Learning to Observe

By Barbara Isaacs

In her 1913 Rome Lectures, Montessori devotes two chapters to observations.  In the chapter entitled ‘Course Programme and Guide on Methods of Observation and Study’ which we will consider in our Book Club session on Tuesday 2 November, 19.00 (UTC), she outlines the course of study the participants of this Rome training have undertaken.  She gives us explanations for the structure of the lectures, highlights the importance of the inner disposition of the teacher, and urges students to “follow me”.  This inner disposition refers to the love of the child, remaining open minded about the child’s learning, and engagement with the environment. This writing paves the way for the spiritual preparation of the teacher which she describes many years later in The Absorbent Mind and The 1946 London Lectures.    

She talks about theoretical, technical and practical elements of the course instruction. She also describes the environments in which the participants will observe, including established and newly started Children’s Houses, the school outside Rome which provided opportunities for gardening and “agricultural work”, as well as observations in a laboratory situation.  She elaborates on the work of observation in the following words

…when you are in a Casa dei Bambini to observe the child, you are working, and I use the word labouring because I have used it up until now, labouring to learn something which I do not give, which the assistant does not give, and which no one else gives.  If you do not possess this capacity, especially this sensitiveness which allows you to learn the intimate facts which the children reveal without warning anyone as to which is an important thing and which is worthy of claiming attention, then this sensitiveness, this capacity for observation is labour which you must accomplish yourself.

(Montessori 2013:21)

How right she was about the challenges of observation; I am still learning to observe. The opportunity to share my days with our granddaughters in a home have suddenly opened new ways of seeing and understanding what Montessori calls the “secret of childhood”.

She highlights the need for the teacher to observe the spontaneous unfolding of the child’s capacity to teach herself and highlights the “…grand inner impetus which has permitted humans to become creators” (Montessori 2013:22) and on the next page she links it with children’s capacity to “spontaneously develop activities existent in them.”  In the last paragraph of this chapter, she urges teachers to “take away the obstacle to development”.

The second chapter titled “The Biological Chart and Anthropological Observations” provides a guide to what to observe – considering the family circumstances as well as the child’s physical characteristics such as height and weight, somethings which was still in use when I entered nursery 70 years ago and is now the responsibility of health professionals.  The chapter includes detailed notes on how to conduct and calculate the various elements of the children’s physical development.   Today we focus on documenting the children learning and general development of language and physical skills, cognition and emotional and social aspects of their being.  The summary of what to observe at the end of the chapter is interesting as she also includes notes on the child’s capacity to concentrate and obey.   

Montessori voices a level of mistrust in psychological observations of children because of the challenges of remaining objective, yet she does refer to their psychic development and urges us to keep  “A Diary of Individual Psychology” which consist of a simple note book into which we write what we see, having added the child’s name and date of observation at the top.  This observation is then torn out at the end of the day and kept with the child’s records.  I was very surprised to find a reference to keeping an instantaneous camera and taking photographs once children are well settled into the classroom.  She links recordkeeping and observations to “a scientific environment in which the teacher, by means of the method, constructs the science” (Montessori 2013:44). 

It is interesting to note how observation is referred to in the first chapter of The Montessori Method where she sets observation of humans by humans apart from the observations of animals.  She declares (Montessori 1912/1964: 12):

“The interest in humanity to which we wish to educate the teacher must be characterised by the intimate relationship between the observer and the individual to be observed…” She elaborates on the next page “.. the love of man for man ….lies within the reach of all men”.  Talking about the preparation of the spirit of the teacher, she refers to Christ’s Kingdom where  “…a mixture of respect and love, of sacred curiosity and of a desire to achieve this spiritual greatness, he sets himself to observe every manifestation of the little child”.  She adds “From the child himself he will learn how to perfect himself as an educator”.

Some five years later, in 1917, Montessori elaborates further in the Spontaneous Activity in Education, the Advanced Montessori Method, where in the chapter ‘My Contribution to Experimental Science’ she gives us the Curve of Work, a tangible tool for measurement of children’s growing capacity to concentrate. She explains the progression and evolution of order within the group and the individual and the differences noted with various levels of depravation children experience in their home life.  She also highlights the growing developmental capacity on higher order of work as children progress in their first plane of development and their capacity to stay focused. I wonder how many of us today use this tool and what we have learned from it?  It would be really interesting to hear from Montessori colleagues about their use of the Curve of Work in daily life of the classroom.

Join us on Tuesday to discuss these chapters and how we might apply Montessori’s thoughts in our work today. Register now.


  • Montessori M. (1912/1964) The Montessori Method. New York: Shocken Books
  • Montessori M. (1917/1965) Spontaneous Activity in Education, the Advanced Montessori Method. Cambridge Massachusetts: Robert Bentley Inc.
  • Montessori M. (2013) The 1913 Rome Lectures. Amsterdam: Montessori- Pierson Publishing Company

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