One of the most typical characteristics of our time is the pluralisation of ways of living and the individualisation that is connected to it. Today, children grow up in completely different familiar and social ways of living. A great heterogeneity of their developmental and learning pre-conditions is the inescapable consequence. For German children, this phenomenon of heterogeneity is reinforced through the many children of a different cultural origin that attend our nursery schools and schools today. Furthermore, one tries to an increasing degree to integrate disabled children into mainstream institutions and to let them participate in the common learning and educational process. The fact that this is a further contribution to the reinforcement of a heterogeneous educational and learning situation is evident.
How can this development be assessed? How can one support it educationally and didactically? At first, one has to free oneself from an opinion that is still widely held: Many are of the opinion that the homogeneity of a group is didactically and educationally desirable. Then, they argue, learning and educational processes can be organised more easily and successfully. If all children have basically the same pre-conditions, they say, education and teaching can specifically refer to these pre-conditions and thus be organised effectively. This, however, is only true on the assumption that teaching has to be structured in a way that all children learn the same at the same time. Yet, in reality, education is in itself an individual process that teachers and educationalists cannot devote themselves to appropriately if everybody marches in step.
Maria Montessori and other New Educationalists worked on the assumption that heterogeneity, i.e. diversity, of a group is educationally and didactically more valuable than homogeneity, i.e. similarity. They have thus tried not to reduce this heterogeneity but to reinforce it and, at the same time, to use its educational potential. That is why Maria Montessori realised the principle of mixed age groups that today under the name of “family grouping” meets with great approval in the Anglo-Saxon area as well. In nursery schools, we are already familiar with it. However, Montessori intended it to be realised in schools, too. Of course this requires other forms of teaching than the one that is directly controlled by the teacher and that most of us know from their own experience at school. For this purpose, Maria Montessori developed the form of “free work”. (Cf. Harald Ludwig, “Montessori-Freiarbeit mit Ausländerkindern konkret”, in: Sachunterricht und Mathematik in der Primarstufe 14 (1986) 385-392; id., “Freiarbeit im Grundschulunterricht”, in: Montessori — Zeitschrift für Montessori-Pädagogik 31 (1993) 4-23.)
Free work according to Montessori can be described as a form of teaching in which the pupil can choose the object he wants to deal with from a highly sophisticated didactic equipment and can also decide himself on the learning goals, the social form as well as the length of time he wants to spend on working with a particular object within the framework of certain pre-conditions that are given by the teacher. During his work, the pupil is allowed to move freely in the class room and get in touch with his fellow pupils, for example in order to help them or ask for help himself, as long as the other pupils’ work is not disturbed by this freedom of movement. Connected with the choice of a certain work is the obligation to finish it if possible. The success of the work is controlled either by the teaching material itself (i.e. through self-correcting =“mistake control”) or by fellow pupils and the teacher.
In its authentic form, free work according to Montessori makes it possible for pupils to acquire knowledge or carry out exercises in a wide variety of subjects within a “prepared environment” that is structured in a highly sophisticated way. For this purpose, Montessori developed a wide range of didactic material and tested it empirically. Taking into account basic principles of the Italian educationalist, Montessori educationalists have always been completing and expanding this material. Montessori herself was concerned with extending and refining her collection of teaching material all her life. In Montessori primary schools, free work comprises up to fifteen lessons per week. Individual free work phases last frequently up to two and a half hours. Free work is often set early in the morning within the framework of a flexible beginning.
In free work, the child learns through self-organisation. With his individual learning abilities and methods as well as his special interests the child can, to a great degree, actively play a part in the learning process. What is important is that each child is allowed to progress in his own rate of work and rhythm of learning. In contrast to a way of class teaching that is controlled by the teacher and that suits an imaginary average pupil, in free work the child is not asked too much or too little of. The need for revision that children, in particular younger or less talented ones, have is taken into account as well, for the child itself decides on how long he deals with a certain object or topic. Thus, he can dwell on a certain object in his own time. The meditative element of the educational process, which is largely neglected today, plays an important role for Montessori. In her educational theory, the poles of activity and contemplation form a tense synthesis.
Another effect of free work in contrast to class teaching is that the teacher has more time to give pupils individual help. He has more scope to devote himself to those children who are particularly dependent on his help; in contrast to class teaching this does not mean that the more talented pupils’ progress is inadequately obstructed. The greater possibilities to observe the children allow the teacher to offer such help more specifically. Finally, the teacher has the opportunity to establish more personal relationships with the individual children, which seems to be indispensable for all educational work.