Beyond Flattery: Imitation as a Learning Tool

29 Jun

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


8 Responses to “Beyond Flattery: Imitation as a Learning Tool”

  1. kelly @kellynaturally June 29, 2010 at 6:36 pm #

    Thank you for this reminder: Want to know why children are talking to each other in bossy tones? Listen to your own way of speaking.

    I am reaffirming my dedication to treat my children as I’d like to be treated – this includes bossiness of words. Remembering to be a leader of my children, I don’t have to bark out instructions (which I’ve then heard repeated by elder sister to younger brother), but instead, show them through my own actions & words what & how things should be done. They really do listen & follow because they want to do things the way we (my husband and I) do.

  2. Marcy June 29, 2010 at 8:58 pm #

    Yes! It’s amazing to watch your own toddler pick up the phrases I say, the habits I have, etc. Makes me much more aware of what I do– there have been several times when it wasn’t until I heard *him* use a particular phrase that I realized how often *I* use it myself. Our children are, in many ways, our mirrors.

    I’m trying to keep this in mind, then, in how I treat him, and keeping in the back of my mind the following criteria– how would I feel if he acted this way towards me? How can he learn respect and patience if not shown it first? I’ll be the first to admit I’m far from perfect at this and have LOTS of work to do… but I’m trying al the time.

  3. Brandi (Real Life Montessori) June 29, 2010 at 11:16 pm #

    Ooo, I love that quote at the end (as well as all of your amazing words). It’s so hard to get people to see that sitting in rows is not socialization!

    I had Ryann help hang clothes in her closet for the first time the other day and I showed her how to put her shirts on the hanger, even though I wasn’t sure if she would have the coordination to do it. The expert way she handled the movements showed me that was not the first time she had carefully watched me hang clothes even though I wasn’t purposefully teaching her.

  4. Uly June 30, 2010 at 1:23 am #

    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?

    When my nieces were little and we went out and about more (now they’re in school), the people we knew would see me reading while they played and comment that they didn’t get to read much anymore. And I’d reply that it’s Setting a Good Example.

    People always laugh when I say stuff like this, I don’t know why. (Most recently, the security guard at my nieces’ school laughed when I told her frankly that I just don’t like people. I wasn’t making a joke…. I like specific people, and I like humanity as a concept, but gimme a good book or internet connection any day over a crowd!) But other than the fact that it’s blatant justification, it’s absolutely true, you know. (Well, of course you do, you already said it.)

    Mind, now we have a bigger problem – we can’t get the older niece to STOP reading! (People laugh when I say this as well. Again, I don’t have any idea why. The girl won’t put down her book even to cross the street. We go into her room well after bedtime to snatch away her third book of the night. If she sees a book as she’s cleaning, twenty minutes later we find nothing got done and nothing WILL get done “until I finish just this last page”. It’s not funny!)

  5. Montessoribeginnings June 30, 2010 at 2:57 am #

    Very thought provoking post! I am constantly aware of this although it’s not always easy to keep your cool and set a “good example” with a toddler. I try to think to myself would I talk to an adult like that? then again an adult wouldn’t try and run across a busy street or eat sand. One hopes anyway!
    I can’t wait to read your blog once you have children : )

  6. Uly June 30, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    Okay, I was just thinking about this today.

    My younger niece was trying to set up dominoes so they’d fall over. First she set them much too close, and then she set them too far, at which point I suggested laying the domino down to gauge the distance, demonstrating.

    Here she is, here I am, and the dominoes are between us.

    She watched me do this, she liked this idea and proceeded to copy it… by laying down a domino as a ruler on MY side of the dominoes, because that’s how I had done it. This, of course, toppled them all the wrong way.

  7. sands July 2, 2010 at 3:41 pm #

    Beautiful picture! Will come back to comment later…just wanted to tell you that you have been tagged at my blog.


  1. Tweets that mention Beyond Flattery: Imitation as a Learning Tool « Montessori Matters -- - June 29, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Marcy, kelly. kelly said: Beyond Flattery: Imitation as a Learning Tool (by @montmatters) #parenting […]

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