Ensuring that children have the skills and experience they need to succeed in the digital age of employment is one of the most important issues for the 21st century education. It may seem like its a little too early to begin discussing the topic of employment in the same sentence as early education. However, it’s important that our children are prepared for the challenges of the future economy.
Research has identified that students need to develop special skills and abilities to be attractive to digital age employers. These include: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication; otherwise known as ‘The Four C’s’. These skills can’t be taught by teaching children to effortlessly memorise and repeat. They must develop these skills through rich learning experiences that inspire them to master these skills over time. This poses the question: How can early education prepare our children with the tools and skills they need to succeed in the digital economy? The answer can be found in the 100-year-old method of education, Montessori.
Montessori education encourages children to develop their critical thinking skills by providing them with the environment, materials and guidance they need in order to achieve their developmental potential. In the prepared environment, the Montessori materials are logically displayed in order of progression within their set curriculum areas. Each material is specifically designed to isolate one concept or skill, and has an inbuilt control of error, which allows the child to ‘discover’ the outcome of the material independent of an adult. The self-correcting aspects of the Montessori materials encourage children to organise their thinking, problem solve in a clear way, and absorb the outcome of the material under the careful guidance of their teachers.
The Spindle Box, for example, teaches children to identify and quantify numbers by placing the spindles in the correctly numbered section of the box, and introduces the concept of ‘zero’. The control of error can be found if the child ends up with too few or too many spindles at the end of the activity. This outcome indicates to the child that they need to go back, review their work, and recount to find the error. A teacher in the Montessori classroom will never interfere in this learning process, as it is essential that child learns to self-correct and evaluate their work. This self-directed learning process encourages the child to critically examine their work, learn at their own pace, and find the solution through experimentation and practice. In this way, Montessori education provides children with the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills by mastering the learning materials in each curriculum area.
The structure of the Montessori program encourages children to develop the skills of collaboration through hands-on learning experiences and cooperative play. In Montessori, it is common for children to be grouped with peers that are within a three-year age range, such as children aged three to six forming one preschool class. Multi-age classrooms ensure that children moving through the group are exposed to both older and younger peers, encouraging imitative learning, peer tutoring, and all round collaboration. This structure to the Montessori environment also leads to the development of a harmonious classroom community, which leads to the optimal learning environment for children.
Throughout the Montessori day program, children have ample opportunities to practice and refine their skills of collaboration. For example, the Montessori work cycle encourages collaboration by providing children with the opportunity to teach a skill or share information with others. Collaborative learning can be particularly useful for developing long-term learning skills, as the act of teaching and sharing further reinforces knowledge and skills. This in turn can lead to a highly efficient transfer of information, as it is often easier for a child to teach a child. In this way, the structure of the Montessori learning environment teaches children to respect each other, develop strong social skills, and build a collaborative learning community.
Montessori education recognises that creativity is not a skill that is learned, so much as it evolves from a long process of cognitive development. This process begins when the child is born, and develops spontaneously as the child’s intelligence becomes established over time. Creativity is crucial in Montessori education as it is viewed as part of how children come to understand their world, and construct themselves through self-expression. The Montessori method fosters creativity by providing children with an environment that allows for freedom within boundaries. Within this space, children have freedom of movement, and the ability to choose to work or create. The guiding role of the Montessori teacher reduces anxiety and fear of judgement, leaving room for exploration, concentration, and independent learning. Clear rules, a strong sense of community, and supportive guidance provide children with the environment needed to develop creativity.
One way that Montessori education encourages creativity is through the study of culture. By providing children with cultural learning experiences based on art, music and dance, children learn to appreciate and participate in the creative aspects of their world. For example, Montessori encourages children to develop their creativity through art and craft activities that are suitable for their development. By using materials such as pencils and paper, threads, textiles and recyclables, children learn to refine their fine motor skills, express their ideas, create from their imagination, and communicate what they see. Store bought art kits are generally discouraged, as they don’t challenge the child to see how different materials could be used depending on their imagination and creativity. By providing students with artistic and cultural opportunities, children learn to fuse their intellectual activity and physical skills in the creative process. In this way, Montessori supports the idea of creative independence, and the notion that children can do, think, and create for themselves.
The development of communications skills is also reinforced through the Montessori Language Curriculum. There are four key stages of language development in children, including: Spoken language, phonetic awareness, creating words and writing, and reading. From infancy, the Montessori program supports language development by immersing children in the world of communication through conversation, story time, speech and song. In this way, children learn to absorb the language of their culture through their environment. Phonetic awareness is supported through the use of the Montessori language materials under the guidance of a trained teacher. The sandpaper letters, for example, provide children with a sensory introduction to the sound and shape of letters. More advanced language materials, such as the moveable alphabet, teach children to pronounce letters phonically, identify words, and match them with the correct image. Reading and writing are also encouraged by allowing children freedom of choice, and a supportive learning environment to practice language-based skills, both independently and in groups.
So how does Montessori education prepare children for the skills needed in the 21st century? Our classroom environments foster self discipline, responsibility, creativity, and individuality through freedom of choice and a focus on independence. The guiding role of our teachers encourage students to follow their passions, learn from their mistakes, and self-motivate. Our classroom communities nurture communication and social skills by teaching children respect for themselves and others. The Montessori materials teach children to think critically and problem solve through experience and practice. In this way, Montessori has been integrating the four c’s into early childhood education for more than 100 years. It is and will continue to be the best way to prepare children for the challenges of the future because it is based on how children learn – they learn experientially. As such, Montessori continues to be the epitome of best practice in children’s early education.