The Learning EnvironmentPosted: May 28, 2010
I’ve been doing a bit of reading about the Montessori approach to education in the past day or so and these words have stuck with me as I mulled it over,
The classroom itself will typically be beautiful and enticing. Great care has been taken to create a learning environment that will reinforce the child’s independence and natural urge toward self-development. This is achieved in three ways: beauty, order and accessibility.
Beauty. Order. Accessibility. These seem to be great words to live by in setting up a classroom environment and a home environment for children which is another educational environment when it is all said and done.
I’ve been scanning photos from my high school days to share on Facebook (much to the horror of some of my old classmates) and I noticed the framed prints on the walls of the hall. In Montessori classrooms the walls are not filled with children’s artworks so that no wall can be seen. Items to be displayed are chosen carefully and may include student work but also other art works and beautiful things. The room is bright, warm and inviting to students and parents. I’ve been in many classrooms that are certainly bright and engaging but are also overwhelming for a child because of the sheer amount of things on display in them. I think an over-decorated classroom/learning environment can cause a certain amount of sensory overload and make it difficult for a child to concentrate. Quality rather than quantity seems to be the message here. There is a lot of beauty in nature that can of course be introduced to the classroom environment. I know my boys are entranced by the fish tanks in a few places in their school and potted plants and even flowers really “lift” a room and soften the hard lines of what is usually quite utilitarian construction. At home I often find the “beauty” obscured by clutter. As I write this I have two special items on my desk – a terra-cotta pot decorated by Daniel with “decoupaged” and differently coloured images of himself and one of our best wedding photos. Unfortunately I can’t actually see either of them because of everything else on the desk. Fortunately the living areas of our house usually look a bit better but the clutter frequently takes over there as well.
I’ve had the experience now of arriving in many different classrooms for a day of work. It is a much better experience when I arrive to a clear desk with everything laid out for me to use. I know this is not always possible because teachers are often away from work unexpectedly but it is really helpful in getting off to a good start with a class. I’m sure that as a relief teacher, that if you can appear to be “on top of things” as early as possible in the day you are better off. Some classrooms I’ve been in have been so ordered that I was a bit worried about being able to leave everything in the same state that I found it. However when I get to spend a bit more time in these rooms I can see how the “order” in classroom materials and books actually helps the day to run more smoothly. Even very young students know where to get things, where to put them away and this enables them to be more self-directed and self-sufficient. They can work at their own pace and this helps everyone to be more relaxed. Having experienced such wonderful “order” in several classrooms has made me determined to have a lot more order in whatever work environment I find myself in next. When I arrive to a desk strewn with different materials I have been known to put it all in a pile to one side especially if I’m going to be there for than a day. That seems to immediately make it easier for me to think through what I’m going to do with the class. For me, order in the home has a lot to do with routines. Knowing that there is a designated time for homework and that every other activity will have to wait makes it much easier to focus on homework for all of us. The other thing that helps is having all the equipment necessary – pencils, erasers, colours, scissors, glue etc – in a tote box that can be shifted to wherever we are working means that the flow of work is not interrupted in order to hunt for things. I have especially found this year that when trying to get certain 6 year old to focus on his sight words that every second is precious! Of course a bit more order around here would make life much less stressful. I’m sure that a certain 9 year old who raced around the house yesterday afternoon searching for his hockey mouthguard that had to be worn for training would agree with this!
Every student deserves a desk and chair that fits! It is good if students can lift lids of desks or access tote boxes without affecting others. Large storage for individuals does not generally work well because things are too easily lost. I’ve seen magazine file boxes used for student books and smaller tote boxes that work well. Having the bare minimum of gear in a student’s desk and distributing what is needed when it is needed seems to work well with younger students and some older ones who get distracted by having too many things out at once. I think teachers deserve to be comfortable too! I have loved working in classrooms that have an armchair for the teacher to sit in when the students are on the floor because I can be close to students without having to be on the floor. Ideally students should be able to get to as much equipment as possible themselves without having to rely on someone to open cupboards to get things down from high shelves. Being able to access and then put away resources that they need empowers students to become more independent as learners. Children can become more independent in the home when they have access to what they need. We can’t have everything that the boys need at their level in the kitchen but we keep a step stool here to help. I’m also in the process of re-organising some of my cupboards with tupperware so that they can get to breakfast cereal themselves. This small thing could be life changing in terms of parents getting to sleep in. I’ve also solved some of my own accessibility issues with my craft storage area. Being able to grab something out of a sliding tote means more precious minutes of crafting time!
There is only a small chance that I will end up as a Montessori teacher and I’m far from being a Montessori “purist” but I do think there are things to be gleaned from this approach that will help in all environments in which learning takes place.