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What Is Montessori?

June, 2006
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Art2_photo1   The easiest way to try to explain what Montessori is all about is to say what it is not, clarify some misconceptions that are common when it comes to the Montessori approach, and finally try to summarize what is it that makes Montessori different from the more traditional approaches to education.

  What Montessori is not, in a nutshell…

  1.   It is not a method;
  2.   It is not about the materials;
  3.   It is not curriculum based;
  4.   It is not end/result driven;

  Misconceptions and facts:

  Montessori is just for small, preschool children

  Most Montessori schools worldwide are, indeed, for preschool age children. However, the fact that there are far more kindergartens that adopt the Montessori approach than those enrolling children of other ages does not mean that Montessori is only for preschool children. The Montessori approach indeed covers the full span of a person’s life, as it is not only education for life but a life-long learning journey. Montessori schools and the Montessori approach cover all the age groups, 0-6, 6-12, 12-18, with children usually grouped in environments spanning three years, 0-3, 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, 12-15 and 15-18. The perfect Montessori setup would provide an integrated environment covering all the age groups, and also engage adults of all ages – occupied in many different areas of activity.

  Montessori is just for “special” childrenArt2_photo3

When people speak about “special” children in Montessori, they either refer to gifted children, or those that are learning-challenged and have  some sort of handicap, not only a mental or learning disability, but also physically disabled.

  This misconception probably comes from the fact that Dr. Montessori started to work with children then labeled “mental defectives,” on one hand, and, on the other, the fact that the children under her care started showing results well above the ordinary, so people started to look at the Montessori approach as a “method” that allowed children to develop into little geniuses. Nothing is farther from the truth, one way or another.

  In fact, Montessori can be used with very positive results with both children that are both mentally or physical challenged, have a learning disability, or especially gifted children. This is not because Montessori is in any way some sort of magical “method” but simply because it relies upon principles that are universal, respecting each individual’s personality, providing learning opportunities as per each individual’s needs, through an environment that is carefully prepared.

  Montessori is particularly careful when it comes to allowing each and every child to develop to his or her full potential – it does not provide a formula, nor is it a method, that will turn every child into a small Einstein. Children do, however, develop self-esteem and gain a high degree of confidence, which in turn nurture their natural curiosity, this translating into entrepreneurship – thinking and doing never split, and remain one, as is innate in all human beings whose growth met no abnormal obstacles and impediments –, so in general, Montessori children dare to take risks, dare to experiment and they maintain their insatiable curiosity intact.

  Montessori treats and accepts every child and an individual, with special gifts and challenges. Many Montessori environments welcome children with mental and physical disabilities as well, and consider integration as a vital part of creating a balanced, prepared, healthy environment.

Montessori is a religion

Art2_photo5 Montessori is not a religion, and does not profess any one single specific creed. Dr. Maria Montessori was a catholic who respected all religions and cultural backgrounds equally.

  Many schools may indeed have a religious orientation but that has nothing to do with Montessori per se.

  A Montessori school will normally follow what the cultural background of the country or community requests, or the schools’ founders or owners decide it to be. This, however, has nothing to do with Montessori itself and most Montessori schools seem to be non-denominational, non-discriminatory, enrolling children from all races, creeds and cultural backgrounds.

  Montessori is a cult

  Montessori is not a cult, although most Montessorians are very passionate about what they do, and the fact that they believe that the approach to education they adopted is indeed the right, if not the best one.

  Most Montessorians also see Dr. Montessori as a genius in her own right, because of her uncommon accomplishments as a doctor, scientist, anthropologist, and, of course, what she accomplished as a pedagogue. She was also a women rights’, children’s rights and world peace activist. A gifted speaker and lecturer, who enjoyed and fully recognized the value of her discoveries and accomplishments, she nevertheless was adamant that people should look away from her and not turn her into some sort of idol, turning her name or persona into an object of cult, lest they would lose sight of what is really important: the child. Speaking at the IX International Montessori Congress held in London, in 1951, she said, “What I am trying and have during the whole of my life been trying to indicate is a FACT, a great and grandiose fact! If I could still see that people would stop looking at me and would look at the fact, I could die in peace. If my finger were to indicate a path of great practical value which really exists in this world, that seems to be losing itself, do you not understand what emotion and anxiety I feel when I observe whether or not people notice that which I point out?” What she was pointing at was The Child. She wanted people to carefully observe children and see them for what they are: wonderful beings, capable of changing the future of Mankind, superior to adults by means of their potential yet to be unleashed.

  Montessori schools are expensiveArt2_photo4

  Montessori schools exist all over the world. Some are privately owner, some are public, and some are more expensive then others… Montessori schools per se, however, are not more expensive than any other schools, many operate as non-profits, there are also many charters (especially in North America), and some operate with very small budgets. At present in the USA, for example, there are several hundred public schools that offer Montessori education.

  The tuition and other fees, whatever the school and the approach, are set based on the environment it offers, the facilities and cost of operation, and set in such a way that it may ensure that the school is financially viable.

  Montessori is, however, a philosophy that can also be implemented without the traditional Montessori apparatus and didactic materials, and is nowadays successfully used by homeschoolers, parents, and in communities that cannot afford the high cost of the equipment.

  In Montessori schools children "do as they please"

  In one of Dr. Montessori’s early Casa dei Bambini (Children’s Home) a visitor once asked a child if in their school they did as they pleased. The child replied, “I don’t know if we do as we please, but we are pleased with what we do.”

  Freedom is not licentious behavior, and in Montessori environments, children naturally understand that. Children are free to choose their work, walk around, work alone or in groups, but usually all activity is meaningful, respectful of others and beneficial in some way, as it nurtures the child’s development in a positive and constructive way.

  Any reckless behavior, towards self, the environment or others, will be immediately stopped if dangerous, redirected, if disturbing.

  Montessori classrooms are too structured and demanding

Art2_photo2   While some see Montessori as embodying too much freedom, others see it as too rigid. As all preconceived ideas, none is true to the reality of Montessori environments if and when they are properly set up.

  Adults carefully prepare the environment in a Montessori classroom with one single purpose in mind: allowing children to freely gravitate and work within that environment, freely choosing their work and activities, exploring and discovering on her own, assisted when needed only – as unnecessary adult intervention is counterproductive to the child’s development.

  As far as being too demanding, Montessori environments do not request that a child does or does not something the child herself is not inner called, self-motivated to do. If the adult sees a spark of curiosity that is not being satisfied, the child is presented, often indirectly (merely by displaying some new work or set of materials in the environment for the child to discover) with new work and challenges. Yet, if the child shows no interest, when directly presented some new activity, the adult discretely and unobtrusively retreats, never forcing the child to engage in something she is not ready to work with. More often than not, “readiness” and “interest” walk hand-in-hand.

  Montessori is against fantasy and this impacts negatively on children’s imagination and creativity

  Montessori is not against imagination and indeed it encourages creativity in all that is done by children. Montessori is all about children trying, experimenting and making discoveries by themselves.

  It is because Montessori encourages and protects the child’s capacity to creatively resolve problems, that adult intervention is kept at a minimum. Fantasy, if not adult induced and initiated by children, is in fact seen as healthy expression of the child’s imagination.

  In some cases, fantasy may not be healthy. For example, abused children or children that underwent some traumatic experience may seek refuge in fantasy because they do not know how to deal with their problems, which overwhelm them. In such cases, children may resort to fantasy to cope with distress. Montessorians usually recognize and clearly differentiate between healthy and unhealthy fantasy.

  Creativity is also encouraged in a Montessori environment, at many different levels. Children often resolve identical problems in different ways, and art, music and similar activities are encouraged.

  Montessori puts too much pressure on children

  Montessori does not push children. Dr. Montessori used to refer to all children do – including playing! – as work, in order to show respect for the child’s activities, and because children are indeed constantly at work building themselves.

  As far as academic results are concerned, if anything, Montessorians often find it difficult to convince parents that if their children are not reading or doing math by a certain age, it is perfectly fine and there is nothing wrong with them. Or that if they decide to spend a whole day scribbling in the sand, that is perfectly fine…

  Montessori is not curriculum oriented, it is not result driven, and it does not follow a cookie-cutter approach, meaning, not all children have to be doing the same thing at the same time and reaching the same levels at the same age. Children follow their own interests, progress at their own pace, and are never – if the environment is truly Montessori – forced to do things that they do not want to do.

  If we can speak of a curriculum in Montessori, we must equate it in terms of a blue print, or a menu of sorts, and to be accurate, we must speak not of a custom tailored curriculum for each child, but rather of a self-tailored curriculum, because it is the child who ultimately chooses and sets his or her own path. The adult does no more than assist and this only when assistance is needed, and, almost always, requested by the child.

  Because Montessori respects each child’s needs, children usually progress faster and effortlessly, compared to children in the same age range in traditional environments. Yet, this does not mean that children will all start reading before they are 4 years old, for example. Some children start reading only much later. It is not uncommon for a parent to ask a child, “What did you do at school today?” and the answer being a matter of fact, “Nothing…” when in fact, the child spent the day working…

  Children are also not graded in a Montessori environment; detailed progress records are kept and schools regularly report the child’s progress to the parents, but no marks, grades, rewards or punishments are used in Montessori classrooms, and these reports have an informative purpose, aiming at helping parents better understand, respect and follow the child’s inclinations and meet their needs.

  Montessori is outdated

  The first Casa dei Bambini or Children’s Home opened in 1907. Almost 100 years later, Montessori is not only as effective an approach as it was then, as it remains “new” – simply because it keeps renewing itself constantly. Dr. Montessori was a scientist who based all she did, not on mere theory, but on detailed, even clinical-like observation, experimentation and implementation; if anything was found useless, it was changed and improved, or, if that was not possible, simply discarded! Constant change remains the only set principle in Montessori. This said, one must however make clear that there are Montessori schools that unfortunately end up following more or less set, stiffened rules and that are set on their ways, leaving not much space for experimentation, improvement and innovation. Likewise, there are also many schools that use the name “Montessori” but are indeed not Montessori at all.

  The principles which underlie the Montessori practice, its basic philosophy, are pretty much the same as they were almost a century ago. This is not because there is unwillingness to change, or just a mere conviction that all is perfect, but simply because these are sound principles, confirmed by the most recent brain research and evaluation, as well as years of successful use.

  Also, along the years, some changes have been introduced, in order to meet the needs of children living in today’s modern societies.

  Children later have a hard time when they start attending a “normal” school

  Many parents worry about transitioning from Montessori to a more traditional environment, and some have the impression that children will not adapt – because they will go from freedom and choice to a system that will impose schedules, rules, homework and where children are constantly told what to do.

  Teachers on traditional schools, however, mostly report positively on children who previously attended Montessori schools. Montessori children, having developed a love for learning, carry that with them. They are also confident and know that they can indeed rely on their own resourcefulness, so they usually fair well and above average.

  Montessori versus Traditional


1. Emphasis is on cognitive and social development

2. Adults have unobtrusive role in classroom

3. Environment and approach encourage self-discipline

4. Mainly individual instruction

5. Mixed age grouping

6. Grouping encourages children to teach and help each other; collaboration is encouraged

7. Curriculum tailored according to child’s interests; child chooses own work

8. Child discovers and masters concepts from self-teaching materials

9. Child works as long as s/he wishes on chosen project, never being interrupted while working

10. Child sets own learning pace, and timing for learning

11. Child spots own errors from feedback of material

12. Child reinforces own learning by repetition of work and internal feelings of success and mastery of self

13. Multi-sensory materials for hands-on, physical exploration lead from concrete to abstract work/concepts fully grasped

14. Organized program for learning care of self and of the environment

15. Child can work where he chooses, move around and talk at will (while not disturbing the work of others); group work is voluntary

16. No testing, exams, grading systems used; detailed record keeping based on continuous careful observation


1. Emphasis is on social development

2. Adult is center of classroom as "controller"

3. Adult is primary enforcer of discipline

4. Mainly group instruction

5. Same age grouping

6. Most teaching is done by the teacher, competition is encouraged

7. Child follows set curriculum; child is told what to do, assigned work by adult

8. Child is taught concepts by adult, often memorizing concepts not grasped

9. Child is generally allotted specific time for work, being interrupted when time is over

10. Instruction pace is usually set by group norm/adult

11. Errors are usually pointed out by the teacher/adult

12. Learning is reinforced externally by repetition, rewards and often punishments or sanctions

13. Fewer materials for sensory development, abstract work often introduced too early, concepts not fully understood/grasped

14. Less emphasis put on self-care instruction, care of environment usually fully taken over by adult

15. Child usually assigned own chair; encouraged to participate, sit still and listen during group sessions

16. Evaluation based mostly on testing, exams, homework and assignments; grading is common practice

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