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Montessori… Learning for Mastery

Written By : Tsitsi Mutendi   Edited by: Fungai Machirori

Understanding is defined as the ability to comprehend; having insight or good judgement. This is an ability to grasp a concept, cognition, cognizance, ken, knowledge, awareness, perception, discernment.

In Montessori learning, our aim is to aid the child in the journey to understanding. Until a child has shown understanding or mastery of a topic, we do not move on to a higher, or more complex, topic because a child will be left behind and will not have enough of a foundation or background knowledge to be able to master the following topic(s). Put simply, we must sit before we can stand and stand before we can walk and walk before we can run. Very rarely do we succeed effectively if we do not take this step by step foundational method. To build a solid house, you need a good foundation.

This does not mean we sit down and drill information into the child. The Montessori System is child-focused learning. The child always leads the way and the guide (teacher) lights the way. If the child struggles to comprehend, the guide is equipped with tools to assist in the child’s mastery of the subject. Children initially learn through play. Equipment in the Montessori environment stimulates the need for answers through discovery as well as delivering the critical lessons and information that in turn lead to a child’s understanding.

It has been discovered and proved that a child at birth is a “tabula rasa.” “Tabula rasa” is a Latin phrase often translated as “blank slate” in English. Think of it as a blank computer. When you often receive new computers, they come with just the basic operating systems. You can switch them on and off and they have the default factory settings. Just as when a child is born. It comes with the basic human instincts and bodily functions. It then becomes the responsibility of the owner/parent to set up the computer to function for its purpose. We, as the owners of the computers, then input programmes we want to use, install anti-virus software and sometimes learn the hard way what happens when we don’t. This is the same as with children. You teach them the desired language of communication, the values and ethos you believe in, and the children learn from information downloaded off the Internet, the world/ community/family /environment as a whole. And when you expose them to anything, they download/learn as they grow. We basically install the foundational functions and operations or values of our children. In short we are responsible.

Back to The Montessori System. At our school ( we take in 3-year-olds at pre-primary school level and it’s always amazing to receive these young minds, ready and eager to learn. Some of the first things they learn is to take the information they have learnt along their 3-year-long journey from birth and to comprehend it. For example, many children can sequence numbers from an early age. Once they can count from 1-10 they can pretty much reach infinity once their brain understands the concept of sequencing. It’s just putting one number after another in a certain way and repeating this. When they step into our classrooms, however, we introduce them to identifying the core numbers 1-9. This changes the game for them because they now know the numbers they were simply just saying out before. They now identify the numbers. From there, they move on to quantifying the numbers. Once they master quantifying numbers, their whole world of numbers changes. They now comprehend what a number is. It’s not just a sequence anymore. It’s the digits and a quantity. Maths comes alive. More so when they use their senses to learn.

If you watch a child as they develop, you start realizing that the five senses of hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell are the primary means the child uses to gain new knowledge. This critical skill of learning is innate and unstoppable. For the first three years of life the child is using its senses to gain information. We have watched babies doing the see test, feel test, taste test. These are all ways that help learning to be more meaningful and useful. Children naturally learn with all their senses.

Dr Maria Montessori believed that our intellect and knowledge of the world have their beginnings in the senses. According to Dr Montessori, babies experience life, learn, and develop intelligence through the use of the senses. The Montessori 3-6 classroomis a continuation and refining of the method already adopted by a baby from birth. The sensorial apparatus, activities and materials are designed to enhance the child’s understanding of shapes, colours, textures, sounds, tastes and smells. Practical life and sensorial activities offer young children opportunities to develop manipulative skills and eye-hand coordination as well as problem-solving and thinking skills. This early independence and exploration are the foundation for creative thinking as well as the basis for more academic work later. The key is to build on learning facilitated by these materials and place it in context of the child’s everyday experience. Many of the sensory materials develop cognitive frameworks that support the child’s organisation and classification skills.

The outside world shapes children’s development through experiences that they have, which include using their five senses—hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch. Drawing a child’s attention to the five senses and discussing them increases understanding of and communication about the world around us. It also increases the value of the lessons delivered and encourages exploration of the world around them. In the past, where there were no techno gadgets, children played a lot more and experienced the worksa lot more. It made sense for educationalists such as Montessori to bring the curiosity of the child into the classroom and teach through the core human method of instruction, senses. Now more so than before, with introduction of technology and gadgets it’s even more critical to mastery for a child to be in a Montessori environment, that bases its core teaching methods on the foundational methodology using senses in the learning process. We see, we do, thus we learn. Similarly, technology is built off our senses and our basic needs.

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