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What is Montessori

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, this educational approach seems to improve children’s outcomes more than other programs, but other studies show similar or even worse outcomes​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 schools, and what to look for when selecting a preschool for your toddler.

kids playing Montessori toys

What Is Montessori?

Montessori education is an educational philosophy developed by Italian physician Dr. Maria Montessori in the early 1900s. 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.

Montessori-style learning occurs in a prepared environment with practical life activities that support learning through action. Students can choose from these activities freely. Montessori materials are designed to provide corrective feedback so that the students can learn and correct themselves.

Maria Montessori, one of the first female Italian doctors, used her sensorimotor technique developed while working with mentally disabled children to help developmentally normal children from low-income families. In 1907, she founded the first Montessori Children’s House (Casa dei Bambini) and served preschool-aged children in a housing project in Rome.

Within five years, classrooms based on this educational theory sprung up all over the world. Montessori gave up her career as a doctor and spent the next fifty years developing and refining the system. She also extended it to children in a higher age group in middle schools. Her methods for adolescents were still in development when she passed away in 1952.

The Montessori method

The Montessori model is different from traditional classrooms in many ways. Here are the characteristics of the Montessori learning process.

Mixed-age classrooms

Montessori classrooms are typically 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 students can lead and guide the younger ones when they are struggling. The younger students can benefit from peer learning and moving at their own pace.

Hands-on learning

The Montessori classroom environment is highly organized. In a typical classroom, there are shelves full of learning materials, not toys, which children can freely access to “work” with​5​. They cover a broad range of educational topics and each one supports a specific aspect of child development. These classroom materials are designed in such a way that they can provide corrective feedback. Children can see their mistakes and correct them without a teacher’s close supervision or help.

Freedom of choice

Montessori provides a child-led learning environment. Children can freely choose amongst the displayed working materials. They fall under tightly interconnected curricular areas that encompass sensory, language, mathematics, geography, culture, music, art, and practical life. These activities can help young children learn life skills, feel needed, develop a strong sense of self, and grow a sense of responsibility.

Interactive lessons in small groups

Lessons are interactive. Montessori teachers guide the small groups in collaborative play which naturally encourages social interaction and promotes social skills development.

No extrinsic rewards because learning is fun

The educational system emphasizes learning itself as a rewarding activity because it is fun. Montessori students are not rewarded with gold stars on a chart, candy, or grades. Instead, they are self-motivated to learn and attain optimal development.

Montessori philosophy

Here are the 7 foundational Montessori principles.

Focus on the whole child

Montessori detailed her radical discoveries in her book, Education for Human Development, that her philosophy was more than just an introduction to new education methods, but also a transformation in attitudes about children​6​. She focused on the development of the whole child rather than academic skills alone.

Children have an absorbent mind

Montessori believed that in the early years, younger children learned differently than older ones and adults. Young children take in everything around them unconsciously and through their senses. They learn best through action instead of lectures​7​. A teacher in such a classroom is a role model because kids learn through observing and absorbing their behavior.

Children have a natural desire to learn

The child-focused approach assumes and nurtures children’s natural desire to learn. It offers children freedom with limits to facilitate an early development of independence – both functional independence and intellectual independence – to form their personalities and a sense of self.

Sensitive periods in different stages of child development

Dr. Montessori believed that early childhood education was paramount because there were sensitive periods in which children were more receptive to certain stimuli and skill learning. She identified six such sensitive periods. During these times, children are particularly sensitive to order, language, walking, the social aspects of life, small objects and learning through senses.

Children learn through play

Children tend to learn through play. Students are therefore given long uninterrupted work periods that were tailored to their inner needs, rhythms, and tempo. Manipulating small objects is not only fun, but it can also promote a child’s fine motor skills.

Children want to be independent

From the very beginning, children strive for independence in their natural development. The Montessori educator believed that the best way to help children achieve it is to show them the skills they need to succeed in everyday life. When children are given freedom within limits, they become independent learners and achieve active learning.

Peace education replaces authoritarian teaching

Montessori believed that education is a means of eliminating war in mankind​8​. Children who do not automatically follow authoritarian teachers will not obey rulers when they encourage war​9​. Peace education comprises of fostering independent critical thinking, imaginative problem solving, moral values of responsibility and respect, and peaceful conflict resolution.

Montessori Schools in the United States

In the US, because of the 2001 federal law known as No Child Left Behind, educators have begun to use more didactic teaching methods appropriate for older children in preschool settings​10​. Children aged three to five are increasingly expected to sit still and listen to lessons without interacting in the traditional school setting.

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

In addition, when Jeff Bezos, the former Amazon CEO and one of the richest people in the world, launched a Montessori-inspired preschool, parents paid attention.

Is it really 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 have 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 Montessori schooling should benefit from better developmental outcomes.

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

However, despite the reputation of Montessori learning outcomes as being better and the theoretical reasoning behind them, researchers have found that different Montessori schools produce mixed and contradictory results.

Over the years, researchers have investigated the different impacts the 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 found in American classrooms – a classic approach that adheres to Montessori’s original program created based on the principles of child development, and a supplemented approach in which conventional school activities for children and extra materials are added to the core curriculum​11​.

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

In the United States, very few programs follow the strict, original program. Any school can claim to use the Montessori pedagogy. As a result, a range of practices exist under the “Montessori” name, which is not trademarked. The American Montessori Society (AMS), America’s largest society of its type, has also adapted the curricula to local culture by adding supplementary materials, which lowers implementation fidelity.

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. Studies have found that low-income and disadvantaged children who attend public Montessori schools do better on a variety of measures than their counterparts who attend traditional schools.

This is consistent with the finding that this type of preschool education can help reduce the performance gap in academic achievement​12​.

However, some studies with children from middle-class families have found no differences in their performance​2,13,14​.

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​15,16​

Studies on the effectiveness of Montessori education rarely investigate these factors, which can significantly affect results. It is unclear whether these important characteristics are specified in the training of the Montessori teaching style.


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