Each year, during the start of school, teachers and administrators try to explain to new parents the essence of the term Montessori. In this article, we’ll try to explain what Montessori is and is not, dispelling, we hope, a few misperceptions about Montessori education in the process.
In its simplest form, Montessori is the philosophy of child and human development as presented by Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who lived from 1870 to 1952.
In the early 1900s, Dr. Montessori built her work with mentally challenged children on the research and studies of Jean Itard (1774-1838), best known for his work with the “Wild Boy of Aveyron” and Edward Seguin (1821-1882), who expanded Itard’s work with deaf children. In 1907, Dr. Montessori began using her teaching materials with normal children in a Rome tenement and discovered what she called “the Secret of Childhood.”
The secret? Children love to be involved in self-directed purposeful activities. When given a prepared environment of meaningful projects, along with the time to do those tasks at his or her own pace, a child will choose to engage in activities that will create learning in personal and powerful ways.
Over the past one hundred years, Montessori classrooms all over the world have proven that, when correctly implemented, Dr. Montessori’s philosophy works for children of all socioeconomic circumstances and all levels of ability. In a properly prepared Montessori classroom, research shows that children learn faster and more easily than in traditional schools.
However, the implementation of Montessori philosophy is a school’s biggest challenge. There are many factors to consider when putting theory into practice: the individual children in the classroom, their ages and emotional well-being; parent support and understanding of Montessori philosophy; and the training and experience of teachers, assistants, and administrators. These are only a few of the elements that create a Montessori school.
Because of this, Montessori schools come in all shapes and sizes, including the small in-home class for a few children to schools with hundreds of students, from newborns through high school.
While schools come in many shapes and sizes, all successful Montessori classrooms require three key elements:
1. Well-trained adults;
2. Specially prepared environments; and
3. Children’s free choice of activity within a three-hour work cycle.
Finding the right school for your family – whether it’s Montessori, public, parochial, alternative, traditional, or home school – requires a bit of investigative work and an understanding of the needs and concerns you have for your family. Being clear about what Montessori education is and what it is not can help you make an informed decision.
In my thirty years in Montessori education – as a parent, school employee, volunteer, trainee, teacher, school founder, and school director – time after time, I’ve come to fresh and deeper understandings of Montessori philosophy and the process of human development and education.
My first encounter with Montessori was less than positive. As a college student, I frequently visited my family after my four younger siblings’ school day had ended. Our family tradition was to have a snack together after school. Friends and neighbors were always welcomed.
The neighbor girls (ages four, five and six) frequently joined the group. They would barge into my parents’ home and head straight for the refrigerator. No knock on the door, no hello. They inhaled huge amounts of food with neither manners nor thanks. Their lack of decorum appalled me.
The neighbor girls’ grandmother chatted with me about how wonderful the girls’ Montessori school was and how much the girls learned there. I attributed the girls’ little savage conduct to their Montessori school. If a school would put up with that kind of behavior, I figured it couldn’t be any good.
A few years passed, and I had children of my own. Our friends and co-workers recommended the local Montessori school to my husband and me. Because of my experiences with the neighbor’s children, I responded negatively to my friends’ suggestions. I began to notice, though, that our friends’ children were well mannered, articulate, and a joy to be around. Hum? So what was up with Montessori?
My mother helped clear up my misperceptions. The neighbor’s girls, even though they lived in an expensive home, were suffering the effects of a newly divorced and stressed mother attending law school. The girls were starved for food, attention, and adult guidance. Their behavior was a reflection, not of their Montessori schooling, but of the turmoil in their home.