Mistakes, Failure, and the Montessori Classroom

A few weeks ago we were hanging out with our favorite biology professor.  He hadn’t realized that a Montessori guide/teacher had to be an informed generalist.  He stared at me for a moment and the wanted to know the question all parents ask in parent orientation: What happens when I, acting in the role of teacher, don’t know something?

I love this question.  I get to point out that I am human and not the world’s smartest individual.  Far, far from it.  I do let the parents know that one of my greatest gifts to the classroom is the knowledge that there are things that even adults don’t know, but are willing to find out with the children.  It brings an energy and a unity to the classroom that a superior, know-it-all attitude doesn’t.

The multi-aged classroom also helps with that.  Mistakes are nothing new.  They have happened before. In the creation of unity within a classroom, children see that there is a past and present. What the older children experienced in the past, the younger children are experiencing now. This has a wonderful possibility for the understanding that error happens now and has happened before and others have “survived” and learned beyond it.

The past and the present are all that exist if the teacher does not join in the admission of error. When she does, then there can be the past, present and future. “I was able to pickup and move on;” “I am able to pickup and move on;” and “I will in the future be able to succeed,” is what the child subconsciously learns from the errors admitted to by the teacher.

“The power to make progress” Dr. Montessori asserts, “comes in large measure from having freedom and an assured path along which to go.”* One of the great lessons for success in the wider world is the ability to overcome error. To teach the child to say: “I am not perfect; I am not omnipotent; but this much I can do and know that I can make mistakes and correct myself, thus finding my way.”*

This is trained in the young Montessori child with self-correcting materials and emphasized in the elementary Montessori child thorough the correction of work. For example: when a child completes a math problem he is taught that addition is paired with subtraction and that the inverse will aid in the child to self-correct. Self-correction of the “intellectual work” and “social work” leads to balance in the classroom.

There is no sense of shame passed from child to child, adult to the child, or child to the adult. The knowledge on the subconscious level that the adult teacher brings to the child is that she can feel comfortable with error and work to succeed. This brings a unity between the child and adult because in the actual event, it is “impersonal and is then amenable to control.” *

Thanks to the discussion over at Free Range Kids about failure and rejection to motivate me to get this out of my head.
* The Absorbent Mind. Dr. Montessori.


Filed under Classroom, Educational Philosophy, Montessori, Moral Compas, Practical Life - Elementary

4 responses to “Mistakes, Failure, and the Montessori Classroom

  1. Jeez…. As a teacher I am frequently confronted by questions I don’t know enough details to answer, so we research together. I find it interesting that another teacher asked you this question. Maybe his classes are so specific to his knowlege set he isn’t comfortable outside of it…..

    • EV

      I think it is a generational moment. Vulnerability was not something that many adults (especially older ones) experienced in their teachers. Many teachers of a certain generation were not trained to seek knowledge with their classes; they were taught to impart knowledge to others. Not to mention, you are a wonderful teacher!

      I also have experienced that even in Montessori teachers – the avowed generalists – as they become older have their favorite lessons/topics and avoid ones with which they feel less comfortable. This was part of the problem that AV and JV experienced academically last year.

  2. I still run into inexperienced teachers who do that too. My stomach turns over every time I hear an early childhood teacher say “I’m so glad I don’t teach fractions.” I am hoping to get into a class this summer through Clemson, and it occurs to me they might have something that your boys would enjoy. I’m trying to get into the Master Naturalist class (volunteer hours come with it). I know they have camps for kids that go along with it. I’m sure their passion at the moment is oceanography, but it might be worth taking a look to see if they have something (my middle school students LOVED their camps).


    • EV

      I hear you. I’m flashing back to teachers who have said that either to me or in teacher get-togethers. I remember feeling, “huh?”

      Is it through the extension service or will you go up for the classes? JV has always been the yard putterer and has a deep affinity for nature. He might find the Master Naturalist interesting.


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