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A. Movement and Cognition

8/23/2011
This article is the first in a series that summarizes the book “Montessori:  The Science Behind the Genius” by Angeline Stoll Lillard.  This book discusses insightful practices and principles incorporated by Dr. Maria Montessori regarding how children learn and develop, as well as how these ideas are supported by current psychological research.  
 
I distinctly recall the awe I experienced upon my first visit to a Montessori school. I was in search of a school for my oldest child and had visited many classrooms during this time.  During this Montessori School visit, I spent well over an hour watching children move around the room with purpose and direction, employing various materials, and deeply engrossed in whatever they were doing.  I was amazed and, needless to say, very impressed.  That was quite a few years ago, and I have spent time studying the Montessori Method, as well as learning from my children as they experience a Montessori education.  I am continually impressed with the insight and intuition that Maria Montessori had so many years ago.   
 
One important principle governing her theories and practices is that movement and cognition are closely related.  She believed that deep concentration was essential in helping children develop and learn, and that deep concentration in children comes about through working with their hands.  Much current educational and psychological research has examined this relationship.  Such research has found that people represent spaces and objects more accurately, make judgments faster and more accurately, remember information better, and demonstrate better social cognition when their movements are aligned with what they are thinking about or learning.    
 
For example, one study illustrating how movement assists spatial representation found that children learning to read maps did so better when they walked across the territory (i.e., a school campus) to be mapped than when they sat in a classroom and merely imagined that territory (Griffin, 1995).  Other research (Levin, Siegler & Druyan, 1990) examined sixth graders intuition regarding movement and their understanding of movement.  In this study, one group of students watched a carousel that carried two teddy bears around in a circle, one bear placed closer to the center than the other.  Another group of students physically took the place of the teddy bears and walked in either the inner or outer position.  Upon evaluation, 79% of the students who actually moved themselves realized that the outside position moves faster that the inside position.  By comparison, 46% of the students who simply watched the experiment correctly realized that the outside position moved faster.  Hence, children represent space better when moving themselves through the represented space than when remaining still. There is also research showing that memory improves when your movements reinforce what is to be remembered (R.L. Cohen, 1989; Engelkamp, Zimmer, Mohr, & Sellen, 1994).  When students act out the content of sentences, they remember those sentences better than when they learn the sentences without enacting them.  Furthermore, actors have better recall of dialogue that they delivered while moving on the stage than the dialogue given while standing in one place (Noice, Noice, & Kennedy, 2000). 
 
As this and other research suggests, work that involves using bodily movement enhances memory and cognition.  A majority of Montessori work in the classroom involves manipulating objects with one’s hands and often involves whole body movement as part of the particular task.  For example, Children House students carry large puzzle-type maps to rugs, remove the puzzle pieces and trace the countries, carry and set flags on those countries, and color in small pictures of the flags.  Incorporating maps further, elementary school children investigate how people in different areas, ages and climates obtain food, shelter, and clothing.  By creating maps, charts, and models, their work continues to involve hands-on activity and they are able to make connections to the maps that they physically worked on in the Children’s House. 
 
Montessori students in both Children’s House and the Elementary programs handle math materials as they develop the basic concepts of arithmetic.  Cognition is embedded in action, by virtue of learning through these materials.  In the area of mathematics, another research study by Stigler, 1984, supports the principle that movement and cognition are closely related.  This study determined that children who are more expert at using the abacus are more proficient at solving math problems.  This apparently stems from the fact that abacus experts imagine the movements they would make using an abacus.  Montessori Elementary students employ Bead Frames (an abacus-like tool) as they progress from concrete operations to more abstract calculations in math.  
 
Another hands-on material that is used throughout the Montessori Math curriculum is the Binomial Cube.  It is a wooden box with hinged sides that house a set of blocks inside.  The blocks fit perfectly inside the wooden box.  Embodied in these 8 blocks is the algebraic formula for the volume of a cube [(a+b)3 =a3 + 3a2b + 3ab2 + b3].  In the Children’s House classrooms, the Binomial Cube is like a puzzle.  In Elementary classrooms, children are specifically shown how the material represents the binomial formula – hands on! 
 
There are many additional examples of Montessori principles that are supported by current research.  This summary is a brief outline of some of the ideas presented in “Montessori:  The Science Behind the Genius”.  Future articles will examine other Montessori theories and practices and how they are supported by current scientific 
research.