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What Is Montessori – Philosophy, Method & Effectiveness Parents Should Know

The Montessori method of education has been around for over 100 years, and is currently used in over 5,000 schools in the United States alone, including 300 public schools and some high schools​1​. In some studies, Montessori programs seem to improve children’s outcomes more than other programs, but others show similar or even worse results​2–4​. In this article, we will examine “what is Montessori”, the different aspects of this educational method, whether it is better or worse than traditional classrooms, and what to look for when selecting one for your preschooler.

What Is Montessori

preschooler plays with montessori toys

Montessori is an education philosophy developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori. It is characterized by multi-age classrooms, specially designed learning materials, child-led learning, collaboration, the absence of grades and tests, and small group or individual instructions.

Learning occurs in highly organized and prepared environments with constructive activities that support learning through action. Students can choose from these activities freely, and the specific materials used in them are designed to provide corrective feedback so that students can learn and correct themselves.

This school of philosophy offers children freedom within limits to help them develop a sense of independence.

In 1907, Maria Montessori, one of the first female Italian Doctor, used her sensorimotor technique with children with mental disabilities to help developmentally normal children from low-income families in the Children’s House she founded. Within five years, classrooms using this method sprung up all over the world.

Montessori gave up her career as a doctor and spent almost fifty years developing and refining the system, extending it for children from birth through age twelve. Her methods for adolescents were still in development when she passed away in 1952.

Montessori philosophy

Montessori detailed her radical discoveries in her book, Education for Human Development, that the philosophies are more than just an introduction to new education methods, but a transformation in attitudes about children as well​5​.

Because of the 2001 federal law known as No Child Left Behind, educators have begun to use didactic teaching methods appropriate for older children in preschool settings​6​. Children aged three to five are increasingly expected to sit still and listen to lessons without interacting. 

The Montessori educational philosophy is a welcome change parents have sought. She believed children were not passive receivers of knowledge and information. The creative process and active participation are critical in human growth and learning.

She created the right conditions that allowed children to express their natural development propensities. Her approach gave children uninterrupted work periods that were tailored to their inner needs, rhythms, and tempo, encouraging self-motivated growth for children. As a result, children find pleasure and satisfaction, and this helps an early development of independence – both functional independence and intellectual independence – to form their personalities and a sense of self.

teacher watches two kids moving montessori objects

Montessori method

The Montessori learning process is typically carried out in mixed-age classrooms. They are arranged by age groups based on three years: infants up to three years old, three to six, six to nine, and nine to twelve. Older children can lead and guide the younger ones when they are struggling, and the younger kids can benefit from peer learning.

A Montessori educational approach is different from the traditional school setting in that it resembles play-based learning, but at the same time differs from it.

Here are some of the differences between Montessori programs, the traditional method of education and the play-based learning in preschools​7​.

Learning materials

In traditional classrooms, there is usually a lack of objects for children to manipulate to learn. On the other end of the extreme, play-based preschools feature different toys children can freely play with.

In Montessori classrooms, there are shelves full of working materials, not toys, which children can freely access to “play” with. In essence, the child-focused approach assumes and nurtures children’s natural desire to learn.

But the materials are not ordinary toys. They are designed in such a way that they can provide corrective feedback. In this child-led learning environment, children can see their mistakes and correct them without a teacher’s close supervision or help.

Choice of learning materials

Traditional teachers at preschools often decide what kind of materials to use, while play-based teachers allow kids to choose what they want to play with.

In contrast, choice in Montessori materials varies by levels. They fall under tightly interconnected curricular areas of sensorial, language, mathematics, geography, culture, music, art, and practical life. Practical life activities can help young children learn life skills, feel needed, develop a strong sense of self, and instill a sense of responsibility.

Interactive lessons in small groups or one-on-one

In a typical classroom, lessons are sometimes interactive and sometimes not, depending on how many questions the teacher asks. In play-based preschools, kids play freely without having to interact with teachers.

Montessori’s actual classroom environment is highly organize and lessons are interactive. Guided playful learning is conducted with individuals or small groups. The teacher determines the child’s readiness by watching their interactions with materials they learned about in prior lessons.

Learning from peers

Traditionally, children are taught by sitting at desks and listening to their teachers. On the other hand, playful learning encourages “free play” in which children may or may not interact with others.

But in Montessori schools, older children can lead and guide the younger ones when they are struggling, and the younger kids can benefit from peer learning. This aspect of the school also promotes children’s social development.

No extrinsic rewards because learning is fun

Traditional schools have a reputation for being boring and without fun. A Montessori education emphasizes learning itself as a rewarding activity because it is also fun. Students are not rewarded with gold stars on a chart, candy, or grades. The same is true of play-based learning.

Is it better than traditional education

The Montessori approach to education incorporates several elements that are known to enhance learning and development. 

For instance, children who manipulate toys in order to simulate stories they read show better memory, comprehension, and mathematical problem-solving abilities. Manipulating objects can also enhance a child’s motor skills, such as motor coordination. Therefore, theoretically, students from such schools should benefit from better developmental outcomes.

Some studies have shown that preschoolers who attended these programs performed better in reading, vocabulary, social problem solving, math, and theory of mind.

Despite its reputation as having better results for students and the theoretical reasoning behind its method, researchers have found mixed and contradictory results.

Over the years, researchers have investigated the different impacts Montessori curricula has on child development. They have identified several factors that could be responsible for the inconsistent results.

Implementation fidelity

Implementation fidelity refers to how well a program is executed compared to the original or ideal. 

Two primary styles of instructions are observed in American classrooms – a classic approach that adheres to Montessori’s original program as outlined in her books, and a supplemented one in which conventional school activities for children and extra materials are added to the core curriculum​8​.

Studies show that high-fidelity or “classic” Montessori implementations are associated with better outcomes. High-fidelity schools are usually affiliated with Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), the organization Maria Montessori founded to carry on her work.

In the United States, very few programs follow a strict, original program. The American Montessori Society (AMS), America’s largest society of its type, is credited with reviving American Montessori education in the 1960s by adapting to the local culture. The adaptability, including its openness to supplementary materials, may explain its enduring success. Nonetheless, lower implementation fidelity is linked to less positive outcomes.

Socioeconomic status (SES)

Socioeconomic status is known to be a significant predictor of students’ outcomes.

Montessori’s educational programs, which produced positive results, were originally adapted for children from low-income families in Rome. In the United States, studies also found that low-income and disadvantaged children who attended a public Montessori school did better on a variety of measures than those who attended traditional schools.

This is consistent with the finding that this preschool education can help reduce the income gap in achievement significantly​9​.

However, some studies on children from middle-class families found no differences in their performance​2,10,11​.

Teacher-child interaction

In order for children to achieve, interaction with teachers at preschools is crucial. Explicit instruction, sensitive and warm interactions, responsive feedback, and verbal engagement/stimulation are associated with better outcomes in preschoolers​12,13​

Studies on the effectiveness of Montessori education rarely investigate these factors, which can significantly affect results. It is unclear whether these important characteristics in teachers are included in the teacher training program.


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    Krafft KC, Berk LE. Private speech in two preschools: Significance of open-ended activities and make-believe play for verbal self-regulation. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. Published online January 1998:637-658. doi:10.1016/s0885-2006(99)80065-9
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    Cox MV, Rowlands A. The effect of three different educational approaches on children’s drawing ability: Steiner, Montessori and traditional. British Journal of Educational Psychology. Published online December 2000:485-503. doi:10.1348/000709900158263
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    Sirin SR. Socioeconomic Status and Academic Achievement: A Meta-Analytic Review of Research. Review of Educational Research. Published online September 2005:417-453. doi:10.3102/00346543075003417
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    Lillard AS. Preschool children’s development in classic Montessori, supplemented Montessori, and conventional programs. Journal of School Psychology. Published online June 2012:379-401. doi:10.1016/j.jsp.2012.01.001
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    Stodolsky SS, Karlson AL. Differential Outcomes of a Montessori Curriculum. The Elementary School Journal. Published online May 1972:419-433. doi:10.1086/460722
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    Hamre BK, Pianta RC, Mashburn AJ, Downer JT. Building a science of classrooms: Application of the CLASS framework in over 4,000 US early childhood and elementary classrooms. Foundation for Childhood Development. 2008;30.
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