While many parents today continue to put an emphasis on the academic rigor of their children’s education, more and more are asking how schools are addressing their child’s development of character. We hear buzz words like “grit”, “self-motivation”, and “emotional intelligence”, and begin to worry that our children are not adding these skill sets into their personal repertoire. Indeed, many schools are incorporating ‘character building’ into their curricula along with ‘anti-bullying’ and other similar social development and prevention programs. Adding these types of curricular areas is a beneficial component to a more holistic educational approach. Those who have been involved in Montessori education as former students, parents, or educators might find it interesting that current trends are just now catching up to something that Montessori education has been doing for more than 100 years.
Dr. Montessori believed in “educating the human potential”. The potential she referred to was not limited to academic potential, but rather reached beyond the limitless possibilities we all possess to learn and do meaningful things. Every aspect of Montessori education contributes to educating the whole child. Let us look at what it is about the Montessori approach that contributes to character building:
- The Environment: Children entering a Montessori classroom for the first time are introduced to the various works on the shelves by a teacher. The children learn how to handle the materials with care. After using a particular work, they know to return it to the shelf so that the work is ready for the next person. Children learn how to walk around the work rugs on the classroom floor. They receive lessons in making a ‘safe chair’. They learn to wait for a turn if something they want to do is being used by someone else. They learn to work cooperatively with their peers in a non-competitive environment. These seem like simple lessons, right? That is where Montessori is magical. These are so much more than simple lessons. At their core, these are lessons in safety, respect, and patience. To handle the materials with care keeps them in good condition for the benefit of everyone in the classroom. To move safely about the classroom demonstrates concern for others and their well-being. To learn to delay gratification and be patient is an enormous lesson in self-control. Respect, care, concern for others, and patience—character building in progress!
- The Work Cycle: Over the course of the school day, Montessori students are given an ‘uninterrupted’ period of time in which to choose and do their own work. They have the freedom to decide which activities from the shelves they would like to do, and so long as they are working purposefully, they may work with the materials for any length of time. This work cycle is another example of a multi-purpose lesson in Montessori education. By providing children with the opportunity to make choices, they learn decision-making skills, responsibility, and accountability for what they do. In addition, they build concentration and persistence by being permitted time to work on an activity without being rushed to complete it. This often results in children gaining mastery over skills and an understanding that ‘hard work pays off’. Again, we see character being developed through these opportunities as children gain skills in decision-making, persistence, concentration, and the rewards of self-motivation and diligence.
- Peace Education: We have already shared the importance of Peace Education in Montessori curriculum. It bears repeating, however, as this is another central and direct method of imparting values and building character in our students. Learning that there are peaceful methods for solving conflicts and providing children with tools for positive problem solving all contribute to well-rounded, healthy, communicative individuals, both inside and outside of the classroom.
- The Mixed-Age Classroom: Montessori classrooms consist of students across a 3-year age span. Much like in families, everyone in the classroom has his or her special role and important responsibilities. Older students act as mentors and role models in Montessori environments. Younger students learn from classmates as much as they do from a teacher. There are opportunities for collaboration and many discussions in which everyone participates. Working and learning together in a mixed-age setting promotes acceptance of differences, appreciation, and respect for individual skills and gifts, and an ability to work with a variety of people.
- The Teacher: Montessori teachers often are referred to as ‘guides’, which is a fitting term for their role in the classroom. They are the primary example-setting individuals in the classroom whom children are meant to model. Their words and actions deliver messages of how to speak kindly, respectfully, and clearly. And the teacher’s role in observing the needs of the children in the class is crucial, as it is the teacher who then presents lessons and creates an environment that meets the needs of the children who are served in the classroom.
- Stories as Teaching Tools: Many Montessori lessons revolve around The Great Stories. As children learn about time, history, math, and language, they learn these things in the context of stories that make sense as a whole and in a context children understand. In addition to these ‘teaching stories’, many circle time lessons in Montessori classrooms incorporate children’s literature rich with examples of virtuous characters. These stories are the springboard for classroom discussions, role-playing, and games to help students better understand how character makes a difference. Stories and fables about courageous mice, boys who cry wolf, hardworking pigs, and more, help children come to value these good qualities in the heroes of these important stories. Students are encouraged to share thoughts and ideas, and to apply the lessons in their everyday interactions.
Long ago, Dr. Montessori knew the importance of educating the ‘whole child’—from the academics to character development. She said, “The child is capable of developing and giving us tangible proof of the possibility of a better humanity. He has shown us the true process of construction of the human being. We have seen children totally change as they acquire a love for things and as their sense of order, discipline, and self-control develops within them…. The child is both a hope and a promise for mankind.” (Education and Peace). Indeed, these Montessori classrooms are filled with students of great character who are a beacon of hope for our future as they are learning the skills they will need to be productive, peaceful citizens of the world.