The full conversation covers more than I can include in this post:
How structured is a typical Montessori day?
What is the Montessorian take on unstructured play?
What’s so special about the Montessori method of teaching children how to read?
What are some key differences between a Montessori school and a traditional preschool?
Are there effective ways to incorporate Montessori principles and pedagogy into non-Montessori classrooms?
How should a parent judge the quality of a Montessori program?
Where does technology fit in the Montessori classroom?
Does a Montessori education specifically equip children to handle challenging or unpleasant tasks?
Why are grades bad? What’s the alternative, if you’re seeking a valuable assessment of student progress and mastery?
What does Montessori look like for older students?
How could we change higher education for the better?
Instead of our typical newsletter format, I’d like to share some highlights from this discussion. I’ll publish the complete transcript soon, and the full episode is absolutely worth a listen. Here are some highlights:
Ben: So, is the case that it [Montessori] is simultaneously sort of more structured and less structured than, maybe like the status quo system? More structured in that it posits a developmental sequence that children should follow in order to learn things and that this sequence has the children learn different things at different ages? But, also less structured in that once you set up this sort of synthetic environment in which they can operate, you kind of just let them loose in this environment for long periods of time so they can explore their own curiosity. Is that a fair way to put it?
Matt: That's extremely accurate. So, the structure of the Montessori day starts with a three-hour work period. And this is a period where children are free to choose work off the shelf that they have been introduced to: to get it out, to set it up at a table, to practice it. And they could work on it for anywhere from like, five or 10 minutes if it's a younger child or a child who's just not that into it and who decides they want to work on something else, to hours. Part of the reason to have a work period like that is that there are a lot of specific skills that Montessori is optimizing for that underlie all of the materials.
The deep thing that Montessori is optimizing for in early childhood is extended periods of concentrated work. And the idea is that if a child is interested in something and they're working on it, they've got that little furrowed brow on their head—it’s not just like they're running around and they're excited and they're happy—there's a look that a child gets where they're into something and they're working with their hands and they're trying to do it over and over. You do not interrupt that, that is sacred. You protect that. To use a metaphor that I don't like particularly well, the child is building all sorts of kind of mental and characterological muscles, and exerting effort trying something over and over that is difficult for them. You need an extended period to get them into that state. They need to be able to choose something, even choose multiple things and feel out what they want to do, and then get lost in the work. And then when they're done, return the work to the shelf.
You need a long period. So, whatever you do for a living, imagine a day without meetings. And then one thing shows up on your calendar at like, 11:30. Fifty percent of your productivity is cut, just like that. That's the kind of idea behind the work period. It's like, stop messing with the child! If the child is expecting something to happen, like circle time, or having a snack or whatever, you’ve got to give them a period where their expectation is, “It's my job to get lost in something.”
The beating heart of the day is the work period and being able to choose work and get lost. And what you asked in terms of what they do with that time: is it just like free play? Or what is it? They're working with these materials, either the cognitive, academic learning materials, the exploratory learning science materials, or something in practical life—they could like, wash some tables. And if you get it at the right age, children love doing that.
One other thing that you said, is that Montessori thinks that there's a kind of developmentally-optimal time to introduce things. That is true, in broad brushstrokes. It's not this kind of Piagetian view that first, children are in a sensorimotor or concrete operational period, and then you introduce them to these materials It's a little bit broader than that.
The idea is that there is a time when children will naturally find certain things interesting and challenging. And then, after that time, they will not find those things naturally interesting and challenging. So, it's almost like a motivational aspect.
There's a cognitive aspect too. Just to take a simple example: putting on a jacket. Most people learn how to put on a jacket when they're like three, four, or five, maybe even a little bit older. And if you think about putting on a jacket, like it's nice when somebody holds the jacket for you, because it's frickin' hard to put it on. Like, even as adults!
And for like, a one-year-old, an older one-year-old, or a two-year-old, putting on a jacket is really hard, and they actually want to do it themselves. They kind of push you away when you get in their face. But they can't do it yet. And so it's just this frustrating thing for them. But there's this method, some people call it "flip flop over the top", some people call it the Montessori Coat Flip, where if you lay out the jacket upside down and open in front of the child and teach them how to line their feet up with it. Then they can put both of their hands on it and flip it over their head.
So why do this? Clearly, you don't need to do this to learn how to put on a jacket in life. This is not about teaching a practical skill. Everybody learns how to put on a jacket, and everybody's pretty good at it, everybody's roughly the same level of good. But if you get them doing it when they're like 18 months old, two years old, it builds something that speaks to them. It's like, "I can do it, I can do it myself." It builds their confidence, it does something to their soul. Whereas if we teach them how to do it when they're four, it doesn't do anything to their soul. And that kind of consideration, if you kind of magnify that out with self-care and work and language and math, like when can you get to the child so that the speaks to them? And if you miss that window, it's like yeah, now you have to learn how to write cursive when you're nine years old. And that's a chore and it's just drilling. Is there a way to do it when they're three or four, so that they're actually genuinely intrinsically motivated by it?
And that's kind of what the development is about. It's not so much like, “Are they cognitively ready?” It's like, “What is the challenge? What is exciting? What speaks to this age?” At any given age, there's a set of problems that are challenging but solvable with enough effort. But that set will be continuously changing. And you want to kind of give the child the opportunity to solve these problems.
Ben: I wanted to align everything that was just said with the fact that Maria Montessori got such excellent results teaching children to read, because I imagine putting on a jacket is very different than spending a couple of hours going through a book.
Matt: So, what's hard about reading? Think about what's hard about reading for a child. There's a lot that's hard. So, just to take a laundry list of simple things: one is, most of the words in most books, you don't know what they are. You've never even heard them spoken before. Even if you get a kind of simple children's book, you're going to encounter vocabulary that you don't know—the whole graphene system of writing, it's hard to learn and memorize. There are these symbols that only differ from one another in subtle ways. It’s just hard for a child to wrap their head around it.
But even if you can recognize the letters, it's very hard—just fine motor control-wise—extremely hard to produce it yourself in an accurate way. Like the best three and four-year-olds, no matter how brilliant they are, no matter how much work you do with them, they're just not going to be that precise. They've got these stubby little fingers and their brains are just not that developed in terms of fine motor—this is what they're working on. And the whole alphabetic system is designed for adults who have extremely refined fine motor capacities. There are other things too, but those are just a handful of things.
So what Montessori did is she tackled those difficulties, she isolated and solved for them. So, here is the scope and sequence, a sketch of it, of reading and writing for children. First of all, there are a number of things that children do motor-control-wise to build the writing muscles that have nothing to do with writing. The way that we teach children how to wash tables builds the motion of being able to hold your arm like this. A lot of the materials have these little pegs on them, puzzle pieces, for example. And the way to best use those pegs uses the same methods and muscles that you use to control a pencil. So, you haven't even gotten to writing yet, these are just things that children are interested in doing.
Then on the language side, there's a sequence where first, you have children play these phonic sound games. So, "I'm looking around the room, what starts with a "ss"?" You don't even say the letter name. It's just like "ss" or "ca" or "ah"—you're getting the children to notice different sounds. After a lot of games like that, and a lot of vocabulary-building that also happens in Montessori with cards with pictures, you start to associate those sounds with what's called the sandpaper letters.
The sandpaper letters are written letters where the letter part of it is rough on the card, and you can trace it with your finger. Again, you don't introduce the letter names. It's just like, “this is the ‘ss’”. And then after you get good at that it's like, "What is the ‘ss’ card? What objects does it go with?" And after this, they start to match ‘ss’ with a snake and, you know, a square, and other things that have a ‘ss’, just visually. Then you introduce them to a moveable alphabet, which is just the letters kind of in wooden block forms. You have them very slowly and gradually start sounding out things that they want to say. For example, if the child has a cat at home, like "What's a ‘kuh’, what's an ‘ah’, what's a ‘tuh’? Can you find those letters in the moveable alphabet and spell them out?" And all of a sudden, the child is writing. And they haven't had to hold a pencil, even though they're practicing and preparing for pencils, and they haven't had to read a book. It's writing without writing, and it's writing before reading. It’s this brilliant sequence that tackles the problems one by one.
If children are writing first, they never encounter a word that they don't know; a priori, every word that they want to write is a word that they know. If children are writing using a moveable alphabet, they don't have to use pencils yet. It's important to learn how to write with a pencil, and they're working on it. But you don’t have to rush—that can come later. First, you're learning how to put letters together. They haven't even started reading. There's this rethinking of language, its scope and sequence, and relating it to like, “What can children actually do, what are they actually interested in? How can we make each step as inspiring as possible?” And if you do that, you get brilliant results, and children love it. It feels like play to them, even though it's work and learning.
Vaden: What's the relationship between Montessori and technology? Because I imagine that as you get a bit older, one of the primary ways that people think and explore is using a laptop on the internet.
Matt: Obviously, this is an area where if you’re a Montessori educator, you're going to have to do first-principles thinking. The world has changed. It is interesting to note historically (Montessori doesn't get enough credit for this, and the Montessori movement is actually a little bit allergic to this), but she was very interested in early video technology. She was like, “What, you can show children a video of an elephant? Holy crap! That's way better than seeing the picture. And most children are never going to be able to see an elephant in real life. So, we might as well show them this video that will be so inspiring to them.” She had in mind like, little carousels with pictures that you would spin, movies in the original sense of “movie”. Moving pictures.
We do a lot with technology in our schools, especially in the upper-elementary age, including introducing children to things like typing, internet research, and internet searches.
I mean, my daughter knows how to use an iPhone. She is 21 months old and she can actually control it. Like, we gave her the phone to watch a movie of herself and walked away and came back two minutes later last night, and she had pulled up a YouTube video of The Sound of Music somehow. We were like, “How did you do that?” And she was rearranging our apps on our Apple TV. Like there are things on our Apple TV where I don't know how she did that, but we don't know how to undo it.
Children in the developed world get a lot of exposure to technology. And I think that has to be part of your thinking as an educator, in terms of, “What am I adding here? What am I adding, where there are these risks but also great potential benefits?” One of the main risks is that if you engage in technology before you have a certain kind of social/cognitive maturity or self-control, you get sucked into popularity contests and you get addicted. So, a lot of our thinking around technology is like, “How do we build this core character such that children learn to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks?” But some of it is actually about learning skills—research skills and typing skills are two really, really big ones.
There are some people—not Higher Ground people, but Higher Ground-adjacent people who are working on really interesting things in terms of how much great stuff there is on the internet for children. I mean, think of how much children can learn from just YouTube. Forget about dedicated learning technology, YouTube is the best learning resource ever created. I say that despite being a diehard Montessorian and despite the fact that YouTube is not typically thought of as ed-tech. You can learn anything on YouTube. It's still a little bit hard for children to use it independently. Often, especially if you’re three, four, five, six, seven-year-old, you've got to go to your parents and ask them to help you search for things. You need to help them curate their experience if you really want it to be optimal. I know people who are working on that problem, like how do you make it so that children themselves can interface with the internet in a really productive way? That's unsolved.
Nobody has yet worked out the Montessori scope and sequence of computers. And you can think about that, both from the perspective of understanding physically what a computer is, and more abstractly, the kind of logical computer structure. There are kind of different levels in terms of, you know, the Turing state machine, the different layers of abstraction for logic that you can have, how that interfaces into anything. Regardless of how they use it, my goal is that children understand conceptually that computers are a combination of math and machines that implement that math, such that humans have figured out how to make math do almost anything that humans wanted to do. And that is a magical thing.
There you have it, three highlights selected (with difficulty) from over an hour of engrossing conversation. If you found any of the above content interesting, definitely listen to the full episode, follow Vaden Masrani and Ben Chugg, and subscribe to Increments. If you’re curious about other podcasts I’ve recorded, check out Montessorium’s bi-weekly podcast, Philosophy of Education.
Have a great week,
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