Is it Montessori? Children’s Abacus Toy

In this occasional series, we will look at various materials and methods that are often advertised as Montessori, to see how well they embody Montessori principles.

For this first edition of Is It Montessori? I'm going to indulge in a bit of grumbling about a personal pet-peeve of mine, namely those brightly colored abacus “toys” that are often advertised as Montessori math materials. I have even seen photos of them in marketing materials for schools that purport to be Montessori or Montessori-based.

The Joy of Responsibility

The work of young people is to become capable adults who can take their part in society. Children are eager to take on societal expectations. They want to be responsible, and when they are given the message that they can be, most will jump at the opportunity, and take their responsibilities quite seriously.

Multi-Age Classrooms

One of the relatively unique features of Montessori schools is multi-age classrooms. There’s a span of at least three years in each class, and they can go up to six years. (I’ve taught a class of 6-11 year olds, myself.) To be honest, I always think it's ironic when schools go to a two-grade "blend" and it's treated as some sort of daring innovation. Montessorians have been "blending" much wider age ranges for a century, and before that, one-room school houses were the norm. In fact, single grade, age-based classrooms are historically a very new invention.

About those “Standards”

In a Montessori elementary classroom, we expect that children will learn everything that children in local public schools will learn. This isn't such a difficult task, because the typical Montessori lessons incorporate nearly everything that’s in those public school standards. We help the children take responsibility for their learning by making the public school curriculum standards available in the classroom, and helping them understand that society expects them to master these things. I made a child-friendly version that I kept on a shelf in my classroom, as the "official" standards are pretty much impenetrable, and tend to use a lot of words to say remarkably little. I find that the children are eager to take responsibility for themselves, so they tend to check the standards themselves and nag me to give them lessons on what they feel they need help to learn.

On Facilitating Interests

A parent posted this question on a Montessori Facebook group recently (used with permission):

"Hello! What does "follow the Child" mean for you during second plane? I confess I am a little confused with my son (7 years old), because he is so independent now that I can't see what he needs. For example, when he was younger I observed his interests and needs and prepared his shelf for them. But now I can't see what he needs/wants to because he is faster! Now he takes what he needs. For example, some days ago I was feeling sick and he said "I want to do a volcano". So he grabbed all the things he needed to do one. It was wonderful but I thought "jeez, It should to be my work to facilitate his activities". I don't know if I am clear."

I’m not a big fan of the trend towards “gamifying” learning, especially the trend towards creating computer games for learning. There are a number of common and well-known concerns about such games: they largely promote shallow learning, there are concerns about data privacy, and they increase screen time. These are real concerns and I worry about them, but my bigger concern is about the whole concept of gamification: these games assume that children have to be tricked into learning.