What is Montessori?

The Montessori Teacher for Children of 6-12 Years  

Karen Bennetts
April 2021

People seeking to understand more about Montessori education sometimes ask about the different approach used by a Montessori teacher compared to that used by a conventional or mainstream teacher.  Although we often refer to the leading adult in a Montessori classroom as a ‘teacher’, Dr Maria Montessori originally changed the name of this adult to ‘directress’ in honour of the more profound and important work she invited her teachers to do. Today we often refer to the Montessori teacher as a ‘guide’.   

Inherent in the term ‘guide’ is an overarching difference in the approach used within a Montessori environment compared to a conventional ‘teacher’.  Convention dictates that the teacher work from a curriculum that, for school-age children, includes voluminous mandated content organised by subjects and year levels.  This curriculum structure and content is chosen by adults outside of the school, often in response to political or social pressures and is reviewed and changed at great expense under government oversight every few years.  Conventional teachers work from this curricular foundation to develop their own teaching and assessment practices adapted to their unique contexts.  Materials are brought in and out depending on what content the teacher has decided the children are to be taught.    

By contrast, the Montessori adult is trained to begin with a focus on the child’s unique needs and to work as a spiritual servant guiding a part of the lifelong process of human development.  This process is based on Dr Montessori’s vision of the human being as developing in stages over four ‘planes’ from birth to adulthood: 0-6, 6-12, 12-18, 18-24 years.  Each plane has its own psychological characteristics.  The process is also based on universal human tendencies such as order, orientation, exploration and communication, which are expressed in different ways across the different planes of development.  

The Montessori guide for children of 6-12 years understands the psychological characteristics of this age group.  The 6-12 child has a Reasoning Mind; a capacity for enhanced imagination; growing independence from family; a desire for group work and an interest in collaborating with peers; stamina and a capacity for Great Work of their own choosing; moral development; and a propensity for hero worship.  The orientation of the 6-12 Montessori teacher’s service around these human characteristics sets up a different platform from the mainstream primary teacher who has a focus on achievement standards and programming learning activities addressing parts of the curriculum. 

The Montessori orientation is directly observable within the prepared environment, Dr. Montessori’s term for the educational space, where guiding children unfolds.  The prepared environment is where the Montessori guide uses inspirational stories that unlock the door, key lessons that help the children once the door is unlocked, and a toolbox of materials, charts, artefacts and other tools.  Mainstream teachers are usually confined to work within the limits of a demanding timetable that is divided into small chunks and often teach using worksheets or textbooks.  Where the Montessori guide is an enlightened generalist at the 6-12 level, working across the curriculum, the conventional teacher relies on specialists to teach some subjects.  This can give children and parents the idea that the curriculum is best compartmentalised and that some subjects need to have a special room, a special teacher and a special timeslot.  

Instead, the Montessori guide offers Cosmic Education, Dr. Montessori’s term for the Big Picture, which offers children the Keys to the Universe.  This is a vast integrated vision that highlights interdependence.  It supports the development of the children’s gratitude to people known or unknown, who have, in meeting their own needs for survival, already contributed to the whole.  Cosmic Education also provides 6-12 children with the possibility of seeing their own contribution to the whole, their ‘Cosmic Task’.  

Cosmic Education has a broader mission than a merely academic curriculum which is designed to organise content for delivery, rather than serve developing potential and independence.  Accordingly, the Montessori 6-12 guide uses different management and assessment techniques from the conventional teacher.  Not dependent on rewards, punishments, tests, activity sheets or teacher-imposed assignments, the Montessori guide is primarily a scientist, ‘sowing seeds’ and observing whether, when and how these might take hold.  Rather than ‘digging up’ the seeds to check their progress, the Montessori guide observes what the children are inspired to do after a presentation – what do they choose of their own free will?  How long do they stay with the work?  Who do they work with and what are they getting out of the work?  What might they be ready for next?  

An accountability system is in place in the 6-12 Montessori environment incorporating a posted curriculum (government requirements), daily journal writing, and regular conferencing with individual children.  This is important as Dr. Montessori outlined a process of normalisation that occurs through work.  This process brings balance to the child and the outcomes of independence, joy, socialisation and self-discipline become observable.  This is a different set of outcomes from those sought by the conventional teacher who is often satisfied with high test scores, compliant behaviour in relation to teacher-imposed rules and tick-the-box attendance.  

The Montessori guide allows freedom and responsibility to act as a fundamental tenet of the prepared environment.  This means the children have some control over what work they choose and when and how this is done.  The children are also encouraged to observe themselves.  Where self-assessment may be used by the mainstream primary teacher, self-assessment is central to Montessori philosophy.  The mainstream primary teacher has a group of children spanning a single year or occasionally a two-year range.  The Montessori guide works with children of 6-9, 9-12 or even 6-12 years all in the one classroom.  A greater range of personalities, skillsets and interests is therefore present and ideally the size of the group is larger, perhaps over 30 children, to gain full advantage of having other young ‘teachers’ in the room.  The Montessori guide is not interested in controlling the children and must be humble in giving up her power to the children, who are leading the way.  This is a different emphasis from the mainstream teacher who is often stressed enough to need a ‘recess’ break from the children, who perhaps need a break from her too.  

The Montessori teacher recognises that she is also a learner and encourages the children to Go Out into the community to further explore areas in which the classroom’s limited resources have been inspirational, but not quite sufficient.  Going Out is not like the mainstream primary teacher’s chosen excursions where everyone will go to a location, such as a museum or a zoo, for a day out.  Rather the Montessori teacher allows a more nuanced and personalised approach, offering presentations on areas of interest to small groups of children.  From these lessons, some children will self-organise a Going Out trip to a library or a local shop for additional resources, to a museum or gallery for specific research or to a venue where they can speak with an expert on their area of interest.

The Montessori 6-12 guide seeks to support a process of human construction, the full outcomes of which are not known for many years.  The 6-12 guide works to remove obstacles to development, builds on what the children have brought from their earlier experiences, happily prepares them for the third plane of development and knows that the children are driven by a natural inner impulse that is not totally dependent on an adult.  This is a rewarding vocation requiring a thorough and detailed preparation beyond what is currently offered in mainstream teacher education courses.  However it is a spiritual preparation, a daily preparation and through dedicated service, the Montessori guide assists children to achieve the possibility of adapting to their world and fulfilling their human potential.