Montessori Fundamentals – Oberservation

A teacher should acquire not only an ability but also an interest in observing natural phenomena.  In our system, he should be much more passive than active and his passivity should be compounded of an anxious scientific curiosity and a respect for the phenomena which he wishes to observe.” Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child

I’m starting a new series on the blog giving an overview of Montessori basics – the fundamentals of the philosophy, why they were developed, and how you can use them at home.  My hope is to do this in short, easily digestible tidbits and to make Montessori less mysterious and more accessible.

I decided to start with one of the most fundamental aspects of both Montessori schools and Montessori parenting – observation.

How it Started – A Scientific Beginning

Maria Montessori was a scientist and a doctor before she was an educator.  She approached teaching children just as she approached everything else, scientifically.  She threw out all of the preconceived notions on how to run a school and started from scratch by observing the children and building a school around what she saw.

She watched them and how they interacted, what they needed, and what they responded to.  Through rigorous observation, she developed a system to meet their needs, the model for today’s Montessori schools. (You can read more about the history here.)

Why It’s Important

Observation lets us see a child in a different, deeper way.  If we’re able to sit quietly and fade into the background, even for a few minutes, it gives us glimpses into who they are apart from us.  Observation also shows us where the child is in terms of development, and the types of things they may need from us to progress.

The Role of Observation in the Classroom

Montessori teachers conduct both formal and informal observations every day.

For example, when I was teaching and we had a new student ready to move up from the toddler room, we would always go observe him in his current environment first.  We would watch his social interactions, how he interacted with the teachers, what type of things he was drawn to, and his ability to concentrate.

We would conduct formal observations of our own classrooms as well.  This meant sitting with a notebook and watching the classroom for 15 minutes or so.  Children would sometimes come up to us while we were doing such an observation, but we would signal we were unavailable and they would move on.  Respecting that an adult is sometimes occupied and not always immediately available is a good exercise in independence as well.

Sometimes we would observe a specific student who was having a behavioral issue and sometimes we would observe the classroom as a whole just to see how things were going.

Montessori teachers also engage in less formal observation all of the time, making mental notes that a child is struggling with the “P” sound or that a child follows what another tells him to do instead of making his own choices.  It is through these observations that Montessori teachers are able to individualize the curriculum for each child, a key component of any Montessori classroom.  Each child is encouraged to work at his own level and observations show us what that level is.

How can you use it at home?

It may seem silly to formally observe your own child, whom you see constantly, but stepping back and just watching, and even taking notes, really does give you new insights into him.

To observe your child, choose a time when he is relatively content.  Choose a spot nearby and just sit quietly and watch.  It can help to have a notebook to take notes, and to signify to your child that you’re not available for play at the moment.  I personally find that taking notes really helps me to stay focused, but if I don’t have a notebook handy, I just try to be as present as I can be.

I watch for new developments, things he may be struggling with, and what he is drawn to.  Is he looking for new gross motor challenges and climbing everything in sight?  Is he fascinated by the light coming through the window and the shadows?  Is he interested in tiny objects and working to refine his pincer grip?

Then I try to think about how to I can respond to these interests.  I think about whether there is already something available to him to support his new interest and, if not, what I can provide.  This helps me decide what to put on the shelves in his room and what kinds of things to make available around the house.

Below is an example from last week.  We were in the backyard and James spent the first few minutes testing limites and trying to get into the few things out there he knows are not allowed (i.e., pulling up the succulents).  Soon though, he settled into content, independent play and I realized it would be a good time to observe him.  I found a quiet spot to sit and this is what I saw:

If you’re interested in reading more about observation, this article is focused on the classroom, but it gives great ideas on the kinds of questions to ask yourself when observing.  I also love this article on observing your child at home.

Are there any Montessori questions you’d like me to cover?  I’d love suggestions!

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