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EDITIONS
Sunday, 2 June, 2002, 01:56 GMT 02:56 UK
Learning the Montessori way
children playing with purple chips
Children are encouraged to learn independently
In the early part of the 20th Century, an Italian doctor called Maria Montessori developed a new approach to teaching, where children took responsibility for their own learning.

In a Montessori classroom, children work largely on their own with special equipment designed to develop their sensory, numeric, language and practical skills.


Lorna Mahoney is passionate about Dr Montessori's method, so much so she spent five days of her honeymoon in Barbados observing Montessori schools.

Lorna Mahoney
Lorna Mahoney: A Montessori teacher for 12 years
Lorna had been teaching and training Montessori teachers for nine years when three years ago she identified the demand for a Montessori school in her home area of Walthamstow, north-east London.

"I had parents knocking on my door asking 'Are you the lady who's setting up a school?' even before I'd found a building," Lorna recalls.

Now the school is up and running for 20 pupils aged two to five and, from September, the school will keep on children beyond that age.

The children are all in class together, despite their different ages.

boy using tongs to move shaped objects
Pupils are encouraged to develop everyday skills, such as using tongs
"Dr Montessori felt that in life, you don't just exist with those the same age - you'll mix with people of different ages, sexes, religions and so on," Lorna explains.

When pupils arrive, they greet their five teachers by shaking hands and then start work by picking up any piece of equipment they choose.

Some read a book in the corner, others play with a jigsaw or with beads.

There is no formal start to the day with teacher telling pupils what they will be doing that day - instead the initiative is with the child.

girl transfers beads with a pair of tweezers
Gently does it! Each bead is carefully picked up with tweezers
And there is no black board in sight.

"I'm directing them to learn rather than telling them to - I'm not teaching them," says Lorna.

"We're not here to impress them and tell them clever things - so the balance is very different.

"Teacher is not central to the activities at all - there's no desk, for example. But in an 'ordinary' school, she's in charge."

Hands-on

Much of the focus of Montessori is on the sensory.

boy counting using spindles
With only 10 spindles, the child knows if he has got it right
"Dr Montessori said: 'Nothing comes to the intellect which isn't first in the senses'," says Lorna.

"Nothing in the classroom is put there by accident, it's there for a reason, not just to entertain a child but it has a purpose."

And so a globe with the land marked out in sand paper helps children understand the difference between land and sea.

Pupils learn to add up by putting spindles into the right slot, numbered one, two and so on.

girl with 1,000 beads
A concrete set of 1,000 beads helps get the message across
A set of beads, divided into one, 10, 100 and 1,000 introduces children to the concept of decimals.

"With the beads, they get a muscular impression of the difference between a unit of one, 10, 100 and 1,000 with their hands.

"After a while they see that the 1,000 is just lots of 100s joined together," says Lorna.

SATs

In contrast to government targets, Lorna refuses to put children under pressure to achieve.

outdoor playtime
Children carry on playing independently outside
"I make no guarantees - I won't say your child will be reading by the time they leave, because there is no average, there is no average child."

When Walthamstow Montessori school eventually expands into a primary school, Lorna says she will ask pupils to sit the national curriculum tests, SATs.

"But we'll do them in a Montessori way - there'll be no build-up, no pressure."

Moving to mainstream

One of parents' biggest concerns is how children will react when they leave a Montessori environment and head into a mainstream school.

girl playing with puzzle
Children have mats to play on, setting out their own space
Lorna is adamant that the skills of independent learning serve the children well.

"It's not as hard as it would be the other way round," says Lorna.

"Our children are very motivated. We get fantastic feedback from schools because they've got the independence to get on with something else when they've finished a piece of work - they don't just sit there, because they're active learners having had the responsibility for their learning handed over to them at a young age.

"But a child who comes into this environment where there is so much freedom will find it hard because they won't be as independent."

Early excitement

Montessori has proved more popular in other countries - such as Canada, the United States, Italy, Sweden and Ireland - than in the UK.

But, as Lorna recalls, it could have been a very different story.

"In the early part of the 20th Century, a member of the aristocracy saw Dr Montessori's work in Italy and was so excited, they suggested bringing her over here so that all British infants could learn in this way.

"But then World War II broke out and it never happened - it's such a shame."

See also:

11 Jan 01 | Education
04 Oct 99 | Education
15 Mar 99 | Education
04 Aug 99 | Education
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