Monika Sood, a student at St. Catherine University in the Advanced Montessori Programs, reached out and shared her paper on Montessori and Workbooks. We wanted to support Monika in her efforts to think concretely about Montessori and thought many of you might enjoy the work she has put into the article.
This paper focuses on the importance of a Montessori prepared environment and how it provides freedom and cultivates exploration, curiosity, and creativity within a child. This paper further examines Dr. Montessori’s child-centred philosophy as compared to a teacher-oriented approach as seen through the use of workbooks. Although workbooks are limiting, mundane and systematic, they are often used as evidence of the child’s academic achievement to appease parents. They also do not provide individualized guidance and can foster a negative outlook on learning. Whereas, the use of Montessori’s hands-on materials or manipulatives at sensitive periods can lead the child to personal discovery. Thus, once a concrete understanding of the material is gained, workbooks can be an additional source of practice. It is relevant to consider the alarming dependency of workbooks in the Montessori classrooms today, as it discredits the importance and validity of the prepared environment for the child’s cognitive growth.
Key Words: Prepared environment, workbooks, sensorial experience, self-efficacy, performance goals, mastery of the material
Montessori Prepared Environment Sufficient for Cognitive Growth of a Child;
Should Not Rely on Workbooks Alone
“Therefore, it is clear that we must not carry the child about, but let him walk, and if his hand wishes to work we must provide him with things on which he can exercise an intelligent activity. His own actions are what takes a little one along the road to independence.”
– (Montessori, 1949,1996, p. 154)
The excerpt above fully encapsulates Maria Montessori’s philosophy and pedagogy of a child-centred approach that emphasizes the importance of having a stimulating and supportive ‘prepared environment.’ A prepared environment is an essential element of an authentic Montessori classroom (AMS,1990, p. 2). It allows the child with the freedom to choose their activity based on their interests and readiness. This sensorial experience from the environment helps to develop their independence and their desire to learn, “A child learns to adjust himself and make acquisition in his sensitive period.” (Maria, 1936, 1992, p. 40). Due to generational gaps and differences in the educational system cultures, parents do not understand the fundamental essence of Montessori philosophy and pedagogy, and thus need “reassurance of a child’s ability” (Caldwell, 2007, p.19). Parents demand administrators to satisfy their concerns by assigning their children to practice in workbooks. I believe that children from Montessori should not be given workbooks without having the concrete sensorial experience and understanding of the material. Maria Montessori gives us evidence that it is necessary for the child to use and experience sensorial material which helps him initiate the skill to observe and understand key concepts. This paper will focus on how its own exploration of its environment dictates a child’s learning, and a ‘prepared environment’ will thus provide the child with mastery of the concept. However, the parent concerns and need for validation puts pressure on the system to consider workbooks. Critical reflection on if workbooks should be the sole medium through which the child learns the material is required.
As defined earlier, a prepared environment is one that enriches the child with the tools to freely explore and collaborate to enhance their cognitive skills. Dr. Montessori states: “human hand, so delicate and so complicated, not only allows the mind to reveal itself but it enables the whole being to enter into special relationships with its environment” (Montessori, 1936, 1992, p.81). Therefore, the purpose of materials is fulfilled when the child absorbs the knowledge through the use of the senses of the child’s hand, and the repetition of the task fosters concrete understanding of the concept. Montessori’s purpose of designing and introducing the materials to the child at sensitive periods of development was based on research and observation. She notes in her book, ‘The Secrets of the Childhood’ that she noticed “the little girl…slipping cylinders in and out of their containers” (Montessori, 1936, 1992 p.120-121), was repeatedly working on speed, accuracy and was taking pride in her work. Moreover, Montessori elucidated the hand is connected to the brain, emphasizing repetition using concrete materials allows for the assimilation of concepts and mastery of a skill.
Thus, Dr. Montessori concluded that the child when engaged with the material, can concentrate, and focus on the task for longer periods of time. Materials cultivate intrinsic motivation in the child, as it grows multiple pathways and dendrites in its brain through self-correction as a result of trial and error. Montessori also states that “This also liberates him from unfavorable and discouraging criticism of others and develops in him the sense of (self-) criticism” (1997, p. 11-12).
Therefore, such experiential learning and mastery of the material foster self-efficacy and independence. However, the use of workbooks in a Montessori classroom contradicts the philosophy of having a self-directed environment, and thus such a setting loses authenticity. Workbooks are “cheap, quick copies of blackline masters” (Caldwell, 2007, p.19) and are concrete and mechanical in their ways of instructing material. They do not provide the child with the scope of growth as “it quickly becomes meaningless busy work as well as a source of unhealthy competition” (Caldwell, p. 20). Such a framework encourages the child to set performance achievement goals which ultimately deprive the child of being self-reflective, and thus they lose the opportunity to develop new skills. With workbooks, the child is focused on maintaining a routine of work as it is teacher directed, and workbooks do not allow the child the autonomy to be led by their own developmental needs or interests.
Abraham further explained that the essence of Montessori is extracted from the classroom when:
“the students are all sitting in rows of desk with no freedom of movement, no choice of
work, all doing the same pages of the same workbook at the same time, with the threat of
punishment if a single word is uttered, you are not in a Montessori classroom.” (2012, p.23) Therefore, it can be stated that workbooks are passive in their approach and do not allow the child with the freedom of choice. Hence, their “active input” is lacking (Caldwell, p.20) and it “de-emphasize independence and creativity” (Dorer, 2018, p.44)
Moreover, the nature of workbooks is limiting as it is generalized for all children and does not cater to the individualized needs of a child but rather is used “to appease parents.” (Caldwell,2007, p.19) Powell (2009) suggests that administrators and teachers use these workbooks as evidence that “covers all the curricula.” (p. 26) Caldwell (2007) also recognizes that workbooks “placate parents’ fears about what children are learning” and that the parents “do not have faith in the method.” (p. 18) Therefore, administrators and schools to “satisfy the needs of students and concerns of parents” (Abraham, 2012, p.23) incorporate workbooks in the curriculum.
The positive aspect of incorporating workbooks is echoed by Dorer, as he highlights, “it might be work in which some additional repetition and practice will aid in gaining fluency” (Dorer, 2016, p. 17). In upper elementary, to gain independence, the child is expected to “choose their follow-up work.” (Dorer, 2018, p. 44) Having workbooks as a supplemental resource for the child “may be more appropriate in some areas of learning” (Caldwell, 2007, p. 20). Dorer recommends that providing students with workbooks allows them to understand the routines and expectations of independent work “without repeatedly asking for directions” (2018, p. 44) from the guide/teacher and learning to take ownership of their own work. However, it is important to remember that, “workbooks can be abused” (Caldwell, 2007, p. 20) taking away the sensorial experience of the material from the child that is essential in the cognitive development of the brain. Instead, Schmidt (2008, p. 8) suggests that having portfolios that have a collection of the child’s work with rubrics that communicate the teacher’s expectations and peer feedback, can be a source of assessment evidence for parents. She further elaborates that it “helps the child become aware of how they spend their time.” (Schmidt, 2008, p. 8)
In conclusion, a prepared environment is more than sufficient in fostering the cognitive growth of a child as workbooks do not encourage the child to explore or become innovative in its way of learning the material. However, once the child gains mastery of the material through self-discovery, senses, and observation; workbooks can be supplemental tools for practice and achieve fluency. Reiterating Caldwell’s statement that, “The use of workbooks to by-pass with material, is, however, to be avoided.” (2007, p.20) Thus, in my opinion, workbooks can be secondary sources of learning that allow the child to gain test-taking skills, for further education or education in a different environment. After examining the different perspectives, it leaves us to question how much workbook practice is essential without taking the essence of the prepared environment and the concrete material away.
Abraham, J. (2012). How much water can you add and still call it lemonade? Montessori Life: A Publication of the American Montessori Society, 24(1), 22-25
American Montessori Society. (1990). Essential elements of successful Montessori schools in the public school sector. Retrieved from https://amshq.org/school-Resources/Public
Caldwell, S. (2007, July). Workbooks? Is there a place for them in authentic Montessori education? IMC-ENEWS, pp. 18-21
Dorer, M. (2018). Independence: a Montessori journey. Montessori Life, 30(1), 40-45
Dorer, M., Dr. (2016, January). Montessori homework. Tomorrow’s Child, 24(1), 17-20
Montessori, M., & Buckenmeyer, R. (1997). The California Lectures of Maria Montessori: Collected speeches and writings / Maria Montessori; edited by Robert G. Buckenmeyer. The Clio
Montessori series; vol. 15 Oxford: Clio Press
Montessori, M. (1967a). The absorbent mind. New York: Dell
Montessori, M. (1992). The secret of childhood. 17th ed. New York: Ballantine Books.
Powell, Mark. (2009). Is Montessori ready for the Obama generation? Montessori Life: A Publication of the American Montessori Society, 21(2), 18-29
Schmidt, M. (2008, September). What? No Grades? Understanding Academic Achievement in Montessori Classrooms. Tomorrow’s Child, 17(1), 5-8