Observation is a large part of parenting and teaching in any system but different systems can have very different meanings for the word observation. Many teachers outside of Montessori have been taught to observe quickly and draw immediate conclusions about a child’s behavior. Maria Montessori was, first and foremost a scientist. Her love of teaching and becoming an educator never diminished her scientific eye. For her observation was more about the evidence than immediate results, as her son Mario has said, Maria “wanted to study children in their own world… she let herself be guided by the spontaneous activity, reactions, and expressions of children” (Education for Human development p.29).
Does that seem cold? To use science to observe the children in our care? Being scientific about observation can actually be much more respectful of the child and better for their self esteem, happiness and learning. Before we get to that, let’s look at why observation is so important in Montessori Education.
If we intervene too soon we miss out on details, what the child is going through, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Without taking the time to observe we can miss out on many occasions to help the child blossom as a human being and adapt to their environment, we may even block the child’s opportunities by interfering unnecessarily. As Maria put it, the child “must struggle for his psychic development and may fail in the contest. Adults do not help since they do not even know the forces at play” (The Secret of childhood, Maria Montessori p.46).
Children, and adults, learn through practice. We need to respect the child enough to let them try, to let them practice.
Physically we observe to make sure she is safe and is respected in her needs. The observer also puts some attention on the environment in which the child learns and grows to make sure those physical needs are met (as in Maslow’s hierarchy). The observer herself is not part of this environment during an observation. She is to remain outside of it to be able to collect “objective” data.
Children are human beings so the observation of their actions, reactions and emotions is spiritual. The spiritual needs are not always obvious to the eye. “Montessori teachers are trained to observe the child and to report on their observations. In this way, the behavior of the child can be studied in the meaningful context of the whole personality acting in the pedagogical situation” (Education for Human development p.40).
Yes, even learning to observe can take training and practice. We can’t give you everything in one blog post but we can get you started in the right direction. Here are a few things to keep in mind when observing the child. First, you can get to know someone and grow a stronger bond through observation. Having a conversation, for example, means listening, not just talking, and the more you focus on the talker the more information you get and they will appreciate how deeply you listen. The same goes for observing the child. Don’t just jump in because you have figured something out and you want to tell them, give them the opportunity to figure it out themselves. Let them have the feeling of accomplishment, and the self esteem, from overcoming a challenge.
It isn’t always easy, especially when the child is becoming frustrated. Knowing when to step back, or when to step in, takes patience and practice. The important thing here is to give the child a chance. Sometimes they will amaze you. In a future post we will talk about when to intervene, how to recognize if the difficulty is too high to be beneficial. For the next post though, let’s look more closely at observation through the scientific method.
Continue reading in part 2.