Basics For Parents
by Tim Seldin
What makes Montessori different?
The Montessori approach is often described
as an "education
for life." When we try to define what children take away from
their years in Montessori, we need to expand our vision to include
more than just the basic academic skills.
Normally, Americans think of a school as a place where one generation
passes down basic skills and culture to the next. From this perspective,
a school only exists to cover a curriculum, not to develop character
and self-esteem. But in all too many traditional and highly competitive
schools, students memorize facts and concepts with little understanding,
only to quickly forget them when exams are over.
Recent studies show that many
bright students are passive learners. They coast through school,
earning high grades, but rarely pushing
themselves to read material that hasn't been assigned, ask probing
questions, challenge their teacher's cherished opinions, or think
for themselves. They typically want teachers to hand them the "right
answer." The problem isn't with today's children, but with
today's schools. Children are as gifted, curious, and creative
as they ever were, when they're working on something that captures
their interest and which they have voluntarily chosen to explore.
Montessori schools work to develop culturally literate children
and nurture their fragile sparks of curiosity, creativity, and
intelligence. They have a very different set of priorities from
traditional schools, and a very low regard for mindless memorization
and superficial learning. Montessori students may not memorize
as many facts, but they do tend to become self-confident, independent
thinkers who learn because they are interested in the world and
enthusiastic about life, not simply to get a good grade.
Montessori believed that there was more to life than simply the
pursuit of wealth and power. To her, finding one's place in the
world, work that is meaningful and fulfilling, and developing the
inner peace and depth of soul that allows us to love are the most
important goals in life.
The Children's House
In her research, Dr. Montessori noted specific
characteristics associated with the child's interests and abilities
at each plane
of development. She argued that a school carefully designed to
meet the needs and interests of the child will work more effectively
because it doesn't fight human nature. Montessori taught teachers
how to "follow the child" through careful observation,
allowing each student to reveal her strengths and weaknesses, interests
and anxieties, and strategies that work best to facilitate the
development of her human potential.
This focus on the "whole child" led Dr. Montessori to
develop a very different sort of school from the traditional adult-centered
classroom. To emphasize this difference, she named her first school
the "Casa dei Bambini" or the "Children's House."
There is something profound in her choice of words, for the Montessori
classroom is not the domain of the adults in charge, but rather
it is a carefully prepared environment designed to facilitate
the development of the children's independence and sense of personal
empowerment. This is the children's community. They move freely
within it, selecting work that captures their interest, rather
than participating in all-day lessons and projects selected by
In a very real sense, even very small children
are responsible for the care of their own child-sized environments.
When they are
hungry, they prepare their own snack and drink. They go to the
bathroom without assistance. When something spills, they help each
other carefully clean things up. Four generations of parents have
been amazed to see small children in Montessori classrooms cut
raw fruits and vegetables, sweep and dust, carry pitchers of water
and pour liquids with barely a drop spilled. The children normally
go about their work so calmly and purposely that it is clear to
even the casual observer that they are the masters in this environment:
a "Children's Community."
Montessori's first "Children's Community," opened in
1907, was made up of 60 inner-city children who largely came from
dysfunctional families. In her book, The Montessori Method, Dr.
Montessori describes the transformation that took place during
the first few months, as the children evolved into a "family." They
prepared and served the daily meals, washed the pots and dishes,
helped the younger children bathe and change their clothes, swept,
cleaned, and worked in the garden. These very young children developed
a sense of maturity and connectedness that helped them realize
a much higher level of their potential as human beings.
While times have changed, the need to feel connected is still as
strong as ever. In fact, for today's children it is probably even
more important. Whether it's an inner-city child or a child from
an affluent suburb, the sense of community has all but disappeared
from our children's lives. Families regularly move from house to
house and from town to town. Grandparents usually live in other
cities or other states. Both parents work out of necessity, and
when they are at home, they are very, very busy. The "latch-key" child
has become the norm for this generation. Many children have the
sense that they do not belong to anything or anybody, which is
why gangs, which give a sense of belonging, have always had a certain
appeal for some children.
Along with whatever else Montessori gives our children, it definitely
gives them the message that they belong - that their school is
like a second family. Studies on the moral and emotional development
of children strongly suggest that while there are probably a few
children in every thousand who are truly little "gangsters" at
heart, a child's sense of moral reasoning and sense of self are
directly related. Children will normally grow up to be productive,
happy, positive individuals if given the right emotional environment.
It seems clear that our attitudes about people, the ability to
overcome our tendency to be egocentric, our willingness to share,
to compromise, to resolve conflicts non-violently, and our ability
to discover a basic sense of self-worth are not qualities that
human beings develop spontaneously but rather through years of
experience with caring people, who convince us that we belong and
give us the opportunity to practice and master these skills of
everyday living. As in all things, children learn to be kind and
Montessori Schools Are Based on the Principles of Respect and
Montessori schools believe very strongly that intelligence is not
fixed at birth, nor is the human potential anywhere near as limited
as it sometimes seems in traditional education. The validity of
these beliefs has been confirmed by the research of Piaget, Gardner,
Coleman, and many others. We know that each child is a full and
complete individual in her own right. Even when she is very small,
she deserves to be treated with the full and sincere respect that
we would extend to her parents. Respect breeds respect, and creates
an atmosphere within which learning is tremendously facilitated.
Success in school is directly tied to the degree to which children
believe that they are capable and independent human beings. If
they knew the words, even very young children would ask: Help me
learn to do it for myself!
By allowing children to develop a meaningful degree of independence
and self-discipline, Montessori sets a pattern for a lifetime of
good work habits and a sense of responsibility. Students are taught
to take pride in doing things for themselves carefully and well.
Montessori Teaches Children to Think and Discover for Themselves
Montessori schools are designed to help each student discover and
develop her unique talents and possibilities. They treat each child
as a unique individual
learner. In Montessori, children learn at their own pace, and learn in the ways
that work best for them as individuals. The goal is to be flexible and creative
in addressing each student as a unique individual.
Learning the right answers may get a child through school, learning how to become
a life-long, independent learner will take her anywhere! Montessori teaches children
to think, not simply to memorize, feed back, and forget. Rather than present
students with loads of right answers, Montessori educators keep asking the right
questions, and lead them to discover the answers for themselves. Learning becomes
its own reward, and each success fuels a desire to discover even more. Older
students are encouraged to do their own research, analyze what they have found,
and come to their own conclusions. Teachers encourage children to think for themselves
and become actively engaged in the learning process.
The Importance of Freedom of Movement and Independently Chosen
Young children touch and manipulate everything in their environment.
In a sense, the mind is hand made, because through movement and
touch, the child explores,
manipulates, and builds up a storehouse of impressions about the physical world
around her. Children learn by doing, and this requires movement and spontaneous
investigation Montessori children are free to move about, working alone or with
others at will. They may select any activity and work with it as long as they
wish, so long as they do not disturb anyone or damage anything and they put it
back where it belongs when they are finished.
Many exercises, especially at the early childhood level, are designed to draw
the child's attention to the sensory properties of objects within her environment:
size, shape, color, texture, weight, smell, sound, etc. Gradually she learns
to pay attention, seeing more clearly small details in the things around her.
She has begun to observe and appreciate her environment. This is a key in helping
the child discover how to learn.
Freedom is a second critical issue as the child begins to explore.
Our goal is less to teach her facts and concepts, but rather
to help her fall in love with
the process of focusing her complete attention on something and solving its riddle
with enthusiasm and even joy. Work assigned by the adult rarely results in such
enthusiasm and interest as does work that a child freely chooses for herself.
The prepared environment of the Montessori class is a learning laboratory in
which the child is allowed to explore, discover, and select her own work. The
independence that the child gains is not only empowering on a social and emotional
basis, but it is also intrinsically involved with helping the child become comfortable
and confident in her ability to master the environment, ask questions, puzzle
out the answer, and learn without needing to be spoon-fed by an adult.
A Carefully Prepared Environment
Montessori classrooms tend to fascinate both children and their
parents. They are normally bright, warm, and inviting, filled with
plants, animals, art, music,
and books. There are interest centers filled with intriguing learning materials,
fascinating mathematical models, maps, charts, fossils, historical artifacts,
computers, scientific apparatus, perhaps a small natural-science museum, and
animals that the children are raising. Montessori classrooms are commonly referred
to as a prepared environment. This name reflects the care and attention that
is given to creating a learning environment that will reinforce the children's
independence and intellectual development.
You would not expect to find rows of desks in a Montessori classroom. The rooms
are set up to facilitate student discussion and stimulate collaborative learning.
One glance and its clear that children feel comfortable and safe. Students are
typically found scattered around the classroom, working alone or with one or
two others. They tend to become so involved in their work that visitors are immediately
struck by the peaceful atmosphere. It may take a moment to spot the teachers
within the environment. They will be found working with one or two children at
a time, advising, presenting a new lesson, or quietly observing the class at
The Montessori Curriculum
The Montessori classroom is organized into several curriculum areas,
usually including: language arts (reading, literature, grammar,
creative writing, spelling,
and handwriting), mathematics and geometry, everyday living skills, sensory awareness
exercises and puzzles, geography, history, science, art, music, and movement.
Most rooms will include a classroom library. Each area is made up of one or more
shelf units, cabinets, and display tables with a wide variety of materials on
open display ready for use as the children select them.
The Montessori curriculum is organized into a spiral of integrated studies, rather
than a traditional model in which the curriculum is compartmentalized into separate
subjects, with given topics considered only once at a specific grade level. In
the early years, lessons are introduced simply and concretely and are reintroduced
several times over succeeding years at increasing degrees of abstraction and
The course of study uses an integrated thematic approach that ties
the separate disciplines of the curriculum together into studies
of the physical universe,
the world of nature, and the human experience. Literature, the arts, history,
social issues, political science, economics, science and the study of technology
all complement one another. This integrated approach is one of Montessori's great
strengths. As an example, when students study Africa, they also read African
folktales, create African masks and make African block print dashikis in art,
learn Swahili songs in music and traditional folk dances, and study the ecosystems,
flora, fauna, and natural resources. Montessori schools offer a rigorous and
innovative academic program.
The Montessori Materials: A Road from the Concrete to the Abstract
A basic element of the Montessori approach is the simple observation
that children learn most effectively through direct experience
and the process of investigation
and discovery. In her studies of child development, Dr. Montessori noted that
most children do not learn by memorizing what they hear from their teachers or
read in a text; instead, they learn from concrete experience and direct interaction
with the environment. Asking a child to sit back and watch us perform a process
or experiment is like asking a one-year-old not to put everything in his mouth.
Children need to manipulate and explore everything that catches their interest.
Anyone who has raised a child knows that this is true just from daily experience.
It's ironic that most schools today still teach primarily through lecture, textbooks,
and workbooks. Most students still spend their days sitting behind a desk praying
for the recess bell to ring.
Dr. Montessori recognized that concrete learning apparatus makes
learning much more rewarding. The Montessori learning materials
are not the method itself;
they are the tools that we use to stimulate the child into logical thought and
discovery. They are provocative and simple, each carefully designed to appeal
to children at a given level of development. Each material isolates and teaches
one thing or is used to present one skill at a time as the child is ready. Montessori
carefully analyzed the skills and concepts involved in each subject and noted
the sequence in which children most easily master them.
The materials are displayed on low, open shelves that are easily
accessible to even the youngest children. They are arranged to
provide maximum eye-appeal without
clutter. Each has a specific place on the shelves, arranged from the upper left-hand
corner in sequence to the lower right, following their sequence in the curricular
flowchart. The materials are arranged in sequence from the most simple to the
most complex and from the most concrete to those that are most abstract.
Montessori classes are made up of a two- or three-year age span
Many pre-schools are proud of their very small group sizes, sometimes
as low as five children to one adult, and parents often wonder
why Montessori classes
are so much larger. Schools with the smaller groups assume that the teacher is
the source of instruction, a very limited resource. They reason that as the number
of children decreases, the time that teachers have to spend with each child increases.
Ideally, we would have a one-on-one tutorial situation. But the best teacher
of a three-year-old is often another child who is just a little bit older and
has mastered a skill. This process is good for both the tutor and the younger
child. In this situation, the teacher is not the primary focus. The larger group
size puts the focus less on the adult and encourages children to learn from each
other. By having enough children in each age group, all students will find others
at their developmental level.
Montessori classes are organized to encompass
a two- or three-year age span, which allows younger students
to experience the daily
stimulation of older role
models, who in turn blossom in the responsibilities of leadership. Students not
only learn "with" each other, but "from" each other. Some
parents worry that by having younger children in the same class as older ones,
one group or the other will be shortchanged. They fear that the younger children
will absorb the teachers' time and attention, or that the importance of covering
the kindergarten curriculum for the five-year-olds will prevent them from giving
the three- and four-year-olds the emotional support and stimulation that they
need. Both concerns are misguided. Working in one class for two or three years
allows students to develop a strong sense of community with their classmates
and teachers. The age range also allows the especially gifted child the stimulation
of intellectual peers, without requiring that she skip a grade and feel emotionally
out of place.
A Different Daily Schedule
Days are not divided into fixed time periods
for each subject. Teachers call students together as they are
ready for lessons individually
or in small groups.
A typical day's work is divided into "fundamentals" that have been
assigned by the faculty and self-initiated projects and research selected by
the student. Students work to complete their assignments at their own pace -
typically with care and enthusiasm. Teachers closely monitor their students'
progress, keeping the level of challenge high. Teacher feedback to students and
parents helps students learn how to pace themselves and take a great deal of
personal responsibility for their studies, both of which are essential for later
success in college and in life. We encourage students to work together collaboratively,
and many assignments can only be accomplished through teamwork. Students constantly
share their interests and discoveries with each other. The youngest experience
the daily stimulation of their older friends, and are naturally spurred on to
be able to "do what the big kids can do."
How Montessori Teachers Meet the Needs of So Many Different Children
Montessori teachers do more than present curriculum. The secret
of any great teacher is helping learners get to the point that
their minds and hearts are
open and they are ready to learn, where the motivation is not focused on getting
good grades but, instead, involves a basic love of learning. As parents know
their own children's learning styles and temperaments, teachers, too, develop
this sense of each child's uniqueness by developing a relationship over a period
of years with the child and her parents. Dr. Montessori believed that teachers
should focus on the child as a person, not on the daily lesson plan. Montessori
nurtures and inspires the human potential, leading children to ask questions,
think for themselves, explore, investigate, and discover. Our ultimate objective
is to help them to learn how to learn independently, retaining the curiosity,
creativity, and intelligence with which they were born. Montessori teachers don't
simply present lessons; they are facilitators, mentors, coaches, and guides.
Traditionally, teachers tell us that they "teach students the basic facts
and skills that they will need to succeed in the world." Studies show that
in many classrooms, as much as 40 percent of the day may be spent on discipline
and classroom management. Montessori educators play a very different role. Wanting
to underscore the very different role played by adults in her schools, Dr. Montessori
used the title "director" or "directress" instead of "teacher." In
Italian, the word implies the role of the coordinator or administrator of an
office or factory. Today, many Montessori schools prefer to call their teachers "guides."
Whatever they're called, Montessori teachers
are rarely the center of attention,
for this is not their class; it is the "Children's House." Normally
Montessori teachers will not spend much time working with the whole class at
once. Their primary role is to prepare and maintain the physical, intellectual,
and social/emotional environment within which the children will work. Certainly,
a key aspect of this is the selection of intriguing and developmentally appropriate
opportunities for learning to meet the needs and interests of each child in the
Montessori guides have four principle goals:
- to awaken the child's spirit and imagination;
- to encourage his normal desire for independence and high sense of self-esteem;
- to help him develop the kindness, courtesy, and self- discipline that
him to become a full member of society; and
- to help the child learn how to observe, question, and explore ideas independently.
Montessori teachers rarely present a lesson to more than a handful
of children at one time, and they limit lessons to brief, efficient
presentations. The goal
is to give the children just enough to capture their attention and spark their
interest, intriguing them enough that they will come back on their own to work
with the materials. Lessons center around the most clear and simple information
necessary for the children to do the work on their own: the name of the material,
its place on the shelf, the ground-rules for its use, and some of the possibilities
inherent within it. Montessori guides closely monitor their students' progress,
keeping the level of challenge high. Because they normally work with each child
for two or three years, guides get to know their students' strengths and weaknesses,
interests, and anxieties extremely well. Montessori guides often use the children's
interests to enrich the curriculum and provide alternate avenues for accomplishment
Elementary level Montessori students rarely
work from textbooks. Instead they learn to use the library and
internet to gather
information into reports and
presentations to share with their friends. Naturally they also do a great deal
of hands-on project-oriented learning that makes their studies come alive. Dr.
Montessori often spoke of "spontaneous activity in learning."
Homework, Tests, and Grades
Many parents have heard that Montessori schools do not believe
in homework, grades, and tests. This is really a misunderstanding
of Montessori's insights. Whenever
students voluntarily decide to learn something, they tend to engage in their
work with a passion and attention that few students will ever invest in tasks
that have been assigned. This doesn't mean that they can do whatever they want
academically, possibly electing to learn to read and possibly not. Montessori
students have to live within a cultural context, which for us involves the mastery
of skills and knowledge that we consider basic. Montessori gives students the
opportunity to choose a large degree of what they investigate and learn, as well
as the ability to set their own schedule during class time.
This freedom of choice sometimes causes
parents to worry about whether their children will be able to
cope if they transfer
to another school. For many families,
homework, grades, and test results are the only objective evidence that can tell
them how well their children are doing in comparison to children attending traditional
schools. The ongoing impact of a Montessori program and its long-term outcomes
are not always visible and clear to parents. Many struggle to understand how
Montessori works, but all too often they come away confused and worried that
they might be setting their children up for failure when they transfer to a traditional
classroom. This leads some parents to have ambivalent thoughts about their long-term
relationship with Montessori. They will stay as long as their children are happy
and "doing well," but parents may plan to transfer them to a traditional
school when they reach the age when their education "really counts."
Even very supportive parents may worry whether their investment
in Montessori is going to pay off, and they look for evidence
as to whether or not it is really
working. Montessori guides reassure parents every year that their fears are
misguided, and that children who transfer from Montessori programs
normally make a smooth
adjustment to their new schools and typically end up as honor students. Even
when their children are very young, parents don't want to hear that Montessori
schools don't believe in report cards, workbooks, homework, or tests. No matter
how impressed they may be with Montessori, few parents can place trust any
in school when it involves their children's future. They expect
to be kept informed
about their children's progress and the classroom program.
Montessori educators, on the other hand, frequently argue that
testing is inaccurate, misleading, and stressful for children.
Further, they argue that tests are
not necessary, since any good teacher who works with the same children for
years and carefully observes their work, knows far more about their progress
than any paper and pencil test can reveal; however, in our culture, test-taking
skills are just another practical life lesson that children need to master.
Many elementary Montessori programs regularly give students quizzes on the
and skills that they have been studying, and many schools use standardized
tests, either annually or every other year with students over first grade.
The problem with tests is how they have been used and interpreted
in other schools, rather than as a means to challenge students
to demonstrate skills
When tests are used as a feedback loop, at times indicating that a student
needs a new lesson and more practice, instead of a mark of shame and failure,
they can be quite useful. Children will face standardized tests throughout
their education, and they certainly need to develop good test taking skills.
In Montessori, students learn to collaborate with each other
rather than mindlessly compete. Students discover their own
innate abilities and develop
sense of independence, self-confidence, and self-discipline. In an
atmosphere in which
children learn at their own pace and compete only
against themselves, they learn to not be afraid of making mistakes.
They quickly find that few things in life come easily, and they can
of embarrassment. Children compete with each other every day both in
class and on the playground.
Montessori, herself an extraordinary student
a very high
achiever, was never opposed to competition on principle. Her objection
was to using competition to create an artificial motivation to get
She argued that for an education to profoundly touch a child's heart
and mind, he must be learning because he is curious and interested,
the highest grade in the class. Montessori allows competition to
evolve naturally among children, without adult interference unless
begin to show
poor sportsmanship. The key is the child's voluntary decision to
compete, rather than having it imposed on him by the school.
Tim Seldin is the President of the Montessori Foundation. He is the Headmaster
Emeritus of the Barrie School, Co-Founder of the Institute for Advanced Montessori
Studies, and co-author of two books, The World In The Palm Of Her Hand and Celebrations