This morning I spent an hour observing my boys’ classrooms at Haven Montessori. Wow. My wife and I sat in the corner and just watched for 30 minutes in each classroom. My younger son (age 5) is in a Primary Classroom, which is for children 3 years to 6 years (including Kindergarten). My older son (age 7) is in Lower Elementary, which is for 1st–3rd grades. Both of our boys started Montessori in January of this year and we have been thrilled with the outcome. We were hesitant to move them mid-school year, especially after having moved to Arizona less than a year ago, but we have no regrets about our decision.

This wasn’t my first observation of a Montessori classroom, but each time I do it, I am blown away. Here are a few quick observations:

  • All of the students were working quietly and respectfully.
  • Students were either working independently or collaboratively with another student or two.
  • There were a variety of different things going on at the same time.
  • Students were freely moving about the room, but always focused on their respective task.
  • Students were smiling and enjoying themselves, but not goofing off.
  • Students appeared to be working on stuff because they genuinely seemed interested.
  • There were no incentives and no grades!

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. It seems like a Utopia. If you’ve never seen a Montessori classroom, go check it out. I’m sure the success of each classroom has a lot to do with the teacher, so we are tremendously grateful that our boys ended up with great teachers.

There are a lot of similarities between Montessori and inquiry-based learning (IBL), which is the approach that I try to take (to various degrees) in the classes that I teach. All of the wonderful things that I witnessed this morning are exactly the kinds of things that I strive for in my own classrooms. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But I keep trying.

While I was observing, I kept daydreaming; “What if students were provided with this type of experience throughout their entire education?” In particular, I spent quite a bit of time pondering my last observation above about grades and incentives. As a teacher, I try to de-emphasize grades as much as possible, but our educational system is so entrenched in their use. Is it possible to eliminate the need for incentives? Is there something that happens in our development that diminishes our curiosity flame?


Dana C. Ernst

Mathematics & Teaching

  Northern Arizona University
  Flagstaff, AZ
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Current Courses

  MAT 320: Foundations of Math
  MAT 431: Intro to Analysis
  MAT 511: Abstract Algebra I

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Land Acknowledgement

  Flagstaff and NAU sit at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, on homelands sacred to Native Americans throughout the region. The Peaks, which includes Humphreys Peak (12,633 feet), the highest point in Arizona, have religious significance to several Native American tribes. In particular, the Peaks form the Diné (Navajo) sacred mountain of the west, called Dook'o'oosłííd, which means "the summit that never melts". The Hopi name for the Peaks is Nuva'tukya'ovi, which translates to "place-of-snow-on-the-very-top". The land in the the area surrounding Flagstaff is the ancestral homeland of the Hopi, Ndee/Nnēē (Western Apache), Yavapai, A:shiwi (Zuni Pueblo), and Diné (Navajo). We honor their past, present, and future generations, who have lived here for millennia and will forever call this place home.