be during a game. They asked a chess master and an amateur to look at the chessboard, cover it up, and recreate the setup of the pieces on another chessboard. They could go back and peak at the original chessboard as many times as they needed to. Unsurprisingly, the master took far fewer looks than the amateur – 4 compared to 8. But then the researchers rearranged the pieces in such a way that would never occur in a real game. This time, the master was no better than the amateur.

The masters weren’t better at chess because they had a better memory in general, higher IQ, or “natural talent.” Instead, they had seen lots and lots and lots of chess games. Experts have experienced a staggeringly wide variety of previous attempts and have learned what to do when similar situations happen in the future. These can be thought of as if-then statements. If I see my rook cornered, then I move my pawns forward. If I see a quadratic equation, then factorising it will likely be helpful. If I fumble a line in my speech, then going back a sentence helps me to recover. These if-then statements become totally automatic for the expert – like a reflex. They don’t need to consciously think about them which frees up their working memory for thinking about the big picture. I really like one of Niels Bohr’s quotes in which he says “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.”

So when people tell me they are “good at maths” or “bad at maths”, what I hear is that they either have or haven’t built up a good library of these if-then automatic reflexes. And just like any reflex, it can be improved with focused practice. Once you have a lot of these automated, everything starts to fall into place as you travel further along the road from relative novice to relative expert in a specific area.

Work versus Play

By Anna McLean – Preschool Deputy Principal

If you think of work as being part of a tamaiti’s natural development, then the word “work” takes on a different meaning.  When a tamaiti is offered an environment that is prepared for their developmental needs and they are given the freedom to choose activities that they are interested in then both words, “work” and “play” become redundant. You will often hear the word “work” used in a Montessori classroom to describe the activities that tamariki do.  As adults we tend to think of “work” in a negative way. We spend a lot of time at work and then we come home and there is more work to do!   The word “work” has a connotation of something that requires physical and/or mental effort and can be difficult at times.  Why would we want to subject our tamariki to “work” when they should be playing?  In her book, Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents, page 17, Montessori-Pierson she says.  “Grown-ups think of play as a purposeless occupation that keeps children happy and out of mischief, but actually when children are left to play by themselves very little of their activity is purposeless.”

Their natural inclination to be active and doing something takes over and they aren’t making the distinction between work and play.

“This development takes place because the child has been able to work and to be in direct contact with reality.  It does not come from anything we teach the child; it is a definite, constructive process, a natural phenomenon that results when the child is given the chance to make his own efforts and do his own work without intermediaries.  We think the child is happiest when he is playing; but the truth is that the child is happiest when he is working.” (Education and Peace, page 78 Clio Press.)

We cannot know what inner processes are being formed with activity and what internal needs are being met. We can only see the external manifestation of their activity.

We see tamariki developing skills through using practical life activities as well as all the hands-on materials and activities.  We see concentration developing as they spend greater amounts of time on activities that have many steps.  There is a calmness in the environment when each tamaiti is going about their own work and absorbed in what they are doing.

“What motivates the child is thus not the goal set for him by the adult, but his own drive for self-perfection.  The child perfects himself through contact with reality, through activity that absorbs all his attention.” (Education and Peace pg 79 Clio Press.)

Naturally there is a place for play during a child’s day and the social interaction that is often associated with play has benefits to a tamaiti’s development as well.  The holistic approach we take to a tamaiti’s overall development is always at the forefront of our minds.  Perhaps the words work and play are interchangeable!

Just because….

By Rose Langridge – Humanities & English teacher

I think we can all agree that there is a lot of the time where we are switched on to the world – often through emails and media, be it news or social. There has never been a time when our ākonga have not been around technology… facebook is 18 years old (don’t worry, I was horrified myself). Deciding who you wanted to be without all these constant factors was not easy for us, but evolving “into you” with all these pressures is a whole new world for our ākonga.

This big work of deciding where and how you will be in the world is the job of the adolescent. This is known as a sensitive period. Teens are needing validation, a chance to be independent but also feeling incredibly vulnerable and their self-confidence takes a nosedive. At this time when they are trying to navigate this world, they are also developing their sense of justice, their sense of belonging and their independence. As I said, big work.

When someone is given the opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential then according to Montessori the result is a “valorization of their personality, making them feel capable of succeeding in life by their own efforts and merits”.


We have many things within the program that help ākonga to move away from this outside world and focus within. As well as working on how they can be meaningful members of the community (reflection, creative and physical expression, community meetings, community work, working alongside many adults). I wanted to reflect on the things that they do for each other, just because. This is when I think the real learning happens in those incidental moments where they are learning to be contributing members of the community.

These are just a few examples that I have observed over the last few weeks. The level ones are planning a massive market at the moment. A group was meant to be making their product – one of them had to go home sick. This meant that suddenly one person was having to complete all of the work. Instantly without being asked two people joined them and gave their morning to helping (and in doing so giving up their independent work). Someone had some really hard news and they were instantly taken by friends to another space for comfort. There were no qualms from teachers just an acknowledgement that this time was needed. Later in the day another member of the class came up to them and offered them a snack saying that they hoped it would help and that they always carried comfort snacks in their backpack. Their altruism and the fistbumps along with the genuine thanks to each other is so wholesome (to use a teen phrase).

This may not be the timetabled learning but I think that the environment we have in the High School where ākonga have the freedom of working alongside others, so often is in fact the most important learning that they do.

Pukutākaro – Hutt City Council program – Term 2, 2022

By Scott McLeod  – Sports

Play is important for our health and wellbeing, we want to get our kids out exploring and being active.

Play is essential for our cognitive, physical, social and emotional development. It builds fundamental physical literacy, fosters creativity and innovation and builds our ability to identify and manage risk.

Play contributes to not only children’s lives but also the well-being of whānau and the wider community.

Play is where tamariki practice life.

Last month Wā Ora Montessori were lucky enough for the Hutt City Council to bring the Pukutākaro program to our school. Pukutākaro is a project which promotes free play – independent of adult support. Hutt City Council parked their van up and placed their ‘wow’ items and ‘big ticket’ sports gears in our school courts and encouraged students to interact with the gear in a way that is personal and meaningful to them. Through the process we saw cooperation, negotiation, and sometimes conflict. Arming our children with the skills to navigate these situations is very important. It was great to see our

tamariki playing more often and interacting with different children throughout the school.

Montessori values the importance of play for learning, believing that children have a drive to explore and learn from their environment and acknowledged play as the ideal way to provide that opportunity. The pukutākaro program offered our students the opportunity for movement, sensory exploration and hands-on experiences in a relaxed environment. The students were able to be independent and think for themselves through using their own imaginations without the pressure of competition and to play at their own pace with their friends.

The flexible nature of play supports all children by following the individual child however, not all play styles will be suitable for all children; some children like rough play e.g. rugby, whilst others may prefer solitary play or co-operative fantasy play. For us teachers it offered a valuable chance to sit back and observe and interpret the activities the children adapted. It allowed us to follow the child’s play rather than impose our own rules or agenda on the play. Montessori advocated that adults caring for children should resource the environment to allow play to develop naturally and flourish independently. Elements such as freedom of choice, repetition, exploration, active hands-on experiences and peer-to-peer learning highlight a strong symbiosis between Montessori education and play-based learning.

Maria Montessori wrote ‘Grown-ups think of play as a purposeless occupation that keeps children happy and out of mischief, but actually when children are left to play by themselves very little of their activity is purposeless.’ (p17).

Hopefully the children and their families enjoyed the two week pukutākaro program. Ben from HCC said that ‘It was great to see parents engaging with their children at the after school pick up time and it was the busiest school he had seen this year’

Incorporating Montessori in the home

By Belinda Rodrigues –  Tawhai Teacher

A little of Montessori might be the perfect way to keep the children’s brains active, without breaking out the textbooks. (Has anyone Googled how much extra screen time actually turns the brain to mush?) The Montessori Method is a child-led approach to teaching that focuses on a child’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. You can introduce as much or as little of the method at home as works for your child, starting with nature walks, visual math skills, or even etiquette. Does the Montessori Method actually work in a real-world setting?

Everything Has a Place

Children love order. Help your kids understand where everything goes, and they’ll enjoy returning toys and clothing to their proper place. You would have to make some adjustments in your home environment to help your children succeed, like; Mount hooks down low for your children’s coats, hats, etc. / Stack up rugs, and show them how to use one for working with puzzles, or other activities

Empower Your Child with Independence & Self-Motivation

Help your child learn to prepare their own snacks. Show them how to spread peanut butter on bread, and how to slice a banana with a safe knife. Give children the freedom to explore pouring their own water from a child-sized jug into a small cup. Let them use glass cups every now and then. It teaches cause and effect, and how to care for nice things – Keep a stack of clean rags easily accessible for spills / Pour over a tray to catch any spills.

Equip Your Children with Tools for Lifelong Success

One of the most striking aspects of a Montessori classroom is the air of mutual respect and courtesy throughout. Teach your children how to warmly greet visitors to their house. Demonstrate how to handle a cough or sneeze, show compassion, and respond politely when someone addresses them. Instruct them on how to push their chair back into the table, how to answer the phone politely, and how to avoid interrupting conversations.

“Help me do it myself”

Encourage your child to take an active part in caring for his home. Maintain a positive attitude about household chores. Cleaning should be associated with bringing about a sense of completion and order. Young children want to spend time with you. Instead of sending him off to clean his room, try to include him in whatever task you’re completing.

The Absorbent mind

Children learn by observation, more than being told the way things work. Encourage your child to explore the world through hands-on experiences, like nature walks and creating gardens.

Love for Learning

Your goal is to inspire your child’s natural zeal for learning. – Read aloud, whenever and wherever you can / Introduce the alphabet using multiple senses like sandpaper letters, listen to the sound a letter makes in a word, and rearrange magnetic letters to make words / Introduce number and quantity by counting household items.

Your role in impacting your child’s future is unique, fundamental, and powerful. You are, after all, in charge of nurturing their earliest childhood development. By creating the right environment, and supporting their interests, you can create your own Montessori-inspired home.