I was excited to capture this video of a preschool friend doing the 9 Layout recently. The 9 Layout is a Montessori math activity that presents the ideas of place value and increments. Beads representing ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands are counted and matched with the numerals. Here, my friend has completed the ones place and has started the tens. She is adding bars of ten until she makes ninety. (You might turn down your volume. The background is a bit noisy.)
What I noticed when I reviewed the video is how she stops to reflect after each increment. She moves the bars up, adds one, then sits back to review or reflect on the work. This is one of the beautiful aspects of Montessori - or really, just scientific pedagogy in general - the child doesn't need a teacher to step in and say, "Great! That makes 60!" All she needs is to see how to do the work then be allowed to do it. When she is all finished with the tens, then she looks up at me. My mentor, Don Czerwinskyj, made sure I understood the importance of offering a child a reflection when they were finished with work. He told me to wait for the child to finish and watch her face when she looks up. Is she pleased? surprised? excited? confused? Wait for her to assess her own work before offering any feedback. In this child's case, when she looked up at me and seemed satisfied, I said, "Ok. You did it! You completed the tens. Are you ready to count the hundreds?" She said she was and she continued.
A friend of mine told me recently about visiting a preschool where every child's work was praised lavishly. Every painting or block structure was met with, "Oh my! That's the most beautiful picture/castle/birthday cake I've ever seen!!" Montessori educators try to avoid empty praise because it causes children to look outside themselves - rather than inside - for affirmation. Just like adults, kids have opinions about their work and their performance. If a child is happy with her work then we can be happy for her. If she is unsatisfied with her work or feels she doesn't understand it, we can offer empathy, advice, or suggestions - depending on what's needed.
When this student was finished with the work, I snapped this photo just as she added the last thousand cube. She was pleased with herself, as the photo shows.
Now, because my job is to observe and assess her understanding of the concepts she was learning, I noticed that she had only stacked 8 cubes, instead of 9. This was no time for criticism - look at that beaming face! So I commented on how pleased she was with her work. I asked her if we could count all of those cubes. When she got to 8 thousands she realized that she needed one more. She added one more cube, we counted them again together, and I said, "There are 9 thousands and this says 9000. Is that correct?" She said it was, and together we determined that her work was complete. She then put all of the materials away.
Sometimes we think our grown-up words are essential to motivate children to learn and to keep them on track. But most of the time, we could get by with a few words and more time simply observing and offering reflections. Rather than saying, "That's a beautiful painting," we could say, "Wow! You used 5 different colors in this painting. Do you have a favorite?" It requires more work for us to look so carefully before commenting, but it shows the child that we are truly interested in her work. And, we are interested in the process and not just the product.
If words fail us, we can always try those three little words everyone loves to hear, "You did it!"