The Steady Progression in a Montessori Classroom

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 “Human development does not occur in a steady, linear ascent but in a series of formative planes.” - Paula Polk Lillard

For some reason, this sentence really strikes me. I first read it a couple months ago after I borrowed the book "Montessori Today" from my local Guidepost school. It sounds self-explanatory, yet it feels so revolutionary. I keep re-visiting it to reflect on why this phrase triggers such contrasting thoughts for me.

I am not a Montessori-raised child. I had a positive experience in my hometown’s public school system,  I did well in this system, and I think back highly on it. Though, I was largely following the system of knowledge as something transferred by “rote memorization.” I scored well in this dynamic, but at almost age 30, I am not sure  I actually learned effectively from this dynamic. Frankly, I can’t remember that much.  

I can visualize in great detail the late-night cramming and the 50+ flashcards I made to help me memorize terms for tests – but I can’t visualize the actual content I studied so intensively for. The memorization got me through the testing, and the testing got me to the next level so I could keep up with this linear trajectory toward graduation.

In this year-by-year context, rote learning was perhaps helpful for building a foundation of knowledge quickly so I could keep moving upward and forward, but it did not prove helpful for me in retaining information or later building connections between old and new. I am likely not alone in this experience, as these are widely-known downfalls of this approach. Yet, it seems like we also kind of accept it as the norm.

What if there was a different way? One that impacted the long-view of learning for more people?

Concrete before abstract

“Llllll” as in, “Lime!” “Mmmm” as in “Mama!” “Fffff” as in “Fox!”  

This went on for about 10 minutes at our family dinner table the other night. My 3.5-year-old has a booming interest in language. In Montessori literacy, he starts with the letter sounds – not letter names – which is why he was emphasizing the noises. These sounds are then connected to the letters using the Sandpaper Letters, where he traces the symbols for a physical representation. Then, he will continue to use his hands with the Moveable Alphabet, where he will write his first words, and the first words he reads will be his own.  

This process is the norm in Montessori. Geography, science, math – all of these academic areas will be introduced in a way that lays down a concrete foundation by using materials that invite him to act, manipulate, experience, therefore adding greater context and meaning. Even on a zoomed-in level, this work is not at all linear. It is circular, back and forth, as the hand and the mind communicate to one another.

Isn’t this true of life in general? We advance and progress over time, but we go through so many distinct phases in our life via trial and error of what works in our environment and what doesn’t. It is hardly a straight path. Education should be no different. We shouldn’t expect to shuffle our children by same-age groupings at a shared pace and measure their growth by how steady their ascent is.

Progression: It’s a vague term, but one we as parents cling to when it comes to raising our children. In our quest to see the ascent, let us remember that real progress happens when we have the ability to revisit old knowledge and bridge it with new. Progress is not merely a means to get somewhere faster, but to be somewhere with greater intent and understanding.

I guess that first quote stuck with me because it is revolutionary. It is different. It is exactly the kind of progression I want my children to experience. These phases we go through aren’t meant to be passed through with a hyper-focus of what is next, but truly experienced so that we can better build upon them, not past them.

What does progression mean to you?

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