Montessori: Keys Approach to Life - 2

In Montessori elementary, we have work contracts (or work charts or work agreements or other names can be used). The concepts used for them, can be adapted to primary, and can readily be applied to the entire life of the family. Montessori didn't set out to establish an educational system; she observed, and found a way of life.

  • You provide the keys (given in Montessori albums); 
  • you provide your own requirements (local educational requirements, family culture requirements); 
  • and you provide the child time to explore those ideas as well as his own ideas generated by them.

Did I just say "requirements" ???? YES! The children should have requirements (responsibility) balanced with personal choice/interest (freedom). Life is full of requirements, and we need to know how to work with our personal time too. So we start young and provide the children with (drum roll please) *REAL LIFE*.

SO. If you present the keys to mathematics, the child has LOTS of time to explore mathematical concepts, principles and history beyond the "requirements". Do they need more practice with their facts? then put in their weekly work contract that they will be working with the facts. As long as the child is showing responsibility, they have freedom of choice within the limitations you set (perhaps they have a choice about HOW to practice those facts). Not capable of the amount of freedom they have? Cut back to where they can have success; then give more freedom as responsibility is proven.

So.... can a workbook or textbook be used? Yes. But in *balance*. In the ordinary way of things within a Montessori classroom, textbooks are used as resources - not as the teaching manual or the set of requirements or even the main tool. But textbooks can be used as a tool; grammar books are specifically mentioned in the language album for elementary (mostly upper elementary) - we say "Let's see what this grammarian has to say on (a particular matter)". Workbooks are generally frowned upon, but that is fodder for another Nugget ;)

Caveat with textbooks: they are usually not primary sources. Get the children using primary sources as much as possible, but sometimes the children will be studying how different people interpret the same event or concept - therefore, textbooks make sense.

Or sometimes there is just no Montessori material available for something that a particular textbook or program covers very, very well (learning particular languages comes to mind - especially ancient ones). Combine the textbook with lots of real experiences and outings.

But remember: focus on the keys for what you the adult teach to the child.

Give them the tools they need to explore and have their own projects.

And if you have a requirement for their projects, then place it. It's ok! It's called living up to responsibility for fulfilling the local educational requirements (even when those local educational requirements come from mom and dad!). They should have lots and lots of time and opportunity for their work, such that the outside requirements can reasonably be met as a small part of their work cycle.

Then let them explore!


  1. You have relieved years of guilt! :-) I confess the use of workbook pages with my students--mostly for practice with a variety of math problems. They certainly were *not* used as a primary source like you say, but I found that to offer enough repetition in certain math areas, we needed prepared problems. We found textbooks useful for this too, as well as some prepared math problems from folks like Albanesi and Montessori Made Manageable. To reduce the "workbook effect" I would take the books apart (or photocopy) and laminate single pages and put on the shelf as "shelf work." The children might use materials or solve problems abstractly. Whatever their level. We also avoided workbook pages with silly distracting pictures or cartoons. I looked for straight forward, plain math problems.

    I'm also glad to hear you speak to the "requirements" issue. The balance between required work and freely chosen work is hard to achieve. I swung between allowing too much choice, then not enough choice as a new teacher. It took awhile before the students and I could use work plans effectively. The whole idea of "freedom" can be fuzzy, and I think a lot of people interpret it to mean "only what the child wants" rather than "limited choices." At the same time, we have to step out of the way when a child's enthusiasm carries him/her in a constructive direction. Can't tell you how many times a work plan got "revised" (chunked in the wastebasket) when a new love was found.

    I really enjoy your insights and find your posts very helpful in getting back to the essentials. Thanks for your time and hard work!

  2. Beth,

    Thank you for your insight here!

    My son has used some "workbooks" off and on - he loves filling things in and "proving" he knows something in a way that non-Montessorians understand. We've done similar to what you've done - remove binding and re-group (or in our case, I've put them in sheet protectors with dry erase markers to be done several times by the same child). but these are rarely, if ever, counted within his requirements - so it is self-chosen work.

    One of my Montessori trainers responded to my statement, "My son likes workbooks" - with, "Children like junk food too." She's right, in a way; but even junk food has its place ;)

    We don't use them as drill and kill; or every day (or even every week). And they are always interest-driven as part of a bigger picture. It's a balance to maintain.

    Just as the freedom is - my son has the freedom to do workbook pages; but he does not have the freedom to ONLY use workbook pages - he must be creative and branch out.