We've been thinking about how difficult it can be for people to understand what happens in a Montessori environment, especially if they have no previous experience. We know, because we went through the same set of questions. As a result, we thought it might be helpful to lay out some of the architectural elements of the traditional classroom and the Montessori environment, to provide a better visual sense of exactly what happens.
Here's a picture of a traditional classroom. It looks pretty familiar, right? This is the way the majority of us were educated. All the students are carefully seated at their individual desks, perhaps in alphabetical order, working on the same problem, or challenged by the same task, at the exact same time.
The teacher, for his/her part, stands in front of the classroom, explaining the activity, or working through a set of calculations or instructions, for everyone to follow. You see, everyone is treated exactly the same, despite their abilities or interests. Previously, in our Fordist culture, it was determined that this was the most effective, and efficient way to educate children on a mass scale.
Now, architecturally speaking, the teacher's position is at the head of the classroom, either seated at a desk, or standing at the chalkboard. Of course, from time to time, he/she frequents the individual desks, but his/her primary role is as the center of attention, as the focal point for the children. In essence, the classroom revolves around the teacher. Without the center, the classroom loses its ability to function.
In Montessori, however, it's the exact opposite: the children are the centers, and not the teacher. Paradoxically, it's when a single center is instituted, that the Montessori environment ceases to function.
You see, a traditional classroom is predicated on dependence. The children are reliant on their teacher. They look to them to guide tasks and praise or judge work. In a Montessori environment, however, the children are learning to become independent, and reliant upon themselves and their peers. They're working to build and participate in a community that understands how to evaluate itself.
For us, personally, it's not so much that one model is better than another, (that's never been our position) as much as there is a clear choice between the two, which includes a different set of expectations and outcomes. At the end of the day, of course, it's entirely up to the families to select which model fits their lifestyle and their vision of education. Our only wish is that we offer such families the choice.
Architecturally speaking, then, the Montessori environment is much different than a traditional classroom. The teacher doesn't have a desk or a chalkboard positioned at the front of the room. As a matter of fact, there is no front or back or middle or sides, apart from those that manifest themselves. In this respect, the classroom is much more permeable and amorphous. It is comprised of students, just the same, but the students are free to choose their space(s).
While the traditional classroom model is architected to restrict students, confined to a particular desk, no less than a task, and a time; the Montessori environment is carefully prepared to allow the children to move about unrestricted, working on activities of their own selection, at their own pace, and in their own space. With a fulcrum, it's easy to control the spokes, or atleast that's the theory. In Montessori, however, we trust that the children will be able to control themselves.
Furthermore, the Montessori environment has a number of tables and chairs, designed specifically for children, positioned throughout the room. Even the faucets and sinks are crafted just for them: at their height, with their weight and strength taken into consideration. We also have floor mats, at which children are free to work, so as not to have to conform to a chair. Here's a picture of our Montessori environment, just as the students are starting to enter for the day. You'll notice how open the space is, and how freely the children are allowed to choose where they wish to work.
Our job, which is also where some of the misunderstandings of Montessori come into play, is not to work to condition the center. Instead, it's to follow the interests of our students, and work to strengthen and develop the relationships between the children, their peers, their work, and the "teachers", i.e.: directress and assistant. Of course, "teachers" are important, but only when they are needed, not just because the architecture demands their presence.
Montessori creates a new type of architecture: an architecture of and for children. Centers have many names, but they are always places and points of dependency. In our estimations, we need to work to disperse the centers, to foster nodes that are independent and have the courage that thought demands.