postheadericon Nurturing the Human Potential or Teaching Parlor Tricks

Why Can’t We Supplement the Montessori Program With New Methods and Materials?

Parents choose Montessori education for many reasons, and sometimes begin to question the wisdom of their decision when confronted by other systems and approaches which claim to give children the ability to perform feats of mental arithmetic or acquire perfect spelling at a very low age.  It is often difficult to defend a choice like Montessori when it is criticized from the viewpoint of regular schooling. It is even more difficult to rationalize when compared to systems that virtually guarantee high levels of academic achievement using “scientifically” proven, tightly controlled commercial programs which appear to be unchallenged in their success.

One of the major reasons it is difficult is because the measure of “success”  is based on such a different paradigm, and because our indicators for success are so different.  Being able to recite "math facts" by rote, for example, is not such a wonderful achievement from a Montessori perspective.  Even if we take it one step further, to the amazing mental math which can apparently be achieved by adopting a process based on the visualization of an ancient abacus method of calculation which is sweeping the world, one needs to step back and ask some very important questions.  Foremost among these must surely be: “why do we value the ability to do mental math so highly?”

What I looked for in my Montessori class was not an ability to do mental math (after all you can get a very inexpensive calculator  to do that) but a deep understanding of pattern and relationship, the ability to use that in real contexts, and, above all, an enduring love of math based on a sense of ownership, a sense that the child has that this is something wonderful.  You know this is happening when the response of a child who encounters the multiplication tables in the form of the decanomial spread and the transition to the tower of cubes is invariably "how awesome!"   It is not just in the area of mathematics that the Montessori curriculum is different .   It is a paradigm that places more emphasis on a child's ability to express his or her own, meaningful and important thoughts, than on the mechanics of reading or the technicalities of grammar, syntax and spelling.  Although those aspects are learned, and certainly have a place, that place is well and firmly in the service of the child (or later adult) and not the other way around.  They are merely a means to an end, not the end in itself.

When the human spirit and personality are placed at the center of education it is difficult to converse in the terminology which is designed to inculcate certain, prepackaged modules of easily testable knowledge.  It is difficult to verbalize why Montessorians find something deeply distasteful in the display of children performing mental math tricks or spelling lists of long words which are probably largely meaningless to them.  Children performing parlor tricks to promote commercial programs is the antithesis of the principle of respect for the integrity of each individual human being which is the basis of the Montessori approach.

So I have no doubt that there may be mechanisms, programes and products to get children to a point where they can parrot various facts in different subjects very efficiently,  or employ various tricks and techniques to perform mentally calculations more efficiently than the Montessori materials.  That is because those methods are expressly developed to achieve those goals.

The Montessori materials, lets take the Math Materials as an example, are not primarily intended to teach math facts or algorithms at all.  They are instruments to aid the child's self-construction, and just happen to also convey a knowledge and understanding of a particular subject. 

Which leads us on to another question:  “Why can’t these systems for memorization and mental arithmetic to be brought into the Montessori environment to supplement the traditional Montessori materials?”  A critical issue in choosing materials in a Montessori classroom (or for your own child if you support the Montessori approach) is not merely how well they will teach a certain bit of information or skill more effectively than something in the Montessori classroom, but whether they will empower the child to learn that skill through his or her own, self-initiated and self-directed activity.  If it does the opposite, it will, in the long run, undermine the integrity of the Montessori system, and result in different outcomes.

This makes it difficult to fairly and adequately review any material or method in and of itself.  At the end of the day it comes down to how it is used in the classroom, how it is presented to the child, and whether it supports or detracts from what is already there.  Will new materials or methods go beyond mere computation to real understanding.  Will the approach enhance mathematical thinking rather than simply enabling the performance of arithmetical manipulation.  I've seen uses of the pure Montessori materials that horrify me simply because they are used in a way that was never intended - merely as means to transfer knowledge prescribed by the adult or the education authorities.  I've seen Montessori materials modified to make such a transfer of knowledge more direct rather than to allow for the child's active construction of meaning (which is sometimes much slower and harder to assess than the direct route or rote memorization).  Conversely, I've seen materials which are not intentionally Montessori by design, sometimes even home made, or put together from waste products, but which embody the principles prescribed for the materials in a Montessori classroom.

For this reasons, schools should be wary of including new methods and materials in response to pressures to match the outcomes promised by various commercial programs, particularly in the field of mathematics.  This does not mean that everything new is taboo, or that skills and methods cannot be adapted from the many programs now available.  What is does mean is that anything new brought into the Montessori classroom should be evaluated against Montessori criteria.  It means that we need to be sure that a new approach will not bring confusion.  It means we need to be very, very careful not to follow every fad and gimmick we encounter in the hope that it will impress parents and boost enrollments.  Rather, we need to ask:  “How does it serve the child?  How does it help the child in his self-construction?  How does it lead him to become more independent?  How does it fit into the over-arching goals of Montessori education which attracted these families in the first place?’’


Maria Montessori:

The California Lectures of Maria Montessori, 1915, ABC-Clio, 1997. (San Francisco Lecture (PPIE) 3,4: 9 August 1915).

The Advanced Montessori Method, Volume 1, Kalakshetra, 1965. (“The material of development is necessary only as a starting-point” in Chapter 3).

The Discovery of the Child, ABC-Clio, 1988.

Last Updated (Monday, 09 August 2010 14:11)