postheadericon The Uninterrupted Three-Hour Work Cycle

Curriculum & Best Practice


Throughout the Montessori world schools are struggling with the issue of balancing the wish to incorporate extra activities and programs into the school day while preserving the uninterrupted three-hour work. Teachers often feel as if they don't have enough uninterrupted time to allow students to immerse themselves in work of choice, and specialist teachers (music, art, physical education) often feel unappreciated, un-connected, and stressed out by a never-ending stream of children through their classes.

We urge people to be mindful and follow the legacy of 97 years of Montessori practice. In rethinking our classroom practice, we should always begin by asking, "What did Maria Montessori say, write, and do?" For various reasons, we may choose to follow a different path, but even when we disagree, we should at least do so knowing what it is that Dr. Montessori recommended.

What makes Montessori unique? Its insistence on freedom within a prepared environment. We don't "mandate", we "invite", and we "entice". To do this we must have a 3-hour uninterrupted morning work cycle. This is one of the basics-Maria would have said that any school without this was not doing the work of a Montessori school.

In effective Montessori programs, the School day is structured to provide learners with at least one daily-uninterrupted work period appropriate to the age level of the children in each class. At the early childhood level and elementary level, this has traditionally been understood as a two-and-a-half or three-hour uninterrupted work cycle in the morning. At the secondary level, this objective may be met in a somewhat different form, but the objective is the same.

The purpose of long, uninterrupted blocks of work time is to allow students to select work freely, eventually becoming absorbed in work that has a particular fascination for them at this point in their development. Interruptions, no matter how valuable the alternative activity might seem to be, disturbs the fragile development of the child’s focus, concentration, and intellectual exploration on his or her own.

Ideally lessons in areas such as art, music, dance, physical education, and foreign language should be taught by the classroom teacher and integrated completely into the Montessori curriculum. Lessons should be taught when children are ready and interested, not when the clock says it is time to go. If it is not possible to have the classroom teachers present all areas of the curriculum, Montessori schools should avoid scheduling children to leave the class for additional instruction in the morning.

The Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators addressed this issue in their recommendations for best practices.


The ideal Montessori classroom staff should be able to integrate all subjects effectively and with high quality into the classroom. It is also assumed that specialists are certainly not necessary in programs for three to six year olds.

Whenever it is possible, specialist teachers should have Montessori training. If specialists are not Montessori trained, it is recommended that the school provide a program of professional development a) within the school, where specialists would be encouraged to visit and observe in the classroom during core curriculum time, b) by visiting other schools, c) through CAMT and other workshops, e.g. Audrey Sillick or Grace Kidney, "Cycle of Seasons","Musik Garten" and d) in liaison with training colleges, to ensure that specialist teachers understand the philosophy of Montessori education and dcan complement the general program with their expertise in specific areas.

Specialist teachers should be timetabled, as far as possible, to take children at the beginning or end of an extended work period. Over the course of a week, all children will have the opportunity to experience some unbroken morning and afternoon work-times.

Specialist teachers, in addition to any timetabled class work they have with the children, might also work with small groups within the main class framework. This would promote integration of the specialist subject with the core curriculum.

Timetabled communication between specialists and core teachers would help to integrate the specialists and enrich the core curriculum. The emphasis would be on having teachers support the classroom teacher in her curriculum goals for a term e.g. specific project work would be supported by art and music from the specialist classes. The French class would address the same subject matter in French and give vocabulary and conversation to support the topic. All teachers should work as a team, with the Montessori teacher identifying the project and the specialists tailoring their work to match. Where teamwork is promoted and expected, each member of the teaching team, specialist and generalist, would input and the result would be a cohesive, enriched curriculum for the students.

Montessori teachers, as far as possible, would be encouraged to continue the work of the specialist in the regular timetable. To this end it is recommended that some materials, which are used by the specialist, would remain in the regular classroom e.g. every classroom should have an equipped art area with supplies, which the class teacher will encourage the children to use outside a timetabled art period. The Montessori tone bars and notation material should be used by the specialist and by the classroom teacher. Projects such as researching the lives of artists or musicians, identifying and classifying specific art work and music compositions, creating models, musical instruments, etc. should all be initiated in specialist classes and continued in regular class time.

In essence, the Montessori teacher is the central figure in the child's learning environment. Specialist input should be a support for the Montessori curriculum and not a fragmentation of the school day into isolated periods of learning. Montessori teachers should be encouraged to integrate specialist programs and to enjoy and explore their own expertise in these areas.

In today's world, the generalist can feel overwhelmed by the amount and quality of work which students are expected to accomplish. The Montessori elementary curriculum is a phenomenally rich one and makes serious demands on a teacher. It is reasonable, therefore, to contract specialist teachers who have specific areas of expertise. These teachers should enhance the curriculum goals of the Montessori teacher, challenge the children to their fullest potential and reassure parents that a Montessori elementary program meets all their child's needs. It is important to recognize that specialists are not replacements for classroom teachers. They are complementary to the classroom teacher. A successful school should have specialists who are well informed of the Montessori philosophy and approach to education, and faculty who are committed to offering an integrated curriculum.


So how can we do this? Consider making the day longer.

Invite children who normally leave at 11:30 or noon to stay in class through the end of lunch (normally about 1.00). Arrange for them to have their

Build in "studio time" in the afternoon from, say, 2:00 PM until 5:00 PM. Teach as much of the interdisciplinary resource topics as possible the way an Art Center does - by having a space available where children can go to do art (music, sports, games, PE, dance, drama, etc.), supplemented by a series of 9-week sign-up classes in a two week period for example) in hour-long bands of time (2:00 - 3:00, 3:30 - 4:30, 4:30 - 5:30 for example).

Classrooms and specialized areas become studios. Do poetry, media art, sports, drama, guitar, etc. These classes can be taught by parents, teachers, administration, after school supervision staff, outside specialists such as a Karate teacher, and the specialists that many schools have on staff now during the main school day (music, art, physical education, etc). These studios are an opportunity to "expand on everything". Of course the Studio Program will require coordination.

One result is that both parents and children would feel as though they had a year that was richer in neat accomplishments ("bragging rights")
Further Discussion:

Tim also suggested we develop a "Best Practice" Handbook - hammer out how we do things - one page per topic - and put all of it in a binder. These are things that everyone does, such as "How we break bread with children at lunch." Or "How we supervise the playground."

The IMC web site allows us to post our own and view lots of other schools' Best Practices.

Tim also suggested that whenever we have a question to resolve, we start by stating the issue as a question; research what Maria wrote, said, or did; research what Montessori mentors believe; research what credible non-Montessori authorities say; and after presenting these findings, solicit views of current staff and identify solutions and determine our course of action. How do you make sure that children get their necessary exposure to PE, Art, Music, etc as dictated by state and national standards and as we know is good for children?

Directresses have a role in monitoring children's choices and inviting children to attend. You can require children take a mix of "classes" in various areas during the studio time from 2:00 - 3:00.

"Montessori" education is a little like the story of the five blind men and the elephant. We walk a razor's edge between Maria's vision of a children's house and the pressures of parents and administration to do more and more. But we must come to grips with the fact that interrupting the morning work cycle with scheduled interdisciplinary resource times violates basic tenets of the Montessori Primary. It's easy to see how this happened, and such a trend is widespread in American Montessori schools in this century. Recall the experience of Maria Montessori, where children attained reading and writing proficiency by age 5 in almost every case where her methods were faithfully replicated. Yet the reality of American children today seems to pose a huge challenge. We struggle as well with the expectations of our Elementary colleagues seemingly versus the views of respected writers such as Elkind (The Hurried Child).

I urge everyone to focus on the original Montessori vision. Have some faith! We can have it all!

Intelligence in children is not rare. Children are capable of doing great work in a carefully prepared environment if we create the correct setting and play the role that Dr. Montessori asked us to play.

Remember that "casa dei bamini" means "children's home" or "children's community", not "children's house". There is a distinct difference. This is not our classroom as teachers, but a living, vibrant community of children in which they should feel ownership and pride.

The Primary environment is a "home" where children are the "masters of the house."

It is their community, more than that of the adults. The children must have the right to say "no thank you" when we invite them to a lesson. If not, then we are unwittingly trying to break their independence and autonomy, and bend them to our will, all in the name of Recall that Montessori envisioned her education as a movement to end war and violence by empowering children to create themselves and become "joyful scholars."

In order to recreate the conditions in which children blossom:

Look at the interruptions to your mornings

Treat each child as an "adult in training," in other words, with the greatest respect. Do not touch or grab children, put your arm around them, enter their personal space, rearrange their work, etc. without invitation, unless their safety or that of others is threatened.

Give yourself permission to be angry and be direct - that, too, shows respect. Be there in the moment - take them seriously. Listen and talk with them.

Here are a few other ideas to consider:

Invite your oldest children in to help you set up your environments in August

With meticulous care, teach children how to run the room. Actually running and maintaining the environment is real "practical life." Teach them to do these things for themselves. Idea: put a photograph of each shelf correctly ordered on each shelf.

Do everything you can to safeguard the three hour morning work cycle. Bring resource teachers into the room to invite children to do something (as long as it isn't distracting to the others who wish to remain working).

Re-think when the 3 and 4 year olds go home. Maria said the day should be 6 hours. At the very least have all children eat lunch together - breaking bread together is such a powerful community experience. Use real cloth napkins, baskets. Thereby build a community, a home. Make the day longer to do this.

Create ceremony and celebration.

The idea of a "materials hospital" where (usually older children) carefully repair classroom materials to exacting standards.

By having a longer day, we give the younger 3 and 4 year olds more opportunity to be exposed to and learn from the older children.

The Montessori legacy is a program rich with music, dance, drama, Spanish, PE, games, movement, etc. These are wonderful and we should have time to do them all. Kids need even more. But we need to make them a part of the daily fabric of the classroom by offering a rich menu of enticing choices.

Make more use of the outside environment. Maria said "Take a child to the garden."

Questions and Reflections:

Q. Is it OK for resource specialists to come into the classrooms to do songs (group activities) as some currently do?

A. Yes, this is what Maria had done - bring people with talents in. As long as children have permission to continue their other work instead of participating.

Q. How will returning to this kind of a use of interdisciplinary resource specialists play with Parents?

A. If we can articulate why this approach is appropriate and best practice, parents will support it. Above all do the right thing by the children. Montessori works!

Some schools, in addition to being very clear about their educational practices in the admissions process, also require parent participation in regular parent information sessions.

Q. Does every child need to do, say, music every week?

A. No, children can be respectfully guided and engaged to participate.

Q. Will all children be ready to move to Elementary after three years of Children's House?

A. No. I urge us to allow such children to have "the gift of a 4th year" in the Children's House.

Last Updated (Thursday, 29 September 2011 13:35)