“It is necessary for the teacher to guide the child without letting him feel her presence too much, so that she may be always ready to supply the desired help, but may never be the obstacle between the child and his experience.”
—Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

The Art of Observation

Maria Montessori was a scientist and a medical doctor, trained in making careful observations of phenomena. She applied those observation skills to children, much like an anthropologist or botanist, taking note of the smallest details. In her first assignment as a doctor, Montessori watched developmentally challenged children in a bare room playing with crumbs on the floor because they had nothing else to manipulate or stimulate their senses. She was inspired to begin making educational materials and, through a process of trial and error, refined the materials based on her scientific observations of children using them.

Observation is an integral and ongoing part of a Montessori guide’s work. Observing without judgment is one of the most vital teaching tools we have to “follow the child,” recognize her needs, and assist her in finding her strengths and capabilities. Observation is a critical component of lesson planning and classroom management. When the guide observes that a student has mastered a concept or skill, she can introduce new lessons.

There’s much more to the art of observing than recording the skills children have mastered. For example, we try to detect what Montessori called “sensitive periods” in the child’s development, as well as heightened interest in music, art, or nature. We need to be knowledgeable about child development in order to have insight about children’s behavior, social interactions, and learning styles. The guide who is gifted in the science of observation can help children overcome difficulties and redirect their interest when necessary.

If the guide is always moving from one child to another, giving lesson after lesson, she’s probably missing some important social and physical cues from the children. It’s important to step back, slow down, and observe the children and the environment with fresh eyes. You may realize that it’s time for another lesson on how to walk around rugs. You might be pleased to realize that the children really do settle down and concentrate more deeply after the period Montessori called “false fatigue.”

When you are able to step back to observe, you encourage children to rely more on each other, as older children step forward to be role models. It sometimes takes a lot of self-control to stop the impulses of wanting to help or be in control. But we learn to trust the children, especially when we take the time to really observe and understand them.

Sometimes you may want to observe one child for an extended period of time. Other times you may be wondering about a classroom dynamic or issue. While observing and taking notes, some helpful questions to ask about the class and the children include:

  • Has the class progressed toward normalization?
  • Is there a feeling of respect and community in the environment?
  • Which materials are being used; which ones aren’t?
  • What stage of development is each child in? Is he working to master a material, or has he mastered it and is now working towards perfection?
  • Does the child have a favorite material or activity she works with everyday?
  • Is the child able to concentrate? For how long?
  • Do other children or teachers protect the child’s concentration?

Observing allows the guide to reflect on how to improve the classroom or give a particular child what he needs. Perhaps the reading corner has too many books and is overwhelming, or it’s time for new activities in Practical Life. You might realize that a child’s concentration was interrupted, or decide that Grace and Courtesy lessons would help create more peace in the community.

Observing on a regular basis can be very validating as you become more conscious of the growth and progress the children are making from week to week. You may notice quiet moments you might otherwise have missed, such as one child comforting another, or a child softly singing to the classroom animal. One of the most gratifying experiences as a Montessori teacher is to be able to witness the peaceful and happy hum of the Children’s House because, as Montessori put it, “the children are now working as if I did not exist.”

Excerpted from “The Art of Observation” by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services (2015)

Learn more about the Maryland Center for Montessori Studies.