Why is the 3-Hour Work Cycle Important?
True cognitive and personal development – the type that takes place in a Montessori classroom – cannot happen in 45-minute spurts.
In Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Angeline Stoll Lillard points out: “Montessori teachers who adhere to three-hour work periods without interruption claim one can see the difference in the quality of the children’s concentration on days when children know they will be leaving the classroom in an hour for a field trip or doctor’s appointment or special music class.” Children who know they will soon be interrupted choose unchallenging “busywork” at best, and at worst become nuisances to their peers. Even more tragic are children who don’t know an interruption is coming; they choose demanding work, become engrossed, and are understandably upset when the disruption takes place.
While interruptions are part and parcel of traditional education methods, they just aren’t necessary in Montessori. The beauty of the Montessori “curriculum” (for lack of a better word) is that it encompasses EVERYTHING that children should be exposed to in school. The usual “pull-out” subjects like art, music, physical education, drama, and yoga are all found within a well-prepared Montessori classroom. It might not look like what you experienced in school, but then again, doesn’t everything in Montessori look different than traditional education? It’s a good kind of different; it’s a different that makes sense – a different that works!
One teacher does not know or teach everything, but she does not need to. The materials are carefully designed to capture the child’s interest and guide him in the learning process. The child’s drive for knowledge and the material’s self-correcting qualities are the true teachers – the adult just brings the child and the material together as a kind of middleman of the learning process.
Some parents might worry: “Won’t my child get tired of working? Doesn’t he need a break every 45 minutes or so?” Dr. Montessori addresses this concern in The Advanced Montessori Method, Vol. I: “A great variety of interesting research has been made into the question of change of work with identical results – namely, that frequent change of work causes greater fatigue than continuous work of one kind, and that a sudden interruption is more fatiguing than persistence.” Stoll Lillard adds, “If we choose when to take breaks, then breaks work for us, but if the timing is externally imposed, breaks can be disruptive to concentration.”
Dr. Montessori concludes: “The one means by which exhaustion can be eliminated is to make work pleasant and interesting, to give joy in work rather than pain.”
All Montessori educators are familiar with what we call the “three-hour work period." As the name suggests, this is a three-hour chunk of time in the morning in which the children receive presentations, choose materials, have snack, and work at their own pace on activities that interest them. (Note: All AMI-recognized schools also have a two-hour uninterrupted work period in the afternoon for children ages 4 and older). A quality Montessori school will not have a single interruption during the work period: no Spanish teacher coming into the classroom; no music instructor pulling kids out; no physical education taking place on the basketball courts.
Dr. Montessori discovered that a child as young as three, who has spent a few months in the Montessori classroom, is able to choose productive and challenging work, focus on the task at hand, finish a cycle of work, rest without interrupting those who are working, and repeat this sequence. She noted that for this to happen, a minimum of three hours of uninterrupted classroom time is essential. Of her experiences observing children during an uninterrupted work period, she noted: “Each time a polarization of attention took place, the child began to be completely transformed, to become calmer, more intelligent, and more expansive.”