Observation in the Montessori Classroom

We have a new puppy at our house and I am being reminded of how well tuned my skills of observation need to be to figure out this little creature.  Trying to stay ahead of the furniture being a chew toy and figuring out this puppy's special personality is hard, focused work.  Literally, I can't turn my back. Observation is an elusive life skill, isn't it?  We have it, we use it daily, but we lose our conscious awareness of it.  Much like breathing —unless you are a Montessori teacher.  Observation is the first skill you learn in Montessori training and it is the skill you hone throughout your Montessori career.  Maria Montessori, a physician and researcher, created an approach to child development with the belief that observing a child's need and adjusting the environment to meet the need brought better results.  In the same way, those of us who practice Montessori principles believe that the first and basic assessment tool is that of observation.  It helps us know the individual child, their tendencies, preferences, and interests.  It is data and it is documented.  It is the foundation of the individualized Montessori experience. 

I would like to share a quote from Maren Schmidt in Understanding Montessori: "Authentic Montessori programs have a built-in assessment system.  Our real life experience, in whatever walk of life we follow, shows us that it is a short step of faith to know this: The work is the test.  Can you ride a horse? Can you cook a meal? Do you know enough math to balance your checkbook? In our Montessori prepared environments, the child's work is the test.  It is such a simple concept that we tend to overlook its brilliance.  If you can do it, you know how to do it. That's real life testing.  It's on-the-job training.  We don't need to poke and prod to see what a child knows.  We don't need to pull up the plant to check the roots to see if it's growing.  We simply observe, without interruption and without judgment."

The Montessori Guide uses observation as a part of student assessment.  When an individual lesson is given, the Guide notes the child's interest, understanding, confidence, questions, follow-through and mastery.  When a group is involved, the Guide observes the student's role: leader, follower, collaborator, or reluctant participant.  It is the subtle awareness of what the student finds easy or hard that the Guide uses to teach and encourage.  These observations offer the Guide the chance to, as Maria Montessori noted, "Adjust the environment to the child's need".  It is through this process that the child also comes to be aware of who they are as a student and learner.  When we ask Childpeace alumni to share what aspects of their Montessori years helped them, to a student we heard:  "I really know myself, what things are easy and hard for me, and how to ask for the help I need".  

The Montessori teacher observes in a different way than you might, as a parent, when you are observing the class.  They know that what the child does one day may be different from another day's experience.  They observe the ebbs and flow of energy and they accumulate data on a child's pattern of interacting in THAT specific environment.  As a parent, you know your child so well because you observe them continuously.  When another person describes your child in a way that doesn't match your own experience, you know they have had very different observations than yours.  But you also understand the encyclopedia of data you have on your child.  You use your compilation of information to help them on their path through life. 

In the business world, we are quickly moving away from "Evaluations", to a form of assessment in the work place that is referred to as Self-Study or Self Assessment.  Why is that?  Because we have found that workers, at any level, are not motivated by top-down ranking systems.  We can work that way, but we usually don't grow that way.  Maria Montessori simply saw what worked.

Sue Pritzker, Head of School
Childpeace Montessori School