Observing the Older Child

Montessori 1921 London Lecture, says, ‘It would seem as though to know how to observe was very simple and did not need any explanation, perhaps you think it will be sufficient to be in a classroom in a school and to look and see what happens, but to observe is not as simple as that, any methodical observation which one wishes to make requires preparation.  Observation is one of those many things of which we frequently speak and which we form an inexact or false idea.  It should be sufficient to consider what occurs in all the sciences which depend on observation.  The observers in the various sciences have a special preparation.’

Being able to observe is a necessity, if we observe the child well and respond appropriately, we meet the needs of the child. In  1992, No. 4 Communications, Hilla Patel’s, essay, ‘Observation’, says, ‘From the Montessori point of view the purpose of  observation could be thought of as the corner stone of our work, it is the indispensable part which makes our work come alive and become meaningful, it is the tool which enables us to follow the child’s spontaneous manifestations, not with the aim of studying the psychology of the child, but in order to refine our own thinking and understanding so as to be able to give to the life of the child the help to which it has a right to receive.’

Montessori stated, ‘Love, the act of the will that wishes the good other but does not enslave is the motivating force for the work that we do with the children’.  Observation enables us to see the child, as a child centred approach, observing the child is critical to our work as Montessorian’s, we do not start with what we want to teach but with the child’s developmental needs, by observing we can offer activities which meet these, Montessori’s writings focus on her observations of children and what they taught her, if it was essential for her work it must be for ours.  Without the comprehension which comes from actually observing, theory remains just that.  Without skills in observation one is not meeting the needs of individual children, if you observe carefully and see for yourself how life unfolds for each individual child, theory moves into real life.  We use observation to find and follow the child’s spontaneous acts, these actions led to the development of Montessori’s ideas, and her understanding of the nature of the child.  Throughout her life she used observation as one of the criteria for the understanding of the forces which direct development from within.  It reveals the child in the process of development, seeing them arrive at higher and higher levels of development.

The developmental stages are universal but each child is unique, observation of actual life unfolding will make our work directly relate to the children with whom we work.  The inner life of the child is always present but not easily perceived, frequently it is hidden by the child’s reactions to the obstacles she meets in the environment, for example a crying child who needs order, or a persistently demanding child who doesn’t feel heard.  Observation helps us to refine our thinking and alter the generalised view of the child that we have absorbed from our dealings with society, it changes and deepens our understanding of children.  Experience causes a growth in the adult.  The principles and practices introduced by Montessori came about as a result of years of her own observation of children from many different cultures and her demonstration of what happens when the needs of children are not met.  Practice as observation helps to verify the psychology of development presented by Montessori so her ideas are made evident, then the observer is able to make the work more relevant to the child.  To be an acute and accurate observer facilitates one’s own development as well as the child’s.

There are three main aims when observing;

  1. To ascertain the true needs of the universal child and each individual child
  2. To help our response to these needs in appropriate ways at appropriate times
  3. To guide the removal of obstacles to growth and development, to help us prepare the environment for the child’s optimum development, to avoid the placement of obstacles and removing those which do occur swiftly.

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Montessori, states in ‘The Child in the Family’ (Clio p.27) that, ‘only the voice of life can choose the work that the child truly needs, it is enough that the teacher respects this mysterious process and knows to wait with faith’.  Montessori as a scientist and doctor who had an insatiable need to learn who spent a life time watching children.  To build these skills as teachers we practice observation, this is done by repetition and by learning how to record observations.  The course has a ninety hour requirement of pure observation., in which trainees think of themselves as a scientist, taking time to build their powers from that of an adequate observer to that of an acute observer.   The observer does so with sensitivity and respect and record what happens, not what would be desirable.  The desire to observe doesn’t come easily, it takes patience and concentration over long periods of time, whilst boredom and discomfort are immediate distractors, it is important not to let these overwhelm your observation and disrupt the continuity.  It is necessary to apply conscious effort the minimise the changes which occur to the subject whenever they are observed.  Judgements and conclusions must be the product of long accumulated, objective data, recorded in a useful system.

It is of great importance to be patient, prolonged, accurate, scientific study of child activity.  Free from adult prejudices and likings, be aware of these prejudices and their ability to hijack your attention.  Be careful of assumptions made about the child. If the observation is too short, it is unlikely to uncover anything of significance.  The practice of observation is part of our daily work, it informs our plans and directs our relationship with each child.  Children who are new to the class are frequently disorderly, a child who is unfocused has a short attention span and is interested in many things, causing them to observe and disturb others, and see how they settle, directing efforts towards work.

Observation let us see the strength of the powers of the inner child with a fresh eye, in contrast to the preconceived ideas and prejudices which must be recognised and set aside.  Only then can we see what is really happening, rather than the projection of our usual ideas and expectations.  Recording helps us to track how much contact you have had with the child, presentations, conversations and interests.  The data collected is helpful to the parents. We observe the inner life through it’s manifestations in outward activity, giving a view of the child’s mind, the stage of development, her interests, personality, emotional equilibrium, traumas, difficulties and distresses.  We wish to offer a caring response to what he child has revealed, the lives of the children we work with will be effected by our ability to observe, this should inspire us to make regular and careful observations.  We observe our own class and the classroom of other people, where we are less easily caught up in ‘doing’, and it is possible to get a fresh eye on what is familiar.

‘Those who have observed children must not disturb them, because the purpose of the observation is to see what the children are doing independent of our presence, we find ourselves faced by a real exercise, an exercise which we may call an exercise of conscious immobility, directed by our will power, this would also be one of the most valuable exercises to prepare students as educators in this method, because the first thing the teacher has to learn is to master him/herself and to remain motionless beside the child’. (Maria Montessori, 1921, unpublished lecture).  The child is observed in relationship with a particular environment, other children, an adult and the whole group and they are observed as a whole child, physical, emotional, social, intellectual.  We do not call attention to ourself, observing in an unobtrusive way, letting the children forget you are there, without initiating contact with the children. Records are kept of all the details of what is observed, how movements are made, co-ordination, intention, speed, duration and frequency, with notes of repetitions and time spans.
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Watching individuals or small groups, make records of;

  1. The way the children enter the class, saying goodbyes and organising personal effects, the mood in which they enter the classroom.
  2. How long it takes them to work, the work they choose, how long they work with it for and any repetitions.
  3. The manner of the choice (directed, freely chosen or at the invitation of another child).
  4. Is the group individual or group.
  5. How does the child work, with persistence despite of outside distractions, with focused intent or mechanical movements.
  6. After an interruption does the child persist with the original piece.
  7. The goal for six to seven year olds is to open up as many fields of exploration as possible, see how many presentations are given and the response which we would hope would be enthusiastic, six and seven year olds want to be part of everything and know it, this must be balanced with time given fort he children to make their own explorations with the ‘keys’ offered.
  8. Is there a difference between the way younger children work together and older ones, how does the age range effect the content of the work and the method of the approach.
  9. How do the children organise their work, when working alone and in groups?
  10. Look for evidence of the tendencies, to orientate, work, abstract and so on, and how are these tendencies being facilitated in the intellectual and moral fields, and if not why not?
  11. Is there evidence of the behaviours of this plane such as the tendency towards group work, and an interest in relationship, fairness and justice and the use of imagination (and is the imagination based on reality or fantasy).
  12. Is there intellectual curiosity (how and why questions), and how is it manifested?
  13. Note what the children’s areas of interest are.

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Observe lessons and presentations, ask;

  1. How many children are being presented to.
  2. The time of day and length of it.
  3. The style and length of the presentation.
  4. The effect it has on the children’s emotions, intellect and work.
  5. The spontaneity with which the children attend.

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Follow up work, ask;

  1. Do the children follow up from a presentation, and how, is it as a spontaneous choice or is it required.
  2. How adult led is it, is material provided for activity or is it written and the effect on motivation.
  3. What is the child’s attitude to their own work.
  4. How is this organised, in exercise books, folders, draws or files where completed and ongoing work is kept.
  5. What is the predominant activity.
  6. Are drama, art and creative response an option.
  7. Is project work happening.
  8. Do the children choose to work as individuals or in a group.
  9. Are their opportunities to ‘going out’ is the dual environment encouraged as a way to answer the need to know more.
  10. What is the level of interest the children have in the outside environment?

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Control of Error, ask;

  1. Does the child check the work and does the environment provide the means to do this?

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Watch the behaviour in relation to the adults and other children, ask;

  1. How orderly is it and how does the orderliness change as a response to being given ordered work.
  2. Do the children co-operate and collaborate.
  3. Can the child work with others, giving intelligent contributions.
  4. How do the children respond to being given an instruction.
  5. Do they help each other, work to solve problems, do they criticise each other for making mistakes or help each other experiment.

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In relationship to the Environment, ask;

  • Does the environment give potential for the tendencies to operate.
  • Does it facilitate independence?
  • What is the noise level, and why is it like this, it should not be silence.

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