Isolation of difficulty, or “why are so many of the materials so plain?”

N is into puzzles. Really into puzzles. He ran through all of the puzzles we had from K’s toddlerhood in just under an hour, because hey, where’s the challenge? I mean, the lion puzzle piece fits into the lion-shaped hole with the same illustration. It’s a good thing that he loves repetition, because even though he figured out each puzzle in under two minutes, he was happy to do it over and over again.

When he started (and quickly finished) our wooden number puzzle a few days ago, I decided to extend the activity a bit and link the puzzle pieces to the fabric numbers I made way back when. Remember these?

So I pulled out the felt numbers and showed one to N. “This is number two. Your puzzle has a number two. Can you find it?”

He did. And so I silently marvelled at my son’s genius. Two years old and matching numbers! Hmm… better check it to make sure it’s not a fluke.

“N, this is number six. Can you find the six in your puzzle?”

No. No, he couldn’t. He did, however, find me the eight. I realized, belatedly, what he was matching: the colour! He was able to match the two because it was the same colour in both the felt numbers and the puzzle. When faced with different shapes and colours, N’s default was to match the colour. As you can see in this picture, that would be a rare match indeed.

That, in a nutshell (okay, a very large, slightly verbose nutshell,) is what isolation of difficulty is all about. Montessori materials are designed so that all of the components of a given material are identical except for the one feature that the material is supposed to teach. That’s why the pink tower blocks are all the same shade of pink. The tower might look prettier with multicoloured blocks, but the entire point of the material is for the children to practice their size discrimination. The sandpaper numbers, unlike my felt numbers, are all the same colour and grit of sandpaper on the same colour background; the only difference between them is the shape of each number, which is what the child is learning from the material.

So there you have it. Many materials are intentionally simple so that the children aren’t distracted or confused when learning new concepts. One day the children will be able to identify scents from varied objects or put a large number of different fruits and vegetables in order from large to small, and within that, in rainbow order. At the beginning, though, Montessori allows children to master each concept completely. You have to walk before you can run, as they say, and you have to recognize shapes before you can jazz ’em up.

Any questions?

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jay3fer
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 01:43:59

    Beautiful! I never fully realized this (probably saw the phrase in passing without its meaning much), so it set off a happy little lightbulb over my head.
    It’s also true that we throw so many distractions at our kids, preying they won’t get bored, that we probably get in the way of their learning. Thinking of that beep and bleep and light up and do a million things… I knew there was a reason I always distrusted them.
    Also, and perhaps this is more applicable to Waldorf materials – I don’t know enough to say – I saw a principle in the book Understanding Comics (Scott McLeod) that the more generic a face is in a cartoon, the more we can relate to it. (“The more cartoony a face, the more people it can be said to describe.”) So, too, perhaps, the more dull a toy, the more kids can relate to it. Which totally explains the years of play value in a cardboard box or piece of paper. 😉


  2. jay3fer
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 01:52:11

    toys – “thinking of TOYS that beep and bleep.” drat, I’m tired.


  3. Andy
    Oct 19, 2012 @ 08:30:22

    Love how you are following your child, and allowing him to teach you the value of what Montessori is and does 🙂 I think this is one of the clearest ways of explaining isolation of difficulty for parents I’ve come across.


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