A Montessori class, especially at the Primary level, may seem very large at first to many parents. Each community is made up of from 25 to 35 children, spanning three-age levels, and in a perfect world, usually more or less evenly divided between boys and girls among the three age levels. Traditional schools strive for very small group sizes, and boast of ratios as low as five children to one adult. Naturally, with all this emphasis on small class size and low teacher/child ratios, parents often wonder why Montessori classes are so much larger. What is the reasoning behind this choice?
The answer stems from a fundamental difference in our perception of how children can be best helped to learn. Traditionally, parents and educators have assumed that the classroom teacher is the only source of instruction. By this reasoning, the lower the pupil/teacher ratio, the more time an individual child can receive and the better the educational experience.
As any parent knows, each individual child is a real person with a demanding set of expectations, opinions, interests, and needs. In a traditional classroom, whether teachers work with ten children or thirty, they spend most of their time either talking to the entire class or working with one or two children at a time while the other children listen, daydream, or sleep. Teacher time is a very limited resource. Parents and teachers sometimes fantasize about classes that are essentially one-on-one tutorial situations.
But the best teacher of a three-year-old is often another child who is just a little bit older and has mastered a skill. This process is good for both the tutor and the younger child. In this situation, the teacher is not the primary focus. The larger group size in the Montessori class puts the focus less on the adult and encourages children to learn from each other. By having enough children in each age group, all students will find others at their developmental level.
The art of being a Montessori teacher is in knowing how much help to give, when to offer it and when to wait. Unnecessary help is a hindrance to the development of the child. As Dr. Montessori wrote, "Every useless aid arrests development." Offering help for something a child can do independently weakens the child, because he begins to believe that he must rely on the adult for things he could otherwise do himself.
The assistant plays a crucial role in the Montessori environment. One Montessori-trained teacher and one non-teaching assistant works very well for a group of 28-35 children at both the Primary (3-6 years) and Elementary (6-12 years) levels. The assistant watches the entire group and offers aid when a child requires individual help or in certain social situations when a group of children require an adult to help them sort themselves out. Her role is that of an observer, and this is a great support to the teacher and allows the teacher to fulfill her primary role of presenting lessons and engaging children in purposeful activities.
We must also remember that the Montessori classroom is a carefully prepared environment, filled with fascinating, self-correcting educational materials. These materials allow children to work with a level of independence in a way that no school that is heavily dependent on texts, workbooks or computers can match.
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