My wedding photographer called out: “OK, now a shot of the bride with the flower girls.” Three-year-old Danika and five-year-old Allison ran towards me and stood by my side. I squatted down as best I could in my dress to join them at their height, and they immediately squatted down next to me. Everyone watching the photo shoot laughed, but we were witnessing something more than plain cuteness. The girls’ behavior illustrated a driving force in how humans learn: imitation.
The ability to copy behavior is visible from the first months of life. Studies show that newborns imitate facial gestures; a 9-month old child can replicate a simple action he observed 24 hours earlier; toddlers use observation and imitation skills to learn precise use of tools; an 18-month-old can figure out when to imitate someone and when the person’s actions were a mistake and not worth replicating.
Through observation, Dr. Montessori came to understand the child’s drive to learn through imitation, and created a learning environment that catered to it. The most well-known method of observation/imitation in the Montessori classroom is the presentation, where the adult shows the child how to use a material and then invites the child to engage in the activity. However, upon careful observation in the classroom environment, you’ll discover imitation being used as a learning tool in other ways. Work in progress is displayed on rugs and tables for all to see, and each child is allowed to spend as much time as he wants watching his peers working (as long as he doesn’t interrupt). Older students can give presentations to younger ones, showing them not only how to use a material, but also how to interact with peers in positive ways. Social skills also grow exponentially through observation and imitation, as children and teachers role-play Grace & Courtesy lessons. Finally, the “explosions” in writing that are common in Montessori classrooms are due in large part to the drive to imitate, since one child’s discovery of his nascent abilities encourages others to follow suit.
Imitation is a double-edged sword, as any guide can tell you after a few months in the classroom. Want to know why children are running in the classroom? Watch how fast you’re walking. Want to know why children are talking to each other in bossy tones? Listen to your own way of speaking. Want to know why children are not treating the materials with respect? Observe your own careless movements during presentations. Want to know why the children are not pushing in their chairs? Take a look at the teacher’s stool you left out-of-place.
Parents of children who are old enough to “make good choices” (not toddlers, mind you) often ask:
Why doesn’t my child show any interest in books? Do you read on your own in front of your child, or are you plugged into your computer?
Why does my child get up from the dining table several times during a meal? Do you sit down to enjoy the meal or are you constantly getting up to answer the phone, update Twitter, etc.?
Why does my child speak to me in a rude tone? Do you use polite words and tones when interacting with others (including your spouse, child, co-workers and employees)?
Knowing what you now know about the power and importance of imitation, consider the traditional school setting. How many opportunities for observation and imitation do children get during a school day, if they’re made to sit still and listen to a teacher who is spouting facts? Maybe they are able to imitate the “good” students who can sit without moving and raise their hand before answering, but not much else. And as any traditional school teacher can tell you, the first thing that bored and unengaged children will imitate is the negative behavior of “the problem child” in the classroom. Is it any wonder that our children are growing up with very few clues on how to interact positively with peers, solve problems, and collaborate effectively?
“What is social life if not the solving of social problems, behaving properly and pursuing aims acceptable to all? [It is not] sitting side by side and hearing someone else talk…”
— Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind