Observation in the Montessori PE Environment (Part 1)

It can be argued that the most important role of the Montessori Guide is observation. As a scientist, Dr. Maria Montessori created her methodology through thousands of hours observing children in clinical and applied settings. The most famous Montessori quote, “Follow the Child,” is about the importance of observation in uncovering and understanding the needs of the child. Despite the fact that we all agree that observation is critical, for many Montessori educators, it is not given enough time during training.

As strange as it sounds, possibly the best training that I ever did for observation came from working security in drinking establishments back in college. The job required intense observation of patrons to see whether there was mischief (including the potential for), or worse, if there was a conflict brewing. I know I did my job correctly when I was able to completely prevent a fight from starting, and I did this by watching facial inflections, body movements and postures, as well as tone of voice. Not being vigilant enough could literally come back to harm me if a fight started and got out of hand. If I could get to two people ready to fight before it started, 99% of the time it could be defused before anything dangerous happened. This was something I taught my other security as well to keep them safe.

While effective, working in a bar for observation training is too intense for most and the carry over to schoolchildren is not worth it (but there are more similarities than differences). When I ask Montessori teachers about classes they had for observation during their training, too many said they had none. Even in my own training, it almost felt like an after thought, but I had the benefit of an amazing teacher for several hours on the topic. Because of Dr. Paul Epstein, I learned how to use observation to create useable and meaningful data that translated into creating meaningful change. If you don’t have An Observer’s Notebook, please do yourself a favor and get it as quick as you can. Another great option to finding his work online (including excerpts from his book) is the Montessori Library.

Without going into too much detail, observation is both objective and subjective. We cannot truly separate one from the other. For example, previous knowledge of a behavior informs us of a behavior being observed in real time. However, we must be able to watch the same subject objectively as well. The same information that we use about a previous behavior generates expectations for future behavior, and we may miss the true intent in the moment if we looking for something specific instead of just observing. Balancing the objective with the subjective is incredibly hard to do and can only get better with lots of practice.

It was recommended by Dr. Epstein that on the paper that someone was using, put a line down the middle and have one side be objective observations and the other side be subjective notes. One should observe objectively in the moment and include all useful objective facts like: time of day, actions of the subject(s), whether the observation is during work time or a lesson, where is the subject, etc. When subjective ideas and thoughts pop up, record those on the other side. These subjective notes help give context to the observation, and it is fully reasonable that they may change as the observation continues. By using both objective observations with subjective analysis, the teacher can create the full portrait for understanding the subject being observed.

In the second part of this blog, I will give insight on what we should be observing within the Montessori PE classroom. Specifically, we will learn how to observe the mechanics of a game to see if it is functioning properly.