A fundamental concept of the Montessori philosophy of education is that every child carries, unseen within him or her, the person they will become. In order to develop physical, intellectual and spiritual powers to the fullest, the child must have freedom – a freedom that is gained through order and self-discipline. Schools have existed historically to teach children to observe, to think, to judge. Montessori introduces children to the joy of learning at an early age and provides a framework in which intellectual and social discipline go hand in hand.
The world of the child is full of sights and sounds that at first appear chaotic. From this chaos, the child must gradually create order, and learn to distinguish among the impressions that assail her senses. Slowly but surely she gains mastery of herself and her environment. The years between three and six are the years in which a child most effortlessly is able to learn the ground rules of human behavior. The acquisition of these skills will greatly facilitate a child’s path towards eventually finding a place in her culture.
Dr. Maria Montessori developed what she called the “prepared environment”. This environment possesses a certain order and allows the child to develop at her own speed, according to her own capabilities, in a non-competitive atmosphere. “Never let a child risk failure, until she has a reasonable chance of success”, said Dr. Montessori. The method by which children are taught in a Montessori school could be called “programmed learning”. The structure of Montessori learning involves the use of many materials that the children may work with individually. At every step of learning, the teaching material is designed to test understanding and to correct errors.
Dr. Montessori recognized that the only valid impulse to learning is the self-motivation of the child. Children move themselves toward learning. The Montessori teacher prepares the environment, programs the activity, functions as the reference person and exemplar, and offers the child stimulation. But it is the child who learns, who is motivated through the work itself (not solely by the teacher’s personality) to persist in his chosen task.
If the Montessori child is free to learn, it is because she has acquired from her exposure to both physical and mental order, an inner discipline. This is the core of Dr. Montessori’s educational philosophy. Patterns of concentration, stick-to-it-ive-ness, and thoroughness established in early childhood, produce a confident and competent learner in later years.
An observation of Maria Montessori’s, which has been reinforced by modern research, is the importance of the sensitive period for early learning. These are periods of intense fascination for learning a particular characteristic or skill – such as going up and down steps, putting things in order, counting, reading, writing, etc. It is easier for the child to learn a particular skill during the corresponding sensitive period than at any other time in her life. The Montessori classroom takes advantage of this fact by allowing the child freedom to select individual activities that correspond to her own periods of interest.
The Three-Year Developmental Cycle:
Key to a Montessori Education
The three-year developmental cycle is at the very heart of the Montessori educational experience. It is what assures children the greatest success and it is one of the features that distinguishes Montessori from other methods. Curriculum development, staffing, classroom design, student admission, re-enrollment all revolve around it.
The three year developmental cycle drives the educational curriculum, determines materials purchased and placed in the classrooms, defines student record keeping, progress, and assessment. It is a clearly-defined and concrete cycle with a beginning, a middle, and an end for each child. The third year of each sequence culminates in a peak experience for the child academically, emotionally, socially, and developmentally. If not followed, a child’s work in that three-year sequence is incomplete.
Why is the third year of each cycle so key to a montessori education?
Dr. Montessori saw the growth of an individual from birth to age 24 in four "planes of development": birth to 6, 6 to 12, 12 to 18, and 18 to 24 years of age. In each of these planes humans have unique needs and characteristics which she defined. She then developed a methodology and materials to respond to the needs and characteristics of the evolving individual at each plane.
Those needs and characteristics grow and then diminish in importance during each six-year plane. That is, they are at their strongest at each midpoint and are at their weakest at the points of transition (age 6, age 12, and age 18) from one plane to the next.
With each plane divided into two three-year developmental cycles, conventional "kindergarten", third grade, sixth grade, and ninth grade are endings - completions that are culminations and not beginnings. This runs directly counter to the paradigm in traditional schools where kindergarten is the start of the elementary sequence, sixth grade is the start of middle school, and ninth grade is the start of High School. Montessori respectfully and vigorously disagrees.
We know that ages 3 and 4, grades 1 and 2, 4 and 5, and 7 and 8 are years of academic and intellectual explosion. Yet, Dr. Montessori observed that in the 6 year olds, 9 year olds (third graders), 12 year olds (sixth graders) and 15 year olds (ninth graders), their great work was social and emotional and lays the foundation for the next "explosion". She concluded that unless the social and emotional growth was addressed directly and effectively, rather than suppressed, academic growth could slow and suffer. Rather than fighting the social and emotional growth of the children in the third year of each sequence, Montessori goes with the grain and encourages it.
Instead of making those students in their transitional years the youngest of the children in a sequence, we make them the oldest and most mature in their group. We give them age-appropriate responsibility. We make them educational and civic leaders in this community.
The leadership of the older children has remarkable impact on the health of the three-year community they help lead, and it allows the oldest children in each cycle to stand tall with confidence during an uncertain time while internalizing the academic work of the first two years by sharing their knowledge and expertise with the younger students in the group. They become role models for the younger students, who long to reach their level of academic accomplishment and community responsibility .
We believe the tenet, "You do not understand something until you can teach it," and giving lessons to the younger students in the group requires that the oldest children reduce complex concepts to their simplest elements and then convey them with clarity and understanding. If they cannot, it is clear that they need a lesson before going on! Thus, without fully realizing what they are accomplishing, our third year children internalize and consolidate the academic skills they have acquired for two years before exploding into the next three-year cycle.
The full benefit of The Montessori Center program accrues in our children in the third or “kindergarten” year. A child’s Montessori educational experience is diminished without it. So, too, is the program and the educational experience for the younger students left without the gift of the leadership, mentoring, and instruction from the older children they have come to admire.