Circle Time—Collective Lessons?
During my first year of teaching, an older and more experienced teacher at our Montessori school in San Francisco, California, told us that we should have a 30-40 minute “group” lesson at the end of each morning, with all of the children sitting in a circle as we sang songs, had news time, and sometimes gave a lesson that usually would be for one child at a time. I had not heard of such a thing in my AMI 3-6 course in London but I respected this teacher so I followed her advice.
A few years later, Margot Waltuch, who had worked with Maria Montessori for many years, was the consultant for my own school in Michigan (and later for one of my 6-12 classes in California). Together we watched the class through a two-way mirror, twenty-nine children from age 2.3 through 6 years, with no adult in sight. They were calm, busy, concentrating, helping or teaching each other, with clearly no need for adult intervention. She turned to me and said, “They don’t seem to need you.” This surprised me because that was what I expected, as I followed my teacher trainers’ advice to the letter. This was what I had seen in schools in London during my training.
Then, after two hours I gathered all of the children for “group” sometimes called “circle time.” It was always a bit uncomfortable, for how can one expect to meet the interests of such a wide age range? How can one expect children to sit still when they would rather be moving?
Margot turned to me, with a rather disgusted look on her face, which I noticed even though it was subtle, she said, “Did you learn to do this on your training?” What a relief her words were to me!
That was my last scheduled and required group for all of my teaching years. Even in teaching 6-12 classes, beyond the five “great lessons” that open the door to the elementary work (given in the first two weeks, where all children were invited to attend but not required) I never required a group lesson.
Here is a link to a Michael Olaf newsletter from 2015, where there is more information on why collective or group lessons are not part of an authentic Montessori education.
Montessori developed all of her work based on observation at the center, rather than a curriculum to be followed, or an adult-centered schedule. The development of materials was secondary. Parents who want to use Montessori ideas in the home all too often believe that materials are at the center of preparing the environment. In the picture above an infant is watching birds fly around and land on a bird feeder just outside the window. This engaged the infant for a long time and we did not interrupt. Trees blowing in the wind, seen through the same window, or when we were outside, were just as interesting. Even though an infant will not yet be able to focus on the details of the individual leaves a lot of development and concentration is involved in watching them. So, let us not think that mobile should replace exposure to nature.
This child is just at the stage of learning to control the arm and hand, to reach, to touch, to move an object, to affect the world. A scarf hanging safely at just the correct distance gives practice as the child learns to control muscles and experience concentration.
Watching a screen, computer, phone, is not healthy for young children for many reasons. They want to observe, to concentrate, on real life, especially observing the daily life of the members of the family. Faces, especially mouths provide endless fascination at this age. When changing or dressing a young child do so in such a way that they can see our face and hear our words explaining what we are doing. Remember, “Children do not do what we say, they do what we do.” We are the first and most important teachers.
A child will always prefer to do what the other family members are doing rather than be relegated to interact with even the nicest toys. I have seen the deepest concentration, and great satisfaction and happiness in children and families, in places where there are few or no toys in the home.
Soon after learning to stand and walk, a child will want to walk long distances, and carry heavy objects. These developmental impulses are natural and important to satisfy. They provide experiences of maximum effort and deep concentration, and even at this young age, a feeling of being an important and helpful member of a social group.
Just as a Montessori teacher learns to observe first, then wait and decide whether to approach a student in a class who is engaged in an activity, all of the other children learn to do the same. They learn to stop and look at what a child or an adult is doing before speaking to them. And they learn to not interrupt a friend who is working. This is so beautifully illustrated in the video clip above. This is not only an important lesson in courtesy, but a lesson in how we all benefit from long periods of concentration, and from not being interrupted without our permission.
One of the early discoveries, and stories, told by Montessori was that of a three-year-old girl who was so deeply involved in replacing cylinders in the correct holes of a “cylinder block” that she hugged them to herself and kept working without looking away when Montessori lifted her from her chair. Even when Montessori asked the other children in room to sing, with the intention of distracting her, the little girl took no notice. It was the child who decided, based on internal drives that we may not understand but we respect, who decided when she was finished with this work.
In the same way, the girl above is reading music and playing it on the bells in a Montessori 3-6 class, with no notice of what is going on around her. It is clear that there is noise and activity in the room, but she seems not to see or hear anything as she continues to concentrate on her work.
In my own home and school consulting work, I have seen excellent concentration in Montessori environments with very little in the way of materials. And I have also seen beautifully outfitted Montessori environments with very little concentration. Sometimes we see children appearing to be “busy” but not really “engaged” or concentrating. This is not authentic Montessori.
My good friend and AMI teacher trainer, Rita Zener, PhD, worked with Mario Montessori, Dr. Montessori’s son. She says, in a review of my last book Aid to Life, Montessori Beyond the Classroom:
It was Mr. Montessori’s dream that his mother’s educational approach could be realized without being bound to a set of materials He would be very pleased with this book.
Here is a picture taken from the book The Advanced Montessori method, Vol I.
Montessori never put the curriculum, even the academic curriculum for children above age six which she designed to foster individual work and deep concentration, above the importance of learning to observe the level of concentration of the child.
Here she expresses, so much better than I, the result of concentration:
I observed these same manifestations many more times. When the children had completed an absorbing bit of work, they appeared rested and deeply pleased. It almost seemed as if a road had opened up within their souls that led to all their latent powers, revealing the better part of themselves. They exhibited a great affability to everyone, put themselves out to help others and seemed full of good will.
It was clear to me that the concept of order and the development of character, of the intellectual and emotional life, must derive from this veiled source. Thereafter, I set out to find experimental objects that would make this concentration possible, and carefully worked out an environment that would present the most favorable external conditions for this concentration. And that is how my method began.
—Montessori, The Child in the Family
Here is another quote I would like to share – as it reminds me so much of my first year of teaching as described above:
It is marvelous to see how these children work. They work by themselves, and are occupied the whole morning. The only thing at which I do not succeed is in interesting them in a collective lesson.
—In a letter from one of Montessori’s students who was new and still giving collective lessons, Creative Development in the Child, The Montessori Approach, Volume II
Classroom Observation and Record Keeping Today
In my own work in the classroom (along with detailed plans for 1:1 lessons and mastery of specific lessons by each child) I followed the concentration of one child each day on a “concentration” graph like this one. It shows the required MINIMUM 3-hour work period of the morning, where there are no scheduled small group lessons, and no whole-class “circle time.” News time, stories, singing, dancing, walking on the line, everything presented 1:1 and sometimes with spontaneously-formed small group, during this time. Ideally there is another 3-hour period like this in the afternoon.
Sometimes the vital elements of Montessori practice such as independence and freedom of choice, following one’s own interests, and long periods (hours, sometimes days) of uninterrupted concentration on self-chosen work, is destroyed by traditional school practices: specialists giving scheduled group lessons, or leading required and scheduled group activities. This happens more and more in the 6-12 classes. This is adult or curriculum-centered education, not child-centered education.
Montessori teachers and administrators often need support in order to reject such practices and provide authentic Montessori for their students.
During parent conferences, it was not the mastery of individual activities that were at the center of my discussion with parents, but the student’s progress in concentration, independence, responsibility, and happiness. In this way, parents learned to value the same thing in the home. This was clearly the very best way to spread the essence of Montessori to the home life.
Help from Authentic Montessori Practice
Today, Montessori is not only restricted to private schools, but is being used in many ways to help in many situations. When together we focus, not just on the materials in the environment, but on the essence—which is protection of concentration, and the resultant support of the best of human development at any age—we can go far in spreading Montessori and helping children, families, communities.
Montessori Books that Support Concentration
As of 2021, there are eight books in the “First Montessori Books” series. Each one approaches the Montessori philosophy and practice from a unique perspective. They give parents the tools to learn to observe, know, and appreciate, every stage of development of their children. They give teachers of all kinds insight into Montessori practice at different ages. And they have given education professors and government officials an authentic introduction to Montessori and ideas that can improve the lives of children right now, exactly where they are at the moment.