When we think of a typical classroom, usually we imagine rows of desks filled with children, their eyes fixed on a teacher giving a lesson at the blackboard.
But a Montessori classroom looks much different. There you’ll find students of varying ages all engaged in different activities simultaneously, with the teacher observing, sometimes aiding a child in his or her endeavor.
It’s enough to make anyone wonder…
What is a Montessori School?
In its most basic sense, Montessori education focuses on child-led learning. Students are encouraged to be the directors of their own study, identifying and pursuing projects that interest them, with the teacher serving as a guide to their learning.
Much of the Montessori experience is hands-on. In any Montessori classroom, you may find a group of children working on a puzzle while another group undertakes a days-long art project, while another child reads quietly by themselves. Children are encouraged to go at their own pace, work collaboratively and individually, and spend time working on projects they enjoy.
According to the American Montessori Society, the Montessori approach considers the development of the whole child — physical, social, emotional, cognitive.
What should I look for in a Montessori school?
Child development expert Jesse McCarthy, owner of Montessori Education, which is dedicated to helping parents and teachers aid children’s development, has a warning: “The name Montessori is not trademarked, so anyone can actually open any kind of school and call it ‘Montessori’.” However, here’s what to look for, he says:
“Real Montessori schools have children of different ages in the same classroom,” McCarthy says, though students tend to all be within three years of age from each other. “The idea here is that children learn at different paces in different areas: Where one child might learn to read at 4 years old, another might explode into reading at late 5. Why push one or hold another back based on some average at which children are ‘supposed to’ read? Children also tend to learn a lot from more mature peers, which is not possible in single-age classrooms.”
2. Long, uninterrupted periods in which children choose their work (also called “freedom within limits”).
“Real Montessori schools will have a significant chunk of time in the day dedicated to children working on materials of their own choosing,” McCarthy says. This is the “freedom” part of the equation, but it’s considered “within limits” because the activities are chosen from structured options that the teacher purposefully selects beforehand.
“For toddlers,” McCarthy says, “this ‘work period’ is usually two hours. For 3-6 year-olds, it’s usually about three hours. This can seem unbelievable to teachers and parents who haven’t been in a Montessori environment, as in ‘No way my child would focus for that long!’ But the reality is that if children are given work to do that is meaningful and engaging, from washing a table at 3 years old to doing multiplication at 5 years old — and if they are allowed to choose to do that work of their own volition — then they have impressive sustained focus.”
History of Montessori Education
Montessori education began just over 100 years ago in Rome, Italy. Maria Montessori — and Italian physician and educator — opened the first Montessori school on January 6, 1907, calling it the Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House.
Early in her medical career, Maria studied psychiatry. She came to specialize in educational theory, and soon, special education. In 1900, she became co-director of a training institute for special education teachers. There, she experimented with teaching methods and developed the Montessori approach, which was proclaimed a success.
In 1907 Maria opened a childcare center in a poor inner-city area — this was the first Casa dei Bambini, or Montessori school. By 1910, Montessori schools gained acclaim and popularity.
Today there are more than 22,000 Montessori schools in at least 110 countries according to the American Montessori Society.
What are some benefits of a Montessori education?
To understand the benefits of Montessori, one must go back to their main features: mixed age groups and “freedom within limits.”
Supporters of Montessori believe combining various age groups works well in both directions: Younger children learn from the older children in their classroom, and the older children reinforce their skills by teaching the younger children. “On a common-sense level,” McCarthy says, “it’s interesting that any adult would find it insane to only work with other adults of the same exact age, but with our children, we put them in that situation in traditional schooling.”
McCarthy also speaks to the power of giving children agency over their learning at an early age: “The broader benefit of this focused work and choice,” he says, “is an early development of independence, particularly of good decision-making skills. The classic contrast is the traditional-schooled child who eventually graduates college and has no idea what to do with his life because he never really had to make choices in his schooling; the teacher always told him what was needed and he complied (or didn’t and received bad grades). Not a good strategy for success in the real world, particularly in an atmosphere today that demands creativity, not following orders.”
What are some potential drawbacks to Montessori?
One challenge to getting a Montessori education is simple availability. McCarthy cautions that Montessori choices may be limited in many areas, and there can be long waitlists.
Additionally, Montessori isn’t necessarily a good long-term educational plan. “As children get older” he says, “the quality of Montessori programs gets increasingly inconsistent. This is because the most work in developing Montessori standards was done for younger children, especially for the 3-6 age group.”
Ais Her, Director of Schools at Fountainhead Montessori School in Dublin, CA, warns that there can be culture shock when a student moves on from Montessori to a more traditional school setting. “If they leave and go to another institution that does more ‘desk work,'” she says, “they have a hard time completing work.”
How well do Montessori students perform academically?
The impact of a Montessori education has been studied for several decades, and results have been mixed. The National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector has published a collection of studies that measure many different variables, but it’s worth looking at what a particular Montessori school in your area offers, and how well it performs.
To get you started, here’s a link to a list of some of the best Montessori schools in the United States.
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