Show, but don’t tell

A twist on the “show and tell” idea, Montessori favours “show, but don’t tell.” For children under 6, her method involves demonstrating an activity, but not giving verbal instructions. Discussion is certainly part of teaching, but not direct instruction. Why does this work for young children?

The answer lies with the mirror neurons. When a child is receiving a lesson, not only must the child inhibit movement (a topic for another blog), the child must also observe the teacher’s actions with the object of enacting them soon afterward. The activity of watching is not passive in the brain, as mirror neurons in the premotor cortex are at hard at work. Brain scanning has shown that when one observes another person performing a movement or series of movements, the observer’s brain goes through many of the motions that it would if the observer were performing the action. The brain is effectively preparing itself to replicate the movements. In research with monkeys, it was found that viewing of a goal-oriented action was required to get the mirror neurons to fire, not the viewing of the objects themselves. This neuron activity may help the monkeys to understand the goal of the observed action (Blakemore & Frith, 2005).

Does this mean that the teacher refrains from talking while presenting? Not necessarily. The focus is on the work, and the role of the Montessori teacher is to entice the child into the work…sometimes by talking, sometimes by altering the lesson to make it more suited to the child. Therein lies the challenge and the art of Montessori.

Teri Courchene

Blakemore, S., & Frith, U. (2005). The learning brain: Lessons for education. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.


About Teri Courchene

Instructor at U of T School of Continuing Studies, Math tutor. Education: CSC, MEd (OISE), AMI Montessori Diploma (FME), MA Economics (Queen's), BA Economics (UWO)
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