Understanding the Montessori Lingo

by Matt Bronsil, author of English as a Foreign Language in the Montessori Classroom

There is a lot of terminology we use in Montessori that are unfamiliar to people outside the Montessori community. Absorbent mind? Normalization? Work cycle? This often leads to confusion, even when discussing ideas with other educators. This is a list of some of the more common words or phrases used. These words are grouped together by general ideas of how things relate to each other, but if you're just looking for a specific word, look at the list below and click on the word you want to learn about. If you do not see the word or phrase here you are wondering about and you still have a question, please e-mail me and I will try to help.

List of terms. Click on the link to jump to the section:

Work: In Montessori classrooms, there is a long (2.5 to 3 hour) work period. The activities they choose are referred to as their "work" (as opposed to their play). Parents often have concerns when they hear the word "work" because they associate work with something we hate doing. It is important to note that Montessori shows us that there is a difference between what children do for work and what adults do for work. With adults, we do work to complete a task. If we are washing the dishes, our main goal is getting the dishes clean and getting it done as efficiently and quickly as possible. For a young child doing the same activity, the main goal is an internal one ?V to develop a sense of peacefulness, develop their concentration, and develop their sense of order. "Work" in a Montessori environment is actually a positive thing children are excited about rather than a negative thing they have to do. Since work is usually freely chosen, they rarely, if ever, feel like they HAVE to do something. For more information on this, see aims. Back to top.

Materials: Montessori has many different materials, many of which are are specially designed with a Control of Error. The children select a material from the shelf and take it to their workspace. The child or children then work with the material and return it to the shelf where they found it. Back to top.

Control of Error: The majority of materials in the Montessori classroom are designed so that a child can make discoveries on his or her own without the help of the teacher. The materials have a design that the child sees whether or not they have made a mistake. In a 1-9 math material, there will only be 45 counters so if the child reaches 9 and has 10 counters, they can go back and recount the rest of the numbers to see where their mistake is. They can correct it without the help of the teacher. This helps foster independence, observation, and concentration.
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Three Period Lesson: The three period lesson is a way of teaching something, especially the vocabulary used in the presentation. It has three phases to it:

  1. First Period: Introduce the object to the child. "This is a sphere. This is a cube."
  2. Second Period: Test the child to see if they recognize the name. "Which one is the cube? Which one is the pyramid?" Most of the time in the presentation is spent on 2nd period. Some other things we do might be to say, "Give me the cube," "Hide the sphere," or even, "put the cube under the rug."
  3. Third Period: See if the child knows the object without providing the name. Simply ask, "What is this?" as you point to the object.
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Direct and Indirect Aims: Every material in the classroom has both a direct an indirect aim. One aim is an inner aim that cannot easily be measured (in the case of table scrubbing, it might be to help the child develop order, concentration, and focus) and the other is an outer goal of the material (such as making the table clean). My own training center, and many others, have taught that the direct aim is that inner aim while the indirect aim is the outer, measurable goal of the material. I have heard of training centers teaching it the exact opposite way. Whichever way is "right" is not important. What is important is understanding that each material has a goal we can see observing the child (cleaning the table) and a goal that we cannot always see (developing a sense of order). A material is in its best use when the child is able to meet both the direct and indirect aim. Back to top.

Work Cycle: The Montessori classroom has a long, uninterrupted period of time where the children may choose work. The period lasts between two and a half to three hours. As a general rule, it will start off with a period of work. About half way through, the children will experience false fatigue. It will then develop into a more concentrated work cycle that lasts for the remainder of the class. In Maria Montessori's earlier schedule descriptions of her class, the 3 hour work cycle was not included. I have not found anyone that knows exactly when this idea started, but it was taught by Maria Montessori during her training courses as being something that is important to the Montessori classroom to help students develop a deep level of concentration. Back to top.

Absorbent Mind: This is the title of a book by Maria Montessori. In it, she described the child's mind from birth to 6 years old as being like a sponge that absorbs information. From birth to 3, the child is in the stage of the unconscious absorbent mind. They do not discriminate as much what sensory input they receive and are more reactionary to what they receive. From 3-6, the children are more selective on what input they decide to act on. This age is known as the conscious absorbent mind. This is the cornerstone idea of the Montessori early childhood environment. Back to top.

Sensitive Period: Sensitive Periods are times when a person has the best opportunity to learn something. You may be more familiar with a phrase in traditional education that is the exact same idea: "windows of opportunity." Back to top.

Normalization: This is a term that often confuses parents. When they hear "normalization," many parents automatically think of everyone doing the same thing because it the "normal" thing to do. What we are really talking about is what the child's normal state is. Adults often think a child's normal state is one of chaos when, in fact, it is one of a calm, satisfied order. When a child is normalized, the child is selecting work on his or her own that meet his or her developmental needs. The child is calm, peaceful, happy, and content with the work he or she is doing. The terms "normalization" and "normalized" can refer to either a child or the classroom as a whole. Back to top.

False fatigue: This is a period of time that children go through during their work cycle. About half way through their three hour work cycle, the children begin to move around more, wander a lot more, and generally seem less focused in their tasks. This can last for about 10-20 minutes, then the children get refocused into a much more concentrated work cycle. Many Montessorians describe this as being similar to an adult coffee break. Back to top.

Prepared Environment: A Montessori classroom that is designed to meet the needs of the child. The materials are nice and orderly on the shelf, there is not a lot of clutter, the furniture is the appropriate size, and everything is set up and prepared for the child. Back to top.

Freedom within limits: Children need clear guidelines to help them understand what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Children also need a lot of freedom to help them grow and develop. In a Montessori classroom, there are a few key limits. We must respect each other and we must respect the classroom environment and everything in it. If these rules are established, it provides us with a framework to discuss what limits there are in the classroom. We are allowed to move around the classroom (our freedom), but if we run, that will disrupt other people and be disrespectful to them (our limit). We may think of creative ways to use the materials (our freedom), but we cannot throw them or bang them together, since this is disrespectful to the materials in the environment (our limit). It is important to note that different teachers have different ideas on what those limits are exactly. Some teachers might allow things you would not find acceptable and some teachers might not allow things you would not normally see as a problem allowing. It is important that you understand what your child's teacher feels is acceptable and not acceptable so you can help your child adjust to the classroom more smoothly. Back to top.

Matt Bronsil is the author of these posts. He can be contacted at MattBronsilMontessori@gmail.com

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