The montessori cosmos is a challenge to question your assumptions about school. About children. about learning.

On Facilitating Interests

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’ve been thinking about the question ever since I read it, and wanted to give my answer.

The first thing I want to say is that having this particular conundrum is a good thing. At the heart of Montessori is the goal of developing independence. Not independence to ignore the rest of society, but independence to decide on a course of action and pursue it. This child is doing exactly that, and that is good.

And yet, this mother feels she should be doing more: "it should be my work to facilitate his activities". Not exactly. From a Montessori perspective, a guide's work (whether as a parent or a teacher), is to facilitate interest, concentration, and independence, and to set reasonable boundaries on choices. Ultimately, our job is to get out of the way when our children no longer need our help. Our work can look a lot like preparing activities on a shelf, especially for young children, because preparing the child's environment is one of the ways we facilitate interest, concentration, and independence.

But that's not always our work, especially as children get older. Dr. Montessori observed that children go through specific stages of development. (So does modern psychology). In Montessori's conception of these stages, children from birth to around age six are in the first plane of development. Around age six, they move into the second plane, which lasts until about age 12. (The third and fourth planes also last around six years each). Children in these different planes have very different developmental "goals", and they have different needs as a result. This is why children move from a primary class to an elementary class around the age of six.

Think of the child’s goal of the first plane as independence to function in daily life. Children at this age are asking "help me to do it myself". This is the age when helping with grownup tasks is fascinating, because children want to be able to do what grownups do. This is when children are fascinated by learning to dress themselves, clean the house, prepare their food, and so on. This is also the age when children are largely guided by biologically determined goals: learn to get around independently, learn to use my hands, learn to talk like the people around me. Cultural “additions”, like learning to read, are best supported at this age when they build on the child's innate developmental program.

As children master their immediate environment, are less driven by specific innate learning imperatives, and as their reasoning and imaginative abilities grow, they start to think more about the world in general. Now they're trying to organize their mental world, rather than their physical world, and trying to understand the society they live in. In other words, they want "help to think for myself".

This change determines what children need from us. For children who are really in the second plane, the goal isn't so much to supply or organize activities, though of course, we still need to make sure that the children have access to appropriate tools. Our job is primarily to facilitate the children's intellectual understanding. That means it's less about organizing the physical "stuff" and more about asking how to facilitate the children's research or inspire them to take their interests further.

An example may make this clearer. The practical life activities in a primary (ages 3-6) classroom are each a complete, self-contained material. All the supplies needed for a particular activity are stored together on a single tray. A child who wants to, say, wash a table, goes to the shelf, gets out the table washing tray, takes it to a table, and washes the table, then puts the material away when finished. The materials for the activity are very carefully organized on the tray, and the child is shown precise steps for doing the work (though they won’t necessarily follow the steps exactly).

In an elementary class, the materials aren't organized this way. Children gather the supplies they need from the different places in the environment, bring them all to their table, and put them away when they are done. Children at home can do the same thing, provided the necessary supplies are available. As long as they have a way to get to the supplies, a seven-year-old should be capable of gathering everything to make a volcano, doing the activity, and then putting it away.

So in order to support this child now, the goal is to inspire and facilitate. An excellent option is telling exciting stories. "Telling stories" often seems like a big deal, but really, this doesn't have to be anything more than a "did you know...?" or a “Have you ever wondered…?” over dinner. "Did you know the science museum has an exhibit about volcanoes right now?" "Did you know that there's a volcano erupting in Hawaii right now, and there are videos of it online?" "Did you know that Dad and I watched Mt. St. Helens erupt from my office?" (My parents did!). “Have you ever wondered how people study volcanoes when they’re erupting?”

Other ways of supporting children include helping them do things they couldn’t do independently. Here are just a few possibilities:

  • Facilitating a trip to a museum.

  • Offering to go to the library with him.

  • Getting him a book about rocks or the Earth. (DK Books are excellent).

  • Helping him find out if the geology or earth science department at the local university has any public lectures.

  • Helping him read difficult books or understand any particularly difficult concepts.

But, there is a caveat to all of this, and it's an important one. Offering support and an occasional exciting tidbit is wonderful, but it's really, really important that we don't try to take over a child's interest, either by making it our own or by trying to use it to our own ends. Maybe this child is excited by volcanoes and wants to know more, or could be excited with just a little push in the right direction. On the other hand, maybe he just enjoys the fizzy excitement of mixing baking soda and vinegar. My students certainly do.

Children are very sensitive to our motives, and I predict that if your child senses that you are too interested in their project, or that you are trying to impose your agenda on it, they will lose interest. We can inspire and facilitate interest, but then we have to get out of the way. We can't force a child to be interested or to take their interests further (without resentment anyway). This is HARD. It is natural to want to do more, but the patience is worth it. If this isn't the abiding interest for your child, something else will be. Trust him.

About those “Standards”

About those “Standards”

On "gamification" of learning