The work of the adolescent


I spoke recently with a friend about a course I led in Warsaw for teachers. The focus of the course concerned the design and implementation of Montessori education for adolescents. I then listened to his concerns about his teenage daughter. She's not who she once was, he lamented. I asked, how is she different? His answer was that of a person in mourning, mourning how she used to share her enthusiasm to understand bugs and math problems and geographical land and water forms. He missed riding bikes together and reading bedtime stories. They used to do just about everything together. As he continued, he focused on one difference in particular: she used to love to learn in school. Now all she wants to do is talk and text with friends, and, as far as he could tell, these distract from her school work. I asked him to describe her school work, and, not too surprisingly, it mostly involved memorization.

Sadly, too many children today are learning to memorize when they must learn to think. Most of us (parents) memorized throughout our school years, and most of us did really well. We memorized because the world we grew into required compliance, and the world we would occupy as adults was supposed to resemble that of our parents. So, what they memorized would serve us well too. 

But we live now in an ever-changing future. The world now requires creativity and innovation. We live in a world of planned and conducted disruption. Most professions today are not conducting their business or practices the way they did just a few months ago. And many of these professions may disappear during the next few months. At the same time, there is more information than there is time for its consumption. We must ask ourselves now, “memorize why?” Why when everything is but a Google and Siri away? 

In a world of massive and relentless change, learning to think is essential. Thinking differs from memorization. Thinking involves a host of skills such as creativity, problem solving, implementing ideas, communication, persistence, applying understanding to new situations, and much more.  Learning to think means knowing how to create a future.

The Montessori understanding about learning is stated simply: Children work constantly, and the purpose of their work is to become an adult. Remarkably, no two children do their work in the same way or in the same time. And, children will always develop only when they are ready. Montessori understood that certain features of development take place during specific developmental stages. She called these stages the planes of development, and she thought of each plane as a new birth. Each stage takes places across six years: birth to age six; age six to age twelve; and age twelve to age eighteen. Montessori also described briefly an adult plane, ages eighteen to twenty-four.

Learning to think occurs in developmentally specific ways. Children during the first plane (birth to six) are concerned primarily with becoming independent, with doing “everything” by themselves. They do this by developing coordination. Without coordination, in other words, they cannot become independent. A new born gradually develops strength and coordinates physical movements such as sitting, rolling over, crawling, walking, running, jumping. The development of coordination evolves brain structures. The newborn and the toddler render heard sounds into comprehensive language and speech.  Curiously, adults would never ask toddlers to stop moving, although they once did. Adolescents are also movement oriented, and they learn - and develop their brains - by talking. Oddly, too many adults still ask adolescents to stop talking.

Children during the second plane (ages six to twelve) seek to understand “everything” there is to know about the entire universe including their place, purpose, and contribution to it. They do this with a profound capability of imagination and wonderment. Elementary children continue to evolve their ability to be independent along with learning to collaborate, make shared decisions, and learn with others. Adolescents during the third plane (ages twelve to eighteen) seek to enter society and take their place alongside of adults. They do this by learning to make economic decisions.

Montessori also understood that optimal development occurs when children and adolescents work in environments prepared specifically for their developmental tendencies. Children and adolescents learn to think with objects, and they learn best from experience.

In the Montessori environment children choose and explore, investigate, and make discoveries using a large variety of learning activities. Children during the first plane explore nearly one hundred activities that strengthen fine motor coordination and introduce the concepts of number and arithmetic operations, geographical and science concepts, and begin to write and read. Children in Montessori classrooms during the second plane build upon these foundations and also explore a larger collection of activities organized into five Great Lessons which integrate anthropology, biology, chemistry, earth science, geography, history, languages and literature, mathematics, and more. The Montessori elementary classroom resembles a hands-on museum; the Great Lessons take six years to complete.

The Montessori classroom for adolescents represents the society into which they are growing and will contribute. Their academic studies take them out into the larger community and even throughout world as they travel for study and participate in community service activities.

A Montessori education is an education of the whole person. The adolescent by design evolves from childhood to adulthood. But adolescence is not a transitional life stage to pass through; it is a stage that establishes the foundational capabilities of the adult. Adults occupy numerous social roles - employer, employee, colleague, co-worker, producer, consumer, healer, educator, spouse, parent, child, sibling, friend, and much more. We expect appropriate behavior for each role. Appropriate occurs when we follow social rules for when to talk, what to talk about, with whom, for how long, and how to signal a change in roles. For example, we usually restrict loud yelling, screaming, and jumping up on our feet to stadiums rather than coffee shops. Adults are both socialized and able to create new social forms. Children and adolescents are figuring all of this out.

Montessori described the adolescent as a “social newborn.” They must begin again as they are immersed in tremendous physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual growth. Throughout puberty they learn newly about the adult world of work and economic decision making, decisions which can contribute to and support life as well as decisions which may destroy the world.

Adolescent development is guided by self-expression, trust, commitment, and new ways of thinking. The ideal environment for the adolescent is a small learning community which mirrors adult society. The adolescent engages in study, business decisions making, community service, travel, and more.  


Adolescent talk is a primary means for developing conscious awareness of self and others. The expression of self is an essential developmental experience, and adolescents need multiple forms. Self-expression occurs in art, drama, music, sports, and more. Although students may display finished art, compete in a sport, or perform in a drama or musical production before a live audience, the purposes are much greater. The process of producing art or a sport involves nurturing creativity. The adolescents engage in expressions that sponsor the gradual creation of an adult self.

Adolescents (and children) require environments that sponsor safe explorations of materials and activities. Drama, for example, gives adolescents opportunities to try on a variety of roles and modes of expression that may not be available to them in everyday life. Students can be someone from another time or culture.[1] Students can safely explore the circumstances others faced, the decisions they made, as well as the results of those decisions. We learn how to develop ourselves as we learn about others. The adolescent may ask, what would I do? Would I have done what they did?


The adolescent looks to adults for guidance, mentorships and possibility. The adolescent asks, “Who am I becoming?” “What does it mean to be an adult?” Regretfully, they find too often an answer in the stereotypes portrayed in the media, television, and movies. But this is not what adolescents want. They yearn to trust themselves and others. They want adults to be present and to be honest and sincere. They search for adults who can and will listen without judgment while offering guidance.

Adolescents are, at the same, “realistic.” They know adult lives may be difficult and filled with challenges and obstacles. Nevertheless, the adolescent seeks vision and possibility. Their lives may be awkward and uncomfortable; they also confront and are confronted by others. How, they ask, do adults understand their challenges? What, they ask, are their strategies for dealing with everyday stress? They want to learn from adults how to influence and be effective in the world. And, they search in the adult for possibilities of what it means to be human.


The adolescent understands that commitment defines them as reliable and dependable. They learn that these qualities also define being responsible which, in social life, establishes and maintains trust. In its simplest form, commitment involves giving and keeping your word. Adolescents learn that they and everyone matter.

Service to others and operating a business are two essential components of the prepared environment for the adolescent. Montessori adolescent programs throughout the world have student businesses such as farm management, bicycle repair shops, food services, manufacturing learning materials, and more. Marketplace realities are powerful teachers. Adolescents learn that business have needs greater than their own. They learn to attend to production and sales regardless of personal issues and feelings. Montessori adolescents are challenged to get along with others as they create their business vision and mission, plan and implement procedures, design and implement marketing, and attend to customer expectations and needs.

As they come into direct contact with economic realities, adolescents learn about interdependence, organization, and procedure. And they learn commitment sponsors influence: they can address concerns and change situations. 

New Ways of Thinking

The redesign of the child during adolescence brings about capabilities of abstract thought, reason, and creativity. But not all at once. Their growth process continues for several years during which adolescents experience intense, compelling, and even competing thoughts and feelings.

The content of courses for adolescents may be prescribed by governmental requirements and the standards of academic disciplines. But the format of instruction that best serves adolescents is known as structured inquiry. Content drawn from the academic disciplines are interrelated and presented thematically and with a focus on key concepts and essential questions. In general, structured inquiry guides explorations of enduring human opportunities and challenges. Students may consider general questions such as, What are my capabilities? What is worth pursuing, what is wanted and needed? With whom will I collaborate? How will I do this? What is my contribution?

A historical study of the industrial era and modern technology, for example, asks students to explore the effects of innovative ideas on humanity. An essential question that guides this inquiry asks adolescents to investigate, “How might my ideas change society?”

The work of the child and adolescent is to become an adult. The adolescent truly wants meaningful work with which to fully develop. A graduate described her Montessori adolescent experience: “In order to gain a global perspective, you need to have a really strong foundation …. So if you know how to trust, and you know how to respect, and you know how to question - once you have these main principles, once you are unleashed into the world, you are a little more prepared and ready to take on what it has to offer.”[2]

The work of the adolescent requires opportunities for self-expression, forming trust, making commitments, and developing new abilities for thought. They need adults who understand them, and who also understand what it means to be human. Having raised two children who became adolescents and then adults, I do miss reading them bedtime stories. But I am so amazed by who they are today.

[1] McNees, D. (2015). Exploring the adolescent’s creative pathways: Mindfulness, role fluidity, story, and the dramatic curriculum. The NAMTA Journal 40 (3):55-74.

[2] The development of the Montessori adolescent.