In this interview, with Kelly Thomas, Tim Seldin, President of the Montessori Foundation and Chair of the International Montessori Council, will share what it is about the Montessori approach that nurtures creativity and inventiveness that we can all learn from?
Montessori school alumni include Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, not to mention Julia Child and rapper Sean “P.Diddy” Combs, making it appear that the Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite.
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Kelly: Hi Tim. I am so happy to have you here. I am a big fan of Montessori. Both of my kids go to an AMI Montessori School here in California and I’m also a big fan of your book, which I use with my children, had some great activities. I’m hoping you can tell us what exactly Montessori is.
Tim: Montessori means many things to many people. Its best known as a system of education, but it’s really a movement and a philosophy of life. Its mission is to change society to create a more peaceful world in a world that’s oriented to partnership. But in terms of education, it is a strategy that says let’s look at what we know about children from a scientific perspective. Let’s attempt to consciously do what can be shown to work best.
What we know about children is that children are different. They learn in different ways. They have different personalities. They grow in different ways. The idea of teaching one thing to an entire class that is really rather neurological.
Montessori is first designed for differences. It’s designed to support each child as an individual. It’s designed to be incredibly respectful and child honoring and is designed to follow the child as they develop from birth ideally, all the way through high school and beyond.
Kelly: You hear about all the kind of famous people who had Montessori background, like the Google founders and famous musician and things. I think there are a lot of schools that call themselves Montessori, there’s AMS Montessori, there’s AMI Montessori. What are the differences? Are they all considered true Montessori?
Tim: Montessori is a movement and it’s not copyrighted. There is no central authority. It’s not a franchise. It’s something that can be studied and defined by research. We know what authentic or fully implemented Montessori is. But individual schools can’t help but be themselves. Their programs, their approach to life is created by the nature of the owners, the nature of the teachers they hire, the culture of the parent body, and the culture they live within. It’s can have somewhat different faces.
To think that it is simply AMS or AMI is a serious mistake because while there are two large organizations, the American Montessori Society, AMS and AMI, Association, Montessori International, the reality is those were only two of hundreds of Montessori societies. In this country, there’s give or take around 13 Montessori societies. I happen to be the chairman of the third largest, the International Montessori Council.
I started in AMS. I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of AMI schools. What I can say to you is the reality is you have to look at the individual school and you’d have to ask, “Does this school fit my understanding of what Montessori should be? Is it a good match for me? Is it a good match for my child?” but I can’t really get too caught up and brand loyalty because one Montessori school will be somewhat different from another. But truthfully, we all have more in common than we have differences. The differences are usually pretty minor.
Kelly: What are some of the differences?
Tim: I think the major differences you’re going to find in one school versus another is not based on the brand, but rather on how faithfully this particular teacher, this particular school is implementing Montessori
This is what a parent should be looking at when they’re thinking about a Montessori school for their children. They should be asking, “Do I find the following things? The first is every class led by a fully qualified Montessori educator.
Now this is usually a graduate-level course of study that will typically take between one and three years. There are different brands, but as long as they’re all MACTE accredited, which would include AMI, AMS, IMC, the group that I’m connected to, the International Montessori Council, or any of the other, as I mentioned, 13 organizations in the United States.
As long as they’re accredited by the US Department of Education’s recognized Accrediting body, the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE), that’s the first definition of do you have a fully trained Montessori teacher?
By the way, in our world, more children in a class is better, because the larger the class, the more children will tend to learn from each other. The best teacher of a child is another somewhat older child. It’s the community of children covering a three-year-age-span that makes it work. Usually, Montessori classes will have between 20 and 30 children to two adults from the children’s house (ages 3 to 6) level and up.
But in these classes, children learn to be basically self-regulating. They make choices and they go through the day with a very quiet hum. It should almost feel like uncanny silence, but it shouldn’t be the silence of the teacher running around going, “Shhh, shhh, shhh.” It should be coming from within the children.
Kelly: Montessori teaches kids to learn how to think and develop their self-internal intrinsic motivation.
Tim: I like to think of Montessori as being based on four pillars. Those pillars are first off of a voluntary passion for excellence, the desire to do things, not just to win, not just to be the best in the class, but simply because we really care about our work. It’s not just something we do to get a paycheck. We do it because it defines who we are. The passion for excellence that Tom Peters wrote about years ago in his bestselling book, In Search Of Excellence, is very much connected to the entrepreneurial spirit of Montessori, whether in a young child or in a Montessori adult grown-up.
The second is the idea of internalizing a set of universal values, not just hearing them in chapel, not just having them parroting them back, but literally learning to live in such a way that you follow the rules because it’s the right thing to do, not what’s in it for you if you obey and what could happen to you negatively if you disobey because that just invites a child to ask, “Am I willing to pay the price or do I think I’m going to get caught?”
When we believe that children need to learn from home, from school and from society kindness and compassion, honesty and integrity, the idea of reaching out and doing what you can for your fellow human being and the idea of being as positive and as happy in your life as you possibly can and understanding that happiness is not something that you strive to achieve. It’s an attitude. It’s a way of living and it’s not something that can be taken away from you because you lose possessions. It’s almost a philosophy of life.
There are universal values, nonviolence, integrity, empathy, compassion, peacefulness that we teach in all good Montessori schools.
The third pillar I would suggest is the idea that we want our children to be global citizens and to have a real sense of global understanding. Every Montessori school is an international school.
We think they need to know their family story, your country-of-origin story, the nature or a story of the community in which they’re living at this time and place. They need to be really rooted in the understanding that they don’t live alone. They’re connected to all of humanity and all of life. They have to think globally, not just about the moment, about this quarter’s bottom line, but about the good of the long haul, about the generations unborn.
The fourth is the idea of service, service to others and self-service, taking care of yourself. You might think of everything in this as balance, but it tends to produce entrepreneurs, not the typical drudge or the child who burns out by the third year of high school or the third year of college. Usually, these are kids that just keep going and never want to retire because they’re having too much fun doing what they’re doing.
Kelly: Does Montessori work for all families and all types of kids?
Tim: Well, it’s not that it wouldn’t work. I think a better way of understanding it Kelly is it simply isn’t going to work because ultimately the parent is the captain of her child’s fate. She’s going to decide what she or he feels is best for the child.
The average parent frankly doesn’t want Montessori. If they think they want it, it’s probably because they don’t really understand what it is, which is okay, but they’ll usually stay for a few years and then move on to a real school and put them in something totally different.
As type-A personalities, what many parents want is something that’s going to make their child do more, faster, as if it were a race. I think that’s really a very misguided approach. It leads to a great deal of the anxiety, depression, and mental illness that we’re seeing in the world around us.
Montessori is not a religion; we don’t believe that we can, or should, try to convert people. We try to find families who are going to love us for what we are. Part of our message is that we create conditions in which children will develop at their own best pace in their own best way. What we’re really going to focus on is character, kindness, compassion, and an openness to learning, a sense of wonder.
Kelly: You’re saying that it’s best to start when the child is three. What about people who keep their children home until later? Are they missing any key things that happened in the earlier years?
Tim: As a Montessori mom, you know the answer. The earlier children enter Montessori and the longer they stay, the deeper the impact of Montessori is likely to be.
We encourage parents to enroll their children as young as possible; as close to birth as we possibly can. This is not because we’re going to teach them to read and write and do four-digit arithmetic earlier. That might happen, but when it does, it is a by-product of Montessori. We all want our children to become the very best people they can become. In Montessori, it’s easy to create those kinds of communities with children who are toddlers or age three, and sometimes age four.
If you just want to think of it from a curriculum perspective, and that’s in my opinion, a very small part of it, there is so much to learn in a three, four, and five-year-old class. Children entering Montessori a year or two late will normally be well behind most of the other children. It’s usually a night and day difference. However, that doesn’t mean that the older child can’t enter a Montessori school at five or above and benefit greatly if the school is willing to accept them where they are.
We start where children are and keep building from there. In Montessori, we call it ‘learning how to learn.’ There are things that you can learn at age three that change you for the rest of your life. The same thing is true of a child who starts even younger at age two.
It isn’t about core knowledge. It’s not about reading and writing and arithmetic. It’s what is now being called executive function skills. It’s eye-hand-coordination. It’s vocabulary. More than anything else, it’s a sense of self.
Children are learning all the time. The question is whether the messages they’re receiving, the things they’re learning are destructive to their long-term ability to learn, whether it’s sowing seeds of self-doubt, worry about whether you’re smart enough, fast enough, wealthy enough, whatever. Most humans are filled with self-doubt about whether or not it’s okay to make mistakes, but humans make mistakes all the time. It doesn’t mean that we should encourage kids to spell things wrong or get mathematics problems incorrectly, but we have to teach children to not be afraid to try to teach them that they can do it.
Kelly: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what are the misconceptions that people have of Montessori
Tim: One of the most basic is that Montessori is a brand name like Chick-fil-A and they expect every Montessori school to be the same. At the Montessori Foundation, we get calls and emails every day by the hundreds asking, “How do I know whether I found a real Montessori school?” People will ask, “Should I go AMS, AMI, or IMC?” and you’ve already heard my answer there. To me, that’s silly to think only in terms of these brands because if you take five schools, they will not be the same. They’re different.
Instead, let’s ask, “What is Montessori supposed to be? Do you find it in the school you’re considering for your child? Frankly, is it good enough? Because no school is perfect. As a parent, you really have to be an unusual person to choose Montessori for your children because there is no guarantee. I mean, we can talk all we want about the Google guys and the founder of Amazon and all the other famous Nobel laureates and so forth that went to Montessori.
When you’re sitting there looking at your child and another parent says, “Well, your child Kelly, your child’s reading, but my child’s not, so something’s wrong with my child. She’s clearly not right for Montessori. She needs more structure. She needs to be pushed. I need to send her elsewhere.” Lots of people think like that and there’s nothing we can do to change them.
All we can do is ask what is it that we’re looking for a Montessori school and parents ought to be asking themselves this question, “Is Montessori right for me?”
The other thing with this, by the way, is competition. A lot of people think Montessori as opposed to competition. We’re not. We simply say competition is rather silly. When you’re trying to motivate children to learn, they’re going to compete with each other naturally.
They don’t need outside adult interference. Instead, let it happen naturally. Let them learn about the real consequences of the real world step by step. At age three, four, and five this is silly. It’s not the way it works or shouldn’t work. Any school that’s playing high stakes testing with a three, four and five-year-olds really ought to be thinking about what is it doing.
Kelly: what is the most important thing in the first plane of development, like zero to three? What should a child be exposed to or doing? I think this book had some amazing stuff for the early years, I referenced myself, but if you could just talk about a couple of things that are really important.
Tim: Well, in the first three years, a trial is going from infancy through the toddler years. Most of us call the toddler years the terrible twos. I would suggest to you that they don’t need to be terrible at all. They can be the “terrific twos.” What children are doing at that age is they’re beginning to become independent, beginning to get control of their bodies. They’re beginning to get control of their emotions. They’re beginning to learn how to operate in society.
A lot of it has to do with the neurological development of the brain, learning how to make their body work. Much of what we do from birth to three is we’re teaching language. We’re helping kids to communicate their thoughts.
We’re teaching them to be part of a group. We’re teaching them how to make their hands work, which you might call fine motor movement. We’re teaching them how to move about the environment and not bump into things and drop things. We’re also teaching them a work cycle, how to select something from the shelf. Work with it typically on a table or on a rug, which many of us use small rugs to define a work area and then to put it back.
We’re going to teach them how to do things for themselves because the goals, of course, are to be able to operate throughout the classroom on your own, to prepare your sleeping mat, to get food when you’re hungry. You’ll often see things that you could buy at Pier One or stores like that, little cheese plates that will break. They’re not made of plastic. You find little forks and knives that are their size, little glasses that fit in the hand of a toddler, and they will prepare their own food when they’re ready.
We use very lightweight tables. All our classroom furniture is within the ability of the age range of the class to move around the room. The whole idea is to assist the development of the dignity of the child.
Kelly: I know that you want everything to be real life. What’s the harm of, say, someone who wants to go to Disneyland or let their children see Frozen, the movie? Tell us about the philosophy on those princesses and things like that.
Tim: Well, there are several issues. One of the most basic ones is that young children don’t need any help with fantasy. They have it down pat. Children come into the world just filled with a natural tendency to make-believe. They don’t need to see Walt Disney for that. It will happen all over the world, naturally.
What they need help with is learning about reality. It’s not that fantasy is bad, or that we would tell a parent, “Don’t ever do that.” What we say is to help them learn how to manage things that are real. Many toys and movies are meant to distract and entertain, but they’re not connected to reality.
What we’re trying to do is to teach people empathy and understanding of reality instead of having everything be cartoonish. That’s number one.
That has to do with independence and to know the difference between a cartoon show that shows people flying and what really happens if you jump out of a tree.
The second is a lot of the things children experience is created by big business and it’s designed to turn children into consumers. We could get a really interesting conversation going about the true stories of princesses hundreds of years ago and how the middle class, the working class, and the peasants felt about princesses and princes.
Today we’ve turned that into fantasy land to sell toys, cereals, and everything else. Is it horrible? No! I mean, my children enjoyed Disneyland. I just think that we need to remember the kids don’t need a lot of help with the fantasy part. They’ve got that.
Kelly: Where can people go for more information about Montessori in general, if they wanted to read up more about, to learn more about the philosophy?
Tim: Well, anyone could Google Montessori and they’ll come up with probably 300,000 websites. Certainly, one source is our website, www.montessori.org. We really focus on trying to help parents understand Montessori and use its principles at home. We sponsor an international association of Montessori parents called the Montessori Family Alliance.