• Instruction that Works – Principles 1 & 2

    In our previous blog, you discovered the rich curriculum found in a Montessori Lower Elementary classroom. Now let’s look at how that curriculum is enacted.

    Montessori instruction follows eight principles: 1) movement and cognition, 2) choice, 3) interest, 4) extrinsic rewards are avoided, 5) learning with and from peers, 6) learning in context, 7) teacher ways and child ways, 8) order in environment and mind (Stoll Lillard, 2007, p. 30-33).

    In this blog we will delve into the first two, starting with “Movement and Cognition.

    During work time, Montessori elementary learners are in perpetual motion. Unlike traditional classrooms where children are stationed at their desk, Montessori learners choose their work space, just as they do when they move about the room and choose their work. From the start, they are actively engaged in versus passively receiving their learning.

    Maria Montessori (1966) emphasized her belief in this by saying “[The child needs] activity concentrated on some task that requires movement of the hands guided by the intellect (p. 138).

    Additionally, Montessori elementary learners rarely use textbooks, as their traditionally educated counterparts do. Instead they use highly refined materials and cards to explore with their hands. In so doing, the information becomes tangible to them. As they touch and feel it, the information is more readily absorbed and is also retained longer in their memory.

    One study showed that children who had mastered the abacus are more proficient at math problems when not using it than those children who had never learned it (Stigler, 1984). Other studies show that memory increases as one’s movements more closely align with what is being learned (R.L. Cohen, 1989, Engelkamp, Zimmer, Mohr, & Sellen, 1994).

    Another aspect of movement in the Montessori classroom is “going out.” This is an important differentiation from traditional education in which field trips are planned and arranged by the teacher. In the Montessori lower elementary environment, learners are encouraged to pursue their interests outside of the school setting and the adults help them to arrange it.

    Not only does this happen by way of walks to nearby surroundings, but it also entails a small group of them going out with a parent volunteer, classroom assistant, or lead guide to somewhere that will extend their learning on a specific subject of interest. For instance, children interested in fish, might visit an aquarium, a fish hatchery, and a natural history museum to write a report.

    The movement of the hands follow the will of the person. This leads to principle two “Choice.”

    As mentioned, Montessori elementary learners are encouraged to make thoughtful choices regarding their work selection. It should be noted that they are guided along this process and that choices are within limits. Unlimited choice can be overwhelming.

    Their choice is also within context. Typically, the lead guide will present a “key experience” (or presentation) of a material, often accompanied by a story. Afterward, learners are given options of how to practice and demonstrate proficiency. Choice also comes to play in the order in which they complete their work goals. Whereas in most traditional classrooms, all the children are learning the same lesson and completing the same practice together, Montessori elementary children can choose when they will do the practice.

    Regarding choice and self-control, Montessori (1989) stated that “these children have free choice all day long. Life is based on choice, so they learn to make their own decisions. They must decide and choose for themselves all the time… They cannot learn through obedience to the commands of another (p. 26).

    When one chooses an activity on one’s own, attention is paid to what’s been selected. This is what is seen with Montessori elementary learners. A close correlation exists between attention and the ability to self-regulate (Ruff & Rothbart, 1996).

    In what might seem counterintuitive, when children are left uninterrupted and scaffolded positively, they will choose material that is engaging and challenging. As this becomes the standard, the classroom culture supports the joyful pursuit of knowledge.

    Montessori (1917/1965) put it thusly that “freedom in intellectual work is found to be the basis of internal discipline (p. 108).

    Please check back soon as we dive into the next two principles of “interest,” and “external rewards.”


    Cohen, R.L. (1989). Memory for action events: The power of enactment. Educational Psychology Review, 1 (1), 57-80.

    Engelkamp, J., Zimmer, H.D., Mohr, G., & Sellen, O. (1994). Memory of self-erformed tasks: Self-performing during recognition. Memory & Cognition, 22 (1), 34 -39.

    Montessori, M. (1917/1965). Spontaneous activity in education: The advanced Montessori method (F. Simmons, Trans.). New York: Shocken

    Montessori, M. (1966). The secret of childhood (M.J. Costello, Trans.). New York: Ballantine.

    Montessori, M. (1989). The child, society, and the world: Unpublished speeches and writings  (Vol. 7). Oxford: Clio.

    Ruff, H.A., & Rothbart, M.K. (1996). Attention in early development: Themes and variations. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Stigler, J.W. (1984). “Mental abacus: The effect of abacus training on Chinese children’s mental calculation. Cognitive Psychology, 16 (2), 145-76.

    Stoll Lillard, A. (2007). Montessori: The science behind the genius. New York: Oxford University Press.