The Three Stages of Learning

In her book, Discovery of the Child , Dr. Montessori defines the role of the Montessori educator in the learning process.

“With my methods, the mistress teaches little, observes a great deal, and above all, hers is the function of directing mental activity of the children and their physiological development. For this reason, I have changed the name of teacher to that of directress. The directress is the child’s guide. She guides in the choice of material, in finding exact words, in facilitating and explaining work, in preventing waste of energy, in quelling chance disturbances. Thus she affords the help necessary or proceeding surely and swiftly along the road to intellectual development.”

Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child, The Technique of Lessons, pg.171

This new role, different than that of the conventional teacher’s, requires the aid and support of a structured approach to observe and evaluate the learning process. Instead of actively directing the learning process, the “directress” must have the skills to be responsive at the optimum moment and have the patience to observe and protect the child while he is engage in self directed learning. Dr. Montessori says that…

“…the directresses’ of the Children’s’ Houses must have a very clear conception of two factors; the guidance which is the function of the teacher, and the individual exercise which is the work of the child.”

Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child, The Technique of Lessons, pg.174

“The end to be attained is the orderly stabilization of the spontaneous activity of the child. As no master can give the pupil the agility which he acquired by gymnastic exercise but the pupil must improve himself by his own efforts, so it is here by close analogy for the education of the senses and education in general.” 

Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child, The Technique of Lessons, pg.173

The skilled Montessori Director/Directress must have the skill and the time to observe the learning process, evaluate that process, track and note that progress and apply that evaluation to timely intervention with each child. In fact, Montessori suggests that: “an intelligent mistress might carry on interesting studies in individual psychology and up to a certain point, measure the time of resistance of the attention to different stimuli.” 

Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child, The Technique of Lessons, pg.173

First, we must outline a model for understanding the learning process based on the theories of Dr. Montessori and Eduard Sequin, in a conceptual framework for the learning process, the child passes through three stages of learning in the formation of concepts.

1st Stage of Learning Orientation

The first stage of learning is a process of orientating the child to the fundamental qualities of a concept. This process may begin in many indirect preparations in the home environment. A rich exposure to nature and culture play an important role in these preparations. In the school environment the child is instructed with a specially designed activity which isolates one particular concept from others. The directress acts as a dynamic link between the child and the activity.

2nd Stage of Learning Absorption

The second stage of learning is a process of absorbing the properties of the concept through spontaneous and self motivated activity. This process allows the child to take in the whole of the concept while becoming aware of specific parts that go into it. In the home this stage is characterized by; 1) intense interest in specific tasks which the child often repeats many times, and; 2) a willful response to anyone or anything which interrupts the process. In the school environment the child does specific self directed work with the activities whose design prevents errors and promotes independent accomplishment.

3rd Stage of Learning Adaptation

This third stage of learning is evident when the child demonstrates his full understanding of the concepts in his everyday activities. In the home as well as in the school environment the child is able to integrate the new concept with known concepts, and adapt the concept to practical usage.

Providing the Time, Means and Scope

Factors affecting the three stages are not rigidly fixes, but act as guidelines for the trained observer to evaluate this process and suggest strategies for the effective intervention. They provide a structure that allows the director/directress to respond to individual needs in the learning process.

There are three distinct factors affecting the successful completion of the three stages of learning.

These factors are referenced extensively in Dr. Montessori’s works: 1) Providing the child with sufficient time , based on his individual needs; 2) Providing the means for self directed learning; 3) Insuring the child has sufficient scope of understanding to interrelate and apply his knowledge. Scope in the learning process, with a rich variety of activities, increases the power of intelligent reasoning. This process is aided by the nearly unlimited potential for learning in early childhood.

“The touchstone, which produces such wonderful results in children and which sets them on a plane very different from ours and often inaccessible to us, is worthy of being considered as a fact unknown until today. It seems that in a certain period of life there exists possibilities of making mental acquisitions which are no longer possible at other ages. A fact which is clearly evident to everybody is the capacity many times mentioned which little children have for remembering and reproducing the sounds of language and for learning the words of it.”

Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child, Observations of Prejudices, pg.181


In the first factor there is a basic conflict between the adult’ sense of time and the child’s own time.

“The adult’s inclination of doing almost anything is to choose the direct method and to do it in the shortest possible time with the least expenditure of effort. The child’s work has a different purpose and rhythm. He has no need to hurry or to be efficient as the adult. Instead, the child needs to do tasks slowly, according to a child size time schedule. The child needs to explore, to repeat, and to correct himself many times. The process itself is as important as finishing the task.

Maria Montessori, Secret of Childhood, Adult Substitution, pg.93

The learner must be allowed his own time to complete each stage. For the individual rate of progress, the Montessori directress “keeps watch so that the child who is absorbed in his work is not disturbed by an companion…”

Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child, The Teacher, pg. 163

Further, “…she will let the child have asmuch time as he wants without ever interrupting his activity,  neither for the purpose of correcting small errors, nor by stopping the work through fear of tiring out the child,”  having as Dr. Montessori says “respect for useful activity.”

Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child, The Technique of the Lessons, pg.167


The learner is given the means for spontaneous inquiry by using specially designed activities for child directed learning.

“The profound difference which separates this method from the so-called object lessons of the old style, is that objects are not an aid for the mistress who has to explain, that is they do not constitute means for teaching… They are an aid for the child who chooses them himself, takes possession of them, uses them and employs them himself according to his own tendencies and needs and just as long as he is interested in them. In this way the objects become means of development. The objects and not the teaching form the principal agent, it is the child who is the active being and not the teacher.”

Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child, The Teacher, pg.161


Lastly, the factor affecting the three stages of learning is the scope, helping the child to broaden and interrelate the formed concept with others already known.

Using the sensorial apparatus as an example, Dr. Montessori comments:

“if the child, by exercising himself with the material sense has strengthened his power of distinguishing one thing from another, and has opened up the pathways of his mind to a continually growing avidity for work, he has certainly become a more perfect and intelligent observer than at first, and anyone who is interested in things on a small scale will be the more interested in great things.”

Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child, Observations of Prejudices, pg.79

In addition, the children learn so quickly and with such enthusiasm that new knowledge sparks and renews the learning process, creating the “touchstone effect.”

“Very often one is amazed by the fact that children not only make independent observations on their environment, noticing things which at first they did not distinguish in it, but they seem to observe and compare them with what they remember. They express opinions which seem marvelous, for they reveal to us that some children form within themselves a kind of “touchstone” which we do not possess. They compare external things with the image they have fixed in their minds, and they show judgement which is surprising in its accuracy

Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child, Observations of Prejudices, pg.181

Brain-based Learning

Montessori math constitutes superb brain-based learning. Robert Sylvester (A Biological Brain in a Cultural Classroom) states, “It is not the number of neurons itself that determines our mental characteristics; it is how they are connected;” and Eric Jensen (Teaching with the Brain in Mind), “The key to getting smarter is growing more synaptic connections between brain cells and not losing existing connections…The single best way to grow a better brain is through challenging  problem solving.”  Michael explains that unused connections are pruned, so the neurological rule is, “Use it or lose it.”  All of this suggests that the best way to learn is to engage all the lobes of cerebrum, activating visual and auditory memory, along with controlled movement and problem-solving.  Activities that cross hemispheres force interactions of logic and creativity. Take a look and you will see this built into the design of all Montessori learning materials.

The key to this benefit lies in what Dr. Montessori called “materialized abstractions”. Her concrete hands-on materials present relationships for higher thinking later in life by creating impressions for abstraction. She observed that the hands are the tools of the mind, and provided for this natural activity in a systematic way. From spontaneous individual work the child gains what formal education could never teach later, the physical manipulation of abstract concepts.

As a Montessori parent be dissuaded from “helping” your child by teaching number tricks or doing lots of drills. These short cuts can short-circuit deeper learning. “Drill for skill ” is great for parrots but not for children. Parents can trust the benefits of Montessori mathematics approach and the deeper understanding it develops. As a parent avoid judging your child’s mathematics progress only by standardized test scores or the ability to answer correctly when quizzed. Let’s advocate for our children’s mathematical abilities to run deep and evolve naturally with interest that is truly intrinsic.

“My vision of the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that certificate from the secondary school to the University, but the individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher, by means of their own activity,through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual.”

Dr. Maria Montessori, From the International Montessori Congress in Oxford, 1936

The Montessori Strategy for Teaching Concentration

The Montessori classroom activities for early childhood are designed to promote purposeful engagement, where the child is completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The benefits include increased focus and more energy, release from boredom and anxiety, and a path of self-direction to find new challenges and build new skills in order to find purposeful engagement again. The results are what Montessori termed “normalization”, a condition of freedom in which the child makes constructive choices and develops deep concentration and true engagement in the learning process.

“Now it is evident that the mind cannot concentrate except upon an object worthy of such an effort. It must contain the means of learning in the most rational way. A faulty or useless object could never attract the lively intellectual interest of the child. “

Dr. Montessori recognized that the “means for development” needed to go beyond toys or games, the youngest children were attracted to real life experiences and were drawn to activities that engaged their senses. She went about designing and implementing purposeful and constructive activity in these two key areas. She then observed the impact of these experiences and how they benefited the intellectual development for the youngest children. In her earliest schools she saw that the impact of building engagement through practical skills and sense training ultimately advanced early academic outcomes.

” The didactic material plays a most important part in this development. These objects are presented to the child; they are graded according to their difficulty, and correspond to the psychic needs of the child. And that is the reason they attract the child’s attention so strongly as to make him delight in his work and incite in him a marked power of concentration.”

She discovered that young children have a keen interest in practical activities that they see adults doing, notably the child wants “to do house, not play house”. She set about creating developmentally appropriate tools and activities that allowed the child to not just imitate the work of adults in the home but really do meaningful practical work. We call these activities “Practical Life”.

Dr. Montessori designed a curriculum around building attention, focus and concentration. These activities are ingeniously contrived to engage the child in sustained and purposeful activity that focuses mental activity, builds concentration and develops attention to detail. The results are what Montessori termed “normalization”, a condition that includes spontaneous discipline, concentration, and engagement.

In a modern definition of these same necessary skills in early childhood, scientists refer to these capacities as executive function and self-regulation—a set of skills that relies on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them. The Montessori learning approach provides concrete learning experiences that the young brain needs to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

The Montessori learning activities are designed to contain the essential features for training executive functioning and building concentration:

  1. Thoughtfully conceived to have clear and distinct steps, that while challenging, are still attainable by the child without assistance from an adult.
  2. Devised to engage the child with focused attention and sustained concentration.
  3. The motivation for the work comes from within and is rewarding in and of itself.
  4. Chosen because the child wants to do the purposeful work that they see adults do, but are unable due to the size of the tools or the lack of time in a child-centered environment to engage without interruption.
  5. This purposeful “work” creates feelings of satisfaction that lead to a sense of peace and purpose that is unique and very different then “play”.
  6. The work fascinates and the child becomes so absorbed in the process that they  lose the sense of time passing in the deep engagement of the work.
  7. The planning of the activity and its steps controlled through design by the adult offer immediate feedback throughout the process which controls the error on the part of the child and helps them develop skills of self-correction.

Unique in early childhood programs is a focus in he Montessori classroom on practical skills (Practical Life) and the development of the senses (Sensorial). This may appear at first to be counterintuitive in education, yet experience shows enormous benefits and reveals the distinctive impact that these activities have in comparison to the more open-ended pretend play activities in conventional early childhood programs.

Children learn to concentrate in Montessori classrooms. It is a phenomenon that startled Dr. Montessori in her original schools and continues to fascinate adults today. The levels of deep concentration attained in Montessori classrooms synchronizes well with modern research in cognitive psychology. The state of complete immersion in an activity that includes spontaneous discipline, concentration, and engagement is associated with high levels of creativity and optimal performance in a wide variety of activities.

Academic success requires the ability for deep engagement in the learning process. This engagement is a combination of motivation, concentration, interest, and enjoyment derived from the process of learning itself.  The Montessori learning environment focuses all it’s attention on promoting the ideal conditions for the youngest to have the time, means and scope for this deep engagement. Observe this for yourself, and you will join me in the satisfaction of knowing that the process really does work!

” This interest, therefore, guides us in constructing in a perfect manner the means of learning and in obtaining that which in the regular schools would be called “the maximum efficiency of study.” It is only by a method which, in giving intellectual learning, concentrates the inner powers, that one observes the direct influence of the learning upon the character and the moral qualities.

In order that concentration may come about, it is necessary that the child should have at his disposal means of development which he is free to use—that is, it is necessary to organize intellectual work for him.

Only “normalized” children, aided by their environment, show in their subsequent development those wonderful powers that we describe: spontaneous discipline, continuous and happy work, social sentiments of help and sympathy for others….

Its principal feature never changes. It is “application to work.” An interesting piece of work, freely chosen, which has the virtue of inducing concentration rather than fatigue, adds to the child’s energies and mental capacities and leads him to self-mastery.”

Quotes taken from:  Montessori, Maria (1915) The Organization of Intellectual Work in School, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the National Education Association of the United States Annual Meeting, Volume 53, 1915

The Montessori Guide (Teacher)

In a Montessori classroom the teacher is an observer, follower, and guide who brings wisdom, consideration, and experience to the child’s academic, social, and intellectual exploration. This approach demands special professionals confident and skilled enough to allow the child to be an active participant in his or her learning. It also means that all school decisions are driven by what is best for the children.

Each classroom is prepared specially for children and the adult has a greater responsibility that goes beyond just teaching. Always thoughtful and observant, the adult in this community acts as a dynamic link between the child and the specially designed materials and presentations that meet their needs and interests at just the right moment. This new role, different then the conventional teacher’s, requires the aid and support of a structured approach to observe and evaluate the learning process. Instead of actively directing the learning process, the adult is trained to be responsive at the optimum moment and have the patience to observe and protect the child while they are engaged in self-directed learning. In a Montessori classroom the adult is careful to time and guide her intervention with respect to individual needs and interests.

The adults are quick to praise and slow to criticize. The role of the adult is to guide the child to activity that is within his ability, and that approach engenders a growing confidence that is based on a series of successes. No rewards or punishments are used to motivate the child. Genuine pride that comes from self-accomplishment is enough. The adult sets a positive tone, and always strives to be confident, firm, fair, consistent, and yet friendly. Expectations are clearly established and community guidelines that are reasonable, well defined, and clearly understood are consistently and fairly enforced.

When you have solved the problem of controlling the attention of the child, you have solved the entire problem of their education.

– Maria Montessori

The Montessori Learning Environment

The Montessori learning environment is a thoughtfully conceived and painstakingly prepared. The classrooms are refreshingly sensible in their approach to educating children. The learning environment is executed with elegance, simplicity, and good common sense.

First, we create a space that is orderly and child-sized.

Maria Montessori wrote, “ Only practical experience and work lead to maturity…. Those children who have been able to work with their hands make headway in their development, and reach a strength of character which is conspicuous.”

At the Montessori School we provide specially designed, concrete materials that 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.

The fundamental characteristic of the Montessori environment is the prevailing order in the classroom, we create a space that is orderly and child-sized. This order includes a neat and tidy work area, along with proper display of materials, but goes beyond to social conditions and the acceptance of constructive activity as the means for development.

Here, the child feels comfortable. He doesn’t feel small or out of place. He relates to the room. The order of the room assists him in orienting, in getting to know the physical space. Its consistency means that he can count on finding what he needs. Here, he can establish a secure relationship with the objects in the room. The classroom feels more like a home than an institution.

“We all know the sense of comfort of which we are conscious when a good half of the floor space in a room is unencumbered; this seems to offer us the agreeable possibility of moving about freely.”

Montessori, Maria

The Community of Children

In Montessori schools the classroom community is structured developmentally, so that children of different ages share the same classroom, and are encouraged to collaborate and help each other.

There is a three year age span providing a diverse group. There are rich opportunities to relate in many different ways. The age differences allow for true spontaneous helping to occur (a cornerstone of a strong society). The group is consistent; everyone comes everyday. The teacher is the same person every day. The child can settle into this community and quickly feel that they are a vital member.

The mixed age community creates conditions that foster individual differences as strengths, and promotes groupings of mixed abilities. These ongoing experiences develop social skills as a response to conditions, rather than through direct teaching intervention. In these groupings children internalize what they have learned by teaching the younger children and by being mentors and role models.

There are also freedoms and limits that are part of living and working in a community. These determine the quality of the social life of our classroom. This daily interaction defines social development in a Montessori classroom, many social opportunities are a key element of the everyday life of the classroom. Social development is so much more than children getting along together! All the children benefit from all the social interchanges.

In this community approach to education the child comes to understand that each one of us is dependent on others and each must make a contribution for the betterment of all. Through living and working daily in a collaborative approach to learning the child finds community membership can be both personally satisfying and socially rewarding.

Mathematics and How it is Developed in the Classroom

In all this work in the Children’s House there is a benefit for the mathematical mind. From the sequential activities of practical life, the seriated and graded activities of sensorial, through the exploration of the mechanics of reading and writing, to the early work in geometry and arithmetic, the Children’s House experience lays a mathematical foundation for the elementary child.

Montessori stresses the importance of manipulating materials to discover answers, rather than merely memorizing math techniques. How much richer to arrange colored strips on a board to see the sum of two addends, instead of reading a flash card!  It is fundamentally different to use your hands to compare fractional pieces, instead of just learning rules for comparing the numerator and the denominator.  Who among us really understood why it worked to invert the denominator when dividing fractions? Our children do!

There are several reasons that Montessori math materials promote optimal intellectual development.  First, multi-sensory learning allows students to use various parts of their brains to learn. Hands-on manipulations encourage active, discovery learning. Second, materials encourage children to work together, and these collaborations involve lots of discussion and rationalization.  Third, Montessori students learn to strive for accuracy because the materials provide feedback.  They see their math work as puzzles to be solved, instead of assignments to be completed.  Finally, Montessori math materials are elegantly designed to use geometric relationships to show algebraic concepts.

In our work we have given a name to this part of the mind which is built up with exactitude… we call it “the mathematical mind.” I take the term from Pascal … who said that man’s mind was mathematical by nature, and that knowledge and progress come from accurate observation.” 

Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, (1949) Claude A. Claremont, trans. New York: Dell Publishing, 1967

The Young Mind is a Mathematical Mind 

A great unconscious power is at work in the developing child which aids her in ordering her own impressions into relationships to create the foundation of her intellect. This earliest development of mathematical understanding is the work of the unconscious mind in classifying and categorizing perceptual impressions. What Dr. Montessori discovered was that the young child has a mind that is mathematically inclined in its approach to ordering perceptions.

The mind of the young child makes inferences extracted from the physical world around her. These impressions are generalized in the mind and go beyond physical reality. The process of the intellect creates abstractions based on inference. This action is the mathematical mind at work, creating concepts beyond reality and ordering them into relationships.

The understanding of the child’s mathematical mind plays a key role in the approach and curriculum in the Children’s House. Experiences are structured to appeal to the child’s natural urges to explore through her senses the immediate world of the here and now. Sensorial activities provide the opportunity to hone discrimination and appeal to the mathematical mind in her orderly isolation of sense experiences. This builds impressions which provide the grist for language to develop and express the abstractions of the physical properties the child has generalized from her experiences. As the child masters this language of precision she is able to manipulate symbols, and discovers the process of writing mathematically. This leads her to early understandings of the algorithms and the expressions of mathematical concepts.

A Rainy Day Becomes a Community Lunch

As the year progress our community continues to grow and change both physically and socially. Looking over our most recent “Community Lunch” I was reminded of a comment Montessori made over a 100 years ago:

Given conditions that freed the child to work unhindered, with practical material which met basic inner needs and developed attributes of character, the children began to exhibit interest in relating to others with the dignity that they felt for themselves.

Having been shown simple social functions such as laying the table and serving others as well as greeting guests (there were many visitors to the Casa dei Bambina) the children transcended their humble status and “They learned to behave at table like princes, and they also learned to wait on the table like the best waiters…Truly, this is what was happening to our children. There was a resurrection from sadness to joy, with the disappearance of many faults, that are usually feared because considered incorrigible…”

Though simple lessons in grace and courtesy the children became sociable and their characters were developed. This is why today we continue to provide simple lessons in grace and courtesy. It was not just lessons in social interaction that brought about the changes in the children. It was that the fundamental obstacles were removed in a prepared environment, and the child soon emerged from a cocoon of ego-centrism and wanted to interact and participate in the community. “No sooner was the child placed in this world of his own size than he took possession of it. Social life and the formation of character followed automatically.”

Further facilitating this process was the mixing of age groups, providing a community in which children could contribute by helping others less capable, and children could look up to others as models for their future. These combined characteristics form the fundamental reason why children become socialized in a Montessori environment.

What the Children Showed Me 

Here was a peep into the unexplored depths of the child’s mind. Here was a very small child, at an age when attention flits from one thing to another and cannot be held down. Yet she had been absorbed in concentration such that her ego had withdrawn itself from external stimulus. That concentration was accompanied by a rhythmic movement of the hands, evoked by an accurately made, scientifically graduated object.” 1.

By giving the children freedom of choice and allowing them their own time to process an exercise this concentration was lengthened and strengthened. It is what Montessori said, “the children showed me”.

The conventional structured learning activities are normally in groups in which the children must sit quietly and “behave”, like Montessori once observed “transfixed butterflies”. “Making muscular movement penetrate into the very life of the children, connecting it with the practical life of every day, formed a main part of the practical side of our method, which has introduced education in movement fully into the indivisible whole of the education of the personality of the child.

Montessori education incorporates a sequential unfolding of movement activities which bring under the child’s control of his own movements and aid him in coordinating these movements to the purpose of his conscious mind. These activities not only meet the child’s physical need but also a deep- rooted psychic need.

1. Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood (Bombay: Orient Longman 1978), p.54

Beyond Learning is Deep Understanding

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.