The Third Teacher: The Montessori Learning Environment

by Donna Milani Luther, Head of School

Lower elementary students at Inly enjoying the Destination Exploration station featuring circuit boards

I was delighted to recently read a book called The Third Teacher, a collaborative project by Cannon Design, VS Furniture, and Bruce Mau Design. The premise of The Third Teacher is that in every classroom environment, there are three entities responsible for teaching and learning; the first is the teacher; the second is the student; the third is the environment. The book explores how much an environment can support or detract from learning.

The Third Teacher is structured in a series of small vignettes that discuss different possibilities for enhancing learning environments, with perspectives from experts in various educational fields. It states, “This book is intended to ignite a blaze of discussion and initiative about environment as an essential element of learning.” Not surprisingly, the book references Maria Montessori’s philosophies on learning spaces. In particular, it discusses her feelings about movement within the classroom. “Watching a child makes it obvious that the development of his mind comes through his movements,” Maria Montessori wrote. In her last book, The Absorbent Mind, she observed, “When we think of intellectual activity, we always imagine people sitting still, motionless. But mental development must be connected with movement and be dependent on it. It is vital that educational theory and practice should be informed by that idea.” The Third Teacher, inspired by Maria Montessori, encourages designers and educators to “Make peace with fidgeting. Think of it as brain development, which it is. Then think of how to make room for it in the classroom.”

I had the great fortune to meet two of the architects from Cannon Design who collaborated on writing The Third Teacher, Trung Le and Christian Long. Le and Long work solely on designing schools and other learning environments and are incredibly passionate about elevating these spaces. Cannon Design not only explores classroom environments but also hallways, waiting spaces, bathrooms, playgrounds–absolutely every aspect of a learning environment inside and out. They examine how inviting a space is and how much freedom and independence a space encourages. They even examine whether a learning space asks children to be two different ways; one way in a hallway, for example; and another way in a classroom and what this might mean. The ultimate question they consider is can learning happen everywhere? The answer, of course, is yes it can and yes it should.

An Inly student is seen here painting on a Buddha board, a canvas that turns black with water. As the water slowly evaporates, the designs magically disappear. This is one of many of the Destination Exploration stations set up around the school.

After reading this book, we were inspired to install the “Destination Exploration” stations that you will now see set up around the main building. These stations remind our children that they don’t have to just learn inside a room–they inspire children to explore outside the classroom–to stop and explore. They provide everything from a mental break– like the soothing Buddha Boards–to a mental challenge–like the chess set and circuit boards.  The Third Teacher states, “Children of all ages need places where they can learn by touching, manipulating, and making things with their hands… trigger the senses. Sound, smell, taste, touch, and movement power memory. An environment rich in sensory experiences helps students retain and retrieve what they learn.” Our Destination Exploration stations allow our children to do exactly this: EXPLORE through the use of all of their senses. These stations also help Inly have inspiring environments everywhere–not just in the classrooms–proving that even a hallway can be an incredible opportunity for learning, engagement, and fun.

Next time you visit Inly, please stop by a Destination Exploration station. Observe a child as they problem solve and get creative. It is a truly magical sight.

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