Deep Dive on Scientific Observation

Deep Dive Summary: Scientific Observation

Submitted by Ben Moudry


Scientific observation is one of the cornerstones of Montessori educational pedagogy and a key difference from other educational practices.  This deep dive session briefly reviewed the purpose and basic practices of scientific observation in general, discussed the practicalities and effective practices of scientific observation at the adolescent level, including how to use the information gathered.


  • Clarify the purpose of observation overall and at adolescent level

  • Identify general characteristics to observe and characteristics specific to adolescents

  • Share effective practices for observing and record keeping at adolescent level

  • Identify next steps and future work related to scientific observation

Guiding Questions:

  1. What is the purpose of observation?

    1. And why at the adolescent level?

  2. What are the characteristics we are looking to observe in each plane?  How do we know we’re seeing it?

    1. Throughout planes?

    2. Distinct to the adolescent?

    3. How do those characteristics change from 12-15 to 15-18?

    4. To what extent will we be bringing in current research (especially neurobiology) to inform “what we are seeing”

  3. Practically, what are effective practices for observing and record keeping at the adolescent level?

    1. How do we observe adolescents?

    2. How do we collect observation information?

    3. What are the media for observation at the third plane?  

    4. What are the pitfalls/challenges/things to be cautious about regarding observation, specifically at the third plane?

    5. How do we observe well? How do we prepare ourselves?

  4. What do we do with the information?

    1. How can adolescents learn to appreciate and use observation as a tool?

  5. What is the role of relationships (adult observer)?

  6. If time … ideas and suggestions for future work.

    1. Develop a tool

    2. Bias training

    3. Practice and feedback about observation

    4. Training about participatory observation

    5. Shared data across schools


 “The first step in becoming a Montessori teacher is to shed omnipotence and to become a joyous observer. If the teacher can really enter into the joy of seeing things being born and growing under his own eyes and clothe himself in the garment of humility, many delights are reserved for him that are denied to those who assume infallibility and authority in front of the class.” (To Educate the Human Potential, 85)

Scientific observation is a cornerstone activity of the Montessori educational method.  It is what allows the adult guide to center himself and see the child with new eyes and an optimal and positive vision.  Without scientific observation, Dr. Montessori would not have seen the “secret of childhood” and the optimal ways to support the natural development of humans.  It is a critical and necessary activity for the trained guide, yet scientific observation is often done irregularly in Montessori environments, especially at the adolescent level.

Basics of Scientific Observation

Scientific observation is a specific type of observation that Montessori primary and elementary diploma courses train adults how to conduct and how to keep records for the observations.  The adult must find a location in the environment that does not draw attention and allows for uninterrupted time to observe.  The first step in scientific observation is to become aware of oneself and for the observer to take account of her own state.  The second step is to do the psychological work to become neutral and be open to seeing in actions and situations objectively and with as little bias as possible. Then the adult guide takes notes of all she sees as if writing a narration of activity without judgement or thought.  This type of observation needs to happen many times before drawing any conclusions.

Montessori “style” observation is:

  • not passive, but active.

  • not judgmental, but objective.

  • not general, but meticulous and specific

  • not hurried, but incorporated train of thought/freewriting style of recording

  • written and later reflected upon; analysis may not necessarily immediately follow, more observation is often needed.

  • Not brief, but long enough for the adult observing to become almost invisible

The Purpose of Observation

 “The purpose of this book is to expound and defend the great powers of the child, and to help teachers gain a new outlook, which will change their task from drudgery to joy, from repression to collaboration with nature.”   (Maria Montessori, NAMTA Journal, 355)

The student is center to our work - we observe to see the student exactly as he or she is through objective information gathering, while recognizing that we hold unconscious biases.  Observation allows us to notice the student’s manifestation of human tendencies, realization of sensitive periods, and expression of developmental needs all in the context of this specific stage of development.  To witness the different aspects and elements of a student with a higher degree of objectivity.

  • Doing scientific observation is the regular and daily training to see the new human and to have a positive vision for each adolescent in the environment.

Specific aspects and elements to observe:

  • Work and Concentration

  • Deviations

  • Appropriateness of the work tasks available to students

  • Root causes of behaviors

  • Manifestations of student needs

  • Expression of the human tendencies

Through conducting regular scientific observation the adult will be able to:

  • Reduce own biases about students and see with new eyes, to create a new positive and optimal vision for each child or adolescent

  • Adapt the prepared environment to the needs and tendencies that are observed

  • Take account of oneself and one’s approaches to adolescents, because the adult is also a material in the prepared environment

  • Authentically and specifically address student social, emotional and academic needs and interests

  • Provide opportunity for students to deeply engage in the work

  • Empower the third plane student with this unique metacognitive tool of observation

“The task of the teacher becomes that of preparing a series of motives of cultural activity, spread over a specially prepared environment, and then refraining from obtrusive interference. Human teachers can only help the great work that is being done, as servants help the master. Doing so, they will be witnesses to the unfolding of the human soul and to the rising of a New Man who will not be the victim of events, but will have the clarity of vision to direct and shape the future of human society.”  (Maria Montessori, NAMTA Journal, 357)

Characteristics to Observe – throughout planes of development and during adolescence

Flow, levels of independence, engagement (individual and community), etc., are fluid and dynamic based on various factors (including observer perspective, implicit bias, experience) so, we could use the manifestations of the human tendencies as our framework.

  • For example, if we’re observing for 2nd period engagement, we should look for activation of orientation, repetition, work/manipulation/movement, abstraction, concentration, perfection, exactness, etc., with an understanding that these will manifest quite differently for individuals in different circumstances.

Human tendencies have constructive results that guide the individual to fulfill their potential and self-construct.  The adult must understand the human tendencies in order to create a prepared environment, a thoroughly prepared adult, and need to look for activated tendencies as we make observations.  Psychological characteristics are manifestations of how the individual works to create and fulfill their human tendencies individually and within the social context.

Observe for activated tendencies: Exploration, order, orientation, repetition, communication, imagination, abstraction, work manipulation and movement, perfection, concentration, exactness

Characteristics and Tendencies in Adolescents to Observe

Work – chosen, repeated, work partners, physical or intellectual

Social Organization / Connection to Community

Social Relationships

Economic Independence



Maturity – intellectual, social, emotional, physical

Physical Changes

  • hormonal activity, reproduction

  • sexual maturity – attraction to another person

  • rapid growth & weaker health

  • Developmental changes in brain structures and pathways

Psychological Changes

  • decreased intellectual or academic capacity

  • fragile and volatile emotions

  • may demonstrate impaired judgement – lack foresight

  • very sensitive to criticism

  • values appearance

  • has a strong desire to fit in

  • may suffer from lack of confidence

  • may question and doubt himself and others

Social Changes

  • gathers in groups by interest

  • may rebel against or question authority

  • has concern for humanity and the world and wishes to contribute

  • developing sexual attraction

  • searches for heroes

Needs of Adolescent

  • economic and emotional independence

  • to understand his place in society and history

  • to strengthen self-confidence

  • to investigate sexuality

  • to experiment with personal space

  • love, respect and security

Tina Booth compiled the list above with the advisors at the NAMTA Orientation to Adolescent Studies over many years.

Possible Sub-Plane Specific Differences Linked to Human Tendencies

Sub-plane Specific Observations

  • Human tendencies have constructive results that guide the individual to fulfill their potential and self-construct

  • Tendencies must be understood in order to create a prepared environment, a thoroughly prepared adult, and need to look for activated tendencies as we make observations

  • Psychological characteristics are manifestations of how the individual works to create and fulfill their human tendencies

To Orient; To Explore

  • Orientation allows humans to explore safely

  • Exploration is curiosity coupled with experimentation

    • Adolescents move from focusing on the self to self as part of the outside world

  • 12-15

    • Orient to their peer environment, define themselves based upon their peers, they need a group for self-definition

    • Valorization of the group cushions the growing awareness of belonging

    • Concern with being “normal” – new bodies, gender specific codes and awareness, sexuality

    • Experimentation with new expectations for more adult like behaviors – looking at value systems, trying on different identities, etc.

    • Struggle with the more complex environment of the adult world – challenges in the organization of their academic materials, challenges in logically breaking down large, complex work

  • 15-18

    • Orient themselves to the greater environment, they define themselves by their chosen actions, they no longer need (as intensely) the group to define them

    • Valorization is sought through the adult world in work to the greater community, or through assessment (assessment is orientation to the adult world)

    • Reduction in anxiety related to body, gender, and sexual identification

    • More grounded sense of identity, less anxiety about personal values, increased facility to adapt behavior to situational requirements

    • Less struggle with executive functioning

To Order

  • Order allows humans to put things into relationships

  • Order supports sequential planning, such as mathematics, communication, and language

    • Adolescents look to identify structural order in society, look at hierarchies, try to identify manners of society –especially sensitive to the order of priority/relevance

  • 12-15

    • Struggle with both external and internal order

    • Experiment with social structure and their roles in them

  • 15-18

    • More regular external and internal order, which is indicative of a more consolidated personality

    • Experiment less with social structures, but specialize more within the structure

To Communicate

  • Communication connects humans together for survival, knowledge, and motion

    • Self-expression is self-construction that leads to self-awareness

    • Adolescents communicate to test perspectives, express emotions, and build connections to ideas and people

  • 12-15

    • Test different forms of expression and the resulting impact (social babbling)

    • Very interested in what they have to say – interest in descriptive and expository writing

  • 15-18

    • More effectively picking and choosing different forms of expression to elicit different forms of responses – situational communication

    • More easily use what others have said to support their own conclusions – have more facility at analytical/argumentative writing

To Imagine; To Abstract

  • Imagination coupled with abstraction is the tool to create what did not exist before

    • Adolescents use imagination to try out different societal roles

    • Adolescents allows adolescents to see something from multiple perspectives, which allows them to manipulate ideas and concepts

  • 12-15

    • Adolescents imagine themselves in powerful human dramas, running through exaggerates experience of emotions – this is why dramatic performance is key for the early adolescent

    • Imagination can lead to grandiose problem-solving strategies

    • Abstraction will be a little spotty – they’ll have a concept down one day and then they will come back and have completely forgotten it

  • 15-18

    • Use imagination to envision their immediate role in the world and their role in the future

    • Imagination feeds more precise and realistic problem-solving strategies

    • The ability to abstract is more secure and regular

To Be Exact; To Repeat; To Perfect

  • Exactness relates to the human tendency of imagination because it ensures that what we have imagined or made continues to serve our needs

  • Repetition relates to exactness because repetition allows individuals to refine abilities

  • Perfection relates to repetition because we repeat until we are satisfied

    • Adolescents practice an image of themselves that they wish others to perceive – create their social identity

    • Repeat behaviors they wish to become part of their identity

    • Perfection of the social identity is related to valorization and the group’s recognition of a unique and valuable contribution

  • 12-15

    • Repetition of behaviors may result in mimicry

    • Will experiment with repetition of negative and positive behaviors as they strive to create their identities

  • 15-18

    • Less likely to mimic behaviors as the personality becomes more consolidated

    • Become more interested in perfection of interest-specific skills and tasks as this is an expression of their unique, productive role in society

To Work; To Be Active

  • Underlies all other HT and it implements the practice of all other tendencies

    • The work of the adolescent is self-construction

    • Adolescents work to understand social organization, they want to know how human groups get things done

  • 12-15 - Interested as work as an application of knowledge

  • 15-18 - Interested as work as an analysis of knowledge

Tina Booth compiled the list above with the advisors at the NAMTA Orientation to Adolescent Studies over many years.

In working with adolescents, it is important to remember the tenant that the adult can only work on the periphery by creating and adjusting the prepared environment.  The adult does not work directly on changing or adjusting the child or adolescent.  With all that we observe, we always need to go back to reviewing the environment to see what needs to be adjusted and then observe the effects of those changes.

Another important aspect of observation is knowing that “work” happens in many different ways and Montessori teachers are interested in observing all types of work, including the process of choosing work.  For example, at the primary level productive and developmentally useful work includes: children learning by watching others, navigating their environment, making mistakes, meandering (before choosing a specific material).  At the adolescent level, some productive and developmentally useful work could include:

  • talking to peers (bouncing ideas, asking for instruction, asking for help, working together),

  • excessive movement (looking for a better place to work, fidgeting from lack of hands-on/experiential work, body language communication with peers to create social bonds)

  • stillness (taking a mental break from work,  thinking or processing information, hesitancy before forming questions, listening to others)

  • doodling (seeking creative outlet, processing information, expressing frustration or impatience)

Effective Practices at Adolescent Level

Each plane of development is different and requires a slightly different approach for observation.  At the adolescent level there are a few significant factors that need to be taken into account.  First, adolescents are highly sensitive to the adults’ emotional state.  They are experts at unconsciously sensing the emotional state of adults and then reacting to that emotional state.  Second, the adult is an important material in the adolescent environment.  This dynamic creates a challenge for true scientific observation of the adolescent and often results in more participatory observation.  Third, as a person reaches the end of the Third Plane of Development they have become highly conscious and have a heightened awareness of themselves and their role or connections to their community.  The ability to be more conscious and aware of themselves and their actions allows an adolescent to learn how to be self-reflective so they are more aware of their emotional and psychological state.  This increased awareness will help them to make decisions about their actions, words, and behaviors.

Due to the developmental characteristics of adolescents, it is critical that adults:

  • take time to reflect on their own state of mind, emotion and bias, then to take steps to become neutral before starting an observation

  • practice scientific observation regularly to gather data consistently in order to make adjustments to practices and the environment

  • observe adolescents individually the community as a whole, and for the adult to become centered in their work and have a positive vision for each adolescent 

  • learn about how to conduct participatory observations

  • review the work adolescents produce; their writing, presentations, self-expressions, social skills, group work, and how their work individually

One suggestion for observation at the adolescent level was to observe the manifestations of human tendencies and also observe how they change as adolescents move from the sub-plane of 12-15 years old to 15-18 years old.  The objective for the adolescent level is for economic independence (highly related to social and societal interactions) and social independence.  These areas are where much of adolescents’ work happens.  Therefore, adults need to look for manifestations of these areas of independence and observe adolescents’ activities and behaviors related to economic and social independence.

It is important to conduct observations regularly and create a culture of observation.  This is critical because observation is central and necessary to the method of Montessori education.  Some ideas for creating a culture of observation are to:

  • offer support and development for teachers regarding observation and specifically participant observation, anti-bias training, and how to ask questions in search of objective information

  • have regular dialogue about observation

  • discuss how and when observation happens and how it is documented

  • discuss and decide a realistic goal for observing

  • when teachers talk about their opinions of a student or their evaluation, there could be an expectation that multiple observations are required before drawing a conclusion

  • how can adolescents be involved in observing their own community and collecting data about neutral topics or community topics

  • create time for adolescents to work on self-reflection and observing their choices, behaviors, interactions, and habits

  • create regular time for discussing the notes from observations as colleagues


Three types of observation at the adolescent level are:

1.       Traditional scientific observation – sitting away from the action and observing silently

2.       Side by side work observation – working with students and also taking time to observe

3.       Observation of the work that adolescents produce or demonstrate

The tools or strategies used in scientific observation continue to be valid, such as:

  • Global observation

  • Observation of an individual and mapping their movement and interactions

  • Mapping the environment and the adolescents interaction with it

  • Universal criteria based on human tendencies

  • Time charts of engagement and concentrated work

  • Students’ work

Observe in multiple situations

  • Classroom / lesson

  • Activity – practical work, seminar, group project, etc.

  • Chores

  • Small group

  • Large group – community meetings, outings,

  • Individual work

  • Group work

Ideas and Suggestions for Future Work

  • Learn more about participatory observation techniques

  • Have trainings about understanding and working through bias (anti-bias training)

  • Look to other schools or areas of science in how they use and train for participatory observation

  • Coordinate a database of observations globally

  • Decide on types of data can be collected and share easily

  • Develop a clear method of scientific observation for teachers working at the adolescent level to learn and practice, including how to keep records of the observations


Montessori, Maria. From Childhood to Adolescence

NAMTA Journal, “Observation.”  Vol. 41, No. 3.  Summer 2016

National Montessori in the Public Sector resources on website

Observation Areas - Listed in NAMTA Journal Summer 2016 (p. 68-72)

Choice of Work

  • Independent choice

  • Suggested / guided choice

  • Directed choice

  • Peer influence


  • Guide initiated

  • First presentation

  • Representation

  • Points of consciousness


  • How long

Work Types

  • Working independently

  • Collaborative

Work States

  • Working distracted

  • Working with concentration

  • Deep concentration

Completion of Work

  • Putting work back independently

  • Putting work back with reminders


  • Grace and courtesy

  • Snack table

  • Book corner

  • Walking the line

State of Disorder

  • Slight disorder

  • Disorder

  • Uncontrollable

National Montessori in the Public Sector - Observing Work at Different Levels

Primary Level

Engagement in Work - concentration

Using work as a prop

Choosing work

Receiving help

Wandering / interfering

Behaving disruptively


Sensorial, Practical Life, Math, Language

Elementary Level


Cultural, Math and Geometry, Language, Practical Life


Julia RichardsBen Moudry