Consider the child’s experience of a cube. Does she learn more by seeing a flat, screen image of a cube (actually a two-dimensional hexagon), or by lifting a polished wooden block that measures 10 cm on each side and weighs 50 grams? After observing the way young children learn, Dr. Montessori told us, “Never give more to the mind than you give to the hand.”
“We would like to read two poems, if you are available,” one of them says. I come from behind my desk to sit and listen. One of the poems is about dolphins; the other is about insects. The children read aloud, taking turns with the verses. Clearly, they have made a plan and practiced how they will work together as readers.
As a classroom teacher, I remember fondly our studies in Human History: first examining and classifying the human animal; then drawing connections between our closest living relatives, and most recently to the epic stories of the earliest of humans and how they changed with and adapted to their dynamic living environments to suit their needs.
Zach is a bit of an anomaly. He is incredibly smart in many areas, but was a late bloomer, at least when it came to reading. He didn’t read well until the 2nd or 3rd grade. But, as Montessorians often know to expect, at some point in that year something “clicked on” and he began reading voraciously– his sensitive period for reading was just a bit later than most children. He was soon reading chapter books, and by 5th grade was reading at a high school level. In high school he probably learned more from his independent reading than from school. He continues to read everything from science fiction to science journals and everything in between, and is one of the best-read people I know.
It is only after much exploration of the fractions as shapes, that we move on to defining, naming and writing them. “When we break a unit into pieces of the same size we call those fractions. When we divide the whole unit into two parts, we call each part a half. This is the family name. We write the family name ‘half’ as a 2 under a line. The number under the line, that tells us which family we are talking about, is called the denominator.” In this way we proceed, slowly and with much repetition, to teach the names of the fractions, three at a time.
What we seek to avoid are the cheap substitutes which are so highly prized in our society today, as they have been throughout the history of western civilization: superiority, pride, competition, control, praise, rewards and punishment. What Dr. Montessori discovered was that what had always seemed to be necessary to bring out the best in human nature often brings out the opposite. Yet even in our Montessori communities around the world, we struggle moment by moment, day by day to keep those practices out of our schools and our families.
For the older child, when we walk into a classroom we expect to see a wide array of work areas including tables, chairs, floor mats, pillows, quiet corners, etc. Yet, when thinking of children under one, we don’t typically understand that as much emphasis should be placed on preparing them a ‘work area.’