• Instruction That Works – Principles 3 & 4

    In the previous blog we explored how the Montessori principles of “movement” and “choice” serve the elementary learner. In this blog our focus will be on the principles of “interest” and “external rewards.”

    We will start with principle 3; “interest.”

    According to researchers there are two types of interest: 1) personal, such as hobbies, and 2) topic, which are more general. As Montessori scientifically designed the materials and corresponding lessons, she carefully weaved personal and topic interest into both (Stoll Lillard, 2007, p. 114). This leaves the contemporary teacher to devote his or herself to focusing on individual learners.

    Regarding the importance of interest to learning, Montessori (1948/1967) remarked that “the secret of success [in education] is found to lie in the right use of imagination in awakening interest, and the stimulation of seeds of interest already sown (pp. 1-2).”

    One study which embedded personal interests in math questions showed a significant effect on the performance of the learners involved (Anand & Ross, 1987). A host of studies indicate that interest has a positive effect on grades, self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-direction, and that these occur over a range of subjects (Asher & Markell, 1974; Asher, Hymel, & Wigfield, 1978; Asher, 1979; Shiefiele & Csikszentmihalyi, 1994, 1995; Simpson & Randall, 2000).

    Montessori discovered biological interests as well, which she named “sensitive periods.” Montessori teachers are keenly aware of the timeline of those interests. The materials that correspond to a sensitive period are presented to correlate with that time. She discovered that elementary is an age in which children have a sensitive period for grand, philosophical ideas.

    Building upon that, the well-trained Montessori elementary teacher strives to strike the imagination of the child by narrating “Great Lessons,” thereby awakening latent interests that lead that child to higher levels of learning. As an example, one Great Lesson tells a story about the formation of Earth in which the teacher performs several experiments that the children are invited to repeat and research on their own. Each finds topics within the lesson to further explore and then report back to the rest of the class.

    When elementary learners’ interests are flamed and used as a guide, along with inviting materials, they become motivated learners. In this context external rewards become a hindrance to normal development. This leads to principle four; “external rewards.”

    As Montessori (1912/1964) observed children’s development in relation to receiving external rewards she came to believe that “the prize and the punishment are incentives towards unnatural or forced effort, and therefore we certainly cannot speak of the natural development of the child in connection with them (p. 21).

    Research has found that if a person has a natural interest in something, that when given a reward for it, their further pursuit of knowledge regarding that subject is adversely affected (Lepper, Sethi, Dialdin, & Drak, 1997, p. 23). The trouble begins when the activity is a means to an end; that end being the external reward.

    The negative impact of external rewards is seen regarding cognitive functioning, creativity, and prosocial behavior. Graham & Golan (1991) designed an experiment where children in different groups were told different reasons for solving math problems. The ones who were told that solving helped you improve, or weren’t given a reason, recalled significantly more on questions requiring deeper processing, than did the ones who were told that the results would evaluate how good they were (p. 189). Other research has shown that when those who are striving to be creative, find out that they will be evaluated based on their originality, they become less original (Amabile, 1979) Regarding prosocial behavior, one study showed that children who were rewarded for kind behavior thought of themselves as less altruistic than those who weren’t rewarded (Smith, Gelfand, Hartmann, & Partlow, 1979).

    Montessori elementary learners are encouraged to pursue knowledge for knowledge sake. Additionally, growth and development of skills is emphasized instead of earning good grades. It is built into the Montessori system and becomes natural for them.

    Continue reading next time when we find out about principles 5 and 6; “learning with and from peers,” and “learning in context.”



    Amabile, T.M. (1979). Effects of external evaluation on artistic creativity. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 3792), 221-33.

    Anand, P.G., & Ross, S.M. (1987) Using computer-assisted instruction to personalize arithmetic materials for elementary school children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79 (1), 72-78.

    Asher, S.R., & Markell, R.A. (1974). Sex differences in comprehension of high- and low-interest reading material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 66(5), 680-87.

    Asher, S.R., Hymel, S., & Wigfield, A. (1978). Influence of topic interest on children’s reading comprehension. Journal of Reading Behavior, 10(1), 35-37.

    Graham, S., & Golan, S. (1991). Motivational influences on cognition: Task involvement, ego involvement, and depth of information processing. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(2), 187-94.

    Lepper, M.R., Sethi, S, Dialdin, D., & Drake, M. (1997). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: A developmental perspective. In S. S. Luthar (Ed.), Developmental psychopathology: Perspectives on adjustment, risk, and disorder (pp. 23-50). New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Montessori, M. (1912/1964). The Montessori method. New York: Shocken Montessori, M. (1948/1967). To educate the human potential. Madras, India: Kalakshetra.

    Shiefele, U., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1994). Interest and the quality of experience in classrooms. European Journal of Education, 9(3), 251-70.

    Smith, C.L., Gelfand, D.M., Hartmann, D.P., & Partlow, M.E. (1979). Children’s causal attributions regarding help giving. Child Development, (50)1, 203-10.

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