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

Choosing a Montessori School

It is often a daunting task to choose a school for your child. At the Montessori Foundation we believe that it is important for families and for schools to look for a “good fit”. For this reason we recognize that the wide diversity between Montessori schools is generally a good thing in that it gives parents the opportunity to find a school which can suit their family’s specific needs.

Montessori is not a trademark. Montessori is not a franchise where you can expect each school to be pretty similar to every other Montessori School.

Parents deciding on a school essentially need to ask two crucial questions:

  1. Is Montessori right for our family?
  2. Is this particular Montessori school right for our family?

The articles in this section of our website are chosen to help you answer those questions.

Finding an Authentic Montessori School / Tim Seldin
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.

Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambusch
1927- 1994
Founder of The American Montessori Society (AMS) and
Co-Founder of The Montessori Foundation


Characteristics of an Authentic Montessori School / Dr. Nancy McCormack Rambusch
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-ups-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.

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:*

* These 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.

Why We Chose Montessori Elementary / Denise Harold MEd

Denise Harold, MEd

by Denise Harold

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?