Montessori learning materials are sometimes referred to as ‘didactic materials.’ This is just a fancy way of saying ‘self-teaching.’ There is a ‘control of error’ built into the materials so that the children know when they have made a mistake and will persevere until they correct their mistakes, and in this way teach themselves. This is how we learn from our own mistakes, by working to correct them.
So what is the job of the teacher, if he or she is not pointing out and correcting mistakes, as is more common in a public school setting? First of all, the teacher is observing the child, and noticing the errors the child is making, and watching to see that the child is gaining mastery over the errors. She might think of another work that will help the child. The teacher is often called a ‘guide’ in a Montessori school, so she is guiding the child to work on activities that offer the right amount of challenge, so that with perseverance the child can be successful. It’s not important to always get it right the first time. The child will be able to work with the materials and repeat the activity over and over again, until the skill is mastered.
So why don’t we just point out the mistake? Would that not be quicker and easier, than watching the child repeat the same activity again and again? Yes, but that’s not the most effective way for the children to see themselves as agents of their own learning, of being capable of independent thought and action, rather than dependent on someone else for their learning.
And what happens as the child moves into the kindergarten and elementary years? The teacher works with her students to help them correct their mistakes using tools such as control charts. As examples, a child reversing letters will be asked to check their writing against a correct model of the alphabet, and correct any mistakes he or she finds. The same goes for numbers. When a child is working on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, there are again charts to help them check their work. A child will be taught to use the reverse operation to check their work. As an example, when a child works out with the division board and beads that 30 divided by 6 is equal to 5, he or she can check their answer by multiplying 5 by 6, and seeing if that answer is, indeed, 30.
After teaching elementary and first grade for many years, I feel this is even more important in developing literacy skills. Rather than pointing out every mistake a child made when reading, I taught them to ask, “Did that word make sense? Does it match the picture? Does it match the letters I see on the page? If not, can I read the sentence again and try another word that might make sense?” This is also true of early writing, if I expected correct spelling, I would have children not taking risks and writing stuff like:
‘I like cats. I like dogs. I like my Mom. I like my Dad.’
I would never get: ‘An albatross is a bird that is extinct. That means there are no more albatrosses left alive in the whole world.’
An albtrs iz a brd that iz extnkt. Tat menz thr r no mr albtrsz lft aliv in the hol wrld.
That was so much more interesting to read and write. And as a teacher, I noticed that work on vowels and vowel blends might help, such as work on the ‘ir’ blend, as in bird. I could also introduce some sight words to practice and memorize, such as ‘is’ and ‘there’ and ‘are.’
Throughout the year, the children’s reading and writing would get closer and closer to the correct form. At the end of the year, the children would look back on their earlier work, and easily spot their mistakes. They would laugh and say, “Look at how I used to spell the word ‘is’?” “Can you remember when I always wrote the number 6 backwards?”
There was no shame. The children owned the mistakes they had worked so hard to correct. They had done the hard work, rather than expecting me to always be there, pointing out their errors. That’s too easy for a Montessori child. It is so much more meaningful and productive when children correct their own errors. And then, they have the satisfaction of saying, “I did it!”
My daughter, Anna, a former Montessori student and now a professor of English uses a similar approach for her college students. She meets with every individual student in her composition class for a revision workshop, and asks each student to let her know what he or she wants to focus on ~ structure and organization, thesis statement, conclusion, sentence structure, transitions . . . They can’t do it all in one composition, but by focusing on what the student wants to work on, rather than Anna pointing all of the errors she notices (e.g. she does all of the work) the students are more invested in the process, and more likely to learn from their mistakes. When they receive their grade on the essays, she allows them to work some more on the essays, if they so desire, and make some more corrections and so improve their essays again, and gain a higher grade. She encourages her students to own their own mistakes and work to make improvements, but she does not do the work for them.
During my own education, my own writing was handed back to me covered in red pen. What did I learn? My teacher was smarter than me? I made a lot of mistakes? There was no incentive for me to go back and correct any errors, and so no opportunity for me to learn from my mistakes.
It’s so important to remember that mistakes are part of learning and an invitation to learn, but the process does take time and patience.