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Montessori Advantage

December, 2012
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What is the “Montessori Advantage”?

It refers to how children in Montessori education learn the skills and embrace the goals that their parents and society value.

Montessori education provides learning each day that demonstrates that these goals and values are possible for children. Montessori education addresses children’s need, the expectations of parents, and the requirements of society.

The reasons why parents initially select a Montessori school are the reasons why parents continue to choose Montessori education into the elementary years. Montessori parents value what Montessori education values: independence, discipline, responsibility and even passion about learning. Having children who are respectful, kind, and concerned about other people and the well-being of the planet have been aims of Montessori education since it began more than 100 years ago. Children who possess these characteristic and attitudes have an educational advantage.

It is the Montessori teacher who is the critical part in having this happen. It is important for parents to know that the most valuable piece of any educational system is the teacher, not the size of the gym, or the number of books in the library. This is true for a kindergarten as well as an elementary school. Poor teachers make poor schools. Excellent teachers make excellent schools.

I once heard a famous educator say that in the future the “poor” schools would have computers and the excellent schools would have teachers. I see that this is coming true as computers are now used in schools to teach, while the teachers correct papers. It cost so much more to “equip” a classroom with an adequate number of well- trained teachers than it does to buy computers. Teachers make demands, ask questions, and need increasing salaries. Computers sit quietly.

Every society requires that its citizens speak, read, and write in the national language. Governments put in place educational systems that attempt to fulfill this requirement. Montessori education and pedagogy clearly demonstrate that there is a way to met these needs in a more joyful way for students. It is a way where children discover “understanding”. This is possible because in a Montessori elementary classroom there are enough teachers so that there is always enough time to have children understand, not merely memorize. The ratio helps too, because in a Montessori elementary classroom, usually there is one adult for every eight children. Children are valued and the teaching ratio is a reflection of that. Individual needs are met and not pushed aside because of time constraints or not enough qualified teachers to help.

It is rare to fine an elementary Montessori school in China.

Many teacher training and education courses focus on “subjects”, for example math or science. What is not taught is child development. The result is often that “the child” is lost along the educational way. If the child hates school, it is an indication that something is terribly wrong. It is a warning sign to parents that something in the school environment needs to change, or it could be that the entire school is not right for the child.

Montessori teachers are excellent teachers because their Montessori teacher training focuses not just the subjects that the child will learn, but also child development. Montessori teachers know the subject, but never forget “the child.” In Montessori elementary classrooms, lessons are often given individually or in small groups of two, three or 4 students. The students have time to ask questions and the teacher has time to check to make sure the students have understood. The children love being with their friends and talking together with the teacher.

In traditional schools, and some private and international schools, the teacher presumes the children understand. We know that is not true because we used to children ourselves sitting in a large room with a teacher giving lessons we didn’t understand, or didn’t care about learning. This model of education is known as the “factory” model of education because children are thought of as “products” just like in a factory. Every child gets the same lesson at the same time. It is so much easier to control children when they are all sitting at desks and of course, sitting quietly. Children who do not sit quietly are considered “bad” children; children who sit quietly are “good”. In a room with 24 to 45 students and one teacher, it is impossible to give lessons if children are moving around and talking. “Paying attention” means sitting still, but it does not mean that the child is listening or understanding.

But educators of today know that is exactly how children learn, by talking, moving around, sharing ideas with their classmates, especially in an elementary class. The elementary-aged child is a social child and Montessori education recognizes this in its educational approach. Working together increases interest and understanding.  Educators know that it is not only the teacher who has ideas but that children also have a great fund of knowledge. Educators of today know that collaboration is the key for children to love school and learn. Montessori students frequently collaborate and work together and can also work by themselves without the continual monitoring of a teacher.

Years ago testing and grades became methods of sorting children. The more valuable “products” (children) could be sorted out from those products not as valuable. A good math student (a valuable product) was one who got good grades; a bad math student got bad grades.

This “sorting” begins early. Children come to believe that their grade establishes their identity and their worth as a person. Parents begin to believe the grades, too. “ My child is an A student”. No parent ever brags to another: “My child is a D student!”

In a Montessori elementary school, the teachers and the children are all valued, so testing and “measuring” are not the criteria of being worthy. “Smart” is not a word that you hear used in a Montessori school because the implication is that then others children are not smart, or not AS smart. If a child doesn’t understand a lesson today, the teacher takes time to give the child the lesson again tomorrow. Understanding is what is valued, not a test.

Montessori teachers know that a test does not measure commitment, effort, or determination. Yet those are some of the requirements that determine success in  the “real world”, the work place. Tests do not measure partial understanding, or take into account that the student studied, but studied the “wrong” information. A student’s grade or score does not measure the clarity of the lesson or the skill of the teacher. A Montessori teacher doesn’t need to test children as she knows what each child is learning every day.

Montessori teachers know that the way to understanding includes students using their hands as a path to abstraction and to generalize meaning. It is much more exciting for a student to hold “1/2” or an “x” in their hands than to just see it written on paper…and it is much more fun to draw and color them.  The binomial cube, the trinomial cube, the triangle of Pythagoras can all be created by the student and touched. That is the brilliance of the Montessori materials, not just in math but throughout the curriculum. The entire Montessori curriculum is sensorial based. A child can hold a representation of a preposition, a model of the Earth and its parts, or layout and draw the pieces of “photosynthesis”.

It is clear when you are observing a Montessori classroom that the children love to be at school and love to learn. What is more amazing is that children are learning without fear of failure. The children remember what they learn. Isn’t that what good education should accomplish?

How would a school or classroom develop the” Montessori Advantage”? Classrooms would be structured to have:

1. Movement, which impacts learning and understanding

2. Choice and permission about learning, which gives students some control

3. Interest, which is a strong determiner of education

4. Motivation to learn, which is intrinsic and not reward-driven by grades or stickers

5. Learning that is collaborative and also individualized

6. Learning that is meaningful to students and reflects their interests

7. Adults who are mentors and who nourish understanding

If all of these were present in elementary classrooms, there would be eager children who loved going to schools and where learning would be visible to anyone who stopped in for a visit!

Our children deserve a model of education that doesn’t consider them as products, but values children as unique and precious individuals, a model of education where children thrive. Why would we want anything less?


By Judy Townsend,

Head of School, Montessori School of Shanghai


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