by Erin Campbell, PhD
Research has found that when people (children or adults) are given the opportunity to make their own choices, they tend to feel and perform better. Children at LMS, as in other Montessori classrooms, are able to capitalize on this by choosing their own work. They can work on something for as long as they like, and then put it away and choose something else.
Studies examining the impact of choice on performance generally involve giving people a collection of tasks to do. The research design typically assigns individuals to either a group where they are allowed to make choices regarding the task, or a group in which they are assigned a specific task or way to do the task. For example, in one study, children using a computer math game (designed to teach mathematical operations) were given two trivial choices: what kind of spaceship they would have,and the name of the spaceship. Other children were told the kind and name of the spaceship. Although these choices appear trivial, the findings indicate that the children who had chosen and named their own spaceship liked the game better, played it more, chose more challenging games and rated themselves as liking math more. Also, these “choice” children showed greater improvement from pre- to post-tests examining their proficiency with mathematical operations. This study, as well as additional research, shows that having control of choice in situations is associated with improved performance.
Research also shows that having choices increases motivation, concentration, creativity, and a sense of well-being. In a typical study of this type, pre-schoolers were grouped into choice and no-choice groups and asked to make collages (Amabile & Gitomer, 1984). Those in the choice group were given a choice of collage materials, and those in the no- choice group were simply given the same collage materials as the choice children had freely chosen. The collages were then judged for creativity by a group of artists blind to the research conditions. They rated the collages of the children who had been given a choice of materials as more creative that the collages of the children who had been given no choice, but used the same materials. Additional research has found that people of every age show positive emotional well being and enhanced performance when they feel that they are able to control their environment and tasks.
In Montessori classrooms children have choice and control over their lives. This is made possible by the nature of the classroom itself. Dr. Montessori believed that in order for a child to make productive choices, the environment needs to be prepared. The prepared environment, while enabling freedom to choose and the feeling of control, imposes limits to the choices made by the students. One way in which a Montessori classroom is prepared to facilitate choice and control is through order. Montessori classrooms are orderly, with the materials easily accessible to the child on shelves, tables, and rugs.
While there are many materials, children are limited in their choice of what to work on by what they know how to use, and by the requirement that they be constructive and responsible with the materials.
To make sure that children do work across the curriculum, especially in the elementary classrooms, teachers keep track of each child’s progress, and guide them accordingly. The Elementary program at LMS teaches children how to make productive choices, as well as organize their time. In one of the LE classrooms, the children make a work plan in the morning to schedule their day. This plan includes a math and language work for the day, as well as other spaces to fill in – their choices of what to work on that day. They also have long term assignments that they can choose to work on during the upcoming days and weeks. If a child needs a little more direction, the teachers help them prioritize their work, yet still maintain a student’s freedom of choice.
In summarizing this topic, Lillard wrote, “Montessori classrooms are based on personal choice and freedom within the limits imposed by being constructive for oneself and society…[Children] make choices based on what interests them. Montessori education also capitalizes on interest.” This concept of “interest” and its relationship to human learning is the topic of the next article.