Imagine you arrive at work at 8am, energized and ready to work on a fun but challenging project that will require several hours of your time. You know that to really get the project on solid footing and make sense of its complexity, you need several hours of uninterrupted focus. You sit down at your desk, fire up your computer, and start organizing your thoughts. Suddenly, a reminder pops up on your computer screen:
Mandatory staff meeting @ 8:45am.
Now, answer this question truthfully: Knowing that you have to leave your project aside in 45 minutes, would you use your time to focus on challenging tasks that require your undivided attention, or would you take it easy for 45 minutes, checking your e-mail, refilling your coffee cup, and sneaking a peek at Facebook?
Yeah, I’d choose the latter, too.
What does this have to do with Montessori? All Montessori educators are familiar with what we call the “three-hour work period”. As the name suggests, this is a three-hour chunk of time in the morning in which the children receive presentations, choose materials, have snack, and work at their own pace on activities that interest them. (Note: All AMI-recognized schools also have a two-hour uninterrupted work period in the afternoon for children ages 4 and older). A quality Montessori school will not have a single interruption during the work period: no Spanish teacher coming into the classroom; no music instructor pulling kids out; no physical education taking place on the basketball courts.
Dr. Montessori discovered that a child as young as three, who has spent a few months in the Montessori classroom, is able to choose productive and challenging work, focus on the task at hand, finish a cycle of work, rest without interrupting those who are working, and repeat this sequence. She noted that for this to happen, a minimum of three hours of uninterrupted classroom time are essential. Of her experiences observing children during an uninterrupted work period, she noted: “Each time a polarization of attention took place, the child began to be completely transformed, to become calmer, more intelligent, and more expansive.”
True cognitive and personal development – the type that takes place in a Montessori classroom – cannot happen in 45-minute spurts.
In Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Angeline Stoll Lillard points out that, “Montessori teachers who adhere to three-hour work periods without interruption claim one can see the difference in the quality of the children’s concentration on days when children know they will be leaving the classroom in an hour for a field trip or doctor’s appointment or special music class.” Children who know they will soon be interrupted choose unchallenging “busywork” at best, and at worst become nuisances to their peers. Even more tragic are children who don’t know an interruption is coming; they choose demanding work, become engrossed, and are understandably upset when the disruption takes place.
While interruptions are part and parcel of traditional education methods, they just aren’t necessary in Montessori. The beauty of the Montessori “curriculum” (for lack of a better word) is that it encompasses EVERYTHING that children should be exposed to in school. The usual “pull-out” subjects like art, music, physical education, drama, and yoga are all found within a well-prepared Montessori classroom. It might not look like what you experienced in school, but then again, doesn’t everything in Montessori look different than traditional education? It’s a good kind of different; it’s a different that makes sense – a different that works!
You might be thinking, “How can one teacher know and teach everything?”. She doesn’t. But she also doesn’t have to. The materials are carefully designed to capture the child’s interest and guide him in the learning process. The child’s drive for knowledge and the material’s self-correcting qualities are the true teachers – the adult just brings the child and the material together as a kind of middleman of the learning process.
Some parents might worry: “Won’t my child get tired of working? Doesn’t he need a break every 45 minutes or so?” Dr. Montessori addresses this concern in The Advanced Montessori Method, Vol. I: “A great variety of interesting research has been made into the question of change of work with identical results – namely, that frequent change of work causes greater fatigue than continuous work of one kind, and that a sudden interruption is more fatiguing than persistence.” Stoll Lillard adds, “If we choose when to take breaks, then breaks work for us, but if the timing is externally imposed, breaks can be disruptive to concentration.”
Dr. Montessori concludes: “The one means by which exhaustion can be eliminated is to make work pleasant and interesting, to give joy in work rather than pain.”
If you are looking for a Montessori school for your child, make sure to ask if they respect the three-hour morning work period WITHOUT INTERRUPTIONS (and don’t forget the afternoon work period for your older child!!). And if you’re a teacher, make sure you protect the three-hour work period with your life!