Most Montessori schools and homes do not use grades or test scores as a way to evaluate children’s progress. While it’s wonderful that we don’t subject children to these sorts of assessments, which are often arbitrary and biased, it can be hard to find a meaningful way to estimate their progress. How can we measure children’s growth and development in a way that lets us know how they’re doing without using tests or grades?
Another important (and related) question is this: how can we know if a child is having an authentic Montessori experience? In other words, is the child truly receiving the full benefit of the prepared environment, the materials, and the Montessori philosophy? Knowing the answers to these questions will help us as we decide which materials to present, how to arrange (or re-arrange) the environment, and how to work with each child.
The best assessment of each child will include several things:
1. First of all, there should be some kind of chart, list, or schematic indicating what work has been completed by the child. To make it even more useful, you can indicate whether or not a child has been shown how to do the work, actually done it themselves, or even mastered it (or all three, if indicated).
2. The second part of the evaluation can include the child’s own work; samples of written work, creative writing, drawing, art projects, and even photographs of the child’s work can be included. (I’ll be authoring a separate post on assembling a child’s work portfolio soon).
3. The third part of the assessment should include a written portion that summarizes the child’s progress as observed by the teacher. Observation notes can be included to support the conclusions. It’s helpful to briefly mention the general characteristics of a Montessori child and how this particular child is moving ahead in each area.
What characteristics should we be looking for in a Montessori child?
The Montessori method is practiced in dozens of countries around the world, in differing cultures and in many languages. There are public and private Montessori schools, Montessori homeschools, large schools and small schools, AMS schools and AMI schools.
Given those differences, are there consistent traits that show up in Montessori children regardless of the type of school they attend or area of the world in which they live? There are! Regardless of where and how the child experiences Montessori, you should be able to see these the following traits – even if just in glimpses.
Eight characteristics of the authentic Montessori experience:
Besides the obvious displays of independence like being able to choose work for oneself, there is a certain autonomy that marks the Montessori child. They are used to doing things themselves rather than having an adult do everything for them.
The Montessori child approaches life’s challenges confidently. They may not know the answer or solution to every problem, but they know where to find help if they need it. This is not an arrogant confidence that presumes to be right at everything, but the kind of confidence that allows a child to try new things and be adventurous.
Self-discipline enables children to make the right choices without adult intervention. The child cannot achieve self-discipline without instruction and help from the teachers and parents. Guiding a child’s inner development is not something that can be done overnight; it’s a long-term process that focuses on incremental improvements.
- Intrinsic motivation
The idea behind the beautifully prepared environment of the Montessori classroom is that each material – and indeed, the set-up of the entire classroom – will appeal to the child’s inner needs. The teacher should never need to force or coerce a child into doing work. The child will instinctively know what they need to do. If the teacher or parent is always giving direction, the child will never get a chance to hear that “inner voice”.
- Ability to handle external authority
One popular misconception of Montessori is that children are allowed to run around and misbehave and basically do anything they want to with no interference on the teacher’s part. Nothing could be further from the truth. The child in the Montessori environment is treated with respect, but is expected to respect the teacher, the materials, and the other members of the class as well. Strong-willed children find it very difficult to handle external authority, but with time and patience can begin to graciously follow directions when necessary.
- Academic achievement
While we don’t wish to make academics the cornerstone of a Montessori education, they are indeed important. Each child will develop differently, but there should always be some progress over time. Montessori may have more elastic boundaries when it comes to grade-level expectations, but there are still general skills to be mastered in the 3-year cycles. It’s important to know which materials are presented in each level, and whether or not the child has completed them successfully.
Many Montessori schools avoid standardized testing, but it’s perfectly acceptable to evaluate kids with short, informal one-on-one sessions with an adult. The child may be asked to complete the work (or some part of it) so that the adult can note whether or not further instruction is needed. These can be repeated if necessary, and progress can be noted from one evaluation to another.
- Spiritual awareness
The Montessori philosophy recognizes that a child has more than just a mind and body: they possess a soul as well. The child’s soul needs to be nourished through art, music, literature, nature, moral lessons, religious instruction, and relationships. A Montessori child will have appreciation and respect for spiritual issues, and for other people as spiritual beings.
- Responsible citizenship
Since the Montessori curriculum stresses the interdependence of all living things, global awareness will come quite naturally to the Montessori child. They will be interested in current events, in helping others less fortunate than themselves, and in treating our planet kindly.
Let’s all take a deep breath…
…and accept the fact that no child will perfectly display all these characteristics at one time. Rather, we are looking for glimpses of the above characteristics, as well as evidence that the child is progressing in each area. This progress may be turtle-slow, but as long as there’s some forward motion, we can know that Montessori is taking hold. Any child who develops the eight characteristics mentioned above is going to be well prepared to succeed at anything they attempt to do, so let’s make sure we’re guiding them in the right direction.