Montessori guides never tell their students the “answer” but rather they facilitate child-led discovery. They do this by providing the appropriate materials at the right time in a child’s development.
The challenge is knowing when a child is ready for the next presentation, but the materials themselves are designed perfectly. One special feature that every Montessori material shares is called Control of Error.
What Is Control of Error?
Every Montessori material was individually devised by Maria Montessori herself, with the idea of self-correction at the forefront. Along with designing the materials to fit the young child’s interests and development, Dr. Montessori made sure that each work could be independently completed by the learner. Mistakes were clear upon finishing the works and could be fixed by the child herself.
Let’s take a look at a few examples that illustrate this concept. First, the Pink Tower. This material is meant to be stacked from largest to smallest. If the child has made an error, the last piece will not be the smallest. The child can find where the piece actually belongs and self-correct.
Second, the first Montessori material, the knobbed cylinders, has a very concrete control of error. The cylinders need to fit perfectly into their own slots. If one doesn’t fit at the end, another has been placed in a slot that’s a bit too wide or too short.
Next, let’s look at the sound cylinders. These cylinders are meant to be placed into matching pairs. If a mistake is made, the last cylinder won’t have a match.
Taking the initiative to examine what went wrong further refines the child’s sensorial perception, which is exactly these materials’ purpose!
Why Don’t We Correct Children?
It can be extremely tempting to “help” a child by pointing out a mistake or offering a clue as they work. However, this robs them of the experience of discovering concepts on their own, which makes for the best learning experience.
Instead, allow the child to fail, even repeatedly, as she builds her endurance. When that mental lightbulb finally turns on, if you’re lucky enough to witness the moment, you can see exactly why it was best to stay out of the learning process.
Children return information better when they discover their own mistakes, and they are more interested and engaged when they are in the driver’s seat of their own learning process.
What to Do Instead of Telling Students the Answers
It’s normal to feel tempted to offer clues or point out specific mistakes a child is making. After all, you are the teacher and you are supposed to teach aren’t you? In fact, remembering that you’re role is that of a guide can help a lot here. A guide does not actually impart knowledge, but they facilitate opportunities for learning via the prepared environment. There is a reason that in Montessori, we use the term “guide” instead of teacher.
Even if a student asks you, refrain from telling them what they’re missing. Instead, trust their capabilities and encourage them to repeat the work. In some cases, you can provide a scaffold, like a multiplication chart to reference. But you always want to direct the children to a resource they can access on their own.
If a child really cannot comprehend a particular concept through their own exploration, it is possible that you have introduced a work too early. The guide’s job is to present new materials when they are just at the right level of challenge for a student, but we are not infallible. It’s in the child’s best interest to put a work away and try again in the near future if you realize that this is the case.