Wednesday, February 29, 2012


I have had that heart stopping, “OMG! Is my daughter learning anything????” moment, a few too many times.  And let me tell you, I hate that feeling!!!

My girlfriend mentioned that her brother was concerned that his 1st and 2nd graders weren’t learning enough.  They went to a tutoring center and were told that their daughters were behind in math.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Maybe the acclaimed Montessori math didn’t really work.  OY!!!  No way. So, later that day, I casually tested my daughter, what is 1 + 1?  “That is easy, MOM! 2.” Whew! But she was right, it was too easy. What is 2 + 2?  She lifted up her fingers, counted and answered correctly, “4.” Hmmmm…What is 4 + 3? Again, she counted her fingers, “7.”  Shouldn’t she know these simple math facts by heart?
Concerned, I met with my friends and the elementary teacher.  She started explaining the advanced math in the classroom and the 3 year curriculum, where children are learning both individually and as a group.  OK.  I knew all of this and my friends were reassured.  But why didn’t our kids know their basic math facts, when they could do square roots? Was something fundamentally wrong?

As I drove home, my mind turned over everything I knew.  A memory crept in; my, “Aha!” moment.  Grace was 4 and Zaia was 3.  We were in a hurry and picked up chicken nuggets.  I gave each of them 4 nuggets.  Zaia finished and asked for 2 more.  Grace pipes in, “Wow, Zaia you were hungry, that’s 6 chicken nuggets!!!”  Five minutes later I gave him 1 more.  When we got out of the car, Grace informed me, “Mom, did you know that Zaia had 7 chicken nuggets and I only had 4? That is 3 more than me!”  (Addition and Subtraction!) “Yes, you guys ate a lot.” “Yea. 11! That is too many, right???”

With the memory came reassurance.  Yes, my daughter is learning.  Yes, she knows and loves math.  She is excited about the golden beads and the chains.  She is inspired and challenged by the work that her friends are accomplishing.  Montessori math does work.  So it begs the question.  Why, when quizzed about their basic math facts, do the kids not respond? 

The math that is taught in a Montessori classroom is explored in concrete, manipulative works.  They touch, feel, count, repeat, absorb and learn.  The concepts become ingrained in them. So that, when the learning moves from the concrete to the abstract, it is seamless.  Rather than the rote memorization, that occurs in traditional methods when teaching addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, Montessori children are learning the mechanics of why and how.  The children aren’t tested for their knowledge.  Their teachers are working with them and observing them, watching as they explore.  They work, repeatedly until they are satisfied with their mastery of it, not because they are told they must, but because internally they feel that they must.  Through the repetition, the abstract concepts of mathematical equations are cemented into their minds. 

Yesterday, when a friend told me that her daughter, who attends a local Catholic School, counts by 5’s and 10’s to 100, (as does her 3 ½ year old!!!) I experienced that Heart Stopping moment again.  Hmmm…Does 6 year old Grace? Let alone 4 ½ year old Zaia?  I couldn’t help myself.  Driving to school today, I tested my daughter, again.  I asked Grace to count by 5’s.  “Sure, Mom, 5, 6, 7…” I thought, OMG!!! Taking a deep breath, I explained, “Actually, I mean by 5’s like this 5, 10, 15…” Grace chimed in…”20…25…30” You could see the gears working in her head as she stumbled through the first few.  “35, 40, 45, 50…” She then sped up through 100 when she figured the sequence.  Zaia piped in.  They did it twice. The language was different, but the knowledge was there.  They didn’t know it by rote, in that singing the ABC’s kind of way, but by understanding the concept, of adding 5 units to the numbers to create a jump sequence in counting.  She then decided to do 10’s and 2’s.  Her only frustration was that she couldn’t complete her 2’s, before we got to school.

So, yeah, “Heart Stopping” moments, be damned.  Montessori kids not only “know” math, they understand it, live it, breathe it and are able to use it in every day life.  Knowledge vs Rote.  I don't know about you, but I will take the knowledge any day of the week!

Joanne Shango is a certified Montessori Teacher and Mom with 20 years experience.

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