Delivering a quality Montessori experience for your students is a lot of work. You prepare and maintain an environment and curriculum that meets every child’s needs, you guide children to uphold their part of a community agreement, you report student progress to parents and administrators: the job of a Montessori guide can be overwhelming and your efficacy is dependent on a variety of skills.
Observation Prepares the Adult to Act
You may or may not agree, yet I contend there exists a “keystone skill” that is necessary for adults to acquire to effectively deliver Montessori. This keystone skill I’m referring to is observation.
Observation helps teachers more accurately infer what is needed to modify the environment or their approach to the child. Dr. Montessori utilized observation as a primary tool to scientifically measure differences happening in her school laboratory. Today, Montessori practitioners continue to utilize observation in their mission as scientists in the field. The conclusions gathered by observations are better relayed to parents and administrators when they stem from observable phenomenon.
For every action of the adult in the Montessori environment, whether it be replacing one material for another, or intervening with a child, or giving a new presentation to a child, there is a thoughtful reason to do so based on the adults observations. So often what we think must be done is based on our impulses or habits rather than empirical knowledge of what should be done, or not. The question I’m often asked by novice guides is “where do you start?”
Preparing Your Environment for Observation
One place that easy to start is to prepare your environment. Make sure you have an adult sized chair that is parked in a “sweet spot” where you can see your entire environment and optimally, the classroom clock. Introduce this Observation Chair to your students formally letting them know that your work is to observe, to watch what happens. It means when an adult is that chair, they pretend they aren’t even there! If they need support, they can ask a friend or another adult in the room. The next step is imperative: use the chair. Don’t interact with students, instead politely avoid their eye contact and if they approach, you can put up a hand to indicate you’re not available. The next time you have a group presentation, go back over the observation chair norms. If the students want to have their own observation chair, all the better, just make sure to enforce the same rules of engagement as the adult chair.
In addition to preparing the environment with a chair and the children to get used to observers, I’d suggest preparing a clip board with a basic outline of questions or a checklist or even a framework for guest observers to follow. I had a couple of devices prepared for my observations including my favorite pen and a spiral-bound notebook accessed only by my classroom team.
We Must Prepare Ourselves for Observation
In the third lecture of her 1921 London course, Dr. Montessori talked about the preparation of the teacher as analogous to the preparation of scientists in other fields:
“Any methodical observation which one wishes to make, requires preparation. Observation is one of those many things of which we frequently speak, and of which we form an inexact or false idea. It should be sufficient to consider what occurs in all the sciences that depend upon observation. The observers in the various sciences must have a special preparation. For instance, one who looks through a microscope does not see what exists there unless his eye is prepared. It is not sufficient to have the instrument and to know how to focus it. It is also necessary to have the eye prepared to recognize the objects.”
The first steps in preparing to observe are internal. Our brains are plastic, that is, they grow and change, adapting to every situation. Our patterns and habits of thought can be changed with practice. One pattern that hinders our ability to capture what we actually see is the “chatter” or fleeting off-task thoughts that float through teachers minds at any given moment.
Dr. Montessori suggested that guides wear a “beaded belt” and move one bead along the belt every time an impulse to act came upon them. In a recent training, we talked about the possible origins of moving beads along a belt and the cohort surmised it likely came from Dr. Montessori’s use of a Catholic rosary, moving the beads as a place keeper of thoughts. One suggestion we landed on was for Montessori educators to wear a bracelet with beads for this use, a physical tool for training yourself to change a habit, whether it be of the mind like “chatter” or a physical habit such as impulsive intervention.
Since actions are far more effective when founded on actual observations, I suggest that adults working in Montessori environments practice training themselves to quiet their impulsive thoughts and observe what is actually happening before they respond to a child. No beads needed, just a bit of practice. Practice by watching YouTube videos of children working, or watch videos about Montessori classrooms, or better yet, live in the classroom setting and jot a tic mark every time a thought pops in your mind that is not something you are actually seeing or hearing in that moment. Consider starting with one minute and building up your ability to quiet your chatter with practice. With practice, you’ll make more space as an effective observer and will know better when to intervene, and when not to.
Observation is What you Witness and What you Think
My introduction to observation began with viewing a familiar optical illusion. If you perceive the drawing one way it looks like an elderly woman wearing a scarf around her head. If you perceive it another way, she looks like a young fashionista with a feather in her hair. This simple exercise is a clear reminder to prepare ourselves that what you think you are seeing may in fact not be what you think it is. This brings up the importance of noting how our subjective and objective perceptions are at play when we use our senses and our minds to capture observations. Objectively recording what you see and hear is imperative as data collection. When you gather data from different time periods or days, you are better able to accurately infer why certain patterns emerge, and take action accordingly. Often, when we see or hear something, we quickly make a judgement as to why or how that happened. This is subjective and your actions taken would likely be more impulsive without true reflection or consideration of the context of the situation.
My suggestion to increase your mindfulness regarding subjectivity is to not write what you think, but to be clear that it’s what you think and not what you witness. In a running record, a kind of observation that you record everything you see and hear, I’d suggest drawing a vertical line down the paper to capture both your objective observation and separately, your subjective thoughts. This way, when you begin to reflect upon what you’re observing, you’ll have the whole picture of your process. The next step of course, would be how much to weigh what you thought into your equation of how to respond.
In one of her later lectures, Dr. Montessori pointed her finger at the audience with her thumb up. Pointing at her thumb, she told the audience it represented her, her materials, and her method. She reminded the audience to not let those things get in the way of seeing the child. This is a constant reminder to me when I’m observing – to really focus in on the point and set aside my preconceived notions of what it should or could be. Observing what it is rather than what it isn’t.
Focused or Limited Observations May be More Helpful
Observation is more effective when you have a focus. When there is no focus, the observation is a shotgun blast with little chance for meaningful conclusions. As a Field Consultant for several training centers, I have a clear focus for each of my 2 hour observations of intern teachers. My primary mission is to stretch my interns to be their best within the context of their lives, the culture of their school and classroom, and of course, within fidelity to Montessori principles. Although each of my observation checklists differ from center to center, they all have a basic framework of the Montessori “triad” of the adult, the child, and the environment. Once I hone in on each of these components, I’m better able to focus my observation on capturing just those aspects. For instance, when I’m looking at the environment and student engagement, I’m able to track where students move in a certain amount of time, noting what areas are less used. This gives me specific questions to pose to my intern as to refreshing a curriculum area, the number and kinds of lessons given in a subject area, and it can lead us to identify what kind of support might be needed. When focusing an observation on a specific student, I’m far more likely to come up with ideas to further investigate or strategies to try.
Frequent Observations Provide Pattern Recognition
To prepare oneself for effective observation in the classroom, it’s really important to remember that you are seeing this child, this classroom, in this moment in time. You might witness a typical day or behavior, or you might not. You won’t really know if what you’re observing if your data collection pool is too small. Sometimes it’s important to observe at the same time every day to see why a certain behavior is happening. Sometimes it’s important to observe the same things at different times of the day. And sometimes, it’s imperative to note when something happens, like a timed interval observation. Observe as an experiment that must be repeated to gain enough information to be valuable.
Finally, along a similar note as frequency, it’s really important to prepare yourself that you’ll need time to read your observations and to notice patterns that may emerge. Give yourself time to reflect upon what you’ve witnessed to insure you are responding appropriately to your students, co-workers, and the environment.
These observation strategies are just the tip of the iceberg to prepare you to utilize the scientific tool of observation (find out how to observe here). My number one piece of advice when it comes to classroom observation is the simplest: just do it!
-by Tammy Oesting
Tammy Oesting has spent the last 25 years delivering professional development workshops, consulting schools, and educating new Montessori teachers. Her passions include issues of social justice, educating support staff, art education, neuroscience as applied to educational practices, and exploring the magnificence of the world. She is location independent and serves Montessori globally through her company ClassrooMechanics. AMS certified 3-6, 6-12