Tests Have Failed Our Test: How Montessori Assesses Better Through Observation

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Tests define most education systems around the world, and consequently, they often determine a student’s success or failure at school. Montessori is different. We do not use tests as a measure of students’ abilities or understanding. In fact, we do not use tests at all. We rely on observation and close work with each individual child to create a non-competitive and non-comparative environment that allows each child to find success. We focus on the process as much as the product, setting our children up for their own successes. Maria Montessori herself used scientific and objective observation to create the Montessori method; she observed how children worked and designed a programme that worked for them. At House on the Hill, we take this practice into the classrooms, but we often get a few questions as to how it works. 

How do you assess children’s learning if there are no tests? What is wrong with tests? 

Tests in traditional school settings assume that children learn in lockstep, instead of at their own pace. They create an environment that teaches that learning is about comparing and competing with one another, instead of collaborating. When we value the process as much as the product it is clear that traditional assessments are not helpful, and we have better alternatives. 

We begin always as Dr. Montessori did, with observation. Children have a developmental progression and they can only begin to learn a new concept when they have mastered the previous. We know when a child is ready to move forward because of our observations of their work. Teachers work with each child individually and come to closely know their abilities. Teachers take notes and follow the child’s progression. At key points they prompt the child to try a new skill, building upon what they have already accomplished. 

The environment and materials also allow children to correct their own work in many cases. Tests rely on a teacher to make corrections, but outside of school and in adult life it is often the work of the individual to assess their own actions and aim for improvement. Materials are self-correcting, meaning that children can see for themselves when there is an error and work to correct it without the interference of a teacher. 

What do you look for in your observations? 

At House on the Hill we observe the whole child, meaning we consider not just what they are demonstrating academically, but also how they engage socially and emotionally in the classroom. Each of these elements is part of the curriculum, and also part of the child’s future success. 

In short, we are observing for mastery and understanding of concepts. We observe so that we know when to intervene–perhaps this material is too difficult for a child, so we guide them to something suited for their level; or perhaps they have clearly mastered this material, so we guide them to the next step. It is a daily assessment through observation of the child’s progress that guides their individual learning path. 

As for what can be observed in the classroom, there is no shortage! 

    • Was the child able to complete the work independently? 
    • Was the child focused on their work? 
    • Is this activity too easy or challenging for the child? What other activity would help them more? 
    • Does the child often choose this activity and others like it? What other activities could help further the interest and enthusiasm they display? 
    • Does the child work well with others to complete tasks? 
    • Could the child teach this concept to another friend? 
    • Do they work on the activity in a unique or creative way?
    • Does the child make connections between different materials and concepts they have previously mastered? 

These are just a small sample of the kinds of questions that our teachers are asking themselves in their daily observations of the children. What can be gleaned through this thoughtful reflection is far more robust than what can be demonstrated on a test! 

How does this prepare my child for primary school where there are tests? 

The change to a more traditional school setting– and thus tests– will be a transition for each child. However, even if they have not taken tests in their Montessori classes, children have learned the knowledge and skills they need to find success in their new environments. 

Montessori ensures a strong foundational knowledge that will carry them far in primary school. Because children are not all tested on concepts at the same time, each child has the opportunity to learn at their own pace and only move on when they truly grasp the concept. Montessori children also graduate with the social and emotional skills to cope with the changes they face in the new system; they are independent and curious learners!

And you don’t have to take our word for it, studies demonstrate that children who begin in Montessori and later change to traditional school systems test well, sometimes even better than children without Montessori backgrounds. 

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