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What Is “Montessori” and Who Decides?

February, 2008
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twoGirls What are the defining features of “Montessori education”? Take any group of Montessori educators and you will in all likelihood have a variety answers to the question. While there is a plethora of information available, much of it appears contradictory. Furthermore, most texts on Montessori education contain terminology which is not immediately meaningful to parents wishing to make an informed choice regarding the education of their children. While schools are presented as being “authentic Montessori”, interpretations of what exactly is meant by this vary from school to school. Schools (naturally) tend to promote their own approach or interpretation, which implies that other variations are somehow incorrect or not authentic. What in fact is real Montessori, and who gets to decide?

  Imagine trying to market a high-class specialty restaurant, when an internationally franchised fast-food chain is setting the evaluation criteria and has absolute control of the marketing mechanism – is in fact controlling how people understand food and nutrition. Marketing and explaining Montessori to mainstream educators is akin to promoting an vegan diet, based on local organic produce and influenced by a deep understanding of the spiritual and ethic principles underlying our choice of food, to someone who can only think about food in the context of the standardization of product, rapid production, limited menu and relative affordability that one has come to expect of franchised food-chains. This is perhaps the crux of the matter – when we go to a fast food outlet we know what to expect, and as just about everyone around us seems satisfied with the same thing, we are relieved of the burden of having to think about what we are consuming.kidVideoCamera

  The same can be applied to education. Montessori is the specialty restaurant operating in a “Big Burger” world. The “Big Burger” of  education is the pre-packaged standardized and graded curriculum of the conventional school. All our thinking about education is molded by the criteria adopted to make these institutions “successful”. We have to assume that parents looking at Montessori as an option are looking for the “specialty restaurant”, that they have rejected (at least in part) the fast-food variety of education. I hope to leave the analogy at this point, but ask that you bear in mind that we are looking at two fundamentally different approaches, not only to learning, but to life, when we compare Montessori education to regular schooling, but are forced into using the paradigms (that is the vocabulary and thinking) that is linked to regular schooling.

  Before I begin to discuss the features of authentic Montessori, and the range of diversity which can comfortably be accommodated within those parameters, I’d like to briefly touch on some of the issues which may compel schools to deviate from the requirements of “pure” Montessori. Firstly, government regulations (e.g. health and safety, curriculum, administrative) can put pressure on schools to abandon Montessori principles in favor of compliance. It is easier to do what you are told than to challenge requirements which may conflict with fundamental principles. The requirements concerning Grade-R (the year immediately preceding First Grade in South Africa and comparable to Kindergarten in the USA) often results in Montessori schools losing their five and six year olds, thus compromising the integrity of the three year cycle so critical to the full development of the child, and the proper operation of a Montessori 3-6 group.

   Parental expectations and demands, often based on comparisons with regular school, are one of the most serious challenges confronting the implementation of authentic Montessori practice. I will use another analogy. Imagine you have a choice between two modes of transport, a motor car and a boat. You are asked which is better. You cannot answer the question in any meaningful way unless you know the terrain you will have to cross. If you knew you have to cross a lake, then the boat is the obvious choice. Just as in the case of modes of transport, we cannot choose the type of education we want for our children without knowing, at least in general terms, the intended destination. The methods and principles of Montessori education were developed to meet substantially different educative aims to those which guided (and still determine) the design of regular conventional schools. It is not the purpose of this article to go into those differences in any detail, but a full understanding of why Montessori education differs so radically from conventional school is based on a full understanding of those different goals. Such an understanding will also serve to clarify why so many Montessori schools are pressurized into adopting many of the features of regular schooling which results in the gradual drift away from authentic Montessori practice.

  “The aim of human development must be a total expression of life, a life superior to ours. Then we will reach a higher level.”

  “The aim of education is not to teach facts …. “

  Maria Montessori

  Education and Peace

sharonWithGirl  While Montessori based her approach on a scientific study of the natural needs and tendencies of children, regular schooling aims at producing docile workers, compliant citizens and predictable consumers. In every country the traditional curriculums are designed to inculcate values and attitudes which support the current social paradigm, transmit the information and train for the skills deemed necessary by the prevailing established structures. Thus formal education curriculum design pays little heed to individual development needs. The Montessori scope and sequence, on the other hand, represents an attempt to provide for the needs of unique individuals choosing their own activities in an environment designed to “normalize” and “valorize” the human personality. Montessori education does not result in a product, but focuses on maximizing human potential. This is a lofty ideal indeed, which challenges the most basic assumptions of schooling.

  Clearly what happens in the classroom will be dictated by the goals set by the school (and by society at large). It is my contention that a school can only be regarded as authentically Montessori if it is true to the Montessori goal. If Montessori methods and materials are used in pursuit of academic criteria and certification, to the detriment of holistic development of the individual child then what we have is not Montessori. If free choice is an add-on after traditional subjects have been covered, if subject content takes the place of Cosmic Education and competition and coercion become motives for work rather than intrinsic motivation and a sheer joy of discovery, it is obvious that we are not looking at Montessori.

  So Who Gets to Decide

  How are parents to know whether the school they are considering for their children is an authentic Montessori school? How do they tell the difference between Montessori and something else?

  “I think it is fair to say that, although we have many fine Montessori schools, Montessori is not a brand name that can be relied on to represent something specific in terms of authentic Montessori philosophy or practice.”

  Tim Seldin

  International Montessori Council

  Dr. Montessori never recommended a low child to teacher ratio, in fact quite the opposite – well established Montessori schools often have as many as fifty children to one trained and experienced Directress with an assistant. While a wide range of expensive approved materials is desirable, this in itself is not an indication of an authentic Montessori school – parents should look rather at how the materials are presented and how they are used by the children. Are children choosing their own occupations freely? Do they have the option of avoiding academic work completely, or spending time watching others, time to do nothing at all? In an authentic Montessori environment this would be acceptable. If the children are constantly being compelled to do work which they do not want to do, and teacher directed activity is valued about spontaneously chosen pursuits, Montessori principles are being sacrificed to a pre-planned curriculum. If a school breaks the day into segments for different activities the uninterrupted work cycle cannot take place – this is a time of at least 2 ½ to 3 hours where children are able to choose their own occupations without being called to any adult directed work. If your child’s school has regular “periods” or breaks in the course of the morning, chances are that it is not an authentic Montessori programme.picsKidsVertical

  Another sign that a school has abandoned Montessori principles is the use of systems of rewards and punishments. Being able to play after  doing certain work is one such indicator. The presence of a “time-out” or “thinking” chair indicates that punishments are used, which is a sign that children are not developing the inner sense of discipline inherent to Montessori environments.

  Probably one of the most important indicators of authenticity is the multi-age environment. This is one of the criteria set by most Montessori Associations for institutional membership and is a fundamental principle of Montessori accreditation internationally. Classes should represent an age spread of at least three years, children normally being placed in groups as follows: 2 ½ or 3 years to 6 years (sometimes called the Casa group); 6 – 9 year olds, 9 – 12 year olds and 12 – 15 year olds. Referring to children by grade is an indication that a school is following a curriculum rather than responding to the learning needs of individual children and designing environments of the needs and characteristics of the Planes of Development identified by Dr. Montessori.

  At the end of the day, each family needs to decide whether what is offered by a particular school meets their needs. Schools should represent what they are doing honestly to parents, and ensure that if and where they deviate from Montessori principles, they make this very clear.

Text and Photos courtesy Sharon Caldwell

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