Math, Montessori Philosophy

The Reason Why the 1000 Chain is NOT a Waste of Time

Week 6, Day 2.

As I was zoning out and seriously struggling to pay attention, the painfully looooong presentation Just. Wouldn’t. End. Besides, I could barely make out what she was mumbling.


Suddenly, my eyes got wide. Wait! I can hear it! She’s counting in German!

In that moment, my attention immediately zeroed back in on the 1000 Chain presentation. I became fixated on her pointer finger, as she selected each bead and pronounced a mouthful of complicated sounds to represent it.

In case you’re scratching your head, wondering: “What is the 1000 Chain and why is someone counting in German?” let me back up a bit.

In my Montessori Primary Teacher training, we had recently turned our attention to the Math curriculum. At this point, we were learning to present the lesson on the 1000 Chain material. Its purpose is to give children practice counting, in sequence, to 1000. And true to Montessori principles, it is a concrete way for a child to see and touch the abstract huge quantity known as one thousand.

(I mean, can a child really understand what 1000 is unless he sees and touches it?)

This simple chain of 1000 Golden Beads, segmented into bars of Ten, is gently carried and stretched out on a rug.  (The child is already familiar with the Tens.)  First, the Child and Teacher fold the chain and make groups of 10 Tens. Then, A Hundred  (a flat shape of 10 bars wired together, also familiar to the child) is placed above each folded group. The Child can see that 10 Bars of Ten =  1 Hundred

Hundreds being placed above the folded chain.

He then can see that 10 Hundreds represent the whole folded chain. They take these 10 Hundreds and stack them up to make a cube, showing the child that A Hundred X 10 = A Thousand

10 Hundreds Stacked to form the Thousand (also called the 10 Cube)

(During these two sensory exercises, the only thing the teacher says is: “Wow! Look! They are the same!” The actual concepts, though, are not introduced until Elementary.)

Next, they stretch the chain out once again. Then, the child begins counting and labeling the beads. While he does count every bead, he only labels every 10th bead.


The End of the Chain, with number labels. A Hundred, placed every 100 beads, is labeled in red.


The end of the 1000 Chain, close up. The Thousand (aka 10 Cube) is placed at the end to show that the entire chain is equivalent to this cube.


This activity takes an incredible amount of concentration for a 5 year old, but s/he has been preparing for this moment for almost 2 years! And like most lessons, the teacher gets the child started and then s/he continues independently. When the child makes an error, the self-correcting material allows him to rely on his own abilities to figure things out. While it may take the child all morning to do this work, he learns so much through the process, both directly and indirectly.

For our training purposes though, we didn’t have all morning, as we had many other presentations to learn. As a result, we decided to take turns counting to make it go faster. Unfortunately, after watching someone count the first hundred, you pretty much got the point. And after that, it became really challenging to pay attention.

And until my “German” moment happened, I wondered why we couldn’t just move on already.

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.  – Confucius

But then I thought of the above quote.

Through her decades of research, Montessori acquired an incredible working knowledge of the human being. She determined that in order to effectively teach the child, we needed to understand him. When you study her method and see what taking the child into account actually looks like, you realize that traditional schooling does not teach in a way that a child needs. Yes, children may learn to count and learn the symbols, but their concrete mind does not have the ability to grasp what these things actually mean. Montessori’s 1000 Chain provides him a way to connect all the information together.

But you can’t just hand them this chain and say “GO!” The whole point of Montessori is to guide the child to become the independent learner who can focus on a task until he/she completes it. One of the most important things here is that s/he has to be allowed the time needed in order to master the skill.

You see, too often, we rob a child of learning because it’s “time to clean up” and we have other things to do. Also, we may want to just “help” the child (do it for him) because he takes FOR-EV-ER. Or, frankly, it pains us to see him struggle. But if the child has not completed the task himself, he has not actually learned how to do it. While we might say, “He’s got the point,” or “It’s good enough,” in reality, we don’t really know that. And this contributes to building a weak foundation for the child.

And as teachers, we will not feel comfortable with giving him the time he needs, nor can we explain to a parent why the time spent is so crucial, unless, of course, we can personally vouch for it.

With this in mind, I return to the 1000 Chain presentation.

My Trainer chose not to “save us” and just clean up. She knew better. If she did, she would have unknowingly prevented the extraordinary learning experience that was just about to happen.

Because it was as I was zoning in and out, wishing it would just be over already, that I heard my friend counting her 700 segment in German. And, because I had taken up learning German recently, I began to count along.

Although I hadn’t practiced my numbers in a couple of months and I had never counted in sequence beyond 20, I eventually started to get the hang of it. Then, surprisingly, it became very meditative. If I didn’t think about anything, much like when I taught or practiced yoga, the words just flowed from me. Because we were on a roll, we decided to keep going and make the great effort to finish the rest of that chain. And when we did, when we finally reached Eintausend, I was ecstatic.

“I DID IT!!!” I exclaimed “Let’s keep going. Let’s do another lesson in German ‘cause I can totally count now!!!!!” 🙂

In the end, I realized that in completing this 1000 Chain, I am learning to understand what it is like to be a child.

And more importantly, as a teacher, I will never see the 1000 Chain as a waste of time again.







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