How to Adopt a Montessori-Style Work Environment

By Bobby George

If you’d like to make your work environment more productive, happy and content, look no further than the lessons from a Montessori preschool classroom.

The basic idea behind the Montessori philosophy of learning is that everyone learns differently, at their own pace and that a system of education shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, children should follow their interests and curiosity to create their own learning experience.

Nowhere does this concept translate more readily than in the workplace, where everyone is working individually toward a concerted effort. The Montessori approach has been appropriated by many Silicon Valley companies and is often heavily embedded in vibrant startup cultures.

It's no coincidence that many of today's tech titans, including Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, amongst others, have a familiarity with, affinity for and background in Montessori. In a Wired magazine article, Marissa Mayer says, “You can’t understand Google unless you know that both Larry and Sergey were Montessori kids.”

Let's get started with five Montessori concepts you can start to incorporate into your workplace.

1. Keep everything neat and orderly.

We all have our preferences for how we work -- in a messy or tidy space, late at night or early in the morning, on a walk or at our desk -- but there are clear lessons to be taken from the organizational structure of a Montessori classroom.

What we have learned through our work is that neat and orderly environments help instill consistency, confidence and calmness, not only in ourselves but also in those around us. While your individual work can sometimes lead you to messy places, the overall environment should lean toward an uncluttered state. You should aspire to have a well-kept work environment and space where everything has its place.

Why? As we've discovered, you become less distracted, less overwhelmed and, as a result, more focused on the task at hand. Instead of worrying about your surroundings, whether consciously or not, you have cleared the space in your mind and in your environment to concentrate.

2. Encourage collaboration instead of competition.

Most of us grew up in an environment that was highly competitive rather than highly collaborative. We only need to think back to our time in grammar school or high school when we were always competing to get the highest grades or run the fastest race.

In Montessori classrooms, there's a different type of competition at work: You are learning how to compete against yourself rather than against someone else. After all, if you find it easy to surpass your friends, you might never discover how hard it is to truly surpass yourself. You should learn to collaborate with others first, then compete with yourself.

3. Care for your environment.

Taking care of things in your environment helps facilitate a shared sense of responsibility, ownership and participation. It helps to keep everyone connected.

In Montessori classrooms, everything that is in the classroom is taken care of by the children. There's nothing that is "just for adults." Whether that's materials, plants, pets, trash or something else entirely, there's nothing that the children can't handle, and nothing that is off limits.

We should think about our work environments in this way. Not only does this model empower the community to participate together, sharing in the responsibility; it also encourages everyone to be mindful of and attentive to their surroundings. This introduces thoughtfulness, empathy and a certain care for each other and the environment.

4. Make things more concrete.

Popularized by Post-it notes and IDEO sessions -- design-based thinking approaches to problems around the world -- Montessori championed a concept known as the three-period lesson. When trying to learn something knew or help a child discover a concept, you rely heavily on this process: Name it. Recognize it. Remember it.

Here’s what it means: When you are tackling a problem for the first time, you literally can’t stop thinking about it (naming it). Then, somehow, whether through practice, insight or collaboration, you reach the second phase in the process, a place that requires precision (recognizing it). Once this stage has been adequately identified and recognized, you move into the final phase, generalization (remembering it). You try to offer the world what you have learned.

We often have a tendency to start with abstract concepts. Instead of trying to first establish a concrete approach, we find our heads stuck in the clouds way too soon. This can be discouraging. By keeping this threefold process in mind, we can move faster, tackle bigger challenges, and feel encouraged by the pursuit itself.

5. Tackle problems with a positive and open mind.

You must find a way to keep a positive and open mind. You must persist, despite the obstacles. You must learn to embrace the challenges.

It has been our experience that truly successful organizations have a collaborative work environment. The environment itself becomes the shared mindset. These places favor opportunities for non-hierarchical conversations, open-minded ideas and a resounding spirit of positivity. You become genuinely supportive by the individual successes of your teammates, but significant breakouts always come collaboratively as a team.

In thinking about work environments, and ways to improve them, our strongest advice would be to adopt the mindset of a child.


Bobby George is CEO at Montessorium.

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