Why Montessori?

According to Raquel Charet, the principal of Sydney Montessori School in Gymea, South of Sydney, the greatest difference between Montessori education and mainstream education revolves around the concept of motivating children to learn. While many schools motivate children to learn through promises of various rewards, Montessori philosophy is based on the belief that if you develop an interest and teach yourself , you learn better and more deeply. This is the basis of Montessori education.

Dr Montessori, over 100 years ago, became the first female medical doctor in Italy. She went on to study psychiatry and during her internship in a mental asylum was put in charge of intellectually challenged children, known at the time as ‘defectives’. She spent many hours observing them and trialling various forms of education with them.  In 1901, these children sat the state exams (similar to today’s NAPLAN tests) and passed. She became a national sensation. But her reaction to this was to wonder what was going on in conventional schools for ‘normal’ children to have such low scores.  She dedicated the rest of her life to observing the learning of children and designing her optimal method to help them achieve their best.

Through her observations, Maria Montessori discovered that, contrary to popular teaching ideas, children are naturally intrinsically motivated to learn, they have an inner desire to learn and work. Once she discovered this, she built an entire pedagogy around preparing an environment that was optimal for children to follow that natural desire and teach themselves, as well as a method of preparing teachers to facilitate that learning.

In a Montessori classrooms you find beautifully prepared environments, full of materials with which children teach themselves. Cutting edge neuropsychological research confirms Dr Montessori’s idea that movement and cognition are closely connected. Therefore, lessons move from the concrete to the abstract. Humans need to move and manipulate objects and work in order to develop and absorb their meaning. Each class has a small library of fiction and non-fiction books, and children are allowed to move freely and choose their own learning and activity. The classroom is set up in such a way that students have firm boundaries, within which they have certain freedoms. Those freedoms are conditional on student’s ability to display self-discipline and take responsibility for their behaviour and learning.

What you might see in a Montessori classroom is a fairly quiet room, with children absorbed deeply in their work. Children may talk to each other, they may choose where to sit, either on their own or with their friends. They may walk around and gather what they need. They may go freely between the indoor and outdoor spaces. They may work on their own or in groups, in a way that is respectful of the work and concentration of their peers.

The role of the teacher in these environments is key. The classrooms are student centred, as opposed to teacher centred environments. The role of the teacher is as a guide, not a figure of authority. The teacher helps the class community (modelled on democratic principles) to develop their rules and guides children to follow them. The teacher is an acute observer of each child. They know the child’s interests and allow the child to learn through that interest. The day is set out in three-hour work cycles, within which the teacher gives small group demonstrations and the rest of the class absorb themselves in follow-up work, which primarily takes the form of practice with materials and projects. Small group demonstrations might take 15-30 minutes. Following this, students are expected to complete follow up work to the lesson. The follow up work is predominantly of the child’s own choosing. If the lesson is a demonstration on how to use a specific pedagogical material, than the student will need to practice using that material, but the extent to which that follow up occurs is up to the child. For example, if the child has learned how to do addition on a bead frame the teacher will not then give a worksheet to the child with 5 or 25 sums to do, instead, the child will be enticingly ‘allowed’ to use the material and practice as they choose. We know that when a child is given a closed ended activity, such as a worksheet, that is what they do and no more. When a child is given an enticing activity and allowed to practice, they often go well and beyond the expectations of the adult. One of the materials available to children, for example, is rolls of ticker tape. This is because, often after lessons such as these where children are encouraged to practice what they have been shown, they will want to do sums of 100 or 2000 digits and they practice to their heart’s content. Lessons are not timed according to a timetable. Children are allowed to absorb themselves in work. Often this means that children may work on one project for several hours, or several days, until they feel that they are done.  

In the sciences and humanities, students are often given a demonstration or taught about a subject and then allowed to prepare follow up work as they desire. Children come up with large projects, presentations, speeches, plays, complex scientific experiments and so on. It is work of their own choosing. They research using the books or technology available to them in the environment prepared for their learning.

The concept of Montessori education is based on the premise that human life is sacred. Children, like adults ought to be treated with respect and respect for others is also expected of them. Therefore, we do not mark the work of children. We respect the work that they produce. We give rich feedback and plan lessons based on observation of the child’s work. Therefore, if a child’s work shows a misunderstanding in a certain area this is not marked on the child’s work. Instead the teacher plans a follow up lesson for the child in that area, teaching them in a slightly different way, until they understand.

Children are not put in classes based on age. Each class is made up of a three year age cycle (3-6, 6-9, 9-12 and mixed age in high school). This allows children to work at their own rate, without comparing their work to the work of their peers. Each child works to the best of their ability. Given that the age gap is so large and the children are never given marks for their work, they do not compare themselves to each other. Rather than relying on extrinsically based systems where children can give up on certain areas of the curriculum when either poor marks make them feel like they are ‘bad at something’ or when they do not get positive reinforcement in that area,  in Montessori education, we work hard for children to learn because they want to and to develop a love of all learning in all areas. We can do this because we never allow a child to feel that they are bad at a certain subject. We do not want to kill their desire to learn.

Various US studies have been conducted done on the effects of Montessori education. Overwhelmingly, children were found to love school, love their teachers and were particularly good at lateral thinking.  Many famous Montessori graduates have commented on the positive influence that Montessori education has had on their lives.  To quote a few cutting edge success stories of today: Larry Page and Sergei Brin, the co-founders of Google, credited their years as Montessori students as a major factor behind their success.  They said going to a Montessori school taught them to be self directed and self starters.  Montessori allowed them to learn to think for themselves and gave them freedom to pursue their own interests. Google executives worldwide send their children to Montessori schools. William Wright, an American computer game designer enjoyed his Montessori experience with its emphasis on creativity, problem solving, and self-motivation. Wright admitted to having been inspired to create certain elements of SimCity from his experiences in the school. “Montessori taught me the joy of discovery...It showed you can become interested in pretty complex theories, like Pythagorean theory, say, by playing with blocks. It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you. SimCity comes right out of Montessori—if you give people this model for building cities, they will abstract from it principles of urban design.” As a preschooler, Jeffrey P. Bezos displayed an unmatched single-mindedness. By his mother's account, the young Bezos got so engrossed in the details of activities at his Montessori school that teachers had to pick him up in his chair to move him to new tasks. It's a trait that goes a long way toward explaining why the company he founded, Inc., has survived to become the most dominant retailer on the Internet. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Columbian author who won a Nobel Prize for literature attended a Montessori school and is an avid supporter of the philosophy. He stated, "I do not believe there is a method better than Montessori for making children sensitive to the beauties of the world and awakening their curiosity regarding the secrets of life."

Montessori pedagogy and practice have been part of the educational landscape for over one hundred years and the above is just a taste of what this method gives to our children. The danger of compacting Montessori theory into an article is that often it can bring up more questions than it answers. Montessori schools know that the only way to truly understand Montessori pedagogy is to witness the school in practice.  They encourage visitors into their classrooms.  Therefore, if this article piques your curiosity, I encourage you to visit your local Montessori school or to contact me for further information.

Have a great week

Raquel Charet