The Montessori Way – From Consumption of Knowledge to Construction of Meaning

In traditional schools teachers and text books too often fail to use meaningful contexts for imparting new information. Children sometimes learn without understanding how their learning applies to anything besides the school test. Many curricula use isolated “hands-on” activities and trivialized “school-type” word problems. The next day’s activity might be unrelated or, even if related, fail to support progressive development. Failure to transfer from a particular school context to other contexts has been described as an almost universal phenomenon;

Students who are capable of performing symbolic operations in a classroom context, demonstrating “mastery” of a certain subject matter, often fail to map the results of the symbolic operations they have performed to the systems that have been described symbolically. They fail to connect their formal symbol manipulation procedures with the “real-world” objects represented by the symbols constitutes a dramatic failure of instruction.

Schoefeld, A.H. (1988) When good teaching leads to bad results: The disasters of “well-taught” mathematics courses. Educational Psychologist, 55(1)

Directed knowledge that is structured and systematically imparted by a teacher or a textbook is very different then knowledge discovered through exploration or inferred from constructs or models use to question and examine available information. Therein lies the rub, consumption of knowledge may not transfer to construction of meaning. While learning basic facts is important, learning without understanding is inert, resulting in an inability to apply knowledge, even in the classroom setting.

Rather than learn what the teacher or the text says, children in a Montessori school construct meaning from experiential learning activities. The Montessori learning materials are designed explicitly to create context for children by linking ideas to what they know and helping children see the meaning. The Montessori materials engage the children constantly in their own learning, allowing each to learn — and to understand — by doing. There is time for process, and the fixing of one’s attention on a key experience that engages a unique concentration and promotes the necessary repetition to imprint the experience within the intellect. In this way knowledge is learned with enthusiasm and guided through hands-on experience. Inspiration and motivation is intrinsic in the educational process.

Children in Montessori schools learn largely by doing. Rather than merely hearing and writing, their learning is situated in the context of actions and objects. They learn through the actual, practical experience with a subject rather than just its mere theoretical parts. The learning materials designed for the youngest are applicable in advanced learning right through to Middle School. Embedded in their design is a passage from the explicit and concrete to the abstract and applicable. The process of schematizing, structuring, and modeling concepts with concrete learning materials makes abstraction not only possible, but resulting with depth of understanding.

Montessori education makes meaningful connections between ideas and applications, and has real value in making learning both understandable and lasting. Ultimately it is all about promoting curiosity and making learning exciting because of the inherent utility that capitalize on the students’ prior learning. You can give them a fish or teach them to fish.

And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but by virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.

Maria Montessori

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