Montessori History and Overview
Dr. Maria Montessori, 1870-1952, was one of the first educational theorists to design a philosophy of education based on her close observation of children as they developed over time. She proposed the radical concept that children are not what we make them, but that they learn on their own according to their inner maturational promptings. Her theory, as it applied to intellectual and physical development, was similarly articulated by Jean Piaget. In fact, some of Piaget’s observations of young children were done in a Montessori classroom.
Montessori’s understanding of the spiritual well-being of the child was stated as thus:
“As the child’s body must draw nourishment and oxygen from its external environment, in order to accomplish a great physiological work, the work of growth, so also the spirit must take from its environment the nourishment which it needs to develop according to its own ‘laws of growth.'”
—Maria Montessori, Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, 1914
Because Montessori philosophy is so vast and covers every act and decision a teacher makes, it is best to describe the variety of aspects that operate in our classrooms on a daily basis and lay the foundation for authentic Montessori education.
Montessori is a method for educating children from infancy through high school, developed by Dr. Maria Montessori (Aug. 31, 1870-May 6, 1952) the first female physician in Italy.
The first Casa dei Bambini for children ages 3-6, opened in the slums of Rome in 1907. As Dr. Montessori’s slum children outperformed their middle-class peers on school entrance exams, the method quickly drew attention in Italy and abroad. Montessori schools soon opened across Europe and America, where the approach spread quickly after Dr. Montessori made it visible by operating a “glass classroom” at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco.
Dr. Montessori was a scientist, who developed her method over 50 years, observing thousands of children on three continents, and fine-tuning her approach based on how children reacted to the pedagogy and curriculum offered to them.
An estimated 4,500 schools in the US practice some form of Montessori, and possibly as many as 20,000 world-wide.
It’s important for parents to know that Montessori isn’t a trademarked term and Montessori schools vary widely in the quality of programs they offer, with some offering a fully-implemented, high-fidelity Montessori programs, while others may just include a few Montessori materials in an otherwise non-Montessori classroom. As a parent, if you want the full benefits of a Montessori education for your child, you’ll need to educate yourself on what to look for in a Montessori school—for example, by reading this article, or by exploring further with the books we recommend below.
What the research says about high-quality Montessori programs
“Children in Classic Montessori programs, as compared with children in Supplemented Montessori and Conventional programs, showed significantly greater school year gains on outcome measures of executive function, reading, math, vocabulary, and social problem solving, suggesting that high fidelity Montessori implementation is associated with better outcomes than lower fidelity Montessori programs or conventional programs.”
—Angeline S. Lillard, Journal of School Psychology 50 (2012) (View the research article)
Good books on Montessori for further reading:
The Science Behind the Genius, by Angeline Stoll Lillard
Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, by E.M. Standing
Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, by Dr. Maria Montessori
Montessori Madness, by Trevor Eissler
MIXED- AGE COMMUNITIES
Fostering Trust, Autonomy and Social Skills
In most daycare centers and schools (including many that bear the Montessori name), children are grouped by narrow age ranges: there’s the two’s class, the three’s class, the pre-k class and so on. Every new school year, each teacher starts over with a whole new group of children in her class. She has to get to know all the children and establish a classroom culture from scratch, which can take a while as all the children are coming into a brand-new environment at once.
That’s not so in an authentic Montessori school.
In Montessori, children stay with their teachers for 18 months (infants, toddlers) to three years (preschool/kindergarten and elementary). This has many benefits: these mixed-age, family-like communities make individualized, self-motivated learning possible, and support the development of mature, pro-social skills.
A trusting, long-term relationship between teacher, parents and child. Our teachers have the time to get to know your child, and to get to know you! They become invested in the longer-term flourishing of your child and family: they can help you think through challenging parenting moments (think toddler tantrums or aggressive behavior), and guide your child based on her unique interests and temperament.
The ability for every child to be the younger, middle and older sibling. Many Montessori parents report how siblings in their families have fewer rivalry issues than siblings in other families. The Montessori mixed-age environments are at least part of the reason: each child, whether singleton, oldest or youngest, gets to take on each role. He starts as the three-year-old newbie, in awe of the competence of the six-year-olds in his class. He imitates them, aspires to be like them. Then, in two years, he is just like them—and he gets to experience how the younger ones look up to him in turn!
The opportunity for each child to be optimally challenged, no matter where she falls on the ability scale. Cognitive, social, and emotional development vary tremendously from child to child. Some four-year-olds are strong readers—but may struggle with social skills. Others are totally psyched to learn about rocks, plants, and animals—and may not yet be fascinated by literacy skills. As our primary teachers are trained for ages two and a half to about seven, and as classrooms have materials for all these ages, every child can work in her own “zone of proximate development” (that magical spot when a task is difficult enough to stretch, but not so hard that it frustrates the learner), all the time!
Mentoring and mentorship between children: peer learning. Children often learn better from each other than from adults. For a four-year-old who is not yet reading, it’s much more motivating to see a slightly older peer (who didn’t read a little while ago!) reading to him, than it is to watch an adult do the same. In Montessori, younger children often intently observe older ones at work, and learn a lot through these observations. Older children may also act as teachers, if they choose to help younger ones with activities. Both children benefit: the young one has a mentor, the older one, by teaching the younger one, solidifies his own understanding, and acquires leadership skills and confidence.
The Luxury of Uninterrupted Time
Children Are Empowered to Acquire Executive Function Skills and “Go Deep” in Learning
When do you do your best, most creative, most engaged work? Is it when you have 30 minutes right before your next appointment—or when you have the luxury of a few uninterrupted hours to immerse yourself in whatever challenge you’re tackling?
In most preschool settings, children get shuttled by adults from one scheduled activity to the next, in short time bursts: art time, followed by activity centers, followed by read-aloud, circle, snack, etc. This never allows children to truly immerse themselves in any one activity, to forget about everything else and just live in the moment, for the pure enjoyment of doing whatever they are doing. Even more than adults, children need time—time to decide what to do, and to do it themselves, at their own pace, slowly, on their own terms, without the constant threat of being told to stop before they are all done, and to move on to the next thing.
This luxury of uninterrupted time to explore is what authentic Montessori offers—and it’s a main reason why children love coming to Montessori schools.
Take an art project... In most preschools, there’s a set art time. The teacher prepares an art activity, and the children come together as a group. After some demonstrations by the teacher, all the children do their own art. Maybe 30-45 minutes later, it’s time to move on to the next activity—and the teacher cleans up, while the children may head outside to play.
In Montessori, in contrast, art is something that is always available to each child. When a Montessori child decides she wants to paint, she sets up her easel with paper, paints, water and brushes. She dons the apron, and goes to work. She keeps at it until she thinks she is done, then carefully places her painting on the drying rack, puts paints away, cleans brushes and apron, and scrubs the easel with a little sponge dipped into a bucket, ensuring that the art activity is ready to use for the next child.
What happens here? Why is this child-initiated, self-directed approach better than the adult-led, group approach? Here’s why:
Autonomy fosters engagement, and ignites the spark within. Research shows that all humans—adult and children alike—learn best and work best when they have autonomy. This is especially important for children: too many youngsters today grow up without knowing who they are, and what they want to do with their lives. Just ask any college professor! By giving young children meaningful, frequent choices (instead of having them follow adult directions all the time), we help them discover who they are, what the like, and pave the way for purposeful, joyful living, rather than duty-bound learning.
Freedom and responsibility encourage the development of critical executive function skills. ADHD is the curse of today’s children: 12% of boys are diagnosed at some time between the ages of three and seventeen. Middle school teachers note that many children can’t persist in difficult tasks for extended periods. College students drift, unable to set goals and accomplish them. Researchers assert that many of these challenges can be traced to poorly developed executive functions skills—such as the ability to self-regulate, to control impulses, to acquire a strong working memory, and to practice cognitive flexibility. Montessori is the perfect environment for children to practice these essential skills daily! An infant is allowed to persist in pulling up on a bar as long as she wants—instead of being interrupted to join a group snack time. A toddler would love to have the material another child has—but learns to wait for his turn, standing patiently with hands-behind-back, while observing, instead of impulsively snatching the material away, or demanding that the other child “share.” A preschooler comes to school wanting to build the pink tower—but a friend is using it, and she needs to move on to her second choice.
Real learning and doing things yourself is fun—but it takes time and doesn’t conform to adult-imposed schedules. Independence and deep engagement takes time, and can’t be fit into 30-minute increments of adult-led group activities. (Just imagine 20 preschoolers setting up, drawing and taking down easel art, all at the same time, in a 45 or 50 minute art class: it won’t be pretty!) Children in our Montessori programs just love having the time to do things for themselves, to get into a flow state, to do their thing at their own pace, on their terms. Just come and observe a class and see for yourself
Montessori Learning Materials
The Montessori Materials Allow Us to “Follow The Child” and at the Same Time to Deliver a Structured, Sequential, Challenging Curriculum. (95% Minds of Tomorrow's is Nienhuis)
If you had to choose, which would you choose for your child:
A fun experience at school that fosters confidence and soft skills?
Progressive schools with project-based or child-centered educational approaches emphasize joyful learning, give the children a say in what they study, and can, at their best, foster strong soft skills. Yet they often lack a clear, structured, rigorous curriculum, and (unless you happen to get one of the very rare teachers that can pull this educational style off well!) leave children without a coherent base of integrated, deep, rich knowledge about the world.
A rigorous, academically rich education?
Traditional schools, on the other hand, offer (the appearance of) academic rigor, often evidenced by an avid focus on (standardized) tests and grades. Unfortunately, learning in a traditional setting is often extrinsically motivated (those tests again, or the ice cream party that awaits a well-behaved class), and teacher-directed to such a degree that children neither love learning, nor develop critical soft skills.
Often that’s the choice parents face, but what if there was another option?
Montessori education is the third way that combines joyful, autonomous learning, with a structured, sequential, challenging curriculum. The Montessori materials, along with careful guidance by great teachers, are the keys that make this possible.
Unlimited time to practice with the material, to achieve mastery.
Once our four- or five-year-olds have been shown how to make big numbers with the Golden Beads, how to combine them, how to exchange ten of one quantity for one of the next higher level up, they are off to the races! Four- and five-year-olds love working with these materials, building big numbers, getting together with one or two friends, collaborating in figuring out the sums they’ve made. To them, it’s a game, one they joyfully repeat over and over again—yet without knowing it, they internalize otherwise challenging math concepts, such as multi-digit addition or subtraction with carrying or borrowing.
A short lesson, given at just the right moment.
One of the most important skills of a Montessori guide (teacher) is observing her students, and matching the lessons she gives carefully to the abilities and interests of a child. The materials progress in a thoughtfully structured sequence, and most materials have several different levels of difficulty.
Take the Golden Beads, the material that introduces preschool children to place value and arithmetic to 10,000. The guide first introduces the concepts of a “unit,” “ten bar,” “hundred square” and “thousand cube,” usually around the age of four. Over time, the child progresses to building numbers to 9,999 with the beads and corresponding number cards. She may team up with a friend, and put two of her numbers together: there is addition!
At some point, the combinations of units may exceed ten—which is a perfect time for the teacher to introduce the concept of exchanging ten units for a ten bar, ten ten bars for a hundred square, and ten hundred squares fo r a thousand cube. The teacher gives the children a short lesson, and the children physically carry the ten units to the shelf (or the “bank”), to exchange them for a single ten bar. In this hands-on, concrete way, with movement and social interactions built into the lesson, the concept of carrying in addition, which often confuses even 2nd or 3rd graders, enters into these four- or five-year-old’s minds naturally, and stays there, for life.