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What Is Montessori: More misconceptions and facts?…

September, 2006
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Article_03_02 In our last article, we mentioned a number of misconceptions that still prevail regarding Montessori education. We focused on the main ones, usually shared by people who are not familiar with Montessori. We often assume misconceptions come from lack of information. This is however a misconception in and of itself… Why? Because well informed people can also help preserve and foster misconceptions in a

  Misconceptions are unavoidable when an approach is so flexible, as Montessori is. Montessori schools are in many ways unique. Each school bears its own mark, each classroom benefits from and is enriched by the passion, experience and dedication of each directress, assistant, and child. The choice of materials, beyond the standard Montessori equipment, can and often does make all the difference. Another fact is that even philosophical principles remain open to personal interpretation. The cultural background that sets the tone for a Montessori school or classroom also influences deeply the way things work.

  It is also not uncommon for trained and certified Montessori teachers to adopt rules and set principles in their practice that their own peers do not think appropriate, or may feel that they go against what Dr. Maria Montessori herself had intended in her approach. This is a result of the fact that many of the choices Montessori schools and directresses are faced with are, indeed, quite personal. These choices ultimately have a considerable impact in the way the environment is prepared and how relationships are managed (child-child, child-adult, child-environment,) etc. One aspect that also determines the approach a Montessorian adopts, has to do with the chosen “school of thought” followed and training received. Nowadays, there are two main “brands” of Montessori: AMI and AMS. These are the two biggest organizations providing training and trying to supervise the quality of Montessori schools, practice, teachers, etc. If they succeed or not, is something we can let observers, researchers, Montessorians, etc., decide – and opinions also diverge here.


The Association Montessori Internationale - AMI, is an organization founded in 1929 by Dr. Maria Montessori to maintain the integrity of her life’s work and to ensure its perpetuation after her death. The American Montessori Society – AMS, was founded in 1960, under the direction of Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambusch, then the appointed representative of the Association Montessori Internationale in the USA. It’s mission is to promote the principles and practices of Dr. Maria Montessori within the context of the American culture. Dr. Rambush was instrumental in reviving Montessori in the USA, in the 60s.

  Montessorians are, generally speaking, dedicated and passionate about their work, their schools, and the vision they share. They do not think of becoming teachers/directresses, setting up a school, etc., merely as a business, a job, a way to make a living. It’s a calling, a love, a way of life. Can Montessori education go mainstream, into public schools, and other public programs? The answer is yes, and Montessorians have been struggling for years to break out of their own limited circle, mingle with other teachers, share ideas with other schools, and work together. The USA is probably the one country where Montessori has today the strongest hold (other than India).


For anyone interested in learning more about what is going on in the public sector and how Montessori is slowly gaining ground and credibility, the best source of information is the quarterly publication “Public School Montessorian,” edited by Dennis Shapiro. AMI and AMS also have their own publications, Montessori International is published in London, by the Montessori St. Nicholas Charity, and new publications keep appearing and disappearing. Other magazines include Tomorrow’s Child and Montessori Leadership (Montessori Foundation), Vitta dell’ Infanzia (Opera Nazionale Montessori), Il Quaderno Montessori (edited by Grazia Honegger Fresco), Le Lien Montessori (Association Montessori de France), etc.

The best reference book for anyone interested in the polemic often surrounding Montessori, remains John Chattin-McNichols’ “The Montessori Controversy”, published 1991.

  If all Montessorians share a common goal, to serve children, why then are there so many misconceptions among well informed Montessorians? Or, should we, rather than call these “misconceptions” use another term to describe them? Maybe we could call them “differences of opinion” or “different approaches”? And are we, when we speak of these differences, being critical and finding fault? Do Montessorians fall prey to the trap of using two different standards, one for themselves and one for others (fellow Montessorians included)!? One standard for children and another for adults? XING_03_001

  If Montessori is to be understood one aspect is essential: what is it that we see and accept as evaluation, testing practices, and assessment?  In Montessori, even at the elementary level, there is no such thing as testing – at least not as understood and practiced in the traditional schools. Because Montessori does not have a set curriculum, and lets children decide where to go, led by their own inclinations and interests, it does not evaluate students, test their acquired knowledge or their performance. It encourages and fosters curiosity and seeks to encourage long term (life long) learning habits. Montessorians trust children to be able to choose the best possible work and activities to engage in because their inner guide will tell them what they need to do, and learn, in order to fulfill their innermost needs. Montessorians practice respect for the Child, and defend children with night-in-shinning-armor like determination! Do Montessorians behave the same way with their peers? We will focus this article on the adult-child relationships, and leave for the next one for the way adults deal with each other.

  In Montessori schools, constant observation allows the directress and assistants to know what a child’s interests are, what work the child has done, is doing and, often, even predict what work the child will chose next. Continuous observation and record keeping are a practice based upon the principle that we do not observe to find fault, pass judgments of value, nor criticize, but to measure the validity of the environment. Is the environment prepared in such a way that it meets the needs of the children? If not, can it be improved, to allow it to reach new levels and help the children progress?

  Collaborative work and constant growth, are, or at least maybe should be, the very heart of what all Montessorians do. Is it so? Not often enough. What follows, will try to bring up a few differences of opinion (or misconceptions?), that render many a Montessorian’s practice different, if not opposite, to that of other Montessorians. Rather than provide answers, we will raise questions. Some issues are somewhat controversial, while others are just part of daily classroom life and may reveal preferences. In many cases, one’s training is what will dictate the choice made as to what is considered best practice or should be adopted:

  1. Children should/should not be silent and always whisper, or speak in quiet voices, in the classroom.

    There are classrooms where children are regularly if not constantly reminded that they should speak in a low voice, or use “inside voices and that speaking in a loud voice, laughing loud, is making noise, and not allowed. Then, there are other classrooms where children are left free to express themselves, even if that results in a louder environment than the regular hum-hum of 20 or 30 children working, talking, singing a tune while they work, reading aloud…
    Those in favor of a more silent environment may say that loud voices disturb others, and children should thus be reminded to be quiet. Those in favor of a more relaxed environment will state that in a Montessori environment children will naturally quiet down, as a result of working and concentrating on their chosen activities, and that silence should be requested only if there is shouting, or if a child runs around the classroom, for example.
    Experience shows that as children learn how to concentrate, and reach that state called in Montessori jargon “normalization”, they will naturally chose to be quiet. “Natural noise”, like giggling, laughing, a hearty laugh, are really no more then healthy expressions of contentment, accomplishment, happiness or, of course, sense of humor!
  2. Children should/should not work with the materials until they have been presented to them.

    This is one of the biggest disagreements there is and often brought up in Montessori meetings and discussions. Some teachers will not allow children to work with materials they have not previously shown the children how to use. On the other hand, others will suggest that since the environment has been prepared for the child, that the purpose is to let the child discover and experiment. Then, children should be allowed to work with anything they find/want and be asked to put it back only if they are damaging the materials – in which case a presentation should be given, to exemplify careful use, (rather than just correct use).
    Children learn from the environment; the materials themselves having been designed to allow self-correction via what is called “control of error,” children will often learn from them without adult intervention. Children also learn from other children, as they learn from the adults – many times indirectly – either by observing from a distance, or, by glancing over as they walk by! They may try to work with some material a few times, until they feel satisfied, or until they decide they could not “figure it out” and then require adult assistance (this may be an unspoken request for help… a mere glance at the directress may suffice. Also, it should be taken into consideration that hands-on work and experimentation are the basis of discovery and learning, and that children are always eager to discover what the materials can offer, even without adult intervention.
  3. Children should/should not work with the materials in ways other that what they were devised for.

    This is related to the previous point, but takes the issue one step further… Should children be allowed to use the materials as building blocks, for example, or should their use be limited to the formal presentations, sequencing, etc.?
    Because the materials contain in themselves certain principles that they convey as they are handled, children will discover, as they manipulate them, that some are smaller, some larger, some heavier, some lighter, etc. But, by using them as building blocks to create complex structures, they often discover relationships and properties that the materials isolated cannot convey, discovering laws they might never otherwise become aware of. Balancing different size/weight cubes on both edges of a long rod, for example, may be a first approach to the use of a scale.
  4. Montessori materials should/should not change from what they were when Dr. Montessori created them.

    Changes and innovation of the Montessori apparatus may not be all that evident, as many have been in use for almost a century and did not change at all (because they are as up-to-date now as they were then,) but innovation has been continual. Dr. Montessori herself was always looking for new solutions, and not only did she adopt some already existing materials, she adapted others, created new ones, and so did her son, Mario Montessori. In fact, many new materials that are used today were developed as derivatives of or based upon the same principles as the original ones, while research and innovation continue.
  5. Classrooms should/should not have a timeout chair/table/corner.

    Since in Montessori there are neither punishments nor rewards, to tell a child to go and sit in a chair, because s/he needs a timeout, is not as much a question of the need for a physical space which the child may retire to, as it is a question of how to do it proactively. While some classrooms have a timeout chair or table, others do not, and both may or may not ask children to retire to it, when a problem occurs. This is done so the child can calm down, refocus, collect herself, and order be reestablished. Dr. Montessori herself used a table and chair, somewhat removed from the center of the classroom, for this effect. Her purpose was never to punish the child, but to offer the child work, an opportunity to distance herself from the society of others, in order to observe them, their ways of respectfully interacting with each other, and adopt a different attitude that would enable her to rejoin the community when ready to do so. If a child is approached by an adult in a harsh way, told not to do something, or in anyway openly confronted with inappropriate behavior, an aggressive tone of voice, or yet in a threatening demeanor that experience will impact the child in a negative way. On the other hand, having her sit away from others for some time will, in fact, be positive, as it is intended to help the child, not banish, punish or exclude. It must be noted that Dr. Montessori usually provided a table, a chair and work, and did not force the child to merely sit doing nothing, thereby feeling awkward and guilty.
  6. Children should/should not be allowed to bring toys to school/into the classroom.

    This is another bone of contention among Montessorians. Many request that no toys whatsoever be brought to school. Others, that if toys are brought to school, they be left in the cubby, and not brought into the classroom. Yet others, willing to give full credit to the children’s capacity to chose and ability to find purpose and mean in all they do, may let children bring toys into the classroom and explore… observe… and note their doings…
    One of the most meaningful experiences we are aware of in what concerns bringing toys into the classroom was conveyed by a fellow Montessorian, Sharon Caldwell, who runs the Nahoon Montessori School in South Africa. It all started with one girl bringing a Barbie to school one day, and ended up a week later with a community of Barbies, all living in different parts of the world (the whole classroom). During that adventure, the children studied, explored, and discussed many different issues, learning a great deal as they progressed! Questions rose if they could or should call each other on the phone, because on one side of the world it was day, but on the other, was night time… And how to travel across continents, and what to take, because of different climates, the weather, etc.
    It takes some courage to just stand back and observe… and this may be intimidating, especially if a teacher/directress is not very sure of what to do, or does not feel creative enough to come up with alternatives and ideas to redirect – if needed! – the behavior of the children… but, if Montessori recognizes the children’s innate ability to engage in work that interests them, and chose it over meaningless, purposeless play, why shouldn’t the children be trusted to use toys in a meaningful way? This said, should toys (and what kinds of toys) be allowed into Montessori schools?
  7. Should children have free access to an outside space/activities area at all times, or have set “recess” periods?

    The differences of opinion and practice when it comes to this issue have more to do with practicalities as to how schools and classrooms are set, and adults’ needs to keep things manageable, than with the children themselves, or how their needs are perceived by adults. In a perfect, ideal environment, children might well be left free to choose if they would like to work inside the classroom, or go outside, and when. If children were free to go outside and an appropriate space – natural environment, with trees, bushes, grass, dirt, were available, we believe there would rarely be any problem with children running around, disturbing the classroom environment, rowdiness, etc. This idea simply because extra energy would be naturally channeled as per the space used, and the more physically active children would choose the outside space rather than the classroom, when they felt their muscles needed a stretch! Because Montessori is about self-directed learning and self-directed activity, compromising the child’s freedom of choice when it comes to such basic needs as movement and choosing one’s space, may well compromise the very foundation of the work being done. If children are not to be told what work to choose, are they to be told when they can and cannot go outside to run, look for stones, sit against a tree, or lie on their back and look at the shapes of the clouds?…
  8. There is/isn’t a need to teach children ground rules;

    Most Montessori directresses will start teaching ground rules the very first day of school or as soon as the children start settling down, over the course of the first week. Respect for self, for others and for the environment, are the three pillars upon which all other rules stand. And these should be conveyed to children… but should they be taught? Since Montessori is not about teaching, but about learning… the best way to convey these ground rules to children is, for many Montessorians, through example. Adults can show children how to respect self, others and the environment simply by modeling appropriate behavior: the use of polite language, the up keeping of the environment, putting away work one has finished, caring for others, etc., should be enough and allow children to learn grace and courtesy.
  9. Should all children join group activities, for example, gather for circle time?

    Again, practice and opinions differ here. Circle time is a time to teach children a brief lesson on principle or classroom management such as how to roll or unroll a mat to work, how to move a chair without bumping into others, move materials between the shelves and one’s working space, etc. Circle time is also a time to sing, dance, play a game, listen to a story, or yet, for show and tell sharing time, when children bring from home an object they like and talk about it. For some teachers, circle time is an important time that all children should join. When called, even if working, they feel the children should put their work aside and join the class for group presentations.
    Since it is a golden rule in Montessori that one does not interrupt a child that is working, neither should a child be forced to engage in an activity s/he does not feel inclined to engage in, this should also be taken into consideration when deciding what approach to adopt.

  The greatest challenge one faces when working in a Montessori environment with children of any age is trying to perceive and meet their needs, see things the way they do… What a child sees as work, may not be immediately perceived as being of any value by an adult, who thus feels he or she has the right to interrupt the child, tell her what to do instead, decide what is best…

XING_03_002   Adults also often feel tempted to help a child that is struggling with a challenging task, apparently unable to resolve it… if, however, one holds back and refrains from acting too early – and Montessori teachers do make an extra effort to wait, before “helping” – the rewards are often both immediate (as the child a moment later succeeds, for example,) and long lasting (as the child having mastered a skill, will progress to build upon it and keep moving ahead to even greater accomplishments, with increased confidence and a greater sense of independence.)

  One way we have found that helps to avoid being misled when working with children, is to always look at them as unknown entities – we cannot possibly know all that is happening inside the child who is seeking, working, experimenting, building the person she is becoming. Assuming nothing, and waiting to be lead by the child, one can in turn assist the child. This is the reason why often Montessori directresses say that the three most important principles in Montessori are, 1. observe, 2. observe, and 3. observe.

  We will end today’s article with an excerpt from John Chattin-McNichols’ book, “The Montessori Controversy,” that provides some interesting insight and food for thought on the way children perceive the world around them – and how and what they consider work:

  “Montessori divided the first six years into a period of unconscious (0-3) absorption of the environment and a period of conscious (3-6) absorption. The child in this first period is one who is not conscious at all in the same way that older children and adults are, but rather driven by impulses coming directly from his unconscious mind. If you have ever had the opportunity to observe in a Montessori toddler environment, and watched how a child of eighteen months chooses something to do from the shelf, you can see what Montessori meant. Their minds work very differently from the mind of a preschool aged child. A normal four year old might scan a shelf or set of shelves, looking for what she wants to work with. I had a child in one class who came early one day and lined up ten sets of Montessori materials in a long row leading away from the mat. As she stood contemplating this with her hands on her hips, she said, “There! That will be my work for today.”

  A toddler, on the other hand, walks into the class with “big eyes,” perhaps not even focusing on anything, as far as an adult observer can tell. In wandering past a shelf, his hands might reach out and take something from a shelf, perhaps even without turning to see what it is his hands grabbed. Sometime later, the toddler might look down to see what he has in his hands, and after a moment of astonishment, choose to work with it.”

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