Core Philosophy

Seeing is Achieving: How the Montessori Method Builds Responsibility

Written by Samantha Blaisdell on May 30, 2023

If you spend some time in a Montessori classroom, you’ll notice something strange: the children find joy in keeping things tidy. And even more peculiar, they seem to value tidiness of their own initiative, without a word from their teacher. 

It’s not uncommon, for example, for a 4-year-old to gather her colored pencils after finishing her work, lovingly sort each by color into their appropriate bin, and emerge at the end with a look of profound satisfaction. Or for a 2.5-year-old to glance with anticipation at his friends beginning to sing during circle time, only to first spend a few minutes transfixed by the task of meticulously rolling up and putting away before joining. Or for a 20-month-old to gather orange peels from breakfast into a neat pile on her plate, stand up carefully to avoid dropping any, walk gingerly to a dish station, discard her trash slowly, stack her dirty plate, and then break into a smile in evident delight at her accomplishment. 

These habits and behaviors are, of course, learned. Montessori guides do a great deal to instruct and encourage the child to care for the classroom environment. They prepare an orderly, beautiful space, offer deliberate presentations of the expected routines, and consistently model those routines themselves. 

And yet, lessons and modeling alone are not enough to cultivate the level of independent awareness and joyful initiative we see in a classroom—such a deep, habituated sense of order requires more than just memory or mimicry to translate into proactive behaviors. To be ingrained into the child’s character, to become second nature in the countless instances in life where no one is watching and no one has given explicit instructions, a proactive sense of order requires the development, practice, and mastery of certain essential skills.

One of these essential skills, non-obvious but at the heart of the Montessori way of being, is simply the ability to observe the world. To act on a sense of order, one must first have a sense of order, and this sense is developed through repeated acts of precise observations and judgments about the world. A child who spends energy looking and listening, comes to naturally see and hear more of the world around him (even when not actively looking and listening); a child who spends energy observing, comparing, contrasting comes to develop a natural awareness of differences in his environment, and notices more even in his baseline state of alertness.

The Montessori method develops a habit of naturally being in contact with reality—of observing and seeking to understand—which in turn leads to an active sense of order. What leads a child to naturally and joyfully reach for a broom? It is noticing the floor covered in crumbs after snack time, discerning the discrepancy between the current state and the proper cleanliness of the floor, and connecting this awareness to potential solutions within his context—combined with an environment that offers him total freedom to act on his understanding

For Montessori, the development of a habitual, purposeful, alertness is important for more than just noticing and cleaning an untidy classroom. What starts as the impulse of a toddler to clean up after a meal becomes the impulse of a scientist to scrutinize the subtle differences he notices on slides under a microscope. In Montessori’s view, this orientation is a supremely human achievement—for the ambitious toddler, the eminent scientist, and everyone in between:“[t]o perceive exactly and to connect the things perceived logically is the work of the highest intelligence.”


The Montessori perspective contrasts with the typical assumption that a child will naturally learn to see, to hear, to observe and pay attention. And on the face of it, the typical assumption is correct: why have a class activity to distinguish between different gradations of color (as the Montessori color tablets do) when a child will naturally learn to make such distinctions without any special lesson? It is not like we need a lesson to tell the difference between light blue and dark blue.

What this perspective misses is the extent to which adults have different natural, baseline sensitivities to differences in the world. Not every adult does notice and retain the difference between shades of blue. Just as not every adult notices that their car is making an odd sound, or that their child has seemed lethargic, or that the headlines in the news seem more cynical. There are radical differences in our ability to be attuned to the world, and to a considerable extent these differences are a function of the cognitive habits we build and maintain—starting in childhood. 

The kind of “real objective observation and logical thought”

that Montessori holds as an ideal is rare. It takes little to vaguely perceive things, to be unattuned to details, connections, and implications. Careful observation and judgment, on the other hand, are skills. They require the ability to sustain one’s attention, and then to infer, make connections, and draw conclusions. 

Yet, Montessori didn’t think these skills must remain rare. Indeed, she thought that it was both possible and necessary for an education system to help children become careful observers. The core of Montessori’s approach to developing the child’s observational skills begins with three to six-year-olds in Children’s House with her curriculum for the education of the senses.’

Education of the Senses

Montessori’s sensory curriculum presents the child with a progression of enticing materials and activities for each of the senses. There are cylinder blocks which require the child to fit knobbed cylinders of varying heights and diameters into the correct slot by sight, fabric boxes which require the child to match fabrics of different material by touch, and sound cylinders which require the child to match cylinders filled with different beads by the sound they make when shaken.

These materials are designed to support the child in developing particular cognitive habits—of carefully observing similarities and differences, forming judgments, then acting to test out the accuracy of those judgments, and changing course when necessary—while completing a task the child finds inherently rewarding.

For example, a child chooses to work with the cylinder blocks and might discover that one of the few remaining cylinders won’t fit in any of the remaining slots. Somewhere he has made an error; he placed a small cylinder in a too-big slot. He had correctly observed that the cylinder would fit, but hadn’t been attuned to the quality of the fit. Now, the child must re-focus, look again even more closely, and judge anew the quality of each cylinder’s placement.

This process of rigorous observation, judgment, testing, and renewed observation becomes progressively more complex as the child gains mastery. The goal is to challenge him to notice increasingly minute similarities and differences and make judgments while attending to an increasing number of details. The initial set of color tablets, for example, starts with only a few matching shades, while the final set includes 64. Similarly, the initial set of cylinder blocks only varies in diameter, while the final set varies inversely in both height and diameter.

With the ability to perceive increasingly fine distinctions, the child’s natural desire to observe and absorb information from his environment is amplified, creating a virtuous cycle—his work with the materials refines his senses, which then enables him to observe the broader environment more carefully, which, in turn, refines his senses still further, and so on. The ultimate aim of this curriculum, according to Montessori, is:

“that the child train himself to observe; that he be led to make comparisons between objects, to form judgments, to reason and to decide; and it is in the indefinite repetition of this exercise of attention and of intelligence that a real development ensues.” (emphasis added)


For Montessori, the child’s capacity to really see the world around him, in all of its details and connections, is in itself, an achievement. It requires an effortful, iterative process of noticing elements in the world, pursuing goals, and receiving feedback that encourages him to look again more closely.

And more, it is through this achievement that the child can successfully act on his understanding in his own life. What begins in pre-school as the capacity to notice an error he makes in completing an activity, to then look more closely to identify the mistake, and to act resolutely to test and confirm his judgment so he can successfully complete the task, becomes in the elementary years, among many other things, the capacity to proactively plan an academic schedule for the week, to notice when he has reneged on the plan, to identify the reasons for failure, and to think of a creative solution to correct it now and avoid it happening again in the future.

The ultimate culmination of these developing capacities—the ability to observe closely, to make logical connections, to form accurate judgments, to follow through with persistent action—is an adult who can not only clearly see things right in front of him, but can also clearly “see” his goals, the next step(s) he could take to achieve them, and the implications, for better or worse, of the different choices he might make.

The person who has attained the achievement of seeing in this way, then, is empowered to act on his understanding of what is right and good across every domain of his life. And it is this habit of attunement with the world that also enables him to notice and fix his errors so that once his understanding is correct, he can then go on to achieve anything he sets his sights on.

  1. Montessori, Maria. Spontaneous Activity in Education (p. 155). Kindle Edition.
  2. Montessori, Maria. The Montessori Method (Illustrated) (p. 184). Kindle Edition.
  3. Montessori, Maria. Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook. Schocken Books (p.71)

Samantha Blaisdell

Samantha Blaisdell earned a B.A. in Secondary Education with a focus on Spanish and ESL from Spring Arbor University and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Idaho. After working as both a brick-and-mortar and online teacher and as an engineer, she discovered and fell head over heels for the ideas and method of Montessori. Samantha lives in Idaho and, in her free time, enjoys reading, spending time outside, and playing with her cats.