Math, Memory, and Exploration

by Corinne Stastny

In early February, educators and administrators working with children ages 3–12 gathered at Montessori Northwest to enjoy some chocolate, wine, and a complimentary workshop on memorization of math facts in the Montessori classroom environment. This free workshop was offered as a special “thank you” to guides and administrators who offered to host Primary and Elementary 2014–15 MNW Teachers in Training for Observation and Practice Teaching. A listing of these schools appears on our website and was also featured on all MNW publicity for our recent Celebration of Light.

The evening’s discussion and demonstrations were facilitated by Elementary Director of Training, Elise Huneke Stone, and Primary Co-Directors of Training, Sarah Werner Andrews and Ginni Sackett. Initial reflections highlighted how guides must sometimes finesse this work if it was not offered to the child when their Absorbent Mind was still active. This certainly has implications for a child entering Elementary, but the Absorbent Mind does already begin to fade while a child is in the 3-6 environment. The ideal scenario is to offer the Memorization work soon after age 4 or 4.5. So if, in the Casa we feel we are fighting the tide of the child’s innate abilities and interests, what can we do to help children love, embrace and excel at this work as we understand children have done in Casas around the world for over a century?

Indirect preparations set a good foundation for success. In Primary, this includes not only Memory/Distance Games in Sensorial, but also memorizing things like poems and songs.  Cultivating children’s interest in “Exactness and Precision” is possible via Points of Interest in Practical Life and inviting them to elevate their handwriting and Metal Inset work.

To share the full range of exploration and depth of the activities in the Memory Work, don’t delay! The Snakes begin with simply counting to ten. Introduce how to use the Snake, then get going to that meaty second activity commonly called “2 by 2.” The beads for the equation are isolated away from the Snake, giving the child a very strong, focused image of that Essential Combination. Primary guides’ albums outline great depth and variety for each Memorization material. Confidently, regularly, and earnestly offering the children the activities beyond the initial presentation will yield direct results in the Memorization Work in terms of the children’s success and happiness. Also, consider the preview of the Essential Combinations in the Number Rod work with Sums/Differences of Ten and Less than Ten. This early work could be even be given some extra gravitas by perhaps inviting a child to write the sums on a chalkboard if you think this might bring them some satisfaction and delight.

Remember the joy and fun that can and should accompany all of these activities. Think of the rules, patterns, exploration, suspense, and interest that accompany board games. Those apply here! The rules of the Strip Boards, the suspense of getting to 10 in a Snake, checking if your answers are correct with a Chart. Believe that this can be fun and it will be. 

Lastly, do not discount how beauty and/or a social element can connect and energize a child’s experience of these exercises. 

Facilitate opportunities for the child’s aesthetic/expressive connection to the work:

  • Make little posters or booklets on pretty paper of How Many Ways
  • Keep a “Heart Book” of facts that the children already know – they can add to it as they commit more to memory
  • When the child checks their written tables for accuracy, what if they then added a small design to indicate that an answer is correct?
  • If this area of the classroom looks lifeless, consider how a new container for the tiles or a new Snake Game underlay might liven things up

Embrace children’s natural social tendencies. While the key presentation for these materials might typically be given to an individual child, allow for a social element to be a possible avenue for the children to initiate or for you to offer up if/when it feels like a match. If children spontaneously do the work together, no need to stop them. (Read more on what Montessori and current research says about cooperative and peer learning) Here’s some visions for what might develop here, particularly for children older than 5:

"They spent most of the day delighting, over and over, in the fact that they both keep finding the SAME ANSWER on their respective boards. Taking turns using the 'tricky board.'
  • Memorize five facts and then teach them to a friend
  • Partners side by side, making sure they both get the same answer
  • Quiz each other

Learning these by heart is the goal. There is a point at which we just embrace this with the child. Knowing these all by heart will become possible and will be useful! Find opportunities for application in the natural everyday life of the classroom such as: 

  • If there are always 6 pencils in the math writing area, and there are 4 now, how many are missing?
  • How many food pellets does a pet consume weekly?
  • If 3 different art activities need 5 pieces of watercolor paper, how many need to be cut and distributed all together?
  • If we have 25 children, and we want each to have 2 chunks of cheese for snack, how many pieces do we need all together?

*Further reading recommended by a local Montessori teacher: Enacting Attention.

Find out more about our 3-6 Montessori teacher training courses here

Corinne Stastny is the Primary Course Assistant at MNW. She feels extremely lucky to call Montessori her profession and loves sharing Montessori with her 5 year-old daughter, Stella

Posted on March 3, 2015 .