Hands On Learning is a Hallmark of Montessori Methodology
The focus on specific hands on elements in learning environments scaffolds the learning to be acquired. Hands on materials allow for lessons to build upon one another and extend a student’s abilities in a stepped fashion that proceeds from concrete to abstract. Through her observations of children’s learning, Maria Montessori recognized the importance of working with the hands as a means of learning, which is reflected in the design of the materials associated with her method.
“The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.” – Dr. Maria Montessori
Working directly with a manipulative, or hands on material that promotes perceptual and motor activity providing concrete learning. This strategy recognizes the brain’s more natural way of thinking, called embodied cognition or more colloquially, motor memory. It is highly effective for learning since the concept being taught is directly perceived rather than having to be imagined.
When the hands and mind are fully engaged, this embodied cognition holds the attention of the learner and increases their habit and practice of concentration.
How Does Hands On Learning Work?
Hands on learning works through a process of transforming perceptual-motor computations and integrating them with symbolic and verbal representations.
If you think of the Montessori curriculum for 3-6 years and to emphasize this hands-on quality, consider the brilliance of the decimal system materials: the Golden Beads. When a student holds a one unit bead in one hand and a thousand cube in the other, they become acutely aware of a weight and size differential. When they are ready to work with the symbol of one unit (“1”), and the symbol for one thousand (“1,000”), they have already embodied the cognition of this difference, created a physical and cognitive impression, and have made a leap towards abstraction.
“The human hand allows the mind to reveal itself.” – Dr. Maria Montessori
With every concept a child encounters at this level, it is their experimentation and engagement through their hands and other senses that forms an impression before they are introduced to the abstract idea of the concept.
In yet another study, researchers Martin and Schwartz found hands-on manipulatives assist the learner in discovering meaningful structure if there are repeated opportunities to explore the material. They found that it takes multiple experiences for the learner to tie their perceptions with symbolic meaning. In Montessori, student’s constant access to the same materials and encouragement to practice, provide the hidden structure for this repetition. Additionally, it is the steps towards mastery that follow a clear sequence of engagement with hands-on materials that are increasingly more abstract and symbolic create a scaffold of learning for our students.
Quick Tip: Strategies to Enhance Hands On Learning
Montessori is full of hands-on materials which exemplify this learning strategy. Learning more about how to enhance this quality by avoiding inherent risks is imperative and where we’re focussing our teaching tips.
- Carefully track and encourage children’s repetition with concrete materials; however, there is a risk of over-scaffolding and not bridging concrete to abstract in a timely manner.
- Identify the key property of the material such as length with the Red Rods or volume with the Sound Cylinders. Missing the key property means you’re relying on the student’s ability to make the leap of understanding when it may need to be more explicit.
- Provide simple explanations about procedures to follow so your student isn’t just performing them rote but understands the meaning behind what they’re doing. One easy strategy is to identify the goal of the lesson before you begin and review it at the end of the lesson.
Time and again I hear from new Montessori guides astounded by their own “aha” moments regarding a deepened understanding of a concept based on their engagement with the learning materials.
What epiphanies have you had when working with hands on learning materials?
– By Tammy Oesting
Our ABCs of Learning: Montessori Edition is inspired by the work of authors Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica Tsang and Kristen Blair, Professors of Education at Stanford University’s book The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use which was reviewed on our Great Titles for Educators web page.