A Guide, Not a Teacher
Daily activity in a Montessori Children’s House can easily pass by in a bright and busy blur—from the excitement of morning greetings and the contented hum of the 3-hour work cycle to the flurry of gross motor play and the clank and clatter of lunch. Yet, even with a vivid awareness of all the interactions, effort, and activity that fills each day, it can be difficult to explain to those unfamiliar with Montessori just what exactly you do as a Montessori guide.
The role is often explained in terms of a negative, in terms of what a guide doesn’t do. The guide doesn’t interrupt the child’s focus, give elaborate explanations, or intervene with the child’s choice of work. Yet, it’s clear to those who observe a Montessori classroom and to the guides themselves that there is also a positive mandate, a mandate to do something definite. In countless ways big and small, direct and indirect, Montessori guides intervene to support the children in their care, to give them everything they need to gain crucial knowledge, hone their skills and craft their character.
Without a clear understanding of the guide’s role—an understanding that encompasses both the positive and negative mandates—it becomes challenging, and even overwhelming, for guides to know if and how they should intervene in any one of the infinitely varied situations they encounter in the classroom.
A key to this understanding is to note that guides are not teachers. The role of a teacher, broadly speaking, is to instill knowledge. Though every school or class is unique—with respect to instructional method, degree of concern for the child’s motivation and interest, and selection of curriculum—the basic project of a teacher is to transmit knowledge involves motivating the child to digest information, facilitating retention—often using worksheets, activities, games, songs, or mnemonics—and then assessing the child recall. The basis for this role is the idea that knowledge is something that the teacher possesses and that the child receives and remembers.
Instead of instilling knowledge, the role of the guide is to lead the child through the process of building knowledge for himself. This role involves a whole host of positive mandates: to do everything possible to give the child access to the tools needed for building knowledge. But it also involves a crucial negative mandate: to not do anything that treats the guide’s already-earned knowledge as a substitute for the child’s own work. To adopt this role is to recognize that, just as the adult can’t breathe for the child, eat for him, or walk for him, the adult can’t think, understand, or evaluate for him. The basis of the Montessori guide’s role is the idea that knowledge is something built and earned by the child himself and whose work is supported, but not supplanted, by the guide.
Guiding the Child
A Montessori guide also has a number of fundamental tasks with the goal of helping the child build knowledge for himself. Namely, the guide prepares the environment, connects the child to the environment and a process for building knowledge, and helps the child synthesize his experiences.
The first and most fundamental task of the Montessori guide is to prepare the child’s environment. If the goal is for the child to build his own knowledge, not simply repeat back and remember the knowledge of others, he must be able to act independently and interact with the world in a meaningful way. He needs to be able to accumulate experiences that work in concert and add up to a clear, solid understanding.
The unmitigated adult world is not prepared for the child. The furniture is too big, the implements are too heavy and unwieldy, and most of the necessities for operating independently are out of reach. And though the child can incidentally learn much from interacting with ordinary objects in his environment— the way an unfamiliar but engaged adult could learn something about the functioning of a car by spending some time under the hood—they are not designed with the child’s cognitive needs in mind. Instead of presenting an isolated skill or quality that the child can focus on and master, for example, they offer a chaos of details and little guidance to navigate through them. In an unprepared environment, the child’s precious energies are dissipated by fighting for access and untangling confusions, often rendering his learning sporadic, confused, and inefficient.
It is the guide’s responsibility, therefore, to create a space that is engaging, beautiful, and calm—that invites and fosters the child’s exploration, benevolence, and focus. It’s the guide’s responsibility to ensure everything the child needs is accessible—to look at everything from the child’s point of view, to think creatively about how to meet his needs, and to design every element for his independence. It’s the guide’s responsibility to bring the information that the child craves to his level—providing materials that isolate skills and qualities, that are designed to capture his interest, and that structure his progress so that every achievement flows seamlessly into the next.
By preparing the environment in this way, the Montessori guide is taking the first step of leading the child through the process of creating knowledge, by designing a space that makes engaging in that process possible and maximally fruitful.
Once the environment has been prepared, the guide’s role shifts to connecting the child to the actual process for building knowledge. In this process, the child chooses to interact with scientifically exact materials that isolate some aspect of the world—colors, shapes, the sounds of words—and then concentrates without interruption, problem-solving in order to complete a task he finds captivating. Through this process, the child builds a solid grasp of the world. A grasp that is evident in his independent, successful completion of each activity. A grasp that proudly declares: “THIS is what makes a triangle, a triangle,” “THIS is how to wash a table,” or “THESE are the sounds that make up the word ‘map’.”
The guide’s role in connecting the child to this process is, first, to observe carefully—to note what intrigues him, what he likes to focus on, what his current understanding and skill level are. And then, to present the materials to the child and demonstrate how to perform a task involving them.
These presentations are precise, with each movement the guide makes, the order of demonstration, and the required verbal explanation as uniform and exact as the materials themselves. Since the goal is to empower the child to complete the process himself and not to give the child knowledge, the guide provides only the information which is absolutely necessary for him to understand and perform the activity, and nothing more.
Once the child is focused on completing the activity, it is the guide’s role to step back and observe the child once more—this time to ensure that he’s using the materials appropriately, to note his level of focus and success in completing the activity, to guard his concentration from interruptions, either from the child’s classmates or the guide herself, and, when necessary, to intervene and re-connect the child to the process.
The decision of when to intervene, whether to offer help, re-present materials, or redirect the child’s behavior, is delicate. But it is ultimately determined by the principle governing the guide’s role. Specifically, the guide must determine whether any potential intervention would aid the child by removing a barrier preventing him from engaging in or continuing the process of building knowledge or if it would supplant the child by preventing him from performing some element of the process, or the entire process altogether. In every case, the goal is to connect the child to the process, and if the potential intervention serves that goal, then it is not only appropriate but necessary to intervene.
Once the child has worked with the materials and has demonstrated a solid understanding of them, it is the guide’s responsibility to help him synthesize his experiences. Namely, the guide helps the child connect his concrete experience to a concept, to the abstract language which describes it, using a three-period lesson.
In these lessons, the guide is not teaching the child how to understand the qualities or functioning of the materials. She is not acting as a teacher, transferring abstract knowledge about shapes or colors, for example. Rather, the guide is helping the child capture the knowledge he has already built in a way that he can manage—that he can succinctly hold onto, refer to in new contexts, and expand on as he builds related knowledge.
In helping the child to synthesize his experiences in this way, the guide is helping the child take his knowledge and transform it into a tangible product. The child has already successfully followed the process, but only once the guide provides a word does the child have something to show for all his work.
As the child gets older and his learning becomes increasingly abstract, the guide’s role changes in its application. The focus is less on the child gathering concrete experiences, and more on building upon these experiences to create whole categories and a unified system of knowledge. The goal and governing principle of the guide is the same for all ages, however: not to instill the knowledge the teacher possesses, but to guide the child through the process of building knowledge for himself. As Montessori eloquently depicts:
"Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire "to make him learn things," but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called the intelligence. If to this end we must consecrate ourselves as did the vestals of old, it will be a work worthy of so great a result."