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‘The manager’s job, then, is not to motivate people to get them to achieve; instead, the manager should provide opportunities for people to achieve, so they will become motivated.”
~Frederick Herzberg

Charlie walked over with the teaching clock. ”I’ve learned to tell time. Do any time, and I can tell you.”

Five-year-old Charlie sat down with me, and I proceeded to move the hands of the clock to test him.

”Six o’clock. Twelve-thirty. Two-fifteen. Ten-forty-nine,” Charlie responded, always with the correct time.

”Charlie, you really know how to read a clock. Did your mom or dad work with you?”
”Oh, no. I learned it at school.”

”How?” I wondered out loud, since I had never given Charlie a lesson.

”Mike taught me, and I watched you with Sarah,” Charlie grinned.

Charlie gave me my first ”ah-hah” moment that not every child needs every lesson. As a new teacher, I had faith in my Montessori training and followed as best I could the guidelines for allowing freedom of choice, freedom of movement, freedom to choose where and with whom to work in the classroom and freedom to talk. I believe these freedoms aided Charlie in learning to tell time.

Years later, I read in Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished by Rewards, about creating conditions for authentic motivation, which he called the three C’s of motivation: collaboration that defines the context of work, content of the tasks and the choices people have about the work they do and how they do it. Kohn’s ”three C’s” were the elements that had allowed Charlie to learn to tell time without a teacher.

Collaboration. Our classroom provided for collaboration, as children were free to observe each other at work, free to ask questions and free to move around. The children also knew they were at school to learn to do new things and be with their friends. The children were given basic rules of behavior on how to treat each other and the materials in the classroom and the consequences for not following those rules. Children understood they were at school to learn and work together.

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Content. Our school environment also provided the content of the tasks that the children could do by having a three-year progression of lessons for the three-to six-year old displayed on low shelves. The work at school was meaningful to the children with practical activities such as sweeping, buttoning, cutting an apple, as well as learning letter sounds and shapes, reading, writing, spelling, number work, geography, music and more. Kohn quotes Herzberg, ”’If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.”’ The classroom content was full of interesting and challenging work.

Choice. The element of choice in the classroom was a critical factor in creating an environment of achievement, thus leading to the children’s motivation to learn and challenge themselves. The children knew they were free to choose activities a teacher had presented. The children recognized they could work with their chosen activity all day if desired, without being interrupted or told to ”share” the activity with another child. Children were also allowed to ask for a new or challenging lesson. Kohn cites 47 studies that show the higher the level of decision-making, the higher productivity and job satisfaction in a work environment. Choice created powerful learning in our classroom.

Collaboration, content and choice–the three C’s of motivation–emerged when I applied the pedagogical principles I trusted. Use the three C’s to create a place where all can work together while choosing to do meaningful work, thus creating a satisfying and productive life at home and beyond.

Maren Schmidt, is a certified Montessori teacher with the Association Montessori Internationale.   She founded a Montessori school and has over twenty-five years experience working with young children.  She co-authored with her daughter, Dana, Understanding Montessori: A Guide for Parents, and writes KidsTalkNews, an award winning column about child development issues.