I feel like a lot of people in my life know why I want to be a teacher (education can be a means of empowerment, I love kids, love learning, and love helping kids to develop and grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially), but less people know why exactly I want to teach Montessori. During the course of my time student teaching at a public Montessori charter school, people have said things to me like:
“Wait, there’s more than one Montessori school? I thought Montessori was just the name of your school.”
“You seem to have taught a lot of writing. Does Montessori have a strong focus on writing?”
“Do your kids get to do whatever they want?”
“How do you teach first through third graders? How can you differentiate all of your lessons?”
“Do you want to teach at a Montessori school?”
“Is your school religious?”
“I thought Montessori schools were just for pre-school and kindergarteners.”
And most often:
“Wait, Montessori? What is that?”
I’ve decided to write a (not so) quick and dirty post here about what Montessori education here is, and why I want to be a Montessori educator, just so I can try to put a lot of these questions to rest. It is an interesting and unique model of education that is vastly different than more traditional methods of education in many respects. I’ve really appreciated all of the questions people have asked my regarding it because, if anything, it has gotten me to think critically about why I do what I do and if this really is the approach for me.
To begin with, let me have you watch this video:
I promise I’m not trying to get you to donate money to a documentary (though feel free to!). I just think this video strikes a good balance between explaining the ideals/background/overall spirit of Montessori education, and showing what it actually looks like in a classroom (which just so happens to be in my home state). Another good video to watch, and which has the most views on Youtube, is Montessori Madness. I don’t like it quite as much because it doesn’t show actual materials/classrooms, but it does do a good job explaining the pedagogical differences between Montessori and conventional schools.
While I don’t know everything about Montessori education, because I haven’t been trained, I would describe it best as a progressive approach to education that focuses on the whole development of each individual child, rather than on the overall academic development of a group of children. Rather than focusing on meeting a set of grade level curriculum standards for a group of same age children, Montessori education focuses on meeting a group of mixed age children where they are, socially, emotionally, and intellectually. Rather than placing children into groups and differentiating from there, it individualizes from the get go. Each child is given the materials and problems to use that best meet his or her developmental levels. Some children are given materials that help them do three digit addition, others are given materials that help them do two digit multiplication. Oftentimes, those children can be the same age. Moreover, the materials children use are versatile. Students start working with bead chains as early as three years old and continue to use them until they are nine, going from counting to addition to multiplication to squaring and cubing. The materials in Montessori classrooms are standardized and pretty much the same as they were when Maria Montessori developed them. The curriculum is highly based on the use of these, especially in the primary and lower elementary classrooms, because children still think very concretely and kinesthetically. One of the best parts of this standardization, is that a child can move from a Montessori school in Minnesota to a Montessori school in Bhutan (they truly do exist worldwide!) and pick up on his learning exactly where he left off.
Another aspect of Montessori that makes it truly unique is the structure of the school day. The way that the school day looks for my children personally is that we have breakfast and a math or reading packet first thing in the morning, followed by a community meeting. After that, my students have two hours of solid worktime. During this time, my cooperating teacher and I teach small group and individual language, math, and science lessons. When students aren’t in lessons with teachers, they are working with the various materials in the classroom, and filling out workplans, which list the materials and activities they can do. Each day, students are expected to complete one math and language activity. Overall, they are expected to complete four to five activities in a morning. Activities and materials include: three part cards (which have information about everything from plants to seasons to art to ecosystems to geometry terms), the Stamp Game, journal writing, puzzle maps (in which children carefully trace each country onto paper, fitting them together), sight word Bingo, math workbooks (both are not really “Montessori”), spelling booklets, and geometrical insets. For the most part, the students can choose which materials they would like to work with on a given morning and when they would like to work on them. Giving children this level of choice and independence is something that is rarely seen in most traditional schools. In the afternoon, after silent reading time, we usually do a whole group activity, either science, writing, music/culture, or any other activity that we think all of the children will benefit from. There is a lot of flexibility in terms of what this time looks and what subject or topic it focuses on. Last week, we made clocks as a class and learned some songs in Spanish. Other weeks, we have made models of the Earth’s layers using clay and written autobiographical timelines. The way the afternoon, and the overall school day, are structured allows many interdisciplinary approaches to be used to teach topics.
Other reasons I love Montessori education, which I won’t extend upon as much but quickly summarize here, are:
- Its focus on peace education and global citizenship. As said in the first video, Montessori schools can be seen all throughout the world, and because of this, Montessori pedagogy has a strong focus on cooperation and interdependence. Montessori education isn’t tied to one particular country’s ideologies or ideals. No country is better than another country.
- The mixed age classrooms. There is something cool about seeing a third grader teaching a group of first graders how to use a certain material, or seeing a second grader and third grader, who are learning the same topic mathematically, work together. It is also really cool to see the friendships that develop across grade level, to see a first grade boy and a third grade girl always sit together during writing time. It mimics real life more, where work environments aren’t composed of people who are the same age, but different ages, and where mentorship is constantly going on.
- The time and flexibility it gives to explore and work. This is similar to what I said above about the structure of the workday being unique, but something that I would like to point out explicitly. In many traditional schools, if a student is not done with a certain task in fifteen minutes, he’s not going to finish it. Or if the bell rings, it’s time to move on to the next task, whether or not the students are ready. Students are expected to do only a certain amount of work and nothing more. In Montessori classrooms, that is not always the case. Just last week, I gave a geometry lesson to the first graders about lines, rays, line segments, and points. After the lesson, I gave them the assignment to work with a partner to make a list of ten line segments around the room in their journals. I sent them off to work and twenty minutes later, four of them came up to me (two separate sets of partners), showing me the lists of thirty line segments they had found throughout the room. I had given them an assignment that apparently had piqued their curiosity and they were able to spend as much time as they liked doing it.
- Its comprehensive developmentally-appropriate approach. As mentioned in the video, Maria Montessori created an education plan that extends from birth to age twenty-four, which is when the brain more or less reaches full maturity. She divided those twenty-four years into four stages, and each of those stages into two sub-stages. Each stage takes into account fully what a child, adolescent, or young adult is able to do and not do developmentally. They also take into account the regressions that people naturally make as they develop, for example how adolescents (ages 12-18) are often much like infants and toddlers (ages 0-6) in terms of egoism and emotional fragility. Montessori education treats each of these changes and occurrences as natural, and not things to be worried or concerned about.
- It’s stability. There are A LOT of trends that come and go in education, and that aren’t always scientifically proven to work. The Montessori method has been around for over one hundred years now, and has been proven in study after study to produce students who are intellectually curious, creative, and independent. One of the best books to read about why Montessori education works from a more academic, psychological approach is Angeline Lillard’s book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. Study after study that has come out in the field of educational psychology over the last twenty years (including those that my own educational psychology professor has done) support schools taking on approaches similar to those already existing in Montessori education. Moreover, Montessori is fundamentally different from many educational approaches because many educational approaches are created, implemented and then scientifically tested. Science plays little role in their actual creation. Montessori, on the other hand, developed her approaches using the scientific method. She observed a child’s behavior, created a material that he could use, noticed his behavior with the material, changed the material as needed, and so on until she had made a material that truly worked for the child as she intended it. She did not come in with any pre-conceived notions of what her pedagogy should look like, but developed it from the ground up through observation and testing. She also discovered many of the same things that Piaget discovered (the two were actually friends!), but of course she is cited less because she’s a woman. Sigh.
- The level and kind of content that is taught. Because the Montessori method is so tactilely and concretely based, children are able to learn many complex concepts at an early age through the use of materials and visuals that they would not be able to learn at such a young age if the lessons were taught more abstractly. Children learn about such scientific concepts as the Big Bang and the creation of the world, as well as stellar nucleosynethesis (the creation of all types of matter through the birth and death of stars), and the formation of galaxies through the use of visual demonstration and various materials. They learn about how numbers have developed over time, where the concept of zero came from, how languages have developed, and how humans formed. History and science are closely linked together, and there is a strong focus on looking at the development of various concepts and beings over time. Rather than having a super narrow and limited understanding of the world, students are given broad, sweeping, impressionistic understandings that develop and become more detailed over time.
- It’s based on formative, rather than summative assessments. Students’ development and understandings are constantly assessed and observed as they work with materials, rather than when they take summative tests. In fact, Montessori schools are often known in the wider culture as being places where no tests or homework are given. While my school does give homework, and my students take many assessments to get ready for the PSSAs, these two ideas are generally true, especially at private Montessori schools. Maria Montessori believed that assessment should be authentic and happen through teacher observation and the use of self-correcting materials. She also believed that children should not be given homework because they need time to rest, especially after a hard day of work at school. Moreover, in a Montessori home environment, students are expected to help clean, prepare dinner, and do other household tasks from a young age. These sorts of tasks are the work of the home, and not worksheets or textbook readings.
While I don’t think Montessori is the only way to educate a child, I do wish more people knew about it. I think there are many areas of education where the Montessori model could be incorporated or applied more. While there are a few Montessori-based special education schools in the U.S., many of which have produced really positive results, I think many of the Montessori materials would be wonderful to incorporate in any special education classroom because they are so tactile and allow for students to use multiple modalities. Moreover, they are oftentimes self-correcting and control for error. I personally want to work towards having more urban Montessori schools. It’s frustrating to me that a method that was originally developed for impoverished kids in Rome has been co-opted, at least in the U.S., to be mostly for children in white affluent suburbs. While I don’t necessarily think it’s “wrong” for children in these areas to be going to Montessori schools, I do want Montessori education to become something that is accessible to everyone, and especially to children who live where “drill and kill” is the normal method of instruction. Whether this means working in Philadelphia or Chicago or St. Paul or starting my own Montessori school one day, I don’t know. But it is decidedly something I feel passionate about and want to see happen in my lifetime.
So right now, when the going gets tough, and my cooperating teacher and I are holding class in the school’s cafeteria for the next one to three weeks as our classroom gets cleaned up from a sewage leak, I will keep reminding myself that what I am working towards is something that is really empowering and needed. Many people in my life may not understand it, but it’s what I care about, and perhaps even what God is calling me to do.
Have any additional questions about Montessori education? Or stories about being in a Montessori school yourself? Feel free to leave a comment below!