The Classroom, Reimagined: How do We Teach Children to be Independent?
Children’s House, ages 2.5-6
Observation notes from the first day of school
Dr. Melinda Bray
Walking through the door I see a child putting her shoes in her cubby as she walks away wearing her slippers. Inside the hall a boy is hanging up his backpack and another asks, “Where is my name?”
“Let’s see, it starts with an A,” his teacher replies.
She puts her finger on the far left name that is typed above each hanger and below each place for a lunch box. They travel over the names together until he stops at his. He puts down his backpack, unzips it, and takes out his lunch box. He puts it on the shelf. Getting the hanger, he tries to put his backpack on it. She asks him, “Would you like me to show you how you can do it?”
He replies, “Yes” and hands her the backpack and hanger. She shows him how to hook the handle of the backpack and tilt the hanger to hang it up. She hands him the hanger to do it himself, and he does.
If you are like me, this little boy’s teacher answered his question very differently than my teachers did. I was also struck by how on Day One this Montessori teacher guided her students and taught them how to fish!
As an educator for thirty years, I have had the privilege of witnessing many such powerful moments, when a child or a teen learns to do something all by herself. You know the feeling! Great, isn’t it? We all want this for our children. The question is how do you teach a child to be self-reliant so he can experience the amazing satisfaction of taking care of himself?
Let’s look at the scenario above to help us answer this question. The child asks a very simple question, “Where is my name?” Were you surprised by the teacher’s answer? Did you notice she doesn’t answer him by giving him the answer. She responds by guiding him to discover the answer himself. Oh, she does so much here!
- Thinking made visible
The Montessori teacher makes her thinking visible to the child by saying, “Let’s see, it starts with an A.”
By doing this, she demonstrates for the child what he needs to think about to answer his question.
- The Prepared Environment
The teacher has already put the nametags on the cubbies so on the first day of school healthy habits can begin.
- The Child Who Knew Expectations
Students had previously come one on one with their parents to meet the teacher and check out their new classroom. The teacher had already told the child what would happen when he arrived at school. He knew he was supposed to hang his backpack up in a cubby with his name on it.
- The Teacher engages the child in discovering the answer
She puts her finger on the far left name that is typed above each hanger and below each place for a lunch box. They travel over the names together until he stops at his.
Yes, this takes much longer than telling him, “Here is your name, A… .” Don’t miss the importance of this process, however! This is one of the skills he could use tomorrow and perhaps the next week as he searches for which cubby is his.
As Dr. Montessori said, “We never do for a child what a child can do for himself.”
He puts down his backpack, unzips it, and takes out his lunch box. He puts it on the shelf.
Thanks to the prepared environment and clear expectations, the child gets to work!
- Observation, respect, choice for children
Getting the hanger, he tries to put his backpack on it. She asks him, “Would you like me to show you how you can do it?”
Upon noticing his struggle, she does not take the hanger from him and show him how to do it. She asks him if he wants her help. She gives her student the choice to make the decision whether he continues his attempts or would rather be shown how to do it. Giving children such choices not only teaches them how to make choices, but she demonstrates that she respects him and his wishes about how he learns.
- Students have the right to say, “No.”
He replies, “Yes” and hands her the backpack and hanger.
I was shocked when I first was told this by my Montessori Guide 12 years ago. What? A child can say, “No” to a teacher? Anarchy came to my mind. I also recall thinking this is what is wrong with kids today, not respecting adults. Yet, over the decade my experiences have taught me otherwise. The key: make sure you only ask questions when a “No” response is acceptable and don’t ask a question giving a child a choice if she really does not have the freedom to have one.
For example, if he had said, “No, I want to do it.” The teacher would have allowed him to continue trying to do it. This is an appropriate situation where a child can respond authentically. We do not ask children if they want to go outside when it is recess time. That is not a situation in which they have an option.
- Model expected behavior
She shows him how to hook the handle of the backpack and tilt the hanger to hang it up.
Notice, she does not say a word; she models the expected behavior. For young children, do more than talk. They watch your actions. They don’t need constant step-by-step instructions, just show them silently and allow them to observe.
- Child demonstrates an understanding of how to do tasks
She hands him the hanger to do it himself, and he does.
Do not give in to the “interest of time” and leave out the vital step of the child experiencing the satisfaction of learning.