My daughter, now 8 years old, brought me to Montessori. She began at a Montessori school when she was 3 years old. I was amazed at how she transformed from an active child who always seemed to be getting into trouble into one who was confident and responsible. She was more independent than ever, but learned to channel her energy. Rather than being bored, she had become focused and content.
When she finished her three years in the Montessori primary classroom, we realized it was time to make a change. Her Montessori school did not offer an elementary program. Our local public school is consistently rated in the top 10 in the state. Our older daughter went to the local school. It seemed like an easy decision…she would go to public school.
She transitioned very easily, loving her new school, her new friends and her new teacher. She did very well, often receiving praise for her citizenship and her kindness.
Soon, however, we began to notices changes. She stopped enjoying reading. Rather than reading her favorite chapter books, she began reading shorter, easier books, and then only when she had to do so for homework. Rather than asking for math problems and memorizing her math facts on her own, she began to dread her math homework. She loved “school”, but she no longer loved learning.
It would have been easy to attribute this change to her age. However, while she was in first grade, I was completing my Masters degree in Early Childhood Education, concentrating on Montessori. My capstone project was research about children in Montessori schools vs. traditional schools. All of the research clearly showed Montessori children performed better than traditional school children in almost all areas.
When reviewing the literature about the performance of Montessori-educated children, I encountered studies that suggest children in Montessori environments fare better than their non-Montessori counterparts in academics, social awareness, and success outside of school. I was reminded that Montessori-educated children generally actively seek knowledge, know where and how to look for information. They tend to approach learning by questioning, analyzing, comprehending, and discussing topics, rather than just memorizing or completing assignments.
In his 2003 paper “A Comparison of Montessori and Traditional Middle Schools: Motivation, Quality of Experience, and Social Context”, Kevin Rathunde reported that “Montessori middle school students reported more positive motivation and experience than a matched sample of students from traditional middle schools”. Dawson (1987) found that Hispanic and Black Montessori students enrolled in a public magnet school have significant academic advantages over the test and district norms compared in the study. Students at Bunche Elementary School, a public pre-K to 5th grade Montessori magnet school in Indiana, are repeatedly among the top performers on the Indiana ISTEP+ test (Robinson, 2006).
In 2007, Jacobson reported that the third grade students at the public Robert Goddard Montessori School in Prince George’s County, MD exceeded county and statewide averages on the Maryland School Assessment tests in math and reading. Additionally, while other children throughout Prince George’s county declined in proficiency as they reach middle grades, the children at Goddard continued to excel. 85.7% of Goddard’s eighth graders reached proficiency levels in math, compared with 35% of children across the county.
While all this literature strongly supports the Montessori system of education, the validity of this research is often questioned. Among the reasons cited are the fact that parents are the dominant factor in child outcomes (Lillard, 2006). Thus parents who choose to enroll their children in a Montessori school may be different than parents who do not and that is the influencing factor of a child’s success. Furthermore, there are simply too many variables that are not controlled in these studies, such as socio-economic factors, teacher training, and quality of the programs being compared. Small sample sizes produce results that are not statistically significant (Seldin, 2006).
New research by Angeline Lillard, published in 2006, is not subject to these criticisms. Published in the journal Science,her statistics are regarded as significant and controls for these variables. She and her research partner compared outcomes of children at a public inner city Montessori school in Milwaukee with children who attended other types of schools within the Milwaukee school system. This study is significant in that it controlled for parental bias by utilizing the public school system’s lottery system, comparing children who “won” the lottery into Montessori classrooms with children who “lost” and were placed into other Milwaukee system programs, including magnet, charter, and gifted programs. Because this lottery is random, the children in the experimental group (enrolled in the Montessori program) should be similar to the children in the control group (enrolled in other programs). The families of both groups had similar education levels and average incomes.
Another reason Lillard chose the Milwaukee school district was its association with the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI). Because the name Montessori is in the public domain, there are no regulations or restrictions to its use. She reasoned that the school system’s association with AMI ensured they would have a more faithful interpretation of Montessori’s philosophy.
Each group was tested for cognitive/academic and social/behavioral skills selected for their importance in life outside of school. The results showed significant advantages for the Montessori group over the control group. “By the end of kindergarten, the Montessori children performed better on standardized tests of reading and math, engaged in more positive interaction on the playground, and showed more advanced social cognition and executive control. They also showed more concern for fairness and justice” (Lillard, 2006).
What makes Montessori education so advantageous over other educational programs? Rathunde (2001) credits the concept of optimal experience, or “flow”, which is the adult version of Montessori’s concept of “normalization” for children. When the level of challenge and level of skill are equal, there is a state of “flow” which is indicated by deep concentration and periods of complete absorption in one’s work. As adults, we have all experienced those occasions when we become so interested in a particular activity that we lose track of time forgetting even basic needs such as eating. We feel invigorated and energized after these occasions, not tired or worn out. According to Montessori (1966), children experience these same sensations and this is when the best learning takes place.
Cossentino explored this idea of normalization and the Montessori concept of “work” in her 2006 paper “Big Work: Goodness, Vocation, and Engagement in the Montessori Method”. While the vast majority of research suggests that children learn through play, all activities in a Montessori classroom are referred to as “work”. To understand this, it is necessary to look at the concepts of “work” vs. “play”. Work is engrossing, natural and effortful. It is not an escape from “real life”, as fantasy play is, but a path towards fulfillment (Cossentino, 2006).
Because Montessori puts the focus on the child, let’s look at what children say about work and play. Two responses by elementary-aged Montessori children recorded by Cossentino are: “Play is when we get hot and tired outside; work is when you don’t get tired” and “When you play, you get rid of energy. When you work, you keep your energy”. The Montessori classroom fosters repetition and concentration over simple task completion.
Our journey continues
Our daughter has returned to Montessori – now as a “second grade” student in a Montessori Elementary Classroom. Once again, she has been transformed. She is more confident and responsible. She is content, not bored. But, most thrilling for my husband and me, once again, our daughter loves learning! She reads constantly and she chooses progressively more difficult books. As she reads, she asks so many questions. She isn’t satisfied with what is just on the page, she wants to learn more. She asks for math problems again and is very excited about multiplication. After a full school day, she often comes into my classroom and chooses to work.
There is no doubt in my mind that most children do just fine in public school. But, is “just fine” what we want for our children?
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Sheltering Arms Developmental Progressions for 3-6’s by DOMAINS. (2005), Atlanta, GA
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