postheadericon Finding An Authentic Montessori School

http://www.montessori.org/sitefiles/tim_seldin_sml.jpgBecause of the internationally recognized name 'Montessori, many people worldwide assume that our schools are part of a franchise, chain, or are centrally licensed. In reality, each school is independent.  There is no central authority that licenses a school as a Montessori program, although there are several professional association to which a school might voluntarily belong, and from which accreditation can be sought.

Because accreditation has traditionally applied to high schools and colleges, very few Montessori schools are accredited. More recently, parents have begun to hear about accreditation at the childcare level by an organization known as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which represents a less comprehensive standard than traditional school accreditation. Again, while some Montessori schools might hold that recognition, it is not as applicable to schools as to childcare programs, and only a small percentage of Montessori schools have sought that recognition.

Normally, this is not a concern with Montessori schools. The term actually refers to the preparation of the teachers, and the specific Montessori designed school program that they implement. Most Montessori schools are excellent.

Dr. Montessori was a brilliant student of child development, and the approach that has evolved out of her research has stood the test of almost ninety years in tens of thousands of Montessori schools around the world.

The Montessori approach has two great qualities: it is replicable and can be translated successfully into all sorts of new situations, and it is sustainable - Montessori programs don't tend to lose their identity and become something else after a few years, as have many other educational reforms. However, the only truly authentic Montessorian was Dr. Maria Montessori herself. The rest of us have been forced to interpret her ideas and methods through the filter of our personalities and experience.

While some Montessori schools try their best to remain faithful to what they perceive to be her method, in reality, even the most staunchly conservative has gradually been influenced by the evolution of our culture and technology. One would think that any two “Montessori” schools would be relatively similar in every respect. In reality, they can differ dramatically in size, facilities, programs, and emotional climate.

Saying that a school is “Montessori” can be like saying that they are Christian or Jewish. There is tremendous variation. Without getting into the question of those schools whose operations are so extraordinarily poor that they would be disavowed by liberal and conservative Montessorians alike, there is a great deal of variation within the name "Montessori."

I know that the concept of the Montessori approach implies something like a brand-name (McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Campbell’s soup), but the truth is that Montessori schools and Montessori teachers may share common values, but can also be significant variation. It is a shame that instead of accepting and celebrating that diversity, Montessori educations sometimes get caught up in judgmental behavior. It is no wonder that some people think Montessori might be a cult.

The selection of a Montessori school in the end comes down to a matter of personal style and preference. If you visit a school and find yourself in harmony with its ambiance and practice, it will represent at least one example of what you define to be a good school. I can only urge you to trust you eyes, ears, and gut instincts.

How can a parent know if she’s found a "real" Montessori school?

Although most schools try to remain faithful to their understanding of Dr. Montessori's insights and research, they have all too some degree been influenced by the evolution of our culture and technology.

Perhaps the a more relevant question in selecting a Montessori school is to consider how well it matches your sense of what you want for your child.

Before coming to the Montessori Foundation, I served for twenty-two years as the Headmaster of the Barrie School outside of Washington, DC. In that role, every year I met with hundreds of families who were interested in enrollment. I always began each open house by reminding these bright, eager, and sometimes overly anxious parents that no one educational approach can be right for every child. The wisest goal is to seek out the best fit, not only between the child and the school, but also between parents' values and goals for their child's education, and what a given school can realistically deliver. I believe that finding the right school for mom and dad is as important as finding the right school for the child.

In the end, the selection of a Montessori school comes down to a matter of personal style and preference. If you visit a school and find yourself in harmony with its ambiance and practice, it will represent at least one example of what you define to be a good school.

In determining which school is best, parents have to trust their eyes, ears, and gut instincts. Nothing beats personal observation. The school that one parent raves about, may be completely wrong for another's child. Conversely, another parent may have decided that "Montessori doesn't work", while it clearly is working very, very well for your family. I suggest that parents rely on their own experience, not hearsay from other families.

There is probably no clear-cut answer. Often one sign of a school’s commitment to professional excellence is their membership in one of the professional Montessori societies, such as the Association Montessori Internationale, the American Montessori Society, and the International Montessori Council, which is affiliated with the Montessori Foundation. All three also offer schools the opportunity to become accredited as well. There are several dozen other smaller organizations, and many excellent schools choose not to affiliate with any national organization.

Characteristics of an Authentic Montessori School

Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambush, founder of the American Montessori Society and co-founder of the Montessori Foundation, identified the following characteristics of an “authentic” Montessori school:*

*  The following ideas are excerpted from The Authentic American Montessori School: A Guide to the Self-Study, Evaluation, and Accreditation of American Schools Committed to Montessori Education, by Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambush and Dr. John Stoops, published in1992 by the Commission on Elementary Schools of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and the American Montessori Society.

The Prepared Environment

The Montessori Learning Environment:

The furniture in the classroom is the right size for the students. The learning materials match the development capabilities, interests, and needs of the children enrolled in each class. The materials allow for multiple modalities of learning and discovery, offering a wide range of intellectual challenges.

Learning activities in the Montessori environment involve inquiry, discovery, multiple perspectives, and differing viewpoints providing continuous feedback on progress.   The focus is on children’s learning, not on teachers’ teaching. Generally students will work individually or in small, self-selected groups. There will be very few whole group lessons.

A Responsive Prepared Environment: The environment should be designed to meet the needs, interests, abilities, and development of the children in the class. The teachers should design and adapt the environment with this community of children in mind, rapidly modifying the selection of educational materials available, the physical layout, and the tone of the class to best fit the ever-changing needs of the children.

A Focus on Individual Progress and Development: Within a Montessori program, children progress at their own pace, moving on to the next step in each area of learning as they are ready. While the child lives within a larger community of children, each student is viewed as a universe of one.

Montessori Learning Activities

Hands On Learning: In Montessori, students rarely learn from texts or workbooks. In all cases, direct personal hands-on contact with either real things under study or with concrete models that bring abstract concepts to life allow children to learn with much deeper understanding.

Spontaneous Activity: It is natural for children to wiggle, touch things, and explore the world around them. Any true Montessori environment encourages children to move about freely, within reasonable limits of appropriate behavior. Much of the time they select work that captures their interest and attention, although teachers also strive to draw their attention and capture their interest in new challenges and areas of inquiry. And even within this atmosphere of spontaneous activity, students do eventually have to master the basic skills of their culture, even if they would prefer to avoid them.

Active Learning: In Montessori classrooms, children not only select their own work most of the time, but also continue to work with tasks, returning to continue their work over many weeks or months, until finally the work is “so easy for them” that they can teach it to younger children. This is one of many ways that Montessori educators use to confirm that students have reached mastery of each skill.

Self-directed Activity: One of Montessori’s key concepts is the idea that children are driven by their desire to become independent and competent beings in the world to learn new things and master new skills. For this reason, outside rewards to create external motivation are both unnecessary and potentially can lead to passive adults who are dependent on others for everything from their self-image to permission to follow their dreams. In the process of making independent choices and exploring concepts largely on their own, Montessori children construct their own sense of individual identity and right and wrong.

Freedom Within Limits: Montessori children enjoy considerable freedom of movement and choice, however their freedom always exists within carefully defined limits on the range of their behavior. They are free to do anything appropriate to the ground rules of the community, but redirected promptly and firmly if they cross over the line.

Intrinsic motivation to learn: In Montessori programs, children do not work for grades or external rewards, nor do they simply complete assignments given them by their teachers. Children learn because they are interested in things, and because all children share a desire to become competent and independent human beings.

Montessori’s Communities of Learners

Mixed age groups: Montessori classrooms gather together children of two, three, or more age levels into a family group. Children remain together for several years, with only the older students who are developmentally ready moving on to the next class.

A Family Setting: Montessori classrooms are communities of children and adults. As children grow older and more capable, they assume a great role in helping to care for the environment and meet the needs of younger children in the class. The focus is less on the teachers, and more on the entire community of children and adults, much like one finds in a real family.

Cooperation and Collaboration, Rather Than Competition: Montessori children are encouraged to treat one another with kindness and respect. Insults and shunning behavior tends to be much more rare. Instead we normally find children who have a great fondness for one another, and who a free from the one-up-manship and needless interpersonal competition for attention and prestige. Because children learn at their own pace, teachers refrain from comparing students against one another.

To Awaken and Nurture the Human Spirit

The Child As A Spiritual Being: Montessori saw children as far more than simply scholars. In her view, each child is a full and complete human being, the mother or father of the adult man or woman she will become. Even when very young, the child shares with the rest of humanity hopes, dreams, and fears, emotions, and longing. From her perspective, this goes beyond mental health to the very core of one’s inner spiritual life. Montessori consciously designs social communities and educational experiences that cultivate the child’s sense of independence, self-respect, love of peace, passion for self-chosen work done well, and ability to respect and celebrate the individual spirit within people of all ages and the value of all life.

Stewardship for the Earth:  We seek to instill in our students, parents, and staff not only a reverence for the earth, its waters, and all living things, but also a sense of stewardship for the environment based on a conviction of our individual responsibility for the beauty of the land and the health of our ecosystems.

Universal Values: Montessori deliberately teaches children not only appropriate patterns of polite behavior, but seeks to instill basic universal values within the core of the child’s personality. These values include self-respect, acceptance of the uniqueness and dignity of each person we meet, kindness, peacefulness, compassion, empathy, honor, individual responsibility, and courage to speak from our hearts.

Global Understanding: All Montessori schools are, to a large degree, international schools. They not only tend to attract a diverse student body representing many ethnic backgrounds, religions, and international backgrounds, but they actively celebrate their diversity. The curriculum is international in its heritage and focus, and consciously seeks to promote a global perspective.

Social Responsibility: Montessori’s spiritual perspective leads Montessori schools to consciously organize programs of community service ranging from daily contributions to others within the class or school setting, to community outreach programs that allow children and adults to make a difference in the lives of others. The fundamental idea is one of stewardship.

The Montessori Teacher

Authoritative: The teacher is firm at the edges and empathetic at the center, the kind of adult who responds empathetically to children’s feelings, while setting clear and consistent limits.

Observer:  The Montessori teacher is a trainer observer of children’s learning and behavior. These careful observation are recorded and used to infer where each student is in terms of his or her development, and leads the teacher to know when to intervene in the child’s learning with a new lesson, a fresh challenge, or a reinforcement of basic ground rules.

An Educational Resource: Montessori teachers facilitate the learning process by serving as a resource to whom the children can turn as they pull together information, impressions, and experiences.

Role Model: Like all great teachers, the Montessori educator deliberately models the behaviors and attitudes that she is working to instill in her students. Because of Montessori’s emphasis on character development, the Montessori teacher normally is exceptionally calm, kind, warm, and polite to each child.

What Montessori Teachers Do

Respectfully Engaged With The Learner: The Montessori teacher recognizes that her role is not so much to teach as to inspire, mentor, and facilitate the learning process. The real work of learning belongs to the individual child. Because of this, the Montessori educator remains conscious of her role in helping each child to fulfill his potential as a human being and of creating an environment for learning within which children will feel safe, cherished, and empowered.

Facilitates The “Match” Between The Learner And Knowledge: Montessori teachers are trained to identify the best response to the changing interests and needs of each child as a unique individual. Because they truly accept that children learn in many different ways and at their own pace, Montessori educators understand that they must “follow the child,” adjusting their strategies and timetable to fit the development of each of their pupils.

Environmental Engineer: Montessori teachers organize   appropriate social settings and academic programs for children at their own level of development. They do this to a large degree through the design of the classroom, selection and organization of learning activities, and structure of the day.


There are many articles in the online library on our website that might be useful to you in evaluating schools and better understanding Montessori. I particularly recommend 'Finding The Right School for your Child.

We also offer many books and Tomorrow’s Child a parents’ magazine that may be of interest. Two of my books may be particularly useful: How To Raise An Amazing Child and The Montessori Way. Both are available from our online bookstore.

To find the most complete information about Montessori schools in your area, I can consult the local Yellow Pages phone book under schools. You can also try a Google search for the word Montessori and your city and state.

Tim Seldin
President, The Montessori Foundation
Chair, The International Montessori Council

Last Updated (Wednesday, 21 July 2010 12:29)