In a Montessori classroom, we can broadly categorize the students’ time in two ways. When the entire class is gathered, perhaps for the morning meeting or at the end of the day, the students are “on circle.” This represents a relatively small fraction of their classroom time. The vast majority of a Montessori child’s day is spent in a “work cycle.” The work cycle itself can be divided further into lessons given by teachers and independent work time. Lessons from teachers during the work cycle can be presented on a one-to-one basis, in a small group, or even to the whole class. Independent work time represents the bulk of the work cycle, as students move through the classroom, selecting materials from the shelves and bringing them to a rug, desk, or table. Montessori environments strive to keep this precious time whole and undivided, attempting to keep interruptions to a minimum.
What does the work cycle look and sound like? A stroll around a Montessori school at any time from 8:45 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. or so, and again in the afternoon, reveals the essence of the uninterrupted work cycle. Children are working with friends on floor rugs and at small tables, or at single desks, manipulating learning materials, writing, illustrating maps, having a snack, and so forth. Teachers, who are not big voices and big personalities at the front of the classroom, are notoriously difficult to find, as they present lessons to students with subdued voices. They are also observing, redirecting, and sitting or kneeling at the children’s level. A “Montessori buzz” is heard, that is, the volume is somewhere above library quiet but well below disruptive.
The uninterrupted work cycle is the heart and soul of a Montessori environment. Montessori spoke extensively about the need for children to develop their powers of concentration and focus in order to best internalize and integrate the concepts in which they were engaged. Learning research supports this idea. We learn best when we are focused on the task at hand. Thus, it stands to reason that a school should prioritize the creation of environments most conducive to developing the power of concentration. We cannot bemoan the lack of attention span in our children, blaming our undeniably “plugged-in,” Internet-driven world, if in our schools we are equally at blame, interrupting students every 23 minutes to put away their math books and get out their language worksheets, or values clarification, or nutrition, etc. Instead, a Montessori environment allows children to develop longer periods of attention, and a sense of task completion, by protecting a work cycle measured in hours, not minutes.
From “Follow the Child – The Basics, The Misunderstandings, and Underlying Lessons of a Montessori Education” by Rob Keys