The Montessori Method: Independence


This is the first in a series of blog posts about the Montessori method that we will be publishing in the upcoming weeks. We hope that sharing these insights into Maria Montessori’s methodology and the ways we have chosen to apply it in our classrooms at McGuffey might help our parents and community members feel more confident in and empowered by the many small choices that our teachers and students make every day and the broader educational goals that these choices contribute to.

One of the most crucial features of a Montessori classroom is the ability for students to exercise their independence on a daily basis. Independence is a core element of a Montessori education, and it’s one of the biggest skills that teachers try to instill within their students.

In a Montessori classroom, students have many freedoms of choice: the freedom to move around the classroom’s physical space as they like, the freedom to choose where they would like to work and what they would like to work on, and the freedom to choose when to take a break and have a snack or use the restroom, to name a few. An important caveat to these freedoms, however, is that all of the choices within students’ reach have been meticulously and intentionally placed in the classroom by the Montessori teachers. This results in students feeling empowered to exercise their independence within the classroom, with the added benefit of confidence that whatever work they choose to do has been vetted and approved by their teachers beforehand. Even materials and activities that are not on a student’s weekly work plan are available for their choice, as these too have been placed in the classroom to serve a specific educational need or interest.

One thing that this independence does not include is the freedom to choose to interrupt or distract other students in the classroom. Particularly as students move upward in age, they are often drawn toward working in small groups, or doing their own work while sitting next to other students. If a student begins to interrupt or distract those around him or her, a teacher will begin a routine that, while unique to each educator’s own style, will generally begin with a soft, kindly-spoken observation to the student (“I notice that you are beginning to distract the students who are working next to you,“) and if the behavior continues, will result in the student losing an aspect of his or her freedom to choose (“Since you have continued to distract those around you, I will be choosing your work space for you until the work period has ended“).

This sets the example that teachers will not permit any student’s work to be continually disrupted; even students who temporarily lose their freedom to choose their work space will internalize this example, and know that their own work will also be protected from disruptions in the classroom. For this same reason, teachers in a Montessori classroom do their best to minimize any changes to the daily schedule that would intrude upon or shorten the daily work period, as the work period is the heart of the school day and the time when students can most freely exercise their independence.

One aspect of a Montessori classroom that at first might seem unusual to an observer unfamiliar with the Montessori method is that he or she won’t see teachers “helping” their students with certain tasks or in certain situations where other kinds of educators might intervene. “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed,” said Maria Montessori. In Montessori classrooms, children serve themselves and sometimes prepare their own snacks, and they use bowls, plates, and glasses made out of breakable materials. If a glass is broken, a student will likely help sweep up the pieces. Students use vacuum cleaners that might sometimes be taller than they are. They rake leaves, sweep porches, compost food scraps, and determine which materials can be recycled and which cannot. They keep track of their own work, their own materials, and their own belongings. They learn how to use tools for woodworking, and how to maintain proper safety when using those tools. They do science experiments that include lit flames. Teachers are always close at hand and observing the children as they work, but very rarely will they intervene with a child’s actions unless it becomes absolutely necessary to do so.

Additionally, our teachers have intentionally cultivated “the freedom to fail” in each of our classrooms. While this might sound dramatic, it is actually a critical step in developing self-motivated learners. Within reason, Montessori teachers will sometimes make the choice not to intervene when they notice that a student is not completing his or her work. It’s important to know that this does not mean that a child’s teacher will turn a blind eye to that child’s academic progress; rather, the teacher becomes even more observant of the child in order to determine why he or she is avoiding or struggling with the given work.

There are a nearly infinite number of reasons why a student might be neglecting to complete a certain activity or to move forward in a certain content area: the work might be too difficult, or too easy; the work might need to be re-presented to the student if he or she did not understand the first presentation; the child might be taking advantage of a sensitive period in their learning within which he or she is focusing deeply on another content area, or an aspect of his or her social development; or the child might be expressing a preference in his or her learning style that can indicate to the teacher that the work should be framed in a different manner, or should utilize a different kind of material. Many of these possibilities would be overlooked by insisting that a child must complete the work that he or she has been given, and must do so under a strict timetable. Valuable knowledge about a child’s inner life could be potentially lost or ignored if a teacher does not actively cultivate an environment where students have the independence to “fail” to complete their work occasionally (or even often) without the fear of punishment or retribution from the teacher.

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