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The Art of Observation

"Even when helping and serving the children, she (the teacher) must not cease to observe them, because the birth of concentration in a child is as delicate a phenomenon as the bursting of a bud into bloom."
—Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Recently I observed something marvelous in a primary classroom. A child of almost three years was happily concentrating on using a crumber to sweep lentils into the masking tape square on her tray. As she practiced, lentils spilled all over the table and floor. The teachers observing the child noted the Montessori principles in action: a child concentrating and repeating an activity. They did not interrupt or ask her to clean up the spilled lentils. Eventually an older child went over and showed the younger one how to use the broom and dustpan to clean up.

Some teachers might have been tempted to intervene. It sometimes takes a lot of self-control to stop the impulses of wanting to help or be in control. But we can learn to trust the children, especially if we take the time to really observe and understand them.

How Montessori Learned to Observe

Maria Montessori was a scientist and a medical doctor, trained in making careful observations of phenomena. She applied those observation skills to children, much like an anthropologist or botanist, who observes the smallest details. In her first assignment as a doctor, Montessori watched developmentally challenged children in a bare room playing with crumbs on the floor because they had nothing else to manipulate or stimulate their senses. She was inspired to begin making educational materials and, through a process of trial and error, refined the materials based on her scientific observations of children using them.

The Tool of Observation

Observation is an integral and ongoing part of a Montessori teacher's work. Observing without judgment is one of the most vital teaching tools we have to "follow the child," recognize her needs, and assist her in finding her strengths and capabilities. Observation is a critical component of lesson planning and classroom management. When the teacher observes that a student has mastered a concept or skill, she can introduce new lessons.

There's much more to the art of observing than recording the skills children have mastered. For example, we try to detect what Montessori called "sensitive periods" in the child's development, as well as heightened interest in music, art, or nature. We need to be knowledgeable about child development in order to have insight about children's behavior, social interactions, and learning styles. The teacher who is gifted in the science of observation can help children overcome difficulties and redirect their interest when necessary.

Making Time to Observe

Your first attempts at observing may be very short if children are settling into the Montessori classroom and still developing concentration. You may only have a few moments to scan the classroom while you're working with a child, or to reflect on how a lesson is going as you're giving it. When you are able to step back to observe, you encourage children to rely more on each other, as older children step forward to be role models. Notice how long you can observe without being interrupted.

If there are several adults in the classroom, you can take turns so that every day someone has an uninterrupted block of time (perhaps 20 minutes or longer) to simply observe. Sometimes it's helpful for children to know that if a teacher is sitting in a special chair or standing in a certain place, they are observing and should not be interrupted.

With Fresh Eyes

If the teacher is always moving from one child to another, giving lesson after lesson, she's probably missing some important social and physical cues from the children. It's important to step back, slow down, and observe the children and the environment with fresh eyes. You may realize that it's time for another lesson on how to walk around rugs. You might be pleased to realize that the children really do settle down and concentrate more deeply after the period Montessori called "false fatigue."

Record Your Observations

Sometimes you may want to observe one child for an extended period of time. Other times you may be wondering about a classroom dynamic or issue. While observing and taking notes, some helpful questions to ask about the class and the children include:

  • Has the class progressed toward normalization?
  • Is there a feeling of respect and community in the environment?
  • Which materials are being used; which ones aren't?
  • What stage of development is each child in? Is he working to master a material, or has he mastered it and is now working towards perfection?
  • Does the child have a favorite material or activity she works with everyday?
  • Is the child able to concentrate? For how long?
  • Do other children or teachers protect the child's concentration?

Use Your Observations

Read over your notes with an open mind, reflecting on how to improve the classroom or give a particular child what he needs. Perhaps the reading corner has too many books and is overwhelming, or it's time for new activities in Practical Life. You might realize that a child's concentration was interrupted, or decide that Grace and Courtesy lessons would help create more peace in the community.

Observing on a regular basis can be very validating as you become more conscious of the growth and progress the children are making from week to week. You may notice quiet, sacred moments you might otherwise have missed, such as one child comforting another, or a child softly singing to the classroom animal. One of the most gratifying experiences as a Montessori teacher is to be able to witness the peaceful and happy hum of the "children's house" because, as Montessori put it, "the children are now working as if I did not exist."

"She [the teacher] observes in order to recognize the child who has attained the power to concentrate and to admire the glorious rebirth of his spirit."
—Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

—by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 15 years, she has served as a Montessori teacher-trainer for both primary and elementary levels and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS national conferences. Her work with both students and teachers is infused with the knowledge she has gained from her passions: history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, nature, meditation, music, and poetry.

—Originally Published 2015

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