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

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