Montessori and Concepts

Story by August 08, 2013
By way of an introduction to Intro to Colors, we thought we'd put together a few thoughts on how children best learn concepts.

Of course, please keep in mind that everyone learns differently, and at their own pace – and, the absolute best time to introduce new ideas, is when children start to express an interest in the subject matter at hand.

With that said, there are a few general points that we would like to highlight for your consideration. These principles and methods should serve, in our estimations, as helpful guideposts. Perhaps they’ll even help point the way to a new discovery.

How do we introduce concepts in Montessori?

The chief approach to understanding abstract concepts, is by developing a concrete appreciation. In other words, getting your hands dirty in the mud, so to speak. What do we mean by this? Well, as adults, we often take for granted the notion that we understand concepts. For most of us, we simply do not remember how we learned them in the first place.

Do you remember, for instance, having learned the concept zero?Zero has always been zero. It’s always just made sense. It’s a concept that we understand, and an association that we share and relate to with others. Zero means, nil, none, naught, zilch, zip, nada, and even, in certain instances, diddly-squat. Yet, how did we come to learn such an abstract concept?

There’s a really wonderful origin story about the concept of zero. In Architecture as Metaphor, Kojin Karatani, writes: “Zero was invented in India and was originally the name for not moving a bead on an abacus. If it were not for zero, the numbers 205 and 25 would be indistinguishable.” That’s a pretty powerful thought. On this account, zero translates into “not moving a bead on an abacus.”

While concepts such as “zero”, no less than “big” and “small”, “short” and “long”, are just understood by most of us, have you ever had the opportunity to try to explain such a concept to a child? Imagine that set of instructions: “When you have something that represents nothing, we call that zero.” “When something is, you know, bigger than something smaller, it’s called bigger.” Many of us have fumbled with such explanations. Boiling things down, making things as simple as possible is an art. It could even be said that it’s a life practice.

Now, how do we teach children the concept of “color”? After all, nothing could be more abstract. Traditionally, the way color is taught, is a teacher will hold up an object, let’s say an apple (because firetrucks are too heavy) and exclaim, “This is red.” Now, in the mind of a child, there’s way too much at play.

For starters, there are at least two things at work here.

First, there’s an object: an apple. Now, apples aren’t always red. Sometimes they’re yellow or green. We could also use the example of the sky, which is never “just blue”. Unless, perhaps, you live in the Cayman Islands. But still, I think you get the point. Imagine the confusion that’s stirring in the wonderful mind of a child.

Second, there’s also a concept: “red”. In this situation, what often happens is that the child, who is still trying to make a strong connection to the world, will end up associating the concept (red) with the object (apple). It’s not all that uncommon to have a child see a yellow apple and point, “red”! This would be the abstract approach to teaching the concept of colors.

How is our approach different? We start by isolating the concept. As you’ll notice, everything in the screenshot below is the exact same, except for the color. Working through a series of exercises, specifically designed to help children learn, we first introduce and offer a concrete appreciation for the colors. Then, once the child has a firm grasp, we then introduce associations. For instance, only when a child understands the color orange, would we then introduce an orange lampshade.

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